Pessimism in Science Fiction

I’ve been interested in the Walt Disney Corporation for some time now.  The whole history of the company and its genesis and growth to finally become the behemoth it is today fascinates me. I’ve gone to visit the parks several times as a adult (and parent) and enjoyed it every time, especially Epcot. I read a book called DISNEY WAR by James B. Stewart, and was doing some internet searches when I happened upon a blog called Re-Imagineering, which seems to mostly be a series of short essays about the problems with Disney as it exists today and what could be done to solve some of them.  The blog is basically dark today; it hasn’t had new content posted in years.

One of the old discussions (about Epcot) was talking about exhibits people would like to see, and what sorts of things they might try to freshen it up, make it less corporate in feel. It was also talking about Tomorrowland and its original optimism about our future. But that discussion shifted to some comments about the science fiction, especially in film, of today.  As an avid reader of SF and as an author, the discussion interested me enough to write this blog post about the topic.

It seems that most of today’s SF is dystopian, and that most of the film projects outside of stuff like STAR TREK and STAR WARS (not really SF in any classic sense) are very dark visions of the future. They named Blade Runner, Minority Report, AI, and The Matrix. (I’d say that Vanilla Sky, Dark City, and I, Robot are also fairly dystopian, along with stuff like Final Fantasy, Waterworld, all of the Terminators, The Postman, Battlefield Earth, and maybe even The Day After Tomorrow (though the last is not far in the future at all).)  There’s a bunch more SF films that I haven’t seen recently because I just don’t have the time to get to the movies or even watch them on TV.

As I think about the SF I’ve read in the not-too-distant past, first, there isn’t a whole lot of it. ALTERED CARBON was a good book but pretty dark. Dan Simmons’ HYPERION series and his latest pair, ILIUM and OLYMPOS, are not exactly happy fantasies of the future. I haven’t read much else in the field recently, sticking mostly to mysteries with some horror tossed in here and there.

Indie fiction introduces more variety, and more optimism, into its vision.  But even there, the story comes from the “negative.”  I’m thinking of Steven M. Moore’s THE CHAOS CHRONICLES and Edward W. Robertson’s REBEL STARS series.  There’s also Hugh Howey’s WOOL series, which is pretty darned negative for most of the series, right up until the very end.

As I think about it, my question is, is there a story in a utopian future? Is it a story I want to read about? Novels are about resolving problems. In some ways it seems to me that any story is essentially a mystery. If there is a mystery, there is a problem to be discovered and sorted through. If there are no problems to resolve, if everything is hunky dory, it might make for a nice pretty painting but is there any story? I don’t know. I was thinking about something like Asimov’s Empire series, and while there is a lot of optimism there with the direction of humanity, when the story takes place, things are not so good. Heinlein’s juveniles are more adventure story set in a fairly positively imagined future, but some of his adult works are a lot darker.

I see where they’re coming from with respect to Tomorrowland, they don’t want pessimism at Disney World, nor does it have a place. But I don’t see a story in a future where everyone is happy as clams. Those Morlocks in HG Wells’ novel weren’t all that happy, and the surface beings couldn’t have been thrilled with the status quo either. But THE TIME MACHINE wouldn’t make for a very good Disney ride.


4 thoughts on “Pessimism in Science Fiction

  1. Steven M. Moore

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for the mention. Because you do go back into sci-fi history a wee bit, I’ll comment that dystopian and post-apocalyptic sci-fi is nothing new! Huxley’s Brave New World and Ape and Essence as well as Wells’s Time Machine were early examples. Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Orwell’s 1984, Shute’s On the Beach, and Kornbluth’s Not This August are mid-20th century examples. Recent “literary classics” (?) like Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and McCarthy’s The Road supposedly gave stature to the genre (I have mixed opinions about that).
    Howey’s Wool, even the first book, and many others, provide a new wrinkle: dystopia or post-apocalyptic with a wee bit of hope at the end. They provide a warning and a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. That little added optimism implies that, if we change our ways, maybe the disaster won’t happen. That’s a powerful message,

  2. Scott Dyson Post author

    Maybe SF has always been sort of pessimistic? It seemed that Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein were more optimistic, and I didn’t read a lot of others back in those days. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Steven M. Moore

    Hi Scott,
    I’m back with just a BTW: it’s not always fiction that’s pessimistic! On “Steve’s Bookshelf” at my website you will find non-fiction books that warn of a coming apocalypse of various sorts (I mentioned Kuttner’s in a previous thread and Williams’s certainly can be construed as a warning about ISIS and their financing themselves via oil and drugs). Most of all, let’s not forget Toffler, who just passed–he suggested many nasty things that are coming true or have already happened! While I think fiction provides a more powerful medium to warn of coming problems (that’s obvious, I suppose), we should probably thank all writers who pen words of warning. Of course, the fewer the readers, the fewer who can actually pay attention to the warnings, and the body politic seems to have too short a memory.

  4. Scott Dyson Post author

    Hugh Howey has an interesting blog post: An Idea, Broken, in which he describes his story-building process. He says that he gets a cool or interesting idea from some article, a news piece, a lecture, whatever, and then he “breaks” it. The example he gives has to do with FTL travel, but then he imagines a situation where the “noise” from FTL travel attracts hostile aliens. How do we deal with that?

    If I think of a story as being an idea that gets broken and therein lies the story (with a problem that is presented by the development of a technology, for example), I suppose it’s logical that a lot of SF and stories in general come from an area that might be considered pessimistic.

    As far as warnings through either fiction or non-fiction, the general populace does not seem to be able to relate the warning to their situation (unless it already dovetails with their preconceived notions), or so it seems to me…

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