Hieroglyph, an anthology edited by Ed Finn and Kathyrn Cramer.
Successful science fiction and speculative fiction reflect the hopes and anxieties of their day, the same as any other narrative art. Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury were men of their times. Writing at the peak of American technological, military, and economic power after World War II, much of their work was infused with can-do optimism. Sci-fi’s tone changed in the 1970s and 80s with the end of the Vietnam War and the public recognition of the environmental and social costs of so-called “progress.” Writers turned more realistic—”dark” is the favored word—as they struggled with reconciling the post-World War II ideals with actual results.
Some influential writers miss the good old sci-fi days of the 50s and 60s, among them Neal Stephenson, the Hugo Award-winning author of Crytonomicon and Seveneves. In his preface to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, the 2015 anthology of “optimistic” sci-fi stories, Stephenson expresses disappointment in science’s failure to deliver on his dreams of space travel. “Where’s my donut-shaped space station?” he writes. “Where’s my ticket to Mars?” He blames the failure in part on the darker turn of sci-fi, which he accuses of dampening our faith in science as a positive force. “Our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” such as building a moon colony or sending humans to deep space. I find this attitude puzzling. While it’s true the American manned program is at a nadir, a near-permanent space station with American astronauts is flying overhead, NASA is landing rovers on Mars, and space-based telescopes are discovering exo-planets almost daily. How are these not “big things?” Continue reading
The space plane from 2001 A Space Odyssey is also an ad for (now defunct) Pan American Airways.
Many high-profile science fiction writers are bemoaning the tone and content of 21st century sci-fi and fantasy. It’s too dark, too depressing, too filled with rampaging robots, malevolent AIs, and oppressive governments. The trend is hurting humanity by discouraging the kind of can-do-ism that got America to the moon and beyond. We need to revive the innocence and naivete of a time when we trusted technology to solve our problems, they say.
Corporate America agrees. On Tuesday, Microsoft released a free ebook titled Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft. The company invited science fiction luminaries Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire and Robert J. Sawyer, as well as graphic novelist Blue Delliquanti to its research labs and asked them to imagine worlds with Cortana, Hololens, and its take on quantum computing as the world-fixing (and profitable) products MS hopes they’ll become. The concept is as creepy as it is laughable. Continue reading
Utopia, Texas. Image courtesy University of Houston, Clear Lake.
Too dark. Too depressing. Too frightening. These are the comments some critics and authors apply to the crop of movies and novels drawing viewers and readers to the multiplexes and bookstores these days. From the Maze Runner
, dystopias dominate the best-seller and blockbuster categories, and culture watchers wonder if the public has lost hope in the future.
Could it be that dystopia’s opposite–utopia–is simply boring?
Today’s complaints about dystopian stories originate with the movie made from the novel the Hunger Games, about a young woman who challenges an autocratic society that oppresses weaker communities with a blood sport. It’s really a classic “us-against-the-world” teen rebellion story, but the environment is dystopian, so it gets mentioned in the same breath as 1984, a gross injustice to George Orwell. Continue reading
In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis
Scientists, pundits, and self-appointed prophets paint the impact of climate change with brushstrokes of extreme weather, upended economies, and pandemic disease. It’s up to writers and artists to imagine the effects of these changes on human relationships. More and more writers are examining the possibilities and dangers of life in a warming world, including Jennifer Ellis, author of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation
, a dystopian survivalist novel that explores how people who grow up in a world of abundance cope with instantaneous privation.
Ellis’ imagined future may be happening right now. Economists say that we may have found all the oil that’s economically feasible to extract. From this moment of “peak oil” forward, further extraction costs more and more money. Production falls sharply, disrupting advanced economies. Natalie and Richard, a Vancouver, BC power couple before the peak, move with a select group of friends to a isolated farm in the British Columbia interior. Over the next few years, society collapses around them, and when we meet the couple and their tiny, self-sufficient community, slaving gangs roam the empty roads and overgrown countryside attacking isolated homes and towns. The farm’s inmates greet each stranger with suspicion, and guns settle arguments as often as words. Continue reading
Lighthouse Island, by Paulette Jiles
I can measure how well I like a book by how hard I have to push myself to take it up again after putting it down. I finish a chapter or two, do something else, see the book on the table, and check its literary magnetism. Is it beckoning me to open it again right now
? The first third of Paulette Jiles
’ new novel, Lighthouse Island
, had a weak pull. But I stuck with it, partly because I promised the publisher that I’d post a review on my blog in exchange for a copy. I might have abandoned it otherwise. The book gets better as it rolls forward, and the last third is worth the early slog.
Lighthouse Island tells the story of Nadia Stepan, who is discarded by her parents at the age of four in a hot, arid, dusty world of the future that must resemble the Texas landscape of the author’s San Antonio home. Instead of a desert, however, Nadia’s world is a bleak urban dystopia, an ugly ecumenopolis governed by massive, competing bureaucracies that fire real bullets at each other. The waifish Nadia is a survivor, adapting to challenges with a sociopathic cleverness. Needing a purpose to her life, she decides to walk to a resort called “Lighthouse Island,” located in a Pacific Northwest populated by savage hippies. Along the way, she meets the man of her dreams, who demonstrates that even dystopias can offer up miracles. Continue reading