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In Defense of Pessimistic Science Fiction

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(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.

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Eat MORE Science Fiction — Any Fiction At All, Really

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     In my last post, EAT SCIENCE FICTION (link opens in new tab), I discussed the role of food in fiction, especially science fiction. I focused on the social element of eating meals and the way food and smells of food can evoke memories and feelings in us and in our readers when we include food in our fiction.

     There’s another important aspect of food in fiction, too. One that’s very important to the writer. Food is a good element to use to evoke and to flesh out characters and settings. Just as describing the warm kitchen-filling smell of a hot and gooey baked macaroni and cheese can evoke cozy feelings of family and friendship in your readers, it can also be the touch that nails down a character’s nurturing trait (who doesn’t feel cared for with a slab of baked macaroni and cheese set before them?) or makes the scene of a family get-together feel real.

     Think about the role that food plays in real life settings. If we travel to Maine, we look for a lobster roll. In New Orleans, you have to try the jambalaya, the beignets, seek out an oyster po’boy. A trip to Chicago calls for a deep dish pizza, or at least a Chicago dog. If you traveled abroad, wouldn’t you seek out the local cuisines? Or maybe you’re someone who craves a reminder of home in a strange land, and in the middle of Beijing you’d seek out a handy McDonalds. Foods are part of places for us, and how we relate to them says something about us as people. Consider that last example, an American in Beijing. The McDonalds seeker might be prone to homesickness, might be timid in the face of the different, or might be stuck on notions of cultural superiority, thinking that an American burger must be better than whatever these different people think is good food.

     Your story and dialogue (internal and external) sort out those differences in character traits. Food can be a good way to introduce or emphasize them. Same goes with settings. Maybe your story is set in Chicago. You name the city. Maybe the action touches on the Loop, Lake Michigan and Navy Pier, the river running through the middle of the city, the tall buildings, the traffic, the sprawling suburbs, the harsh consonants of the natives, the snowy winters. Great! All of that says Chicago. Fiction is about details, and the details can make the difference between a good story and a great, engaging story. If your Chesapeake Bay native bemoans the difficulty of finding fresh soft shell crab in Chicago, that can be a valuable detail that makes that character live for the reader. And if you’re writing SciFi, maybe your Earthling character misses cheesy, crusty deep dish pizza on a world full of carnivores. Maybe, like in Niven’s Ringworld books, your carnivores complain a bit about having to microwave their meat to make it blood-warm, instead of consuming it still living. Think of the way that the differences between klingons and Federation humans are outlined by a scene where the humans are offered klingon delicacies. We know they’re different—just look at those foreheads and costumes. But the food really drives the differences home, doesn’t it? As another example, I’m also reminded of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy, in which noodles eaten with chopsticks become food shorthand for ‘look at all of the Japanese and Chinese influence going on around this place, huh?’ It’s hardly the only detail that says that, but it’s a good one, and it delivers its message well when it appears. Often, it also says ‘these guys are pretty poor, they end up eating cheap noodles a lot.’ Food is a complex thing; it can deliver multiple messages simultaneously.

I’m not saying there has to be food involved in a story to define your characters and settings; good stories have been written in which food makes no appearance at all, and more of them will appear in the future. I’m just saying, food is a good tool to have in your writing toolbox.

The Minimalist Character Description: DESCRIBE LESS, PLEASE

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Occasionally, on Twitter or on one online forum or another, I’ll see writers discussing character descriptions. As a reader, I read plenty of them, too.

The discussions are usually about how much to describe characters. Should I tell the reader what color her eyes areWhat color his hair is, how it curls up a bit at the ends, that it’s shoulder length, how it blows in the soft breeze with a curl falling almost but not quite across one eye? Should I tell them how much my badass ex-special-forces mercenary weighs, that it’s pure muscle and hardly any body fat, how tall he is? He’s really tall? Maybe how big around his biceps are… do I use inches, centimeters, or what? Should I tell them how big the female lead’s boobs are? Like, cup size? I’m pretty sure I should.

Oh, no. No, no, no. Please no.

Look, there’s a time and a place for these things. And a lot of descriptions are described for the wrong reasons. As writers, we tend to have an idea of what our characters look like. The more often we use the character, the stronger that idea is. And it’s tempting to want to pass that full vision on to the reader. Hey, did I tell you that Protagonist X has really hairy forearms? I always imagined him with really hairy forearms. But, alas, the reader doesn’t care that much.

Probably because the reader is building his or her own picture of the characters.

