Pessimism in Science Fiction: The USA is Worried It’s Over the Hill
Is this my future? A big stinky onion future?
There has been a lot of talk about the pervasive pessimism in science fiction recently. Notably in the last couple of years, but there have been grumblings on the subject all the way back to the dawn of Cyberpunk with its dreary skies the color of television tuned to a dead channel. You know, before a dead channel was an eye-searingly vivid blue.
The dawn of science fiction tended to be pretty upbeat. Yes, there was rampant sexism, pretty much every important character was an heterosexual, able-bodied, highly intelligent, male Caucasian, imperialism was the savior of space civilizing exotic alien noble savages, and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was a nice automated house with a yard and a white picket fence in the suburbs, or at least within flying-car range of the suburbs. But it was upbeat. Medical science was constantly solving inconveniences like infectious disease, cancer, and aging. Easy travel to friendly worlds around other stars relieved the problems of population pressure and resource wars–or at least moved the wars to desolate asteroid belts and the deeps of interstellar space where the collateral damage was lighter. The average schlub on the street, if we saw him, was educated and clean and on his way from his nice safe 9-to-5 where his wife would cook dinner by pressing a button and afterward tossing the dishes into a receptacle to be disintigrated and reconstituted sparkling clean in the automatic dispenser for the next meal. There were no worries about the electric bill or rising gasoline prices or the wholesomeness of food and water being compromised by deregulation.
Everything in the life of the USA, which is and was the author of the bulk of science fiction collectively, seemed to be on an inevitable upward trajectory that would easily carry the future into a better and more expansive place.
And then things stopped peaking. They started heading downward in many regards, and the longer this reversal continued, the more people–including writers of science fiction–noticed it. The point of view of the US science fiction writer wasn’t naturally upward anymore. It was downward. Imagine the view from a car on a rollercoaster. Heading upward, you’re looking to the sky. Once you roll over the top, pause, and then plunge downward, you’re looking down the hill. And you’re screaming; even if you can see you’re not likely to plunge straight into the ground and die, it feels like you will.
The US middle class has been shrinking for a while. The space program has contracted; we don’t talk about when we will build a colony on the moon anymore, not seriously. We talk about the next automated probe we’re going to land on Mars for a look around the dust. When Kennedy said we’d go to the moon, people mostly believed him. When Obama said we’d go to Mars, even enthusiasts said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We don’t feel secure in our jobs anymore, if we have them. Our incomes have gotten smaller after inflation adjustment over the years, not bigger as we once, in the halcyon years of optimistic science fiction, assumed they would continue to grow forever.
Maybe when we find the bottom of this decline we’re in, in terms of the collective prosperity of ALL US citizens, US writers will cheer up a bit and science fiction will grow an upbeat consensus again–hopefully with the racism, sexism, and imperialism absent. Or perhaps the heart of science fiction will shift.
Science fiction, after all, has been a world literature from the beginning. US writers may have and may still comprise the majority, but if SF is to teach us anything, it is that the future always brings change. And SF has been growing, I understand, not just in other English-speaking nations, but also worldwide and outside the traditional Western bastions.
Literature belongs to the world and all its people. I welcome all the cheer the other writers of the world can lend us US writers in climbing out of our funk.