I read a couple of books this week, both science fiction, one upbeat, the other decidedly not. It got me to thinking a lot about how society has evolved, and how we respond to hope (or the lack thereof). It has long been my contention that in times of strife, society leans toward sci fi that is more dystopian than not. Perhaps we resonate with the claustrophobia, the lack of opportunity, the hopelessness. Or maybe we just want to feel there’s some schmuck worse off than us.
The first book, Heinlein’s “Door into Summer” certainly tormented his main character. He built a company, fell in love, and while on the verge of prosperity, had it all stolen from him. His partner and best friend took both his company and his fiancee, then with her lead, shipped our hapless protagonist 30 years into the future, courtesy of cold storage. Yet, this was not a depressing tale. Instead, we took the ride down with our character, mourned the loss of his cat, Pete (and shouldn’t we all have a cat named Pete, or at least a dog named Dave), and rejoiced when things started going his way again.
See, in the real world, Winners Win. They do. Sure, we all lose at times. We fail, fall short, or just screw the hell up. But more often than not, good people learn what they need to learn, and figure out their way back up.
See, Heinlein wrote this in the 1950s. The world was mired in the claustrophobic paranoia of the Cold War. People understood dystopia because there was the real chance the Cold War would turn hot at any moment. In fact, the backdrop to Heinlein’s novel is some such cataclysmic world-changing event. However, in Summer, whatever had happened was OVER. The world recovered, and hope reigned once more.
But not in modern Dystopia. We’re way too smart and cool for optimism. Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen’s world was shit when book 1 started, and just a mildly less pungent flavor of shit when book 3 ended. And then came Wool. You can’t see it, but I am TOTALLY shaking a monkey fist at Wool. (And you have NO IDEA how much I hate monkeys.) Don’t get me wrong, Wool features well-written short stories (yes, short stories, not books). But they are the most unrelentingly depressing things I’ve ever read. Hell, Wool 2 mostly takes place in a 144-story staircase. (Here’s mine from work. Looks fun, no?)
So as to not kill your future reading joylessness SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU WANT TO AVOID SPOILERS. <Spoiler> Hugh Howey, the author, gives you characters to cheer for, and then kills the main character of the story in the last page or two. Not once, but in books 1 and 2. (I quit the series after 2.) Now let me ask you – why in the HELL would anyone want to emotionally invest in characters only to have them murdered – by the author? What is the point? I wanted my hours of reading back. (And to poke Howey in the eye.)</Spoiler>
Perhaps we have been taught by television to embrace misery as brilliance. If so, it would explain why I don’t get it. I hate TV, except movies. I’ve read “experts” whose advice to writers is to torment your characters and when they are about to rise, to do it again. Bull! How about those people who shine in adversity? What about the girl – sexually abused as a child – whose struggle back to self-acceptance is more than enough adversity for anyone? Why not make her story about her growth? For the poor, hopeless, trapped people in Howey’s silos, why not write about the triumph of the human spirit?
Yeah, I know, that’s just crazy talk.
Clearly, I need my head examined. But I won’t do it in a dystopian world created by today’s best-selling authors. I value my head too much.
Like Howey, I wrote a Dsytopian novel – Hard as Roxx. It is still (slowly, but surely) being edited. But reading the rave reviews around Wool makes me want to shelve it. See, although my Roxx comes from a world at least as hard as anything Katshit Everdoom faced — a complete breakdown of society, rape as a weapon of war, abject poverty as the new standard, and a woman whose new baby has been sentenced to death simply for being born — my book isn’t about gloom. It is instead about a mother’s struggle to make a safe world for her daughters. It is about finding hope, and love, and joy … and kicking some serious ass all the way up the African continent.
Because, see, my Roxx is a winner. And as I’ve claimed, winners win. Don’t believe me? Look at the NFL. The NBA. European League Football. Bill “Don’t-hate-the-Playa-hate-the-Game” Clinton. Screw that – look at Hillary. Heroes fall, sometimes making utter fools of themselves. Sometimes innocent women get raped, and yes, they do get pregnant. Sometimes the best of us are placed in situations for which there is no hope of extrication.
But then, we find a way out. Why? Because there is always hope. Always. And corny or not, no matter how many characters in my books that you love I end up killing, I promise, I will never kill hope.
I’ll leave hopelessness for younger writers. We Baby Boomers were raised with our parents echoing Winston Churchill: “Never give in — never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Maybe sci fi writers no longer study history.
I’ll start believing readers want to see the shit kicked out of optimism when Churchill’s words cease to make sense to me. I’ll let you know when that happens. It’s not today.
The glass is NEVER half empty. It’s always half full of water and half full of air. You just have to teach your main characters to see that.