Successful science fiction and speculative fiction reflect the hopes and anxieties of their day, the same as any other narrative art. Asimov, Heinlein, and Bradbury were men of their times. Writing at the peak of American technological, military, and economic power after World War II, much of their work was infused with can-do optimism. Sci-fi’s tone changed in the 1970s and 80s with the end of the Vietnam War and the public recognition of the environmental and social costs of so-called “progress.” Writers turned more realistic—”dark” is the favored word—as they struggled with reconciling the post-World War II ideals with actual results.
Some influential writers miss the good old sci-fi days of the 50s and 60s, among them Neal Stephenson, the Hugo Award-winning author of Crytonomicon and Seveneves. In his preface to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, the 2015 anthology of “optimistic” sci-fi stories, Stephenson expresses disappointment in science’s failure to deliver on his dreams of space travel. “Where’s my donut-shaped space station?” he writes. “Where’s my ticket to Mars?” He blames the failure in part on the darker turn of sci-fi, which he accuses of dampening our faith in science as a positive force. “Our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done,” such as building a moon colony or sending humans to deep space. I find this attitude puzzling. While it’s true the American manned program is at a nadir, a near-permanent space station with American astronauts is flying overhead, NASA is landing rovers on Mars, and space-based telescopes are discovering exo-planets almost daily. How are these not “big things?”
Fortunately, the stories in Hieroglyph don’t try to turn nostalgia into good narrative (as the reactionary SadPuppies would prefer), with the possible exception of Stephenson’s own contribution, “Atmosphæra Incognita,” about the construction of a twenty-kilometer tall satellite launch tower cum tourist destination. Cory Doctorow turns his obsession with maker culture into a love-song for grass-roots anything with “The Man Who Sold the Moon.” Vandana Singh’s lyrical “Entanglement” beautifully illustrates the interconnectedness of humanity without cloying sentimentality. And there’s even a nod to a darker future, as Madeline Ashby takes on the surveillance state and immigration in “By the Time We Get to Arizona.”
Taken as a whole, Hieroglyph is an attempt to revive the debate over the purpose of science fiction. Should it inspire young people to become scientists and engineers? Educate the public about science and technology? Satirize present-day society? Should it serve a political agenda, e.g., exhort the creation of a utopia or warn against dystopia? Some artistic factions are pushing for whole new sci-fi sub-genres, such as “solarpunk.” It’s aim is “a positive future beyond scarcity and hierarchy,” an ideological agenda, if I’ve ever heard one. Fortunately, Hieroglyph doesn’t go that far. Stephenson and editors Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn are only pushing back against the culture’s current fascination with darker takes on the future, such as the popular Hunger Games series of books and movies.
Science fiction or speculative fiction doesn’t have to “be” or “do” anything, except explore the human heart, the core job of all literature. Sci-fi has the unique quality of placing humans in an imagined, science-grounded future based on what we know now. If we assume the basic emotional lives of humans—longing for connection, suspicion of the unknown, the thrill of creativity—remain constant, how will people adapt to new circumstances? In my own work (still unpublished, ahem), I explore how people might adapt to climate change over the next few centuries. The technological adaptations don’t interest me so much as how people will act in and react to the new world. How will life be different? I’m also asking a moral question: What kind of future do you want?
Inspiring new gadgets or waving warning flags are subservient to the main point. Like most fiction, science fiction is ultimately about motivations, relationships, and the emotional possibilities, negative and positive, offered by new circumstances. Pining for an imaginary literary past or hoping for a more “upbeat” literary future is a waste of time. Writers should let those things take care of themselves and focus on telling stories about how humans love and hate. If the story takes place aboard a starship, so much the better.
News About Me: I’ve finished a new draft of City of Ice and Dreams and I’ve asked for feedback from writer and reader friends. After incorporating the feedback, I’ll pitch it to agents and editors, probably in the fall.