Is There Room for Positive Stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Is There Room for Positive Stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy?
by Bryan Thomas Schmidt

In my last post, I talked about a call for a return to admirable heroes. While anti-heroes have their place, and while they are dominating the field, many people, living in the dark, troubled modern age, are looking for hope and inspiration of a kind that was popular in the Golden Age, earlier days. Right along with it, I believe is a desire for happier endings.

Fiction tends to reflect its times. Real life events and the emotional reactions they engender inspire writers to comment through their work. Moral delimmas are presented. Questions posited, answers challenged. It’s normal and popular. In the wake of events in the Middle East, we see more books and movies about the conflict, terrorism and what it means. People wonder how we should react. What was wrong, what was right? And what does it mean for our future?

Although it’s right and fine to ask such questions, the inevitable conclusions are far from encouraging most times. Dark events have dark lessons and dark morals and dark challenges associated with them. While discussing and analyzing them is vital, if they consume our focus, they can be discouraging, depressing, emotionally draining.

While some argue that every story teaches a lesson, and to some degree, this is true. I believe there’s room for stories that entertain first, teach second. All writers project our own worldviews and agendas on our work, through our characters and the situations in which we choose to place them. But all too often these days, I find myself finishing books with an emptiness and discouragement I’d hoped they’d help erase. I wanted to see possibilities; be challenged to reach further ; catch a glimpse of brighter days ahead.

My friend Brad Torgersen recently blogged about his two years as a professional science fiction writer and noted how nihilism has invade science fiction and fantasy to a degree that leaves people longing for hope.Torgersen writes:

“It’s probably a leftover from the New Wave, that the science fiction culture has absorbed a great deal of the nihilism of contemporary literary culture (“Life is meaningless, all is without hope, despair, despair!”) without realizing that what makes science fiction truly different from its learned betters is that sci-fi is a genre ready-built forhope.”

I agree. And I find myself amongst those longing for more hopeful visions of our tomorrows.

It’s not just old fashioned heroes we miss. I think it’s old fashioned stories—stories where good people fought for good causes and came out ahead, making for a better world. Is it really so hard to believe such outcomes are possible these days? What’s the purpose of science if not to seek improvements in both understanding and technology, etc. to better our lives and our world? Fiction is about communicating and examining ourselves and our world. Is it really true that all we see are negatives at this point? It’s a sad state we’re in if that’s the case.

Perhaps you’ll think me naïve, but I really do believe we can make a better world. I believe we can make a difference. And I believe the future can be brighter if we work together. And one of the reasons I fell in love with science fiction and fantasy literature was because they presented hopeful possibilities for a future that excited me, not one I would dread.

There is a time and a place for nihilistic views. There is a time and a place for sobering reflection. But I don’t believe those need to dominate speculative fiction. If all we have to speculate about are sad, depressing tomorrows, why bother? We can get enough of that sentiment in our sad, depressing todays, can’t we?

So I do believe there’s still room for positive stories in Science Fiction and Fantasy. I think audiences are demanding them. Look one of the most popular series of recent days: The Harry Potter stories drip with themes of redemption and self-sacrifice for others. I’m sure there are others but why is it that the majority coming to mind are aimed at children? Isn’t there room for hope amongst adults?
I wonder if the decline in sales in Science Fiction is in part due to the nihilistic themes so prevalent in the genre’s literature today. Fantasy continues to be popular, of course, but I have a harder time thinking of examples there where nihilism rules the day. The Song Of Ice and Fire books are gritty and dark, yes, but still, there are admirable heroes who fight against evil for good. Fantasy isn’t immune to the phenomenon, but perhaps it’s distance from reality due to its lack of science as a required basis leads us to write with more hopeful, positive outlooks in such stories?

I believe there is room for hopeful stories. And I believe readers are clamoring for it. I’ve tried to write some in my own work. And Brad Torgersen is doing the same. I wonder when and how many others will rise to the challenge and do the same.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

  • He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website.
  • Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.
  • ‎3 5-star; 8 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $3.99 Kindle, $14.99 tpb

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  1. Bryan, I am in complete agreement. Sci-fi has largely become a literature dominated by dystopia and despair and the general view that the future is coming and boy, is it going to suck.

    This is a creative choice made by editorial teams and authors throughout the field, driven by the need to appear to be relevant and intellectual and be praised by their peers (and also a hangover from the New Wave), not because it is factually accurate.

    I remember reading a comment by an author (I cannot remember exactly who) who noted (paraphrasing here) that it is EASY to remind us that the world is dark and dangerous and that evil exists…what takes real courage is illuminating us with hope and showing the potential for good in all of us.

    I think the dystopian point of view is due in part to the times we live in…but also due to a true lack of perspective: We have ALWAYS lived in frightening, unsettled times. Now we have global warming and terrorism and the potential for an energy crisis and looming ecological collapse.

