The apocalypse is here, in the form of more fires, floods, and storms. Meanwhile, belief that democratic processes can find a solution is fading.
In difficult times like these, an outpouring of stories occurs. Witness the millions (literally) of books inspired by, based on, and discussing the Great War. A terrible experience gave birth to a never-ending strand of stories.
Now there is an explosion of science fiction: dystopian, cli-fi, and post-apocalyptic. Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies, among many other examples. Australian Mark Smith’s fabulous Winter trilogy is right on topic.
Alongside the enthusiasm for such stories, there is a strain of dismissal. Dystopian science fiction is criticised for glorifying hardship, or for giving unrealistically happy endings, or for giving depressingly horrific unhappy endings, and especially for not providing answers. A recent article on the dystopian sub-genre called hopepunk (where continuing to fight for good is an affirmation of humanity) commented that such stories, validating the struggle rather than providing a solution, were simply telling the downtrodden that it’s their place to suffer.
Many of you know that my academic area of interest is Great War literature. War stories, too, have been criticised as glorifying war, revelling in misery, continuing the cultural expectation that life is harder for some than others, and worst – not preventing future war.
I have to ask whether that is the role of war fiction. Isn’t it rather like expecting murder mysteries to solve crimes? Romances to enable real-life happy endings? Fantasies to provide tangible proof of faeries?
I could go on about the role of literature (and I have elsewhere), and I could enter the discussion about the bourgeois nature of fiction (which, after all, is written by the literate for the literate). And I probably will go on a bit more soon. For now, though, let me say:
Don’t blame science fiction for the world’s ills. Science fiction can sound a warning, or point out current issues, or provide role models. Dystopian stories are like the traditional adventurer genre described by the poet Paul Zweig, too*. Such narratives imply action and purpose, and to my mind this is just as valid as feelings of hopelessness. Adventure stories show how to keep living in the face of peril.
This is not a new role for stories. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the original tasks of the storyteller, handed down from the first oral stories and continuing through the earliest written narratives of about 4000 years ago. Ancient stories such as The Odyssey and Gilgamesh reassuringly confirm ‘the possibility that mere [hu]man can survive the storms of the demonic world’ (Zweig 1974, vii); a powerful affirmation for readers in apocalyptic times.
I’ll no doubt write more about this. I see ample opportunities in the difficult future, sadly.
Until next time, read on!
*Paul Zweig (1974) The Adventurer: the fate of adventure in the western world.