There are other reasons characters are over-described, other than the eagerness of the writer to transmit an imaginary photograph from his head to yours. Some of us, especially in the Fantasy and Science Fiction genres, have played role-playing games before, where you describe your character on a sheet of paper — height, weight, typical clothing, distinguishing marks such as scars and tattoos, hair and eye color, and so forth. The ‘character sheet’ is also a writing exercise that crops up from time to time in workshops and classrooms. Character sheets are not a bad thing. But most of what’s on that sheet, in my minimalist-friendly opinion, is for the writer, not the reader. Some of those details might crop up in the progress of the story. It suddenly becomes relevant that Protagonist Y is a tiny woman, not even five feet tall and elfin-thin, because that’s what allows her to shimmy under a low-slung sportscar where the baddies pursuing her would never think a person could hide. Maybe her cup size does matter — if you’re writing erotica. Ditto for the dimensions of Protagonist Z’s schlong. Erotica, goes with the territory. Much of any genre else, you just look like a big fat sexist. Maybe a couple of characters meet via blind date or similar, and a couple of details are the recognition key — “Look for a tall guy with a big afro wearing Western boots with Cuban heels and a vintage white Megadeth concert tee from the late 1980s. I’m pretty distinctive.”

There’s a time and a place for physical description, and in my opinion it’s mostly in the head of the author, outside of some pretty unusual circumstances.

So why do I write characters this way? Thinking of stories I’ve recently worked on, for example, the physically describing details I attached to one character were that his jeans were worn and soft and old, torn, revealing a single thin and bony knee. That’s it for him. He’s a he, his jeans are old, and one of his knees is knobby. And this was a significant character, not a one-scene background throwaway.

My theory goes like this: most of the picture a reader forms of a character is based on what happens in the story. Worn jeans, thin bony knee, some moderately whiny dialogue, a southwestern desert setting, the fact that he and she (the other primary character, the protagonist) drive out of the city where they work writing ad copy… all these circumstances attach to things in the mind of the reader. They attach to templates — southwestern. City folks visiting a rural setting. Might be a bit awkward, a bit sightsee-y. Writers — maybe a bit casual, maybe a little unconventional. Ad copy isn’t the most exciting job ever, doesn’t sound too highly paid — now we have the reader’s vision of class influence on appearance. She cuts a few Spanish words in with her dialogue, he doesn’t. The reader who notices this has a new bit to add as to their appearances. I don’t tell them how — everyone adds their own impression. Maybe for some it influences their ideas about how these two look, maybe for some it influences how they act, how they move, stand, speak, go about their regular lives; in real life, this tells you far more about a person than just physical description, and it’s far more nebulous. Unless you’re Sherlock Holmes, you’re influenced in your impression of a person far more by cues other than things like height, weight, hairstyle, and so on, and you don’t know what specific things produced those impressions.  I do use the odd physical characteristic, but I tend not to be precise. I think precision burdens the reader. When I read, I don’t care that some guy is six-foot-five, two hundred and fifty pounds, and has seven percent body fat. When I write, that guy is “Protagonist A stood up; he had shoulders like a bull. The pickpocket cowered, dwarfed.” And that’s how I like to read, too. I tend to skim over long descriptions and move on to what the characters do, how they speak to each other, what their interior monologues are like. That tells me way more about the character.

What I find when I read books with characters that stay with me, is that they tend to be described similarly. Bare sketches of physical detail that are more about the characters themselves than their physical appearances. The action and dialogue tell you about the character. Take Frank Herbert’s Dune as an example.Paul Atreides is described on the first page by his age, fifteen, and by his mother and Reverend Mother Mohiam discussing the fact that he’s small for his age. That’s all we get. The Reverend Mother is “a bulky female shape” with eyes that are “bird-bright ovals” and “glittering jewels”. Her hair is “like matted spiderwebs”.

Which brings in another aspect of describing a character: your characters are part of the setting, and your setting delivers the feel of the story to the reader. Reverent Mother is spooky. That spiderweb hair — is it white, gray, straight, curled, really long, slightly long? We don’t know. We don’t care. She’s creepy and Paul is creeped out by her and her presence. What color are “bird-bright ovals?” What kind of “glittering jewels?” So many times we’re tempted to make the glittering jewels tell what color those eyes are. Well, do we care? Eye color doesn’t matter much until later in Dune, and then everyone’s eyes are spiced-out blue. So we don’t care, Herbert doesn’t care, what color the eyes are until it matters. Right now, at the open of the story, Paul is unsettled by those piercing eyes, and so we get two descriptions of them that tell us nothing about how they look and everything about how they make Paul feel.

And feelings are way, WAY, WAY more important to your story than how much so-and-so weighs or what color what’s-her-name’s hair is.