When I was a much younger person, o! back when little plastic dinosaurs roamed the earth and it seemed possible that Youth would change the world, if the world didn’t destroy itself first, I started reading science fiction. I read whatever I could find on the shelves of the libraries I had access to (not much, alas) and I used my allowance to buy pretty much any SF paperback that appeared on the spinner racks at the drugstore. I had a system for going through those racks so that nothing got past me, and I’d go up to the cash register with my treasures to be greeted by the clerk: “again?”
I chose uncritically, although I was always happy to see a book by an author I’d already encountered, and I picked up a lot of odd ideas, many of which I later had to shed. One which lodged deep, deep in my psyche was that in order to be truthful a book had to be grim. In historical fiction that meant getting into the gutter, eschewing the niceties of silver fork fiction for the reality of disease and bad diet and casual sexual assault and, oh, classism and rampant poverty. In science fiction, dystopia ruled–ecologic, political, social–and the future was grim. Grim as in hopeless: “If you want a vision of the future,” George Orwell says in 1984, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”
Political dystopian fiction usually extrapolates a current real world problem gone amok, to the point that it that drives citizens to rebel. In much of the dystopian SF I read at 14 the rebellions were unsuccessful: the game was rigged, Big Brother was always going to win. What I gleaned from this, in terms of writing, was that I couldn’t write dystopian fiction in which there was hope, that it was unrealistic and therefore untrue, unartistic, unsophisticated. Forget engineers solving problems; science fiction was for looking at where we were going and despairing.
I can’t do it. That doesn’t mean I can’t write grim (hell, my Sarah Tolerance series follows Our Heroine down some of the filthiest, darkest streets 19th century London offered, and my niece will never forgive me for killing off her favorite character in The Stone War) but I can’t tell a story without hope. For a long time I thought that made me a bad, untruthful, unsophisticated writer. I no longer feel that way. I’m a fan of hope, even if it is, under the circumstances, just a glimmer.
These are challenging times for hope, I have to admit. Since I’m not writing the real world, I have no idea how, for example, today’s elections are going to turn out, and in the last year or so I’ve sometimes felt like we’re living in the missing chapters of a dystopian novel. But this isn’t a novel. Things don’t stay the same. And a better world doesn’t just build itself. Doing something–speaking out, donating, marching, writing letters, whatever works for you–is the best antidote I know of for feeling hopeless.
If you haven’t already done so: please vote. Now, as they say, more than ever.