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Literature of Change
We have discussed What Speculative Fiction is, What makes it Progressive, and Why it is important that it is progressive, but now it is vitally important to clarify some key points about the nature of Progressive Speculative Fiction. There are two equally disastrous paths we can take from here. As with everything in life, we have to find the middle path between the opposites:
The Light Side: Everything is great, and will only get better. The future will be a universally happy place. We are heading towards a utopia.
The Dark Side: Entropy rules the world and things are only getting worse. The future will be a gloomy and sinister place. We are heading towards a distopia.
Both are extremes, and neither can ever paint a valid world that has any grounding in reality.
Does Speculative Fiction have to be gloomy?
Damien G Walter at the Guardian wrote a fascinating article about the utopian and distopian sins of Science Fiction (read it here). He asks the basic question that I would love to paraphrase: Does Speculative Fiction have to be gloomy?
From the recent releases, you might assume the answer is a yes, but it doesn't have to be.
Gloomy has its place in any story, but if that story only strikes one note throughout, then it become boring, and the audience looses interest. We can see this trend with Lost and Heroes, but shows like Torchwood, Battlestar Galactica, and Sanctuary show that it s possible to strike a happy median.
Sometimes a story has to be bleak and gloomy throughout to make the point, like 1984 by George Orwell, but more often then not writers take the gloom to an unnecessary extreme.
The challenge for writers of science fiction today is not to repeat the same dire warnings we have all already heard, or to replicate the naive visions of the genres golden age, but to create visions of the future people can believe in (The Guardian).
Must SF fix the worlds problems?
Kathryn Cramer at Tor had an interesting take on Damien's post (read it here):
I view science fiction partly as a set of perceptual tools we take with us into the world. I don’t think SF can be held responsible for finding solutions to all the world’s problems, but I think it is SF’s task to help us understand them (Tor).
Whether or not the writer understands or believes it, all fiction is a perceptual filter that shows their readers/viewers the world from a certain point of view. People are influenced by these perspectives to differing degrees. The quality of the fiction plays a part in that, but so too does the structure and discipline of the reader/viewer's mind.
It is too much to ask any writer to solve the world's problems in their work, but they have to understand that they are responsible for show the cost and consequences of their character's actions.
For example, we like to believe that people are born good or evil, and that it is alright to be amoral from time to time. This is why so many people reacted negatively to George Lucas' edits of the original Star Wars Trilogy and the addition of the prequel. He clarified Han Solo's morality and showed how a good person can become evil. In fact, it has been argued by C. S. Lewis and others that their truly is no such thing as evil. There is only vile, horrible, and misguided attempt to do good. If you look at most of the "monsters" in history, they are people who thought they were doing good even though they wrought horrors on the world.
It is the job of every writer to show that every action has an effect.
A Positive Science Fiction Platform?
Jason Staddard over at Strange and Happy put forth his Stranger and Happier: A Positive Science Fiction Platform. While it is well intentioned, I think it swings the pendulum too far in the other direction. Let's go through the planks in the platform.
Positive science fiction starts with acknowledging that there are positive things happening, now (Strange and Happy).
Is this necessary? No.
Often an SF writer will start here, but others will start with the fear of the current situation or from the perspective that the current state of affairs in beyond saving, and impose a new solution to avert the mistakes the present state could lead too.
Star Trek starts with a world war and global catastrophe that nearly brought about another dark age.
Lestat saw the system of mandated belief an filial duty as corrupt and corrupting. It wasn't until he became a vampire that he started looking for a better way.
That does not mean we should ignore this plank, but simply take it as advise rather than a rule.
Positive science fiction is about the possibility of positive change (Strange and Happy).
Absolutely. In the Project: Shadow Manifesto, I call this simply "hope for the future." Things can get better, but that doesn't mean they are destined to. If there is no hope, there is nothing at stake for the characters and no tension in the story (What is Progressive SF?)
Positive science fiction has a protagonist or protagonists that can effect change (Strange and Happy).
Definitely. This is the problem I have pointed to time and time again with SF media, and why I didn't like Battlestar Galactica for a long time.
This ties directly into hope. If it is impossible for a character to affect change, then there is no tension. The villain will win.
Positive science fiction isn’t afraid to look at challenging definitions of “positive (Strange and Happy).”
This is where the writer has an important question to answer. "For whom is the change positive?"
Anakin Skywalker's fall to the dark side is necessary to bring balance to the force. There are many ways to take this, but it is fundamental to Progressive Speculative Fiction.
Positive science fiction inspires people to act and influence positive change (Strange and Happy).
So long as it is not preachy, I agree. If the story inspires the reader/viewer to make a possitive change within themselves, then the story succeeded. There isn't enough time or space for me to list all of the stories that have influenced me positively.
Literature of Change
There is a common thread weaving through this discussion. Jetse de Vries on his blog, In the Plane of the Ecliptic found the middle ground between gloom and naivite, the answer we have been looking for:
I disagree with the cliché that SF is the literature of ideas (they help, but they're not the core): to me, SF is the literature of change.
Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of change: things change for the worse, or things change for the better (I realise life is much more complex than that: some things improve, other things worsen, and some things don't change very much. I'm looking, admittedly roughly, at the net result here) (In the Plane of the Ecliptic).
Even the simplist horror and fantasy deals with the nature of authority and friendship. Change is the only constant in the universe, and Speculative Fiction is the literature of change. Writers ask themselves, "What if this happened?" The answer is usually, everything would change.
How writers explore the changes is the difference between and great and a mediocre story.