Thursday, 26 July 2007

SF and the prophets of doom

Deborah Orr, a regular columnist in The Independent newspaper, has written an interesting piece (in the 25/7/07 edition) on the place of science fiction and fantasy in modern literature, with particular reference to dystopian thinking in general and the disasters (actual and potential) of modern life in particular.

Her starting point is the attitude people have to such major problems, especially the way in which we try to interpret events in a way which suits our preconceptions while resisting any implications which run counter to them. Climate change is a good example of this, with the evidence being seen through the filter of politico-economic beliefs. Those who firmly believe in the rightness of the untrammelled free market style of capitalism are unable to accept the implications of the theory of human-caused climate change and tend to regard it as some kind of socialist conspiracy (this is my paraphrase of her argument).

She refers to Black Mass, the latest book by the philosopher John Gray, in which he traces the history of Western millenarianism – the belief in some ideal future society. He suggests that the Iraq war is the result of an apocalyptic fantasy that it is possible to achieve by force a dramatic change, in this case in the direction of liberal democracy. He argues that all such projects will inevitably end in tears, and blames utopian thinking for believing that they are possible. Instead, he argues that we need more dystopian thinking, and should be paying more attention to such works as Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wells' Island of Dr Moreau or Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Other suggested works, perhaps less familiar (at least to yrs trly), are Zamiatin's We, Nabokov's Bend Sinister, Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Ballard's Super-Cannes.

Orr argues that SF, formerly not taken seriously by the literary establishment, is now achieving a degree of credibility to the extent that such SF themes are now becoming part of the mainstream fiction. She points to Pulitzer Prize-winning (and, more significantly, Oprah-approved) Cormac McCarthy's The Road, concerning a post-climate catastrophe USA, and Sarah Hall's The Carhultan Army, "a futuristic fantasy in which a group of radical feminists make a stand in Britain against a repressive, authoritarian economic collapse", as well as recent works by Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing. Even children's fantasy is not immune; Orr refers to Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, set in the aftermath of a future war. However, she points out that all three of these books contain their own wish-fulfilling optimism which indicates the problems which we are going to have in changing our attitudes sufficiently to be able to divert the perilous course being taken by our civilisation.

I can recall various SFF stories (apart from the novels mentioned above) which have been been truly dystopic, just getting worse until the grim ending. However, these rarely seem to be very popular - they're admired at best, rather than liked. The problem, I suspect, is that people cling on to hope, to the belief that even if everything isn't all right on the night, at least there is room for optimism. But is Orr right? Are we too optimistic for our own good? Or would a diet of unbroken pessimism just pitch us into apathetic despair?


Neal Asher said...

The book to study might be Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (which became the movie Soylent Green) since many of ostensible problems of this world are really symptoms of excessive population. If AGW is a reality and CO2 the cause, then it's more about how many of us there are rather than about the CO2 each person produces. Environmentalists should remember this as they demand we go green. It's a sticking plaster, and most of them are still splopping out the kids and adding to a population that simply cannot be sustained by windmills and organic cabbage.

Anthony G Williams said...

I agree. There's also Brunner's 'Stand on Zanzibar' IIRC, although it's several decades since I last read it.

Curiously enough, the population issue features in a book called 'Scales' as well...

As an aside, I always get a bit twitchy when people question whether AGW actually exists. I do, I really do!

Bill said...

Too optimistic for our own good? I don't believe that's the problem at all. After all, without SOME hope, what's the use of trying? Apathy is a bigger problem. Ignorance, superstition, greed, self-centered thinking,... there are lots of problems, but I wouldn't necessarily say that optimism is one of them. OK, most people figure we'll muddle through somehow. Maybe that's optimism, or maybe it's just a way of ignoring the situation (apathy, in other words).

It's easy to be pessimistic right now, especially in America, after six years of the Bush theocracy. But pessimism does no good to anyone. A dystopia, as a cautionary tale, can be useful. But it's only useful with an optimistic outlook, if we DON'T think the result is inevitable. Yeah, things don't look good right now, but is our outlook really more bleak today than during the middle of the Cold War? During World War II? The Great Depression? We've muddled through much worse times, and we'll get through this if we don't give up.

Incidentally, Neal, do you really think it matters all that much if environmentalists keep "splopping out the kids"? First of all, it's not true. Most environmentalists - heck, most PEOPLE in developed countries - aren't producing kids by the cartload. Our countries are still growing, of course, but that's largely due to immigration (and immigrants tend to have larger families). It's the developing nations that are still growing much too quickly.

Yes, there are too many people on the planet already. And yes, developed nations - America, in particular - use far more resources per capita. Over-population IS the root cause of many of our problems. But all the environmentalists in the developed world could stop having kids and it wouldn't make a bit of difference. And that's not a practical solution, anyway. You might as well complain that environmentalists aren't committing mass suicide in order to lessen the strain on the planet. That's just as logical - perhaps even more so.

lma said...

Putting a healthy scare in people isn't a bad thing, I don't think, so it probably is a good thing to expose people...through literature and other what could happen in various scenarios if we don't pay attention to what we're doing to the planet. And I don't just mean what we're doing to the Earth environmentally, by the way.

But I think that has to be balanced by at least some optimism that worst-case outcomes can be avoided with the proper steps. If there is too much emphasis on the bad that could happen and not enough on the fact that we are, after all, a problem-solving species, then we could sink into an attitude that all is lost already, no matter what we do.

Even if that is true (which I don't believe), there is no good to be had by simply giving up and waiting for the worst to happen. If you think the world is in bad shape now, imagine the conditions if everyone just didn't give a crap anymore. That isn't a world I'm interested in seeing.