Edward Willett

The Space-Time Continuum: Cynicism vs. hope in science fiction

The Hunger Games may be getting all the attention right now, but there’s a long history to dystopian science fiction. War of the Worlds, Brave New World, 1984, A Canticle for Leibowitz, A Handmaid’s Tale…the list goes on and on. I’ve written some myself.

Dark and dangerous futures are, of course, ripe settings for fiction. (As are dark and dangerous pasts or presents, for that matter.) They provide the author with plenty of opportunities for adventure and excitement, as the heroes struggle to survive against nature, their fellow humans, or (in science fiction and fantasy) aliens, zombies, goblins or what-have-you.

I mean, there’s a good reason you don’t see many Star Trek stories set on Earth: Earth is presented as pretty much a perfected utopia, and unless it’s threatened from outside, it just doesn’t offer many storytelling opportunities.

But David Brin, scientist, inventor, and New York Times-bestelling science-fiction author, thinks the tendency to paint the future using only the darkest colours of the palette is “what is wrong with science fiction today.”

He makes the statement in a recent interview on the website Geekwire. “Too many authors and film-makers,” says Brin, “buy into the playground notion that cynicism is somehow chic and knowing.”

“Playground notion” seems a particularly apt phrase to me and, I suspect, anyone else who has worked a lot with teen writers. There’s a phase young writers tend to go through where every story has to be dark and depressing. I think it’s an effort to achieve gravitas, to write something deep and important, although in practice that means, if you’re reading a lot of teen writing, way too many stories involving car crashes, cancer, death or abuse. Brin seems to be saying, and I’d concur, that some writers never grow out of that phase.

Brin continues: “So many 50- or 80-year-old clichés are rampant (e.g. “hey look, I invented suspicion of authority!”) while nostalgia pushes aside what used to be our genre’s golden notion: that we in this civilization might find ways to improve, to solve problems, to become better than we were.”

A difficult task, he admits, “fraught with many pitfalls.” But, he says, too many creators portray the future as hopeless.

“How pathetic!” says Brin. “That beneficiaries of relentless progress should repay that debt by casting doubt on the very possibility of progress?” Nor is this political, in his view. “I see the habit spewing from both ends of the hoary, lobotomizing so-called ‘left-right axis.’ My late, lamented friend Ray Bradbury called this fetish the very lowest form of ingratitude.”

“But wait!” some may cry. “It’s not realistic to portray the future in sunny terms. Just look at all the problems in the world today!”

Brin doesn’t deny that there’s a place for dark fiction. He points to Bradbury again. “Ray plumbed the darkest depths of the human soul, in tales that could freeze your heart. So? He considered fantasy chills and terrifying sci-fi what-ifs to be part of exploring our dark corners and failure modes.” But, he continues, those dark stories were “always aiming to achieve effective warnings. Self-preventing prophecies.”

You might call that dystopia-as-prophylaxis: by presenting a dark and disturbing future, and detailing how our present led directly to it, you can convince people in the present to take the steps necessary to prevent that future. (Would 1984 have been more like 1984 if George Orwell had never written 1984?)

“Some of us are rebelling,” says Brin. “Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear and others have been laying down a challenge to our peers. If you think we have problems, expose them! But spare a little effort to suggesting solutions. Or stoking others with belief that we can.”

Of course, then you face counter danger: that, rather than wallowing in cynicism and hopelessness, you end up writing your story from atop a soap box or behind a pulpit. That can turn readers off, and if they never finish your book, they’ll never be exposed to your solutions for the problems you foresee.

That may happen anyway if they disagree strongly with either your diagnosis or your solutions you present. Pace Brin, that really does get into politics, because for every person who thinks “the government ought to do something” there’s another who thinks the government does way too much already and is far better at making things worse than it is at making things better.

But if you write a compelling story, even those who disagree with you will read to the end. And if they end up arguing with you along the way, or arguing about your ideas with others, then you’ve still done something to shape, and hopefully, improve, the future.

The broad gate and road lead to fictional futures of cynicism and hopelessness, while the narrow gate and strait road lead to possible futures where things may yet be better than they are today.

Or, to  paraphrase another famous quote, “Cynicism is easy…hope is hard.”


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  1. The Necromancer Says:

    Actually, not to be skeptical, but I would argue that the truth is quite the opposite. Cynicism (to which I would connect a certain brand of the critical and skeptical) is arguably a lot harder that hope (which I would connect with belief). It’s easier to believe than to doubt. That’s why so many people have done it throughout human history. And why doubting — standing outside of the social sphere one is embedded in like Diogenes the Cynic once did in ancient Greece, and outsiders have continued to do since — is hard.

    There’s even a kind of self-delusion associated with uncritical optimism that has hindered the growth of knowledge and the process of understanding. We find facts to support our existing beliefs, tending to ignore complexities and contradictions. Philosophers of science call this the confirmation bias.

    What this has to do with science fiction is hard to say. But some of the most innovative speculative fiction in recent years has been of a critical and even pessimistic tone (c.f. the cyberpunk movement).

    Truth is, most people are naively and innocently optimistic, without having a clue as to why (except, of course, that “it makes them happy”). Sci-fi has rightly been a critical and complex antidote to this often overly simplistic perspective.

    And that hasn’t been easy at all…

  2. 2 Edward Willett Says:

    A matter of definition, I think. If you define cynicism as “standing outside of the social sphere one is embedded in” then, yes, that’s of great value. Avoiding confirmation bias is definitely hard (the old “how could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him” trap). But cynicism of the knee-jerk variety (“That’ll never work.” “Politicians are all corrupt.” “Everything is getting worse and nothing will ever get better.” etc.) is of little value. It’s more of a tired tic than a tactic for dealing with a complicated world. Some things do work. Some politicians are honest. Some things are getting worse, but a great many things are getting batter. Authors can choose the playground-style cynicism, or they can choose to, indeed, stand outside their social sphere–being cynical in your definition–but use that position to observe problems more clearly and offer possible solutions to those problems through their characters and story. I don’t think Brin is arguing for uncritical optimism, but for, in fact, a highly critical optimism–one that admits the problems but then offers solutions, and hope.

    There’s a quote I should have used in my article, one that for years adorned my office wall when I worked at the Saskatchewan Science Centre: “We act out of hope or fear, and progress depends entirely on our choosing hope.”

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