How SF has changed and why I don’t read dystopias

Saw a fascinating panel at Mile Hi Con about how SF has changed over the last 50 years, moderated by Paolo Bacigalupi. Really good observations by all, but what really struck me is the loss of optimism about the future.

Dystopias are big. Series like Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games are megahits, and you can’t seem to get away from them. And when you stop and think about it, you can understand why. We live in what we would call the second Great Depression if we were really honest about the economy and unemployment numbers. Time are tough. People are looking for hope. And if you start your story in tough, desperate times and ultimately triumph over them, you can give your readers inspiration to triumph in their own lives. These stories grab us so hard because they amplify very real fears we have about the real world and then deal with them.

Only, I’m not so sure that works. It’s kind of the inverse of the Old Yeller problem Phoebe had on the TV series “Friends.” She thought it was a happy movie because her mother had never let her see the end of it. With dystopic fiction, I get so depressed reading the book that I never make it to the end where things get better.

In my mind, things are bad and getting steadily worse. Even if promised a happy ending, I don’t want to read about a dystopia because to my way of thinking, why waste my time on “entertainment” when eventually I’m just going to have to live through the damn thing anyway? Dystopic fiction cuts close to home for a reason, but for me it cuts too close. I can see all too easily the things in Daniel Suarez’s books actually happening. I can see the Hunger Games actually happening. We have enough trouble with the ever-deepening class divide in this country without making it into the basis for entertainment.

And that’s what I miss from the golden age of SF. (Yes, I know A Clockwork Orange was published fifty years ago. Shuddup.) Before fifty years ago, SF held a lot more optimism about the future. Yes, people had problems and conflict. You can’t have fiction without them (or at least, you can’t have fiction anyone would want to read). But the world in general was a better place in their imagined future than the world the authors lived in. (The episode of DS9 where Cisco dreams he and the rest of the cast were actually SF writers in the 50s, and he was a black man trying to write about the black commander of a gleaming metal space station is a great example of this.) Things have gotten too gritty now, and I think we’ve lost something.

I miss the idea that smart people can change the world for the better. One of my biggest influences as a writer when I was growing up was Michael Crichton, and my love for his work lost a lot of steam when I realized that his books weren’t just about really cool science adventures, but the dangers inherent when science– inevitably– gets out of control. I much prefer now the optimism of Isaac Asimov, whose Hari Seldon was able to use science to vastly shorten the dark ages between civilizations. We need more of that, and less of post-apocalyptic horrors that are all too likely to come true.

2 thoughts on “How SF has changed and why I don’t read dystopias”

  1. Freaky. I just picked up Foundation for the first time in like 35 years because I wanted to see, as an adult, Asimov’s take on the very subject of your essay: optimism, pessimism and what steps a person should be taking to improve the future.

    I just found your book "Do Over!" I will read it now.

  2. I have only read a few of Crichton’s novels because of that pessimistic formula. I get sick of fill in the blank tech gets out of control and tries to kill everyone. It was fun for a few books, but it gets boring when all an author writes is the same thing.

    I also miss the positive vision of the future. That’s what was missing in DS9, Voyager and Enterprise. That vision where everything is going to get better when we go out into space and grow up more.

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