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07 May 2013 @ 03:10 pm
Should Writers Only Write Positively About the Future?  
According to an article on Co.EXIST, Can Science Fiction Writers Inspire The World To Save Itself? there is a new collaboration between science fiction author Neal Stephenson and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. Project Hieroglyph, Co.EXIST reports, suggests that science fiction writers should stop writing stories about dystopian futures and instead focus on visions of a rosy future. Their hope is that this will result in a resurgence of the optimism that has marked more prosperous eras and, thus, to create a contemporary culture that encourages the creation of a more desirable prospect.

But, is the idea that science fiction writers can directly influence the future a realistic one, or is it little more than an application of sympathetic magic to the complex problems of the day? And, is it even necessary, or can the very literature to be eschewed, of dystopian, apocalyptic, and post-apocalyptic futures, a part of the solution that can help to bring about the same push to create a better future?

Neal Stephenson writes about his perspective on the need for a more positive approach to the future in his article, Innovation Starvation, and I get the impression from his article and from the Project Hieroglyph site that their actual vision is far more interesting and complex than simply asking writers to stop writing about what's wrong with the world, and start focusing on what we want to see, but I feel the need to address the underlying assumptions of the article, written by Co.EXIST Senior Editor Ariel Schwartz, which first brought this to my attention.

There are no simple answers. It's unrealistic to expect that if only writers would just stop being so negative and start being more positive it would make the world a better place. Literature is a part of an intricate conversation that exists within society between those who comment on the world around them and those who act to change it, with there being very little distinction between the two groups. We are all observers, all commenters, all participants, all actors, in the dance of social change. Writers respond to the world around them, as well as act in ways that will change the world. We see the world and identify possibilities, some attainable, others more fantastic (psychological and mythopoeic), and in response we imagine a world in which we attempt to follow those trends to their logical, or illogical, conclusions.

It’s a well-known phenomenon that published fiction tends to follow societal trends: when times are tough, when people as a general rule are discouraged, our fiction will reflect this mood; when things are better, economically, socially, environmentally, and so on, our fiction will reflect this only. And this is nothing to be ashamed of!

Writers as a whole (or, better yet, a herd of cats) cannot sound only a single note, for that is little more than putting our fingers in our collective ears and singing “la, la, la,” but must instead create a symphony of notes, sometimes aiming for the sublime and at others for a clashing discordance that reflects the cacophony of dissolution. It will take all of these myriad visions and creations to effect change, and the societal changes that result will rarely be something we could have predicted or planned for, but we must move forward with the confidence that our contributions are a valid part of the overall conversation. To write only of sweetness and light is as likely to create a world of complacency in the face of horrors as to create a world of eager engineers, striving for the betterment of man. To write only of darkness and terror may leave our readers frightened and discouraged, or may inspire them to forge ahead with endeavors that will solve the world’s problems.

Writers, let us continue to write in response to the world around us. Let us write stories of idyllic and horrific possibilities. Let us rewrite the past and pre-write the future. Let us, above all, create! Above all, let us continue to do so without muzzling ourselves, for it is when we write from our hearts that our writing is most powerful and most likely to effect the changes we want to see.

ETA: I think part of my reaction to the article, which I left unexpressed earlier, was the mention of several recent dystopian works and the statement: "It almost seems as though science fiction writers--and the general public--have given up on the future as a happy, technologically enhanced place to be." I feel that the article criticizes both writers and audiences for having a "bad attitude," and in so doing dismisses those involved in the specific works mentioned and all science fiction writers as doing a public disservice.

It ruffled my feathers, so I had to squawk. This entry was originally posted on Dreamwidth at pameladlloyd. Feel free to respond at either location.
Current Location: Tucson, Arizona, USA
Current Mood: quixoticquixotic
marycatellimarycatelli on May 8th, 2013 12:49 am (UTC)
The movies of the Great Depression were full of comedy and mirth. I would think it would rather be that literature would indeed reflect life -- by inverting it. I know I go for the fluffy and cheerful when feeling down myself.
Pamela D Lloyd: lady with cuppdlloyd on May 8th, 2013 03:54 am (UTC)
Good point! It's true, a nice cheerful movie can be just the thing when we're feeling down. But, sometimes a movie full of trouble and strife, or action and mayhem, may be what we'd rather watch. There are many ways to lift one's spirits.
Helenheleninwales on May 8th, 2013 06:22 pm (UTC)
I thought dystopias were usually thought of as warnings, not predictions? So the writer isn't saying, "This is how I think the world will be," it's a case of, "If you don't stop doing X, this is what might happen!"

I also agree with marycatelli in that if life is basically comfortable, people like a bit of misery in their entertainment, but if things are going badly, they want cheering up with optimistic things.
Pamela D Lloyd: little red riding hoodpdlloyd on May 8th, 2013 07:19 pm (UTC)
I agree, Helen. Dystopias are generally thought of as warnings. This is a big part of why I was bothered by the Co.EXIST article, which seemed to be treating them as little more than pessimistic predictions.

As for the issue of misery vs. cheer in entertainment when life is going well or not, I suspect that I expressed myself too simplistically in my post. There are many different kinds of dystopian fiction, and not all of these are science fiction. Mysteries, and detective and espionage stories often have very dystopian settings, but the perseverance of the protagonist in the face of the odds can result in a cathartic experience, one that leaves you feeling good by the end of the movie. Even movies that we rarely think of as dystopian—for example It's a Wonderful Life presents a very dark world, albeit one with a sliver of light shining in—but the ultimate message is one of hope and promise.
marycatellimarycatelli on May 8th, 2013 11:44 pm (UTC)
OTOH, a diet of pure dystopia does have the disadvantage of not raising the question, well, what can we do instead? After all, it's not possible to just not do somthing -- you must do something else.
Pamela D Lloyd: brother and sisterpdlloyd on May 9th, 2013 12:38 am (UTC)
Which is precisely why I prefer a diverse menu of fictional options. :)