Thursday, December 24, 2009

Being Positive

The SF blogosphere is having a minor kerfuffle (I'm not sure it has any other kind) over the attitude of SF literature. Jetse de Vries, the editor of an upcoming anthology of "positive SF," posted a castigation of SF writers for predicting doom while failing to provide solutions. That would be environmental doom, natural-disaster doom, medical doom, economic doom, and political doom. Jason Sanford's blog, in a convoluted post, agreed with de Vries, saying that much SF lacks the attitude that "humanity is always able to find a solution to the problems we create...I would argue that this positive outlook is what is missing from SF these days, and also explains why the literary SF genre is in such trouble. SF found in video games and on the big screen generally keeps to the classic positive attitude."

This is an interesting argument. Not the first part, because if "humanity is always able to find a solution to the problems we create," obviously we wouldn't now have the problems. Fiction that always solved everything would not mirror life. But the larger issue -- that SF accentuates the negative aspects of technology and science -- is probably true. And there are at least two good reasons for this.

First, Sf writers do not have the solutions to the environment, natural disasters, medical issues, etc. If I knew how to halt global warming, cure cancer, and prevent recessions, I would publish monographs, join think tanks, and/or consult at a zillion dollars an hour. When my stories do propose "answers" to these things in the form of future tech, the tech is often the weakest part of the story because it's so vague. How do you genetically engineer people to not sleep? Damned if I know.

Second, writers use negative scenarios because it makes a better story. Jetse specifically mentions Paolo Bacigalupi as an example of an author creating brutal and negative futures. Well, he does. And he's so good at it that you read breathlessly to see how his characters will cope with the next negative thing thrown at them. That's what fiction does. And since good writers are trying to create art that comments on reality, the outcome is not always pretty. Read the newspaper lately?

The function of art is not cheer-leading, not formulating policy initiatives, not providing a moment of bland daily sunshine. The function of art is to say something about life. Something profound or amusing or interesting or insightful or cautionary. But basically something true, and truth simply is not always positive. This alone goes far to explaining why the big-screen SF that Sanford praises is so often just stupid (see many previous "Cranky at the Movies" posts.)

However, I will end on a positive note right now: Merry Christmas or Happy Hannukah or Joyous Kwanzaa to you all.


Lee Capps said...

Hear, hear! Fiction is about how people behave in the face of adversity, right?

Brenda Cooper said...

I am happy to see the work Jetse is doing, and was quite pleased to have a story selected to come out soon in Daybreak. The stories I've seen so far in Daybreak are not unrelentingly happy smoozy stories, by the way. They have adversity and struggle and plot.

That said, the strength of our genre is its diversity, and so I would not like all stories to belong in Shine, all in Analog, or all be as unrelentingly awful as The Road. Let's have our fictional futures in all possibilities.

cd said...

I think they're right. Much SF is dispollyana (as is much contemporary art), and that's a kind of easy sentimentality just as lazy and untrue as the easy sentimentality of pollyana.

I love and admire THE WINDUP GIRL. I'll probably vote it for the Nebula because of the fine attention to detail in it. But also I found it dishonest. Except perhaps for one character of dubious intelligence, it portrays every human being as without a glimmer of unselfishness. Yes, yes, some people are like that. But not everyone. Not the whole world.

The great lie of our time, believed by many artists and critics alike, is that brutality is honesty.

TheOFloinn said...

I'm not sure that a tale of success in overcoming a problem is necessarily bland sunshine. It's more of a question of tude: the difference between "Oh, poor us!" and "Yes, we can!" One may write a story of a plague of lemons and focus on the sour acidic nature of the plague; or on the successful conversion of them all to tasty lemonade.

This is, at least in part, a matter of eras and generations. Our fathers' and mothers' generation, in which SF initially flourished, was a generation that overcame the Depression, defeated fascism, and stood up to communism. It is no surprise if the fiction they wrote featured determined folk confronting and overcoming problems. Even where they failed, they went down swinging.

A later generation, less enthralled by science and technology, and sometimes downright hostile to it, was more likely to dwell on the hopelessness or the angst or the futility of it all. A generation that has seldom known anything but comfort, and which has faced few existential challenges may approach its fiction from a different worldview.

Frank Böhmert said...

Truth simply is not always negative, too.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

I'm not understanding here, Nancy. Because a problem has not yet been solved, its continuing existence means problems =can't= be solved?

Please forgive your old student. As you know, he's mucho slow.

Mark said...

...And I retroactively wish everyone a Happy Winter Solstice!
Some of us like romantic comedies with happy endings, some of us love tragedies, and most of us vacilate to some degree.

One comparison I read years ago points out a difference between noir (film noir) and cyberpunk. The classic noir plot focuses on a character having to deal with a seedy subculture that is a subset of a generally "good" society. It typically ends when the protagonist is able to enlist the aid of the police or other helpful fellow citizens to end his dilemma. Cyberpunk describes a plot where the protagonist exists in a society that is very imperfect, even dystopian. The protagonist's problem resolution often is just plain surviving another day. By that definition not only are William Gibson's most famous stories cyberpunk, but one might make a case for Solzhenitsin's (sp?) One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich being "low tech cyberpunk". That's a dark tale whose resolution is Ivan's surviving the day.

vera said...

I think it is most often when readers confuse SF with futurology that they are dissapointed in what they find, and define it as too negative a stance.
I completely agree that literature is not there to proscribe or prophetize but to describe, from the peculiar vantage point of the given author his/her look on life. I do not think SF is an exception. The ritual of the happy ending often satisfies my appetite for positivism, but my most profound literary experiences remain in the unsettling and sometimes dark deviance from this ritualistic norm.

Richard said...

Well said, Nancy!

James A. Ritchie said...

Unfortunately, teh function of most SF is to say something dire, political, and, unquestionably, preachy.

Far too much of it presents not problems that really exist, or even that might someday exist, but that are based on the writer's personal beiefs and political affiliation.

And it's really strange to say we can't always overcome probelms because we still have problems. Of course we still have problems, but how on earth does this mean we won't solve each of them, just as we've solved untold other problems in the past.

If yu have no possible solutions, why should I read you? I already know what the problems are. We all do. What we need are possible solutions, and the better SF writers have always given us just this.

The bad ones just run around yelling gloom and doom, and preaching their own beliefs as surely as a Sunday morning reverend.

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