Is There Room for Positive Stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy?
by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
In my last post, I talked about a call for a return to admirable heroes. While anti-heroes have their place, and while they are dominating the field, many people, living in the dark, troubled modern age, are looking for hope and inspiration of a kind that was popular in the Golden Age, earlier days. Right along with it, I believe is a desire for happier endings.
Fiction tends to reflect its times. Real life events and the emotional reactions they engender inspire writers to comment through their work. Moral delimmas are presented. Questions posited, answers challenged. It’s normal and popular. In the wake of events in the Middle East, we see more books and movies about the conflict, terrorism and what it means. People wonder how we should react. What was wrong, what was right? And what does it mean for our future?
Although it’s right and fine to ask such questions, the inevitable conclusions are far from encouraging most times. Dark events have dark lessons and dark morals and dark challenges associated with them. While discussing and analyzing them is vital, if they consume our focus, they can be discouraging, depressing, emotionally draining.
While some argue that every story teaches a lesson, and to some degree, this is true. I believe there’s room for stories that entertain first, teach second. All writers project our own worldviews and agendas on our work, through our characters and the situations in which we choose to place them. But all too often these days, I find myself finishing books with an emptiness and discouragement I’d hoped they’d help erase. I wanted to see possibilities; be challenged to reach further ; catch a glimpse of brighter days ahead.
My friend Brad Torgersen recently blogged about his two years as a professional science fiction writer and noted how nihilism has invade science fiction and fantasy to a degree that leaves people longing for hope.Torgersen writes:
“It’s probably a leftover from the New Wave, that the science fiction culture has absorbed a great deal of the nihilism of contemporary literary culture (“Life is meaningless, all is without hope, despair, despair!”) without realizing that what makes science fiction truly different from its learned betters is that sci-fi is a genre ready-built forhope.”
I agree. And I find myself amongst those longing for more hopeful visions of our tomorrows.
It’s not just old fashioned heroes we miss. I think it’s old fashioned stories—stories where good people fought for good causes and came out ahead, making for a better world. Is it really so hard to believe such outcomes are possible these days? What’s the purpose of science if not to seek improvements in both understanding and technology, etc. to better our lives and our world? Fiction is about communicating and examining ourselves and our world. Is it really true that all we see are negatives at this point? It’s a sad state we’re in if that’s the case.
Perhaps you’ll think me naïve, but I really do believe we can make a better world. I believe we can make a difference. And I believe the future can be brighter if we work together. And one of the reasons I fell in love with science fiction and fantasy literature was because they presented hopeful possibilities for a future that excited me, not one I would dread.
There is a time and a place for nihilistic views. There is a time and a place for sobering reflection. But I don’t believe those need to dominate speculative fiction. If all we have to speculate about are sad, depressing tomorrows, why bother? We can get enough of that sentiment in our sad, depressing todays, can’t we?
So I do believe there’s still room for positive stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy. I think audiences are demanding them. Look one of the most popular series of recent days: The Harry Potter stories drip with themes of redemption and self-sacrifice for others. I’m sure there are others but why is it that the majority coming to mind are aimed at children? Isn’t there room for hope amongst adults?
I wonder if the decline in sales in Science Fiction is in part due to the nihilistic themes so prevalent in the genre’s literature today. Fantasy continues to be popular, of course, but I have a harder time thinking of examples there where nihilism rules the day. The Song Of Ice and Fire books are gritty and dark, yes, but still, there are admirable heroes who fight against evil for good. Fantasy isn’t immune to the phenomenon, but perhaps it’s distance from reality due to its lack of science as a required basis leads us to write with more hopeful, positive outlooks in such stories?
I believe there is room for hopeful stories. And I believe readers are clamoring for it. I’ve tried to write some in my own work. And Brad Torgersen is doing the same. I wonder when and how many others will rise to the challenge and do the same.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.