So the other day I was at one of my favorite local bookstores when I saw a children’s book on display:
Tom Swift and His Polar-Ray Dynasphere. I looked on the inside cover and there is a lovingly done line drawing of Tom Swift Jr in a typical teenagers room., wearing a typical teenagers pullover, jeans, and sneakers sans socks. The thing is he’s looking out a window that shows the earth revolving below him with a rocket ship passing by. Very cool. It made me sad though. I have to ask why don’t we write books like that anymore? Books full of hope and ideas/ideals for tomorrow?
I believe that you can point to the popularity of the works of Phillip K. Dick and the other ‘Dystopian’ genre writers of the 1980’s as being the start of it. Suddenly, grim gritty cynical noir-style prose was in high regard, and even higher sales. Soon every story had to have either a broken protagonist or a crumbling dysfunctional civilization. Bonus points if your story had both, it was much more likely to see print as publishers tastes gave way to the money people who were only concerned with their bottom line.
Why did such themes become popular? Lots of people make their living out of answering such questions. I shall not try to second guess them. I will just say things like climate change, the hatred of science, the Mideastern wars, and social injustices are enough to make anyone turn to cynical answers.
Now, I love my dystopian noir-style writings, don’t get me wrong. In fact, I would have to say that my own writing has definitely been influenced by them. But I think we both as a society and as a group of science fiction writers have gone too far in that direction.
I once asked a British friend what he thought the biggest difference was between Americans and Britons.
He said that he had seen repeatedly that Americans simply believed that if they got together in a large enough group, then worked out a plan, they could change anything. His face took on a look of wonder and he then said, “And you know, you can!”
I believe we are in danger of losing that ideal that to the hip, worldly-wise cynical reply.
For the first time since 1963, American space efforts have to pay for a ride on the vehicles of other nations. We are told by our leaders and in our genre, to dream small, that there is no frontier, no age of miracles. This, even while it is announced that there is a vaccine for lung cancer that has been developed by one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere.
There is a disconnect at work here. I have seen it among every political and social philosophy as well as in the genre fiction in every country in the first world. I believe that its cure lies in us daring to dream again. Daring to write the stories that tell us that we can.
Such stories I would argue can still fulfill the current artistic need to be also social commentary. Just look at the works of Gene Roddenberry for example. Such stories do not have to be whitewashed, or Polly Anna like. This is a need that we desperately have at this moment in time, because cynicism for all its protective glaze encourages us to not care, to not be invested in the future. A future that we need to invest in, given climate change, the hatred of science, and social injustices. And for those reasons alone, cynicism is a cheat.