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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

We’re Not Doomed?

Thinking further on it: perhaps the critical qualifier here is almost. This could be one of the key ways in which SF differs from all other literary forms. Not only does it afford the writer the opportunity to posit a deity-free Eschaton, thus eliminating the need to follow the script laid out in Revelations, it also offers the possibility of a survivable Apocalypse, which only almost ends the world, after which it’s possible to reboot humanity and build a better world. If this idea holds some appeal for you—if it is in any way possible for you to look forward with some modicum of hope for the future—then by all means, read and write almost-apocalyptic SF, even if it’s Lucifer’s Hammer.

If, on the other hand, you truly believe that the past was better, now is as good as it’s ever going to get, and the future can only be bleak and dismal or worse, you’re probably best off sticking to looking in the rearview mirror and writing either steampunk or pseudo-Medieval fantasy. Future generations of high school students will thank you for not writing yet another book that strives to make On the Beach look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm

As for me, I will confess to feeling Doomsday Fatigue. I’ve lived through 60-plus years of end-of-the-world hysteria, beginning with learning to Duck and Cover in primary school and followed by the New Ice Age panic, the ecological catastrophe panic, The Population Bomb panic (which as you may note did not explode and kill hundreds of millions of people in the 1970s), the unstoppable Soviet juggernaut panic (someone really should tell all those Survivalists living in the mountains out west that the 1980s finally came and went and it’s okay to come out now), the Nuclear Winter panic, the endless war in Central America panic, the Oppressive American Theocracy panic, the Peak Oil panic, the Coming Global Economic Collapse of [insert year here] Panic, etc., etc., etc., etc...

The one lesson I have taken away from all this is that both conservatism and liberalism are Doomsday Cults. They differ only in the names of the sins they believe will bring about Doomsday.

But tempting as it is to veer off in a political direction this morning, I absolutely refuse to do so. Instead, the question I’m interested in exploring today is this: why are we far more willing to listen to Doomsday prophets than optimists? Why has a story of impending catastrophe and destruction been far easier to sell than one of coming prosperity and happiness for at least the last 3,000 years? Is it simply a matter of fear of loss being a more effective selling motivator than desire for gain, or is there something deeper, weirder, and more unpleasant at work in our psyches?

Your thoughts?

In the meantime, and in keeping with the theme, this morning’s recommended reading is “Riders of the Epochalypse,” by Evan Dicken. 

—Bruce Bethke


Big Bob said...

The answer to the question of why it's easier to sell doomsday stories is an easy one: Human beings live with doomsday as the default life experience. We have to train ourselves to be optimists. Well, at least most of us do.

What I mean by doomsday is the default life experience is that we typically have to fight to make things better. If we don't put in the effort to make things better, they generally get worse. Man-made objects typically deteriorate (house, car, etc). People's health generally get worse without proper care. Relationships even deteriorate without sufficient effort. Very few people go through life thinking that things are just getting better and better "just because". The longer someone struggles with things getting worse, the easier it is to sell them a story of things continuing to just get worse.

Personally, I believe that if everyone permanently turned off the news, it would be much easier to sell optimism. ;-)

Mark Keigley said...

I write a LOT of apocalyptic fiction, as you well know. :) "Waters of Men", being just one...I think writers of apocalyptic fiction tend toward pessimism because they can't easily postulate what kinds of societies might replace the current ones. I tend to think in terms of not just "rebooting" a society, that wasn't working all that well to begin with anyway...but to come up with a society that breaks paradigms. That offers new ways to engage with one another. Yes, fight evil to bring it into being, but make what you bring into being worth fighting for.

Pete Wood said...

Some random thoughts.
1. Arthur C. Clarke would disagree with you about deity free doomsday. Childhood's End, the Star, and the Nine Billion Names of God are fully immersed in the theological.
2. I never understood the fear of the completely inept Soviet army. Finland held them off during all of WWII when the soviets outnumbered them fifty to one in troop size.
3. What do you have against On the Beach?
4. I think Jack Finney writes some pretty cheerful optimistic stuff even if his protagonists often just escape into the past. Time and Again is a very cheerful book. And Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a very logical and not exactly cynical outcome-- the print version anyway
In the Lathe of Heaven Ursula LeGuin averts not one, but two doomsdays. Top that!
IF you want examples of good winning out and the world not going somewhere in a hand basket, I point you to three long running franchises. Star Trek. Star Wars. Doctor Who.
There I've said my piece.