I’ve recently stumbled over a conversation in SF circles about the dearth of positive written science fiction, in spite of the demand for such stories from readers. Not that this is a brand new conversation in the genre; while attending my first Worldcon in Montreal back in 2009, I met Jetse de Vries, who was in the process of pitching the idea of his anthology of near-future optimistic science fiction stories.
I don’t seek to disagree with the argument in favor of positive stories but instead to offer a more nuanced view. I think there is plenty of room within science fiction for optimism and stories of a basically positive nature. I also emphatically agree that the demand for such stories is high; we have but to look at Analog, which has the highest circulation numbers of the Big 3 science fiction magazines and the most prominent focus on more upbeat endings for stories, to see the popularity of positivity. And if we take a peek at novel-length science fiction, we see many of the genre’s favorite writers who take a generally positive tone (or at the very least, not excessively bleak): Connie Willis, Lois McMaster Bujold, and John Scalzi come to mind, as do Charles Stross and Robert Sawyer, all authors who have been nominated for Hugos in the novel category in recent years. Indeed, my husband and I have often wondered if the recent upsurge of the steampunk subgenre is related to a general desire for nostalgia and shiny adventure stories decked out with amazing flashing gadgets and mad science.
On the other hand, I would be disappointed to see the hunger for positive stories lead to less ambiguity in modern science fiction and fantasy. Bryan Thomas Schmidt says he misses old-fashioned stories “where good people fought for good causes and came out ahead, making for a better world.” He argues that the wildly popular Song of Ice and Fire books by George RR Martin are gritty but feature “admirable heroes who fight against evil for good.” Perhaps it’s been too long since I’ve read these books, but I don’t remember any admirable heroes–what I remember are flawed human beings who make a lot of mistakes and get caught up in the throes of power in various interesting ways. While some characters are worse than others and there are exceptions (Jon Snow comes to mind as being more noble than most of the characters, and also one of my least favorite, although as I’ve said, it’s been a while), the reason I enjoy those books is because of the ambiguity, not the noble heroes…an ambiguity that equates more with how I view our own world. In fact, I have a problem reading many fantasy novels that have the obviously good guys (constructed of cardboard) fighting the obviously evil forces of darkness (made of a lesser grade of cardboard). I don’t object to novels where good people win in the end, but paint the villain too evil or the hero too saintly and good and the story loses a lot of its tension for me.
Meanwhile, my colleague Brad Torgersen states, “Yet a good deal of written sci-fi adores the “downer” ending, the anti-hero, the morally ambiguous and ultimately meaningless stories…” While you all know I love a good comfort read, I don’t find all science fiction that isn’t optimistic and upbeat to be meaningless, and I think describing dystopias and darker science fiction in such terms is doing the genre a disservice. Sometimes people fail. Sometimes moral questions have more than one answer depending on a person’s point of view. Sometimes downer endings and ambiguous stories show us more about ourselves and what we hold to be important.
Speaking as a reader, I didn’t discover science fiction through the optimistic Golden Age of science fiction. I didn’t read Asimov’s short story gems or Heinlein’s romping juveniles as an adolescent. My gateway drug, at age 11 or 12, was Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, a novel I would not classify as particularly lighthearted. Sure, we get the fun zero-G and gaming bits, but we also get a faceful of child brutality, emotional isolation, and the morality of war and genocide (or xenocide, in this case). We follow our protagonist into dark places, and ultimately it is his nearness to perfection that damns him. I fell in love with science fiction not because of its ability to uplift (although nothing to sneer at) but because of its penchant for dealing with difficult questions of humanity.
Granted, Ender’s Game does end on a hopeful note. I find that overall, I prefer reading novels that do have some sort of hopeful or positive note at the end (although there are exceptions, 1984 being the first to come to mind). I don’t need a crystal-clear happy ending, mind you; I enjoy goals achieved but at a high price, or goals achieved that the protagonist then realizes weren’t what she wanted. I enjoy the bittersweet. But I do like some kind of positive salve to end with. Short stories, though, are a different beast altogether for me. They can end in an extremely dark place, they can devastate me and make me cry, and often I’ll like them better for it. I don’t tend to feel despair from a sad ending as much as I feel empathy and an increased understanding of the more painful aspects of being human. The more positive, romping short stories often (although again, not always) lose my interest as they don’t always seem to be about anything in particular, and they more often fail to make me think about things in a different way.
So my complaint of some positive stories is that they are not sufficiently challenging to satisfy me, while my colleagues’ complaint of some dark stories is that they’re depressing and overly pessimistic. All of this makes me suspect that the problem may not be nihilism so much as differing tastes of the reader. Some readers like happy stories; some readers like dark stories. Some readers like a nice variety. Readers will be depressed by different things, readers are looking for different experiences, and readers find meaning filtered through their own perspectives. Perhaps we have an imbalance of dark short sf fiction (in novel-length, I’m not seeing it as much), and if more writers begin to explore optimistic ideas in short form, I won’t be sad. But I’m also very glad there’s a place for experimenting with darkness, exploring the ugly parts of humanity, and shining a light onto those things we most fear.
Your turn to weigh in! Would you like to see more positive science fiction stories? What are your reading preferences (or writing preferences, for that matter)? Anything you’d like to add?