    50 years ago we had the Cold War and mutually assured destruction. 100 years ago we had almost annual European wars that eventually led to WWI, virulent diseases that could wipe out 1/4 of the population, pervasive poverty and malnutrition, the excesses of rapid industrialization. 150 years ago it was a war that ripped the nation apart and killed millions in addition to the good old standards of disease, poverty, malnutrition, natural disaster…and on back through the dawn of time.

    And dominating all of these eras was the mythology present in most of the world’s dominant religions that the end was nigh, Judgment Day and The End could happen at any moment…

    There have ALWAYS been dire threats to be afraid of. There have always been things that MIGHT happen that could be the end for our civilization…and yet we survived. We dared to dream and hope and keep moving forward.

    We chose to be better than our worst fears.

    We made it to the Moon a generation ago…now we can’t even get out of low orbit. Not because we can’t. It’s because we choose not to.

    Science fiction needs to teach us to soar dream and to hope…to reach for the stars.

    — Bill Smith,

  2. Your message in this post is exactly what I have been thinking for the past several years. I am an aspiring writer, and have been concerned that, because my stories are the happy ending, uplifting type, there is no hope that I will have them published by a major magazine or publisher. I read different sci fi/fantasy stories and find, like you, that I feel more depressed. I read to escape daily trials. I don’t want to be more depressed! Thank you for showing me that I am not alone in desires for positive stories.

  3. Kathy Love says

    I believe these stories plots go in cycles. If one doom and gloom sells, the next writer will aim in that direction. There is also an avoidance of “happy” fairy tale endings in that they equate to Chick Lit romance of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Alien steals planet from natives, natives have problems with aliens, natives win planet back does not hit a realistic note in this day and age. Will we really believe a possitive outcome. Will we buy a sugar coated story with smiling faces or will we say they are wearing rose colored glasses and get real. No win for writer or reader. All we both can do is keep trying.

  4. Bill, I actually blogged about how our loss of wonder and motivation to reach further and farther, I believe, led directly to the downsizing of NASA and other science programs. It remains to be seen if private enterprise picks up the slack but it does look promising to us optimistic types. Science and Science Fiction should inspire and encourage us. After all, how can one make progress if one’s future is not full of ideas of “the better?” Thanks for your thoughts. Lara, glad you’re encouraged. Actually one of the leading SFF markets, Analog, does not buy stories with sad endings. Without a happy ending, Stan Schmidt turns them down. Which is quite interesting given the history of that zine’s founding as a Golden Age pulp. Anyway, be encouraged. You are not alone.

  5. Like the other comments posted, I too agree with your view. Of course there is room for good, positive stories still. The only thing I would caution is (and I might get a lot of flak for this) not regressing to the Golden Age of scifi. I almost can’t stand to read the stories from this era because they seem so silly, and naive. Most Assimov I’ve read seems so juvenile. Science Fiction and Fantasy have grown up since the early days, and I’d prefer it to stay that way.

    I’m a product of my time. I do appreciate the darker tales. George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch… these are the authors I choose to read (don’t get much sci fi in). However, when a story ends just as depressing as it started, or even more so, I come away from it feeling cheated. Yes, bad things happen in life. Yes, people get hurt for no reason. But this doesn’t mean all events in the human existence are this way. People still love, dream, and achieve even in bad times. For me, the most powerful stories are the ones that drag you through the gutter, and then lift you up out of the filth and corruption to show you a better way. Not because this type of story is the most true to life, (not for me anyway, I’ve lived a pretty happy, sorrow-free life) but because it shows us both ends of the spectrum, and how we can become better despite having all the odds stacked against us.

    So yes, there is a need for heroes that are good, for stories that uplift. I want to see more of these. But if an author can combine the good and the bad, have that opposition in all things that is so true and necessary to life, and still manage to pull off the happy ending, I think their tale will be one of the greats, and will be remembered and cherished for generations to come.

  6. Space opera continues to be written although it’s not the dominant sub-genre it once was. Space opera is implicitly optimistic because humanity will have to work around, if not overcome, the problems of our times in order to get “out there” in the 1st place.
    As a reader, I don’t pursue or avoid optimism or pessimism, happy or depressing endings. Tell the story well & I’m along for the ride.

  7. Jordan, I enjoy the Golden Age tales. I grew up loving them. I think you have to put them in context and understand the time in which they were written but I also think some hold up better than others. Asimov’s Foundation stories never seem all that dated to me in general. Short stories tend to feel more so, I think, but it does vary. I think the pulp stories are an important part of our history and they are from the John Campbell time of storytelling which the darker New Age reacted to with more nihilistic, negative stories as we see dominating today. A better balance is what I am calling for. Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. I totally agree, and I wonder if the changes in the publishing world are going to open the door to a lot more optimistic works of science fiction. The genre has become something of a niche in the last couple decades, and that means fewer editors and a smaller, more inbred community that isn’t always responsive to the desires of the reading public. I remember talking with Dave Wolverton about this, and he made the point that one of the reasons franchises like Star Wars and Halo are doing so well is because there is a yearning for this kind of literature, but the gatekeepers have been keeping it from getting through. Either way, I think that the ebook revolution is going to be a boon for space opera, my favorite sub-genre!

