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Optimism and Pessimism

Entry updated 25 January 2021. Tagged: Theme.

In the most simplistic version of the History of SF, sf was always (and rightly) an optimistic literature until the New Wave came along in the 1960s and spoiled everything. This was at best a very partial truth, being only remotely applicable to Genre SF and not at all to Mainstream sf.

In the mainstream, not even the work of individual authors could be categorized as simply either optimistic or pessimistic. Both Jules Verne and H G Wells took a darker view of the future as they became older; indeed, Wells's vision described almost a parabola: between The Time Machine (1895), a novel of evolutionary futility, and Mind at the End of its Tether (1945), from 1905 through the 1920s his portraits of the future were generally Utopian. The favourite themes of sf outside the genre magazines have always included Dystopia, Invasion, Future War, and the Holocaust or its Post-Holocaust aftermath, and the stories have often taken the form of dire warnings or a generalized philosophical bleakness aimed at demonstrating humanity's predilection for getting itself into trouble. Olaf Stapledon envisaged, in Last and First Men (1930), an ultimate harmony in the Universe, but one achieved only after a prolonged variety of evolutionary torments.

By contrast, sf in the Pulp magazines was mostly cheerful, especially after Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories in 1926. Gernsback proselytized actively for technological optimism, and this, despite many exceptions – including several stories by John W Campbell Jr, writing as Don A Stuart, which evoked an atmosphere of moody desolation – remained the dominant tone of sf until the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. Campbell, as editor of Astounding, normally required a constructive attitude towards science from his contributors, but, though writers like Robert A Heinlein were temperamentally inclined to oblige, even before 1945 the typical Astounding story was by no means mindlessly cheery, and many of the stories showed a strong awareness of possible technological Disaster.

After the advent of the Bomb (see Nuclear Energy) it was no longer possible to see the applications of science as an unmixed blessing. Also working against optimism were the Cold War and its domestic effect in the USA: the suspicious atmosphere (approaching Paranoia) prevalent from the early 1950s (shown notably in the anti-communist scares) probably helped to change the focus of interest of many sf stories from Technology to Sociology and Politics. The magazine Galaxy Science Fiction specialized in a form of social Satire best exemplified by The Space Merchants (July-August 1952 Galaxy as "Gravy Planet"; rev and cut 1953) by C M Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl; this type of story created its future scenario with a distinct cynicism, but its narrative tone was similar to that of most pulp sf, cheerful and hardbitten, with no such strong sense of horror and disgust as could be found outside the genre in novels like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

But any categorization of sf stories into the optimistic and the pessimistic is so imprecise as not to be greatly useful, and indeed there would be no point in discussing the subject were it not that sf critics with backgrounds in 1930s and 1940s Fandom have often regarded the optimism/pessimism split as of grave importance. Just such a distinction has also been made in several histories of sf, such as Donald A Wollheim's The Universe Makers (1971), and it is implicit in much of the work of Sam Moskowitz. The work of Clifford D Simak is relevant as an example of the difficulties in such a categorization: his stories regularly revolve around reconciliation and the achievement of some kind of harmony between Technological Man and Nature (hence optimistic), but his tone, as in City (May 1944-December 1947 Astounding, January 1951 Fantastic Adventures; fixup 1952; exp 1981), is often elegiac and nostalgic (hence pessimistic).

A distinction with some truth is often made between US sf, as typically outward-thrusting and riding the momentum of the old myth of the Frontier, and the UK Scientific Romance, which, perhaps as a result of imperial power giving way rapidly to global impotence, was far more inclined to expect Disaster. But this was never more than a gross generalization (though truer of UK sf than of US sf); nor did it take into account the guileless pleasure the British took in disaster. Could anything so enjoyable be called pessimism? Now that, in the 1990s, the world economic hegemony of the USA is threatened by financial weakness and domestic problems, as happened in the UK much earlier, it will be interesting to observe what sociological reflections appear in US sf of the later 1990s.

It was only in the middle and late 1960s, with the advent of the so-called New Wave, that real anger and sometimes despair about the future of humanity became quite commonplace in genre sf. But the writers of the New Wave, even though their attitudes sometimes appeared anarchic, were seldom passively acceptant of a dark view; the dominant New-Wave metaphor may have been of Entropy, of things running down, but the fierce commitment of, say, Harlan Ellison or Brian W Aldiss could not be airily dismissed as "pessimism" by any but the crudest of critics. Aldiss has many times inveighed in print against what he regards as the strong moral pressure, found especially in some US publishing houses, to legislate for a kind of mandatory optimism. The casual insertion of a happy ending or a few improving messages no more constitutes true optimism than an awareness of the difficulties of life either now or in the future constitutes true pessimism.

Poets have many times argued that an awareness of death gives a sharper edge to love; just so, the darker elements which have entered sf since 1945, and especially since the mid-1960s, have been argued as redressing a balance without which sf could never have reached maturity as a genre. The good sf writer often mediates between simplistic extremes of optimism and pessimism, and his mode of mediation is often irony: one meaning of this complex word has been defined as "an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected". The ironist is not just somebody sarcastic or even somebody who expects the worst: he or she is somebody who understands the multitude of possibilities concealed in apparently straightforward events, does not take anything at face value, and (at best) embraces the largeness and unpredictability of things (at worst being merely knowing). Notable sf ironists have included J G Ballard, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip K Dick, Thomas M Disch, Ursula K Le Guin, Michael Moorcock and, more recently, Iain M Banks, John Crowley, William Gibson, James Tiptree Jr and Gene Wolfe. To read the more painful or rueful aspects of their work as simple pessimism is to read inaccurately.

Indeed the whole question of optimism and pessimism in sf seems far less pressing today than it did when the first edition of this encyclopedia was published in 1979, with the residual echoes of the New-Wave debate still audible. While the entropic introspection (see Inner Space) of the New Wave is no longer characteristic of any but a few writers, the old certitudes of Space Opera (the Universe is ours for the taking, just so long as we're inventive and self-reliant) are likewise long gone. Writers of Hard SF from the 1980s – Greg Bear, David Brin, Orson Scott Card, Paul J McAuley, Michael Swanwick and others – no longer portray the Universe as waiting voluptuously to be had. The extremes of optimism and pessimism have disappeared; perhaps, except for purposes of tub-thumping argument, they were never there in the first place. [PN]

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