Thursday, April 18, 2013

On Misery Tourism

Status Update: still riding the wave of over-abundance from last week. Damn, this coffee continues to be awesome. A key feature of good coffee beans is whether or not I can regularly mess it up when brewing my morning vat of joe. I haven't, so it is. Story not yet begun--probably going to be a short one this week to rest up a bit from last week's doorstop of a novella.

Pulp has been in a pretty miserable place the last decade or so. We've had zombie plagues, dark resource-hungry futures, apocalypses (apocali?) of various shapes and forms. Floods, famines and who knows what else.

I've been mulling over this off and on ever since I read John Baxter's (excellent) novel "Flood" and its sequels. It was a depressing read, albeit a compelling one. Sure, a lot of the science behind the water apocalypse was laughable (gotta get the action going somehow!), but the rest of the science, the various ways people tried to avoid the flood, was great. And as a sociological commentary it was bang on. It says something about the writing that it's stuck with me for as long as it has. It was bleak enough that it kind of ruined my mood for a few days after I finished it. Seriously.

Instead of being a stand-out novel, it's more or less been the tone of the better books I've read since then. It seems the general zeitgeist has been gloom and doom over the last decade or so.

I'm not saying there hasn't been a large number of more upbeat pulp novels in recent years. Hell no, that would be madness, but it meshes with a trend I've noticed in popular media.

There's been an awful lot of misery tourism lately. This is actually not my term. It's a form of dystopian lit where the author takes some sort of negative element of modern society or human nature (whether consciously or not) and then extends it to its most logical/illogical conclusion.

So, the general sense of "WE'RE ALL DOOMED" that's been bouncing back and forth through the news media becomes a zombie apocalypse. Society goes from "somewhat restrictive and resource-oriented" to "totalitarian government where young folk kill each other in massive media-frenzy-coverage games." And so on.

I think it's so popular because believing in a fictional universe where we are all totally fucked is weirdly relaxing and easy. If you're in a zombie apocalypse, you don't have to worry about paying off your mortgage. If you wake up one morning to find out that the bombs have inexplicably dropped and the nearest city is a glowing crater, then at least you have three arms now and can go looting.

People tend to thrive on worst case scenarios. This is why when you turn on the TV, it's all about how global warming will destroy us all, or how we're running out of oil at any time. Or how (insert political party of choice) will (do some dastardly partisan thing that will fuck it up for the rest of us) if (they are elected)/(they stay elected). These are all serious problems, yes, and we should take them seriously but...

...we don't have to. Seriously. The world is not as poorly off as we are led to believe. Fear makes good ratings. People like to play what-if and since worrying is easier than hoping--because you can't be disappointed by worry--negative scenarios seem to be more popular by far.

Escapism has taken on such a reactionary tone in recent years. We go to places where our technology doesn't work because we fear (to an extent) the changes that technology are making to our society and to the world. We live in fictional worlds where technology doesn't exist, either because society has collapsed, or because it's a medieval realm where bad things happen to good people, or simply because of (insert magical thinking). I can't really think of too many books I've read recently that highlight technology as a positive force, something that will make the world a better place.

This is kind of a shame, because one of the things that has always appealed to me about classic science fiction is how inherently optimistic so much of it is. Yes, the Boskone Empire is pretty evil and kills people and/or hooks them on horrific drugs, but the Lensmen are there to fight them off. Science in Doc Smith's universe has turned the galaxy into a wonderful place (with income tax rates of around 1.5%, even). Heinlein's books were all about technology and the great things it could do. Even the Foundation novels were really more about how science and human nature could rise above barbarism than about the collapse of civilization.

It was great stuff. Somewhere along the way we forgot how to look on the bright side of life, lost the ability to wonder at new frontiers without keeping a hedge of negativity about us. Yes, that's all fun. I love, say, the Aliens movies as much as the next guy, but there's not necessarily a face-eating monster on every world.

For me, science fiction has always been more about the wonder, the sense of exploration. Yes, some of the places you can go to can be pretty awful, like the Night Land, for instance, but that's not all there is. For every Night Land, there's also a Pern or a Xanth (shut up, the early novels were fun). For every brooding anti-hero, there's a Stainless Steel Rat or a Kim Kinnison. It's okay not to have to shroud your world-building in scare quotes or be ironically hip. Some of the best speculative fiction ever written was predicated on the notion that the future won't suck and that people aren't inherently awful.

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