  9. Interesting argument and one I generally agree with. I think there needs to be balance (or complexity). However, I think the more positive SF is out there, one just needs to write it or find it. Perhaps some listing of markets that are accepting of positive/ optimistic science fiction is a way to go.
    The problem with the gatekeepers is that they are already transitioning over to the new gatekeeper role. As ebooks (either self published or traditional) become more numerous, then the blogger reviewer will gain in more power. She or he will then most likely be the filter.
    The thing with Martin, as compared to some later fantasy writers, is that he is a transitional figure. He got on the darker trend early. Later writers have gone further (and gotten attacked by Leo Grin a few months back).

  10. I don’t entirely agree. Stories sometimes veer off from where they are intended. Something that is meant to be hopeful and inspiring will turn a corner because the author has discovered something in the story to explore differently. But mostly I disagree that this is a new trend. The Golden Age seems to have created an aura about itself in the 72 years since its inception through which only the “positive and inspiring” stories seem to shine. But as someone who has been closely reading each and every one of the Golden Age stories published in Astounding from 1939-1950, I can say that there are just as many “dark” stories and “anti-heroes” as you find today.

    Isaac Asimov’s first Astounding story, “Trends,” (July 1939) is about popular opposition to space travel. It bucked the tide of those stories that just assumed everyone would be happy with going to the moon. His most famous Golden Age story, “Nightfall” (September 1941) was a story in which scientists could not solve the problem that would ultimately destroy their civilization. L. Ron Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” (April, May, June, 1940)–a serial that was barely science fiction–is about a war-ravaged Europe and a nameless Lieutenant just struggling to keep his tattered company alive. Alfred Bester’s “Adam and No Eve” (September 1941) was one of the first post-apocalypse stories. Joseph Kelleam’s wonderful story, “Rust” is about the death of the last 3 robots (the last three intelligences of any kind) on earth. These stories appear in just the first 3 years of the “Golden Age” and don’t even include the much darker stories that appeared in Astounding’s companion magazine, Unknown.

    We pick and choose our examples, consciously or not, when we say that all stories in the Golden Age are golden and all stories today are dark. There are plenty of “positive” stories being published today. I think of stories like Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict novels. Robert J. Sawyer’s Rollback. Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Traveler. And there are equally good dark stories, like Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear or Stephen King’s 11/22/63.

    The difference between now and the Golden Age is twofold: the audience today remembers very few of the stories published back then. And there is a vastly larger amount of fiction being published today. What percolates to the top is the darker fiction, but that’s because it is what people want to read. And it makes for a vicious cycle. It becomes a trend. But that’s all it is, in my opinion, nothing more. Now, just as in the Golden Age, there is darker fiction and lighter fiction in fairly equal measure.

  11. Jamie, I’m sure there’s dark stuff to be found in all eras. I can’t argue with your research. And I certainly agree about the Alex Benedict stories. I have read some from Mike Resnick I enjoyed but I do find myself often reading things with a hopelessness that’s depressing not by choice but because they come across my desk and are popular and well reviewed and I do long, as I say, for less of that and more of the positive stuff from my youth and certainly Star Wars and Star Trek are a big part of that as well.

  12. One clarification, my point about Song Of Ice and Fire having admirable heros. They are not the traditional Captain America kind of hero, but I think Denarys, Ned Stark, Jon Snow, the Stark daughters, Bran–these are characters who are generally good and trying to do the right thing and facing terrible circumstances. They are flawed, yes, but not as selfishly motivated as many of the other major characters.

  13. Though i agree that the negative and positive axis in F&SF has always swung fairly wide, i think Bryan’s analysis is bang on. Moreover, i think the key to pushing F&SF in a better direction lies in the word that he comes coming back to: “hope”. Creating a literature that’s positive or negative is neither here nor there; creating a literature that’s hopeful is what we should be shooting for.

    At the risk of making myself seem as middle-aged as i am, one of the seminal novels of my post-adolescence was Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, a book that almost singlehandedly created the postmodern nihilist tone that’s come to define a lot of speculative fiction since. But for me, “Neuromancer” remains Gibson’s best book because in the end, the beautiful bleakness he crafts is the means, not the end.

    “Hate,” Case said. “Who do I hate? You tell me.”
    “Who do you love?” the Finn’s voice asked.

    By any token, Case is a textbook antihero — but his dramatic journey uses the negative as fuel to forge a tangible core of positive character story. “Neuromancer”, like all the best F&SF — like all the best books, period — uses the darkness outside to bring the light inside into sharper relief.


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