When I was in high school I read a lot of science fiction. I stopped reading science fiction after college and didn’t take it up again until a few years ago when I bought an e-reader and had easy access to a new crop of science fiction writers. As I have read several of the now popular science fiction books I have been struck with the change in tone in the almost thirty years between my first and most recent encounters with science fiction writing.
When I was in high school I belonged to the Science Fiction Book Club. One of the books I received was a collection of short stories titled “Dystopian Visions.” It stuck in my mind because I had to look up the word “dystopian” in order to figure out what the collection was about. A dystopian take on the future was unusual and noteworthy when the book was published in 1975. Today, however, almost every new science fiction book has a dystopian outlook. As i read such popular series as “The Hunger Games” or “Divergent” it makes me reflect on our current younger generation’s preoccupation with social catastrophe.
Recently I began reading a collection of the best science fiction short stories of 2013 edited by Jonathan Staham (The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, volume seven). In the introduction Staham writes, “I do think science fiction – at least at the experimental/development end of the spectrum – is in a period of self-examination. Some of this is just our field’s constant navel gazing, but some is a deliberate attempt to find a way to imagine any kind of science fictional future at all. It is certainly imaginatively less innovative to revisit 1940s-style SF adventures, with those bright futures that now seem to have failed us, than to try to envision another kind of future from our own less optimistic age. And yet that is the challenge, surely. Not to imagine the way the future was, but the way the future might be. While I don’t think answers to this exist yet, I do think you can see the beginnings of attempts to find them.”
The popular novelist, Margaret Atwood, recently published an article titled “Why Readers and Writers Are Fixated With Dystopian Visions.” She begins the article by saying, “There seems to be a tidal wave of bleak futures hitting us right now.”
I am disturbed by Staham’s observation that the bright futures of my youth have failed us. Being a part of the generation that watched the first moon walk live on television and experienced the optimism that permeated that time period, I am saddened to think that my generation is perceived as having failed the generation to follow. Is there a way to rediscover the naiveté of the 1960s or is it more desirable to find a realistic future that is not utopian, but certainly more optimistic than my experience of current science fiction narratives? Have we excluded futures that provide the optimistic possibility or is this generation preoccupied with the negative factors present in our world today?
The good news is that in most of the novels I have read in this genre in the past year, there is a commitment to the indomitable spirit of humankind. Although there is often an apocalyptic event in these narratives there is also often someone who transcends social and/or technical disaster to help establish a new and better reality. What I am encouraged by is the thread of perseverance and victory in the midst of future difficulties. While most writers seem to be projecting significant social difficulties in the future of our time on this planet, there is also a nearly uniform commitment to humanities’ ultimate ability to set things right. Maybe this dystopian optimism is the best definition of hope for this generation after all. It is more pessimistic than the dreams of the 1960s but heroic in its own way.