Young people nowadays have been trained by dystopian YA fiction to see the worst in every situation. They focus on the downsides of climate disruption, increasing socioeconomic stratification, and the ongoing collapse of civil liberties, and ignore any potential upsides.
Consider what a privilege it is to be among the last humans to see many species soon extinct! Imagine the tales young people of our time will be able to tell their grandchildren (were not for the fact many of them won’t have children and prospects of grandkids are even more dismal)! Why, one can even take comfort from the fact that in a million years the sum total of all human accomplishment may be recorded in an aesthetically pleasing discoloration between adjacent layers of sedimentary rock. Natural artistry!
But pessimism is nothing new, of course. Olden time SF authors were enormously pessimistic, producing works every bit as sour and gloomy as the most morose works penned by today’s authors. Don’t believe me? Here are five intensely depressing SF novels from the long, long ago. I recommend each and every one of them, if only to cast your current circumstances in a more favourable light.
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (1966)
Told in a series of diary entries, Flowers depicts Charlie Gordon’s intellectual journey. Born intellectually disabled, Charlie is subjected to innovative medical treatments that raise his IQ of 68. He meticulously documents his experiences as his enhanced cognitive functions reach the average, then soar far beyond. Once pitied and mocked by those around him, now Charlie is a respected genius.
The downside to all this? Many downsides. For example, until his intelligence was amplified, Charlie had no idea how much those around him had been making fun of him. Were that not bad enough, he discovers that exceptional intelligence can be as socially isolating as a lower IQ score. Worst of all, the uplift process proves temporary and ultimately fatal. His cognitive decline is swift and brutal. Thanks to the diary, the suffering reader must follow Charlie’s every step towards oblivion.
Total Eclipse by John Brunner (1974)
The stellar systems Proxima, Epsilon Eridani, and Tau Ceti were bitter disappointments to early interstellar explorers. Undaunted, humans pressed on as far as Sigma Draconis, which turned out to possess a terrestrial world that is very nearly a second Earth. Indeed, the new-found world is so Earth-like as to have its own native civilization. Rather, to have once had such a civilization, a hundred thousand years earlier.
The fossil record is quite clear about the duration of Draconian civilization: three thousand years between rise and fall. The fossil record is silent as how a culture as technologically advanced as any on Earth could simply vanish. One of the tasks facing the 2028 expedition is to determine what happened to the Draconians. A far more pressing question, one whose answer is quite displeasing, is whether the Draconian fall was unique to their species or if divided, strife-torn, foolish humanity is even now marching resolutely towards its own final doom.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Humanity has industriously worked glorious transformation on the Earth, the equal of the End Permian and the End Cretaceous, perhaps even the Great Oxidization Event. It’s an achievement in which to take pride, save for the pesky detail that humanity itself is among the species being quickly ushered towards mass extinction by pollution and radiation-induced infertility. Personal doom can be such a downer on an otherwise momentous occasion.
Fortuitously for the Sumner clan, not only are they largely indifferent to the fate of people with the poor taste not to be Sumners, and not only are their vast Shenandoah Valley holdings an ideal redoubt in which to wait out the collapse of civilization, their great wealth has provided them with the means to circumvent infertility and thus extinction: cloning. A succession of perfect genetic replicas will ensure the Sumner legacy survives. Or so it appears, before certain previously undocumented features inherent in cloning manifest…
All My Sins Remembered by Joe Haldeman (1977)
The TBII serves the Confederación’s best interests, as defined by the TBII. To this end the TBII is always searching for promising recruits. Fit, bright Otto McGavin would be perfect, if only the Anglo-Buddhist were not an idealistic pacifist adamantly opposed to the ethical compromises the TBII believes are necessary to protect the Confederación. If asked, McGavin would refuse the roles of spy, thief, and assassin in the name of the greater good. Happily for the Confederación, the TBII isn’t asking.
If one’s chosen tool is unsuitable for the task at hand, reforge the tool. McGavin’s fundamental personality is contrary to needs. Therefore, TBII applies conditioning and hypnosis to scour away McGavin’s inconvenient ethics, transforming him into the deadly, ruthless agent the TBII requires. And if there’s some tiny sliver of McGavin still aware as his brainwashed body is dispatched on bizarre, dangerous missions? There’s always another conditioning session waiting for McGavin at the end of the assignment.
The Screwfly Solution by James Tiptree, Jr. (1977)
Earth is promising real estate, save for the minor detail that it is overrun by humans who insist on claiming the planet as their own. A hypothetical galactic real estate agent might pale at the cost of removing humanity militarily. Humans are, after all, as heavily armed as they are numerous. Obliterating humans directly could be expensive and might do untold damage to the environment.
There is no need for direct measures. Among humans’ many fundamental characteristics: a tension between men and women. Amplifying ongoing low-level hostility into homicidal fury could be as easy as a minor tweak in brain chemistry. No doubt even as they turned on human women, human men would tell themselves some convincing lie explaining why mass murder was necessary. Then, all our hypothetical aliens need do is wait for human nature to solve the problem of humanity.
These are, of course, only the tip of a very large iceberg. No doubt many of you have your own bleak favourites from this era. Feel free to name them in the comments.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.