How SF has changed and why I don’t read dystopias

I saw a fascinating panel at Mile Hi Con about how SF has changed over the last 50 years, moderated by Paolo Bacigalupi. Really good observations by all, but what really struck me is the loss of optimism about the future.

Dystopias are big. Series like Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games are megahits, and you can’t seem to get away from them. And when you stop and think about it, you can understand why. We live in what we would call the second Great Depression if we were really honest about the economy and unemployment numbers. Times are tough. People are looking for hope. And if you start your story in tough, desperate times and ultimately triumph over them, you can give your readers inspiration to triumph in their own lives. These stories grab us so hard because they amplify very real fears we have about the real world and then deal with them.

Only, I’m not so sure that works. It’s kind of the inverse of the Old Yeller problem Phoebe had on the TV series “Friends.” She thought it was a happy movie because her mother had never let her see the end of it. With dystopic fiction, I get so depressed reading the book that I never make it to the end where things get better.

In my mind, things are bad and getting steadily worse. Even if promised a happy ending, I don’t want to read about a dystopia because to my way of thinking, why waste my time on “entertainment” when eventually I’m just going to have to live through the damn thing anyway? Dystopic fiction cuts close to home for a reason, but for me it cuts too close. I can see all too easily the things in Daniel Suarez’s books actually happening. I can see the Hunger Games actually happening. We have enough trouble with the ever-deepening class divide in this country without making it into the basis for entertainment.

And that’s what I miss from the golden age of SF. (Yes, I know A Clockwork Orange was published fifty years ago. Shuddup.) Before fifty years ago, SF held a lot more optimism about the future. Yes, people had problems and conflict. You can’t have fiction without them (or at least, you can’t have fiction anyone would want to read). But the world in general was a better place in their imagined future than the world the authors lived in. (The episode of DS9 where Cisco dreams he and the rest of the cast were actually SF writers in the 50s, and he was a black man trying to write about the black commander of a gleaming metal space station is a great example of this.) Things have gotten toogritty now, and I think we’ve lost something.

I miss the idea that smart people can change the world for the better. One of my biggest influences as a writer when I was growing up was Michael Crichton, and my love for his work lost a lot of steam when I realized that his books weren’t just about really cool science adventures, but the dangers inherent when science– inevitably– gets out of control. I much prefer now the optimism of Isaac Asimov, whose Hari Seldon was able to use science to vastly shorten the dark ages between civilizations. We need more of that, and less of post-apocalyptic horrors that are all too likely to come true.

–Jeff Kirvin


Jeff Kirvin is an indie writer, tech geek and purveyor of comic relief. As he tells readers, there is absolutely no truth to the rumors that Jeff Kirvin has been an Army Ranger, a trauma surgeon, a Martian or a small koala. In fact, Jeff doesn’t even know how these rumors get started. He certainly doesn’t start them himself on Twitter. The real story, as these things often are, is more prosaic. Jeff has worked at the Pentagon as part of the United States Air Force, been a world-renown mobile technology pundit and is, in fact, a distant chipmunk on the horizon. He’s been telling stories since he was old enough to make recognizable sounds, and doesn’t intend to stop any time soon. His published works include Do Over and Revelation.

Categories: Genre Writing.


  1. benchaney

    I certainly understand and agree with most of what you’ve said here. The dramatic conflicts of our time contain seemingly ready-made themes for writers with a negative outlook on the future, and too much negativity is…well…a bummer.

    But I find this new trend in science fiction the most exciting in years (obviously enough, since I have been told that my 6-year labor-of-love book is “dystopian”). As you have pointed out, sci-fi’s roots are far more optimistic and separate from cruel realities. Intelligent heroes conquering evil, ignorance, and despair. But as the genre has matured, the complexities of these invented (or not so invented) worlds have dramatically increased, developing clear and imaginative commentary on the world we live in and where it could be headed…the very definition of speculative fiction.

    Trying to bring such themes into pop culture has, I think, had a very positive impact on that culture. We’re growing up. We’re calling attention to what needs to be discussed. We’re imagining ways out of the mess we find ourselves in, and how we might help others who have it worse than us. Exaggeration of the bad intensifies the desire for good, in both fiction and reality.

    Perhaps this is all the justification I tell myself for wanting to have fun writing sci-fi and feel that I’m somehow making a difference. But some of the best ideas seem naive at first, right?

  2. Kessie Carroll

    Hear hear! My brother and I have been talking about this for years now. Glad to see somebody else dislikes the way our fiction is headed!

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