In Defense of Pessimistic Science Fiction


(Thanks for the image, Pixabay artist ‘hucky’)

Look, I like optimistic science fiction. Sometimes. It’s like hard candy to me: I like a little nibble now and again, but it’s just too damn sweet to go eating a whole bunch at once. A bag of hard candy, like a collection of upbeat optimist short stories, can last me a month. Pessimistic or even neutral fiction—I’m focusing on science fiction because that’s most of what I make and read, but it really applies to all fiction; I mean, I read Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline just earlier this year—just feels more balanced to me. Like a meal, like savory, like a candy balanced by notes of salt or sourness or even heat (ever have chocolate with red pepper flakes? Wonderful stuff).

I’m not even saying you shouldn’t like a steady diet of upbeat science fiction. They’re your teeth if you want to rot them out; what do I have to do with that?

But, like the damned health food purveyors who insist that I will be better off if I eat less beef and bacon (they’re right, and there are days I hate them for it, because MMMMMM beef and bacon), I am saying that you’ll be better off if you consume more pessimistic fiction than optimistic. Pessimistic science fiction is fiber and bitter and sour and garlic and meat that’s really sort of tough but once you get chewing you notice all this FLAVOR NOM NOM NOM.

So I am saying that all in all, I think the pessimistic stuff is just plain better than the optimistic stuff, on average. And I am saying that it’s my opinion that the pessimistic stuff is more likely to make you a better reader, a better thinker, a better writer (if that’s your bag) than the upbeat stuff.

But, you ask—and I would be disappointed in you if you didn’t—why is pessimistic science fiction better?

Pessimistic science fiction is the pointing finger that says there—right there—is a problem that we must solve before it comes to this. A story about a dystopia inspires us to start thinking of ways to prevent that dystopia from coming to pass. It’s no guarantee, mind. Orwell’s 1984 did not prevent the rise of the current regime of surveillance; it did not prevent the widespread use of propaganda techniques. But it did, and still, keeps many of us questioning what we are told and why we should or should not be surveilled. And whatever the failings of today, they’re certainly not so bad as in 1984, and part of the credit for that goes to Orwell and 1984. The decidedly downbeat Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, as well as older tales of golems, inspired Isaac Asimov to construct his three (later four) laws of robotics, a bit of problem solving that is still hotly debated today among roboticists and programmers and futurists (plug inspired by Asimov’s laws of robotics into your favorite search engine for a sampling). Paolo Bacigalupi’s works of dystopian climate-change-focused science fiction invite readers to think more deeply about the complications of climate change and what we might do about it—and how they might help. At the least, they contribute to raising awareness of the problems. You can sneer at that if you’d like to be cynical, but the bottom line is THE FIRST STEP TO SOLVING A PROBLEM IS RECOGNIZING THAT THERE IS A PROBLEM.

The ‘pointing hand’ of pessimistic fiction invites you, the reader, to recognize problems and consider taking a hand in the solution, however small or large your hand might be.

Secondly, optimistic science fiction, in being upbeat, tends to gloss over the negatives. And, let’s face it, there are always negatives. The introduction of agriculture in human history led to the growth of cities and the eventual industrial revolution, which led to people being able to sit in air-conditioned rooms and write blog entries on computers to ultimately be distributed to potentially millions of other human beings worldwide via a global telecommunications net composed of ground-based and orbital transmitters and relays.

But the introduction of agriculture also led to fun things like economically viable mass slavery and serfdom, reduced lifespans (at the time; they’ve since rebounded and more, thanks medical science), favorable environments for the spread of epidemic disease, and mass warfare. Many of those ills are still with us today in one form or another.

I’m not saying that this means that humanity should never have taken up agriculture. That debate is long since settled, and here we are in our air conditioned rooms in front of our internet-connected computers.

But what I am saying is that pessimistic science fiction doesn’t gloss over the negatives. It’s fuller, richer; as I said above, it’s not just sweetness but sweetness and sour and other flavors. It’s more true to life, and more relevant to our own lives, and more relevant to our own problems. Our own lives are not optimistic realism. Your life just might be way upbeat; I don’t know you like that, so I can’t say that it’s not. But most of us have our struggles. They may not be dramatic, they may not be earth-shaking, but our pain is ours. Maybe one struggle is marked by abuse and addiction and poverty, and another is marked by social struggles in academia and the upper socioeconomic classes. Fiction that sets out to be optimistic and deliver a happy ending mutes both experiences. It has to, or else it becomes pessimistic. What else would you call fiction with a happy ending that talks about the pain and unhappiness of the characters and their environment along the way? So, to be optimistic, it has to stay shiny-happy. The poor guy is a can-do fellow who washes dishes until, in the end, the office of President of the Universe falls in his lap by dint of hard work, that’s all you need everyone, and it’s just a great spiffy job, thanks much, none of that pressure that makes the hair on the head of a mere President of the United States start to turn gray in just a few years, nosiree.

The message of optimistic fiction, finally, is just not an honest one. It’s one-sided, it’s the happily-ever-after that, at best, excuses and dismisses the struggle that it takes to get there, the uncertainty in achieving a happily, and the certainty that eternal change will lop off the “ever after” shortly after the book is set down by the reader.

I’m not saying that there can’t or shouldn’t be positive or hopeful elements in fiction. Those, as much as anything, are part of the most pessimistic story. What makes pessimistic fiction pessimistic is the possibility of what might have been. Frankenstein’s monster might have been accepted for the human being he truly was, instead of being hated. Reading the story, you wonder how things might have been different. And maybe, when you meet someone strange and alien and a bit scary, you try to look past the monster you see to find the human, and make a friend instead of hounding an enemy with torch aflame.

That’s the value of pessimistic science fiction.


About Tao23

I write about my science fiction and fantasy writing--and plenty of other things--at

Posted on August 22, 2015, in Rant, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great article and nice to hear someone talking about the pessimistic angle.

  1. Pingback: The Call’s Gnuz & Lynx Roundup | 2015.08.23 | The Call of Troythulu

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