Monday, October 17, 2011

How the Golden Age of science gave rise to the Dark Age of SF

I was listening to an interview with Robert J. Sawyer on CBC Radio this morning wherein he claimed that the writing of dystopian SF is "easier" than writing an optimistic science fiction, and continued to imply that dystopian or non-optimistic SF is a sort of lurid bane similar to space opera. Sawyer is here completely missing the point.

There are a lot of Golden Age whiners out there these days, probably not unduly because a lot of science fiction that is published is pessimistic and has none of the "bright futurism" of the earlier incarnations of SF. There are even magazines and anthologies that devote themselves to "optimistic" SF, obviously trying to provide a venue for a sort of fiction that isn't quite as popular as it once was.

The problem here is that science itself has given rise to pessimistic science fiction. Dystopian SF is not unscientific; nor is it any easier to write (well) than any other sort of fiction. But, principally, I'm interested in uncovering and disputing the idiocy that says, "dystopian/pessimistic SF is bad business."

Skepticism and critical thought are - or should be - the hallmarks of any scientific endeavour. Science has given rise to greater criticism and skepticism among general populations primarily because it improves our lives by giving us access to more information. Pessimism grows more easily the more context you are provided with.

iPhones, for example, are fantastic tools. But they cost several hundred dollars even as those relatively cheap prices are supported by the brutal exploitation of the Chinese workers who assemble them (not to mention the pollutions and dangers of primary resource gathering). This holds the same for basically every technological product on the planet. And, on the other hand, despite the fantastic stuff medicine can do, it's not like we're freely distributing HIV medicines throughout Africa. (Economics is a science, too.)

If we project our skepticism into the future, we can get into the same problems. What if we suddenly ran everything on solar power? There would be no more dangerous fossil fuel emissions to ruin the environment and we'd have access to much cheaper power; but the equatorial countries would have vast power resources while places like Canada and Norway would show deficits. The entire balance of political power would change, resulting in at worst war, at least the oppression of countries that, historically, have hitherto been oppressors.

Science isn't just math and pretty devices. Science - which comes from the Latin meaning "knowledge," and nothing more specific than that - is a way of approaching things, of knowing and understanding them, of being critical and interested and inspired. The Golden Age of science gave rise to the Dark Age of SF precisely because it gave us the tools to more critically engage the world.

Suffice to say, I'm sick of all these whiny jerks who want more optimistic SF. It's a real pain to see the world for what it is; if you want to be a mindless cheerleader, be my guest, but I'm going to make fun of your lame idiocy on my blog, Mr. Sawyer.


P.S. I do give major props to scientists for the work they do. Physics, chemistry, biology and all the rest is meca-important. But you can't do it in a wormhole.


  1. Also, umm...when _was_ this super-optimistic golden age of SF? The SF I read from the 40s and 50s isn't that optimistic...Asimov wrote about slowly decaying galactic empires. He wrote about a future jobs were being taken by robots and people lived in hive-like apartment buildings and had panic attacks if they saw the open sky. Bradbury wrote about a future where Martian colonists were kind of driven crazy by the alienness of their environment and about one where the government burned every book. Alfred Bester wrote a story about a future where mind-readers scanned every mind to look for signs of murder...and murder was still not yet impossible. Warren Miller, Pat Frank, and a ton of other people wrote horrifying post-nuclear apocalypses. C.M. Kornbluth was writing satirical commentaries on corporatism. Jack Vance was writing Dying Earth stories, set in the twilight of the human race. John Wyndham was writing all manner of catastrophe stories.

    I mean seriously, who was writing optimistic stories? I mean, maybe Heinlein was, in his short stories and in _The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress_. And maybe Asimov's robot short stories were kind of optimistic too. I've never read much Arthur C. Clarke, but he seemed sort of optimistic too.

    I think we're probably _more_ optimistic nowadays, because there are fewer writers seriously asserting that human civilization is going to _end_ in our lifetimes.

  2. When I write SF, I am as in life: Pessimistic in the short term, optimistic in the long term.

    As for whether there's 'too much' pessimistic SF...I'm just writing down the images that appear in my head, so I'd prefer if there were enough magazines to cater to all the shades: dark, light, or grey.

  3. Rahul, you just blew my mind.

    Now I feel like I was taken in, in the same way that the "politically correct science fiction" hijinx I observed a few months ago was the product of a non-existent trend perceived by backwards, wrongheaded conservative writers.

    So, as they say in the French, merci beaucoup de m'avertir de l'erreur.