The Politics of Gloom

The debate on positivity in science fiction continues. Co-editor of Years Best SF Kathryn Cramer makes a robust response to my Guardian article on the subject. Lou Anders, editorial director of Pyr, finds the middle ground and Jetse de Vries, who started the debate back in January, rebutts Cramer’s response.

There have been too many intelligent and thought provoking comments on both sides of the debate to summarise accurately. Despite being firmly on the Positivist side, I can see the merits of the Gloommonger arguments. In very rough terms, the constructive debate is currently being had on the issue of which direction SF should take to be most successful, both creatively and commercialy. On the one hand the Positivists claim that the balance between optimism / pessimism have gone too far in one direction, and its time to pull it back by exploring positive possibilities in science and our near future. On the other, the Gloommonger’s argue that the genre needs to navigate towards the pessimistic, because that is where the interesting stories and ideas are.

Less constructive, but no less interesting, are the extremists in either camp who can’t help seeing the argument as a political issue. Various commentors on my Guardian thread, Cramer’s article and over at IO9 have expressed the extreme ends of the spectrum. Commentors of a radical Liberal persuasion tend to see the Positivist viepoint as idealistic and naive. Any suggestion that science, politics or society at large are not the wholy evil entities they perceive them as is swated away with disdain. And of course Conservative stalwarts have long believed that the prevalence of gloom in science fiction is the result of an anarcho-socialist plot to take over the genre they once thought their own. Both extremes are equally absurd, and have a tendency to disrupt the constructive debate happening on the centre ground, all the more because at their heart is the tinniest grain of truth.

Editors and writers can not help but bring the baggage of their assumptions to their work. Almost inevitably, if a writer tends to the left or right of the political spectrum on an issue, this will show when the topic is raised in their work. But good writers know how to challenge their own assumptions, and good editors recognise work which does that successfully. The gloom of science fiction is built on a number of fundamental assumptions that have gone unchallenged for too long. Some of these are Liberal assumptions, that global warming will be cataclysmic for instance. Some are Conservative, that social change will bring about social collapse. Whichever end of the political spectrum they stem from, and however likely they may seem, they are still assumptions that writers need to challenge to break through to new, fresh ideas in the genre.

In the balance, I have to side with the the Positivist argument because it is calling for a challenge to those long held assumptions, and calling for it at the right time. As intelligent and valid as the Gloommonger viewpoint is, I’m yet to see any argument from its proponents that really addresses that need for challenge and change.

That said, I think the proof of the Positivist pudding will be in the eating. No doubt more than a few writers are already sharpening their pencils as they consider ideas for stories that meet Jason Stoddards positivist manifesto, and certainly there wil be an enterprising editor on hand to anthologise them. I look forward to it greatly.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

5 thoughts on “The Politics of Gloom

  1. This political dichotomy seems like a strange reversal in attitude. It seems to me that traditionally it was the Left that held that society could be improved with science, and the Right that held the past was better, and Change Was Bad. I even remember tradtional conservative SF fans back in the 1980s arguing that human nature could never change, and thus society could never change.

    Maybe it was a combination of the failure of the 1960s youth movements, along with the fall of Communism that’s made the Left so pessimistic?


  2. I enjoyed reading your article and the discussion that arose as a result, Damien. Although the works I like tend to be darker, I think Cramer’s response says more about her (and the perhaps-too-powerful role of editors) than the field at large and what readers enjoy. She says that great writing is a result of those who are in touch with the nature of reality, so that it would appear that accurate reflection of reality in writing is the utmost goal– a strange goal for an SF writer, I would think.

    In terms of popularity, I’m pretty sure that the more optimistic works fare better. People have talked about Star Wars, and I think maybe Scalzi’s works would fall in this optimistic category– no matter what bad things happen, there is a positive, can-do vibe suffusing the work and its eventual happy resolution that the general reader likes.

    Every generalization has exceptions and nuances, but it does seem that darkness provides things that optimism cannot, the most obvious being more dramatic conflict. As a future becomes too utopic, the conflict comes to seem more of a “game” than a crisis. (I think an example of this is Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.)

    You didn’t mention Brave New World in your piece, but I think it’s instructive to look at. It’s not as clearly dystopic as 1984, and yet most people do recognize it as a dystopia. (I remember reading a piece by Irvine Welsh, I think it was, who argued that Brave New World was actually a perfect utopia of sex and drugs on demand.) That more complex dystopia, I believe, would be taken as a utopia by a large percentage of the world’s population without literary “guidance”, but we take it as a dystopia because of the narrator’s existential crisis, the delimitations and lack of freedoms of these future individuals.

    I think the work suffers when writers create a future which predetermines their character’s fate, whether positively or negatively, while stripping them of their human-ness and ability to act, see, think, and feel. In the best works, this is always preserved, despite the landscape. (A great example being Womacks’ Random Acts of Senseless Violence.) Even the most benighted slave has something that is, for him, a life.


  3. Thanks for your response Luke. I think your final point is very central to the discussion. Its the common flaw in even otherwise great works of sf that the characters become crushed under the idelogical weight of the work.People find ways to still be human even in the darkest circumstances.


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