Gloom & Wartime SF: A reponse to Damien Walter

Damien G. Walter has written a think piece, Science fiction doesn’t have to be gloomy, does it?, for The Guardian. On the one hand, he argues that pessimistic SF has a distinguished literary history: “Science fiction evolved into a sophisticated literature of ideas, offering dark warnings of the future to come.” But his concluding paragraph reads:

The challenge for writers of science fiction today is not to repeat the same dire warnings we have all already heard, or to replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age, but to create visions of the future people can believe in. Perhaps the next Nineteen Eighty-Four, instead of confronting us with our worst fear, will find the imagination to show us our greatest hope.

Pessimism in science fiction and fantasy is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years as an editor of two Year’s Best volumes. While conventional wisdom dictates that readers tend to prefer more up-beat SF and that the Eeyores of the SF field just don’t sell, what I find as an anthologist picking stories during wartime and in the midst of the unfolding of various other dystopian scenarios is that a lot of the best SF and fantasy lately is really dark.

Do the darker stories that catch my eye as the best of the year break down into dire warnings we’ve already heard? Mostly not. Nor do I see much replication of golden age visions except reprocessed via the tools of postmodernism. I also don’t think that providing rays of sunshine through the storm clouds is really the solution particularly, nor necessarily the most workable aesthetic choice, unless you are in Hollywood. And though I am planning to vote for the presidential candidate whose slogan this resembles, I am not sold on an aesthetic of visions of the future people can believe in.

What exactly is pessimistic SF? Walter describes Nineteen Eighty-Four as the “darkest and greatest of all.” While it is certainly an oft-quoted touchstone and a very important book, it seems to me a bit off-center for science-fiction dystopianism. It seems to me that, say, Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… is considerably bleaker than Nineteen Eighty-Four. (SF novels bleaker than Orwell’s would make an interesting list, actually. There are a lot.)

He positions Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov as icons of happy SF; and J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson as the icons of SF’s dark side. The reality of their careers is much more complicated. Most writers with lengthy careers are not easily categorized that way. Arthur C. Clarke wrote “Transit  of Earth.” Tom Disch wrote The Brave Little Toaster. And that happy, chatty SF entertainer Connie Willis wrote The Doomsday Book.

In Walter’s paragraph on darkness and the failure of imagination, the writers he chooses as exemplary are Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy. While these are important contemporary writers, they are not particularly exemplary of SF. That writers only on the fringes of SF do not live up to a science-fictional aesthetic is unsurprising.

For dark visions more relevant to SF, I direct Walter to Barry Malzberg (the darkness of whose works make Gibson look like Little Mary Sunshine) and, say, Jack Womack (author of Let’s Put the Future Behind Us, a novel on the theme of how capitalism can be remarkably like organized crime).* And of course for those craving pure bracing gloom, there’s Peter Watts.

In using Clarke and Asimov as the metonym for happy SF, he is essentially suggesting that the hard SF and space opera traditions are the happy contrast to that downbeat New Wave and Cyberpunk stuff. Olde Tyme space opera I’ll give him (with qualifications as outlined in The Space Opera Renaissance). But hard SF’s optimism is mostly superficial. While the New Wave’s pessimism was perhaps philosophical and coming out of movements like Existentialism, Hard SF had pessimism of its own, originating from scientific principles like the Second Law of Thermodyanamics. When asked why there were no villains in his fiction, hard SF icon Hal Clement replied that the Universe is antagonist enough and that in the end we are all dead. In a nutshell, Hard SF’s objection to New Wave pessimism was that it was unearned. Criticisms regarding hard SF’s affect tend to revolve around its coldness and lack of affect, not its lack of negativity.

Walter doesn’t drop the other shoe on the subject of who he thinks is doing a great job on the terms he sets forth. But his article seems to me like if he’d written more he would have come round to praising writers like cyberpunk-turned-futurist Bruce Sterling and newly-minted bestselling writer Cory Doctorow.

Walter’s last line—”Perhaps the next Nineteen Eighty-Four, instead of confronting us with our worst fear, will find the imagination to show us our greatest hope”—would make an easy segue into a rave review of Doctorow’s Little Brother. But while I am a big fan of that book —which I read with pleasure in more or less a single sitting—I have a hard time with it as a prescriptive text, as change you can believe in. I have a pretty good idea of what Sterling or Doctorow would tell you if you came up to either of them and said you’d hacked the Department of Homeland Security or the Yahoo account of a Vice Presidential candidate: They’d tell you to stop that because you can go to jail for that sort of thing. (SF writers as a lot are a fairly law-abiding lot.) And there are plenty of things Sterling’s protagonists do that he would consider you a certifiable loon for if you tried them in real life.

All this being said, Walter’s is a piece I would have been pleased to receive as a submission for The New York Review of Science Fiction. In that context we could have written all over it, gotten Walter to deal with these objections and give better examples, and all that. Despite my objections to the specifics of his argument, the subject of recent dystopianism in SF is an important one about which more should be written.

As an anthologist, what I find particularly striking about the pessimism of today’s SF is that it cuts across literary-political lines and is more an across-the-board trend than a movement. When I started this post, I thought I’d look over a few recent Year’s Best SF tables of contents and discuss some of the darker more dystopian of them. But I pull up the table of contents of Year’s Best SF 13, and there’s just too much to choose from.

Which story demonstrates a darker vision? John Kessel‘s “The Last American,” Gene Wolfe‘s “Memorare”? Peter Watts’s “Repeating the Past”? Gwyneth Jones‘s “Tomb Wife”? William Shunn‘s “Obvious Impermeability in a Closed System”? Karen Joy Fowler‘s “Always”? Terry Bisson‘s “Pirates of the Somali Coast”? Ian McDonald‘s “Sanjeev and Robotwallah”? or Tony Ballantyne‘s “Third Person”? It’s hard call. For affect, I would give the prize to Watts. But each of these fathom the depths in one way or another. (Perhaps the gloomiest of the stories in the book is actually Johanna Sinisalo‘s “Baby Doll,” about the commercial sexualization of girls; its first publication was in Finnish a few years ago.) But there is no coherent New Wave/Old Wave polarization to the mood of the stories, nor, say, a cyberpunk/humanist polarization.

Walter says he wants SF to do more than “reflect” the world, but rather fiction that seeks to “influence” it. What I see in wartime SF is a generalized very dark view,  which is dark because the writers in whom I am interested—those writing the best science fiction and fantasy—are in touch with the nature of reality. In a world with YouTube in it, I think I’ll duck the question of how and whether we can influence the world. The most popular thing I ever did was post pictures of fake Yu Gi Oh! cards from my son’s collection. Despite being a novelist and all that, the most popular thing John Scalzi ever put out there in the world was a picture of his cat with bacon taped to it.

So what I would substitute for “influence,” as a goal, is that writers provide us with perceptual tools with which to understand the world, the future, and what is to be done. I view science fiction partly as a set of perceptual tools we take with us into the world. I don’t think SF can be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world’s problems, but I think it is SF’s task to help us understand them.

There are cultural forces much larger than the science fiction field that will have strong and noticeable effects on what SF writers write. For example, in the mid-90s, there was an obvious abundance of 12-step influenced fiction. War, disasters, and economic crises are among the most powerful of such forces.

So, to answer his question, Does SF have to be so gloomy? I guess my answer is that for now it does because it is in touch with the world we inhabit right now.

* . . . which seems to me very much of the moment in the midst of discussions of whether to give the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury discretion to hand out 700 billion dollars to private companies at his own discretion.


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