As you all know, I love science fiction. I would go so far as to say, that I champion this genre. Most of the books that I read are in this genre because I just can’t get enough of it. And one of the ways that I find great sci-fi novels and authors to read is by reading the reviews by one of my friends, Thomas Evans. His blog “The Archaeologist’s Guide to the Galaxy” has been a great source of entertainment and has greatly increased my reading list. I look forward to his reviews with great anticipation. And I look forward to him releasing his book series with even greater eagerness.
Sit back, relax and grab a cup of Joe and enjoy the ride.
I must say what a pleasure and honor it is to write for Yolanda’s blog. I’ve been enjoying it ever since her work first came to my attention, and look forward to each installment.
To that end, when Yolanda asked me to write down some of my thoughts about what Science fiction has added to society I wanted to do her justice, and have been tormented by the question: Where do I begin?
But fortunately, the answer was given to me by one of my favorite authors, Ursula K. Le Guin.
Ursula K. Le Guin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
About a week or two ago, I was lucky enough to see Ms. Le Guin give a talk in honor of the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It was marvelous, but among the questions posed to her was one that I’ve heard quite a bit these days:
Why is modern Science Fiction so dark? Why does it focus so much on dystopias and negative topics these days?
Her answer was that most of fiction is in a dark place right and that literature goes through phases. This was a very good answer, but in it begged the question: Why?
The first and easiest answer is a very literary one: literature is built on conflict. Be it person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self, person vs. society, etc. etc., it is still conflict. That is what makes us turn the pages. Writing without conflict is really quite boring. Even the great love poems show some sign of a struggle that must be overcome, if nothing more than the depth of love and how one copes with it. This is nothing new and nothing unique to Science Fiction.
Yet, that answer is a bit of a cop-out. After all, Science Fiction (and other forms of Speculative Fiction) is darker more than other genres. Sure Romance novels can show the effects of a broken heart and Mysteries tend to focus on murders (more so then they used to… but that’s a different article), but only Speculative Fiction depicts unstoppable evil forces taking over the world, overcrowded populations being fed through reconstituting human corpses, and aliens committing xenocide in order to take planetary resources for themselves (to name just a few more common themes).
Thus, I came up with a second answer: Science Fiction has always been dark. Mary Shelly hardly painted a happy view of human nature with Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus. Neither did H.G. Wells’ work depict shiny happy futures. The Time Machine showed how wars would destroy society. War of the Worlds was a biting commentary on the nature of Imperialism that showed humanity brought low by an alien race treating our species in the manner that the West treated indigenous populations around the world, etc. Even the generally more optimistic Jules Verne wrote about the dark side of humanity:20,0000 Leagues Under the Sea was commentary about social oppression with a terrorist at its heart (yes… yes indeed, Captain Nemo was a terrorist carrying out piratical attacks against the great powers of the world… is that a happy story? Me thinks not).
Yet here again, one must admit that in recent decades Science Fiction has taken a darker turn as a whole. Gone it seems are the days of Star Trek, where humanity goes boldly where no one has gone before. Rare indeed are the tales where heroes of an Utopian society bring truth and justice to the rest of the galaxy, or where children overcome the dark tragedies of their family histories to return freedom to men, women and things across known space.
So, then is it simply that society as a whole is in a bit of a dark place at the moment? I don’t just mean our post 9/11 world. Science fiction and indeed fiction as a whole has been in a dark place a lot longer than that. Planet of the Apes, Brazil, 1984, Soylent Green, Night of the Living Dead and countless other tales are based on very dark futures with very dark outcomes.
Indeed, I for one grew up in a world where post-apocalyptic futures were a given. Doom and gloom forecasts for the future came not so much from Science Fiction, but from every day assumptions of the media. Nuclear Holocaust was a sure thing, overpopulation was going to strip the world of its resources, totalitarian regimes would seize control, etc. etc. etc. Indeed, growing up there was a part of me that thought that focusing too much on social success in the modern wars was a waste of time. After all, how important is it really to learn about literary theory when making my own bows and arrows might be a real consideration?
And here at last, the answers began to come closer to the mark. Modern Speculative Fiction focuses so heavily on the negative and dystopian futures because they reflect the post-colonial world the western powers have entered. With the rise of self-reflection, we see the faults of our own society and dwell (at times dwell too much) upon them. We no longer think the American/British/French/German/Russian/fill-in-the-blank-here way of life is the only answer. We question ourselves and our motives.
So does the rest of literature, for that matter. The English Passengers, for example, depicts British Colonialism in Australia and the terrible outcomes it caused for so many of the Aborigines. The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende depicts the horrific nature of slavery and its impact in historic Haiti and Louisiana. Even popular romances show such elements. The Bridges of Madison County, for example, depicts a failed love affair between an explorer (National Geographic photographer) and an Italian woman transplanted to boring Middle America after the Second World War. What would have been shown as a great betrayal in other ages is shown as a Romantic view of self-refusal here.
So, in one sense, the dark and grey morals of recent Speculative Fiction are but a part of modern Fiction, and thus modern Society as a whole. The reason for the extreme darkness of Science Fiction and other forms of Speculative Fiction is because they have the power to examine such concepts in the extreme. By allowing our imaginations to be the only limiting factor, they allow us to look more deeply at the darkest parts of our selves, our souls and our societies. They give us the ability to extrapolate the negative to its extreme conclusions.
Indeed, Speculative Fiction allows us to explore philosophy in an entertaining manner through the use of parable and analogy. To that end, what more was Plato’s depiction of Atlantis but a fantastic parable of hubris? What was Sartre’s
No Exit but a Speculative Fiction tale describing the horror of life in the struggle between Subject and Object? And what else is Fahrenheit 451 but the examination of the consequences of Censorship and the control of knowledge and history?
So can one really say that Science Fiction really is in a dark place? Sure there are a great number of tales about dystopian futures, but they are stories about the struggle against such societies. There is a predominance of Zombie Apocalypses at the moment, yet they show how we fight on against all odds. Modern Science Fiction does not discourage us because it portrays dark futures, it gives us hope because it shows us the importance of struggling on even when there is no hope of success.
Thus, my answer is that Science Fiction is dark now because the topics it is combating are so important and so difficult to face. It illustrates the nature of the struggles we need to face, the consequences of failure and the importance of fighting that struggle even if there is no hope. To that end, from an ideological level, Science Fiction is anything but dark: it is call to arms against the coming of the dark.
 Obviously, archaeology proved to be a perfect middle ground for this: I can discuss post-colonial theory AND make arrows!
 Well… okay it’s a LOT more than that, but you get my point.