Reflecting the Times?

I’m at Boskone this weekend, and this morning went to a fairly frustrating panel on “SF/F/H As a Mirror on Society,” described thusly:

It’s simplistic to say genre fiction maps to current politics. Vampires are bankers, zombies are the revengeful victimized classes, and werewolves are the media in feeding frenzy? C’mon. But did we write more optimistic SF when the space race was young? Or victorious spacewar stories when we were losing Vietnam? If fiction in any way reflects societal anxieties or moods, what do we make of steampunk, or sparkly vamps, or dystopian YA, or upticks in stories about ghosts or gaming?

The panelists were, by and large pretty smart people, but I thought were much too quick to run with the notion that the current depressing run of science fiction is a reflection of the times we live in. There was a lot of very predictable chin-stroking about the aftereffects of the September 11 attacks and the attendant assault on civil rights, and looming environmental catastrophe, and all that. Which is all fine as far as it goes, but I think it deserves some pushback in a big way, which it didn’t get (and the panel moved on to other things before the moderator took questions).

The problem with the reflection-of-the-times thing is simple: it’s the “Golden Age” of SF.

What do I mean by that? Well, one of the standard tropes of this sort of discussion is that things were better Back Then– we got all sorts of optimistic go-out-into-space-and-conquer-the-galaxy stories back then, with a glorious future for humanity, but now we get somber stories of environmental apocalypse and political failure for humans stuck on Earth. It’s not a perfect dichotomy– there were people writing dark stuff back in the day– but it’s got enough truth to get people nodding along.

The problem for the reflecting-the-times thesis is that the really optimistic tales of yesteryear were being written in the 1930’s. And if you think the world looks depressing now, think about what it looked like in 1930. The US was mired in the Great Depression, fascism was on the rise, and we were on the brink of the bloodiest war in human history. While you might be able to argue that there wasn’t an equivalent of the Bush-era assault on civil liberties at that time, it’s sort of a moot point because huge segments of the population didn’t really have civil rights in the way they do now.

And yet, we’re supposed to be the times that produce depressing fiction, while that mess gave rise to optimistic can-do spirit?

I think there’s too much of a tendency to project the 1950’s back onto the 1930’s when making this argument. That is, peoplelook at the optimistic fiction, and look at the Space Age, and say, “Well, clearly, they were aiming for that.” But that’s a false picture created with the benefit of hindsight– to somebody in 1930, there was no more tangible reason to be optimistic about the future of humanity than there is in 2012.

So, what’s the difference? My theory is that it has to do with the status of the genre. Back then was the age of the pulp magazines, when SF was a fringe, escapist literature not to be taken seriously. In which case, thrillingly unrealistic stories of humanity’s future in the stars are just fine, since it’s all fluff anyway.

For the last few decades, though, SF has been struggling to become a Serious Genre, one that respectable literary types can engage with. And if you’re going to be respectably literary, you need to put a greater emphasis on darker topics than on technological cheerleading. Which is why modern SF is so depressing, relatively speaking.

If you want a fairer “reflecting the times” comparison, you don’t want to compare modern SF to Golden Age SF, you want to compare modern SF to mainstream literature of the “Golden Age” period. In which case, well, you find a bunch of very Serious and depressing stories. The sort of stuff that is required reading in school, that pushes lots of kids to read thrillingly unrealistic tales of interstellar conquest, because anything’s better than Hemingway.

Which is more or less what I would’ve said, had the moderator taken questions at that point. As it ways, they moved on to saying silly things about the greater meaning of urban fantasy, in spite of the fact that none of them read very much of it.

7 thoughts on “Reflecting the Times?

  1. “The US was mired in the Great Depression, fascism was on the rise, and we were on the brink of the bloodiest war in human history. ”

    Also: still only just rising out of one of the bloodiest wars in human history up until then.

    Britain, in particular, with the WWI ‘Pals Battalions’, had entire counties that were missing the majority of a generation of men.

  2. I think Michael Chabon captured it nicely. Of all the genres out there, literature is the most depressing, but most highly respected in certain circles. This wasn’t always so, but nowadays, anyone with serious pretensions to being a writer has to emphasize the depressing and slap a sad ending. (That may have worked for Shakespeare and King Lear, but not writer is William Shakespeare.)

  3. In the golden age of sci-fi, advancement was seen as a panacea. Technology would free us from the limitations of a pedestrian life and lay the universe at our feet. In our post-20th century world, advancement is seen as a Pandora’s Box. There is a “supposed” ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” that is neither ancient nor Chinese. It reflects a latter 20th century view that change is chaotic, disruptive, and rife with uncertainty for the future. That view still holds.

    Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity seems to be born of the same techno-utopian optimism that was common in the 1930’s. I don’t think that is the future most people see.

  4. There’s a much simpler explanation, imho, and one which incorporates diverse elements drawn from the usual coterie of pet theories: science fiction seems depressing these days because it is attempting to be more realistic. Not wrt characterization, plot, etc., but with the science.

    You want power plants that put out a skillion-jillion Watts and fits into the but a pistol? You want ftl, anti-gravity, force fields and implausibly strong materials? Up to around some time in the 70’s, I’d argue that most of these sf tropes seemed plausible, if not downright inevitable.

    Nowadays, not so much.

    And as a direct consequence, no new frontiers. No interstellar travel and no humans colonizing space. In fact, no human exploration of the outer planets, though of course the possibility of a robotic presence seems more feasible than ever.

  5. Good point, @1, although only if looking at Europe in 1930 rather than the US. One way to put the post-WWI situation in Europe in perspective is to scale French casualties per capita to the US population at the time of WW II. The result is that everyone who served in the US Army during WW II (not just those who saw combat, every one of them) is dead and others older or younger than them finished the war and might be wounded. The Greatest Generation would not exist.

    I was wondering where you place a post-WWII author like Vonnegut and a book like “Player Piano”. Sci Fi? Serious? Reflective of the 1930s and 1940s?

    Perhaps what matters more is not when the book was written, but when the person writing it grew up. The person writing in 1930 had seen decades filled with inventions from radio to flight that rival (in terms of the magnitude of the changes in communication) what children are seeing today.

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