A while ago I was approached by Robert Gooding-Townsend, Science in Society editor for Science Borealis for my opinion on a persistent idea that post-Star Trek sci-fi is more pessimistic and less technologically imaginative.
Whether this perception is true I can’t definitively say but there is a reason behind it, which I believe reflects a subtle shift in our cultural paradigm and worldview in the past decades since Star Trek. A shift involving a growing awareness of ecology and the emergence of the “feminine archetype” in storytelling.
I think two things are happening in concert: science fiction is maturing as a genre: 1) in its actual breadth; but also 2) in our perception of it.
I think this is partly: 1) a reflection of a more diverse, sophisticated and mature audience (what The Economist terms “mass intelligent”); and 2) the result of a wider acceptance of SF as literature by “non-genre” writers embracing what literary critic Ted Gioia calls “conceptual fiction” (e.g., Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins; Thomas Pinchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada; John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Emmi Itaranta’s The Memory of Water; David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, etc.).
Our shifting worldview, along with science fiction’s gradual blending with strong literary elements is reflected in a perception of higher pessimism with less focus on technological “wonders”. When asked to describe SF today, colleague Lynda Williams, author of the Okal Rel series, argued that, “SF is mainstream now … It has grown up, emotionally, from being about wish-fulfilling technologies … to embracing the social implications of change.”
Today, SF is recognized more as “real” literature rather than being dismissed as “escapism.” Williams shares that SF’s roots are as old as myth. “Like myths and bible stories, SF is an instructive literature, pointing out how things can go wrong (or right) and why. The growing up SF has done since the 1950s lies in an increasing recognition that [humanity is its] own worst enemy and a better understanding of human nature is crucial to the problems we face, not just the hard sciences.”
For the past few years I’ve been following a trend in the science fiction writing courses I teach at university: more and more students (male and female) are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vain as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. These works give the Earth, Nature or Water an actual voice (as a character). And a protagonist who learns to interact with it cooperatively. For me this represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening in the realm of the “feminine archetype”. One that is focused more on the sociological and ecological consequences of humanity’s evolution.
I believe that ecology—the science of relationships and consequence—best parallels the literature of science fiction, which studies the world and the consequences of our actions (advances in and impacts of science and technology) through metaphor. The literature of science fiction explores large issues faced by humankind and is foremost a literature of allegory and metaphor; one deeply embedded in culture.
Stories of doom and gloom have populated the science fiction genre since its inception. What appears to be changing is the increased sophistication of this assessment and humanity’s place—and technology’s place—in it. Editor and Publisher of On Spec Magazine, Diane Walton shares that she is seeing a lot of Post-Apocalyptic submissions, “mainly because it’s interesting to put your characters in a setting where the rules don’t apply any more. They have to try to rebuild the life and security and order they used to have, or else revert to savagery, or else adapt to a whole new set of circumstances.”
Environmental fiction has been written for years. But I believe that now—partly with new awareness of climate change and with the genesis of the term eco-fiction—the “character” and significance of environment is being acknowledged beyond its metaphor, for its actual value. It may also be that the metaphoric symbols of environment in certain classics are being “retooled” through our current awareness, much in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four are being re-interpreted—and newly appreciated—in today’s world of pervasive surveillance and bio-engineering.
The stories I’m seeing more and more—whether by established writers or by my own students—reflect an emerging worldview of participation, responsibility and accountability. It is the worldview of Jung and synchronicity; of David Bohm and “implicate order”; of Rudolf Steiner and “cosmic intelligence”, of biochemist Mae-Wan Ho and “quantum entanglement”, of Frans de Waal and “empathy”, and of Matt Ridley and “altruism”.
Whether told through cautionary tale / political dystopia (e.g., Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy; Bong Jung-Ho’s Snowpiercer), mundane science fiction (e.g. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, my own A Diary in the Age of Water), or a retooled version of “alien invasion” (e.g., Cixin Liu’s 2015 Hugo Award-winningThe Three Body Problem), these stories all reflect a shift in focus from a technological-centred & human-centred story to a more eco- or world-centred story that explores wider and deeper existential questions.
So, yes, science fiction today may appear less technologically imaginative; but it is certainly more sociologically astute, courageous, sophisticated, and relevant. As for the question of pessimism, I’d suggest that rather than being more pessimistic, current SF literature is more realistic and meaningful.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.