This Worried Age

Because I’ve been involved with F&SF for a considerable period of time, I’ve seen trends in writing come and go. I’ve seen writers burst upon the scene and then fade, while others creep in and persist, and occasionally, one of those who bursts upon the scene does in fact persist. I also have made it a habit, particularly over the last decade or so, to read as many of the newer writers as I can. This is why I have only read one book of quite a few writers. To be truthful, in some cases, given my tastes, one book was quite enough. In other cases, I would have liked very much to explore more of that writer’s work.

What I have noticed is that in my sixty-odd years of reading F&SF, I have the feeling that I’ve never read nearly as great a percentage of books with worried or pessimistic outlooks. Now, I can understand this to some degree with science fiction, because the present suggests some rather disturbing, if not horrifying, possibilities. But there are also some rather better possible future outcomes, and the future we face, if history is any indication, is likely to be a mixed bag. But I don’t see much SF that reflects that.

Even a large percentage of fantasy seems to have a gloomy tone, and I have to wonder exactly why, because fantasy doesn’t have to be linked so closely to “reality.” Is it because the expectations of earlier, post-World War II generations were unrealistically optimistic, and there’s a wide-spread perception that reality has turned out to be so “disappointing” to many? Or is it because technology has changed the structure of society so that certain abilities are worth far less and others far more?

I’m old enough to remember classmates paralyzed by polio or who wore braces. I know people whose eyesight was permanently damaged by measles. I can remember when women couldn’t get credit cards except through their husbands. My uncle died a long and painful death from complications caused by strep that now never occur because of antibiotics. The rate of and absolute numbers of people suffering extreme poverty world-wide has been roughly halved in the past generation. And if we’re talking economics, the U.S. mortgage interest rate twenty years ago was two to three times what it is today. In roughly a thirty-year period in the first half of the twentieth century there were two world wars; and while we’ve had wars since then, we haven’t had devastation on that scale.

Do we face threats? Absolutely. Will some of them cause regional problems and devastation? Some very well may, especially if we don’t address them soon and effectively, but at present, and on balance, most people in the world are very much better off than they were a generation or two ago. Yes, the white male American middle class that once made a good living off semi-skilled manufacturing and mining isn’t doing as well and, apparently, that means to too many of them that the entire world has gone to hell. On the other hand, working conditions and pay for women and minorities are improving, even if they have a ways to go.

In writing, there’s been great change. The collapse of the mass market paperback and the whittling away of the chain bookstores because of the growth of ebooks and electronic publishing has throttled the careers of some writers, and sparked the careers of others through the availability of self-publishing.

As always, life presents a mixed bag, but in speculative fiction, there’s a difference between pointing out problems and dwelling on them and presenting them as awful and insoluble. And I happen to think that it’s time for a more balanced outlook by F&SF writers. I’m not denying there are and will be problems. And some problems won’t have solutions and will require accommodations, but our future depends on both problem-solving and accommodation… and an attitude that’s a bit more optimistic.

But then, that’s what I’ve always tried to write… and I’m the first to realize that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Some people really like to read and write gloom, doom, and despair. I’m just not one of them.

7 thoughts on “This Worried Age”

  1. Sam says:

    A while ago I was thinking about some of the dystopian futures presented in science fiction and how really there are parts of the world where those dystopias currently exist.

    Even the most dystopic societies in sci-fi tend to have a class system where some people are more privileged and happier than others.

    As an ordinary Australian I have far more privilege than your average North Korean.

    Being a white man in the US doesn’t guarantee happiness and prosperity but certainly gives you better odds than being a black man or woman. You’d generally feel safer in encounters with the police as well.

    Dystopian science fiction that I’ve read often tends to focus on the underclasses as the point of view characters with the privileged frequently being treated as the villains of the piece.

    I suppose this is my roundabout way of saying that I’ve come to the conclusion that dystopias are subjective.

    1. David Roffey says:

      Many of the dystopias were specifically set out as commentary on what already exist(s/ed) – the most obvious, 1984, being acknowledged as a polemic on the politics of 1948, and The Handmaid’s Tale bringing into one society a collection of views and practices already existing somewhere in the world.

      It occurs to me that probably a dystopian (or otherwise nuanced) view of what is happening at the time of writing informs almost all fiction, F&SF or otherwise, though it may be a stretch to apply that to romcoms.

      1. M. Kilian says:

        Ironically in the West one could argue that we have been living a dystopia analogous to A Brave New World for some time now. Minding you, with the enforcement of wrong-think policies, some countries are even in their appearance resembling 1984’s blatant oppression.

  2. Constance says:

    I’d have to agree. I’ve started avoiding any dystopian literature, grim dark, and anti-hero books. Maybe I’m a romantic at heart, but I want some kind of happily ever after in my fantasy books. It doesn’t have to be much, just a nod to the realization that things can work out for the better.

    The ‘everything is going to hell’ outlook gets wearing. When I want to ponder the downfall of society, I read non-fiction. If that makes me not the target audience for a lot of books, so be it.

  3. Corwin says:

    While LEM is stil my favourite author, I have discovered another SF and Fantasy writer that I’m enjoying a great deal and that is Christopher Nuttall. Try his Zero trilogy for an interesting twist on an old trope. There are optimistic writers out there who regularly add a touch of humour to their work, Lindsey Hall is another example and their E-Books are relatively inexpensive to try.

  4. Jon Moss says:

    Keep up the great writing, Leland. I’ll definitely keep buying your books. I’d rather read, breath, eat and sleep hope than the opposite any day, any time. And thank you for keeping that flame lit.

    Ciao, Jon

  5. Tony says:

    Fiction reflects the author’s perception of the world. It’s likely more authors have a generally pessimistic view of the world than in previous generations. Despite the empirical data that the world is getting better over time (less war, less illness, less violence, greater freedom for women and minorities), people judge the world based upon how their lives compare to other people around them (friends, family, neighbors), to people in entertainment, and to visions created by political leaders—not in comparison to how life was for prior generations. For example, one survey of happiness has found a stark decline in Americans’ happiness over the last ten years ( Presumably, fiction authors are connected on a personal level to this general decline in happiness among their friends, family and peers and it influences their fiction writing. The Business Insider article suggests that American “social capital has been on the decline for decades” as a result of “soaring income inequality, economic and ethnic segregation, and deterioration in American’s education.” Thus, a set of overall positive trends over a period of decades and centuries (advances in science and technology, the spread of full participation democracy, equal access to education) may be outweighed by a set of more recent or shorter term negative trends (income inequality, increasing segregation, declining education). As one personal example, my father has had a generally optimistic and positive outlook throughout his life—coming from a deeply impoverished back ground (my dad grew up in a house with no electricity, no running water, and a leaky roof) and rising to great prominence and success in life. Yet, the recent change in the national political conversation has harshly impacted my father’s outlook on life and put him into a deep depression. When he sees the future, he sees one that incorporates, reflects and even deepens the deep environmental, economic, and social problems of the present.

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