12 September 2012

optimism or pessimism in fiction

I just finished an awesome book This Shared Dream by Kathleen Ann Goonan in which the characters tried to eliminate war and suffering on Earth.

It reminded me of fascinating comments made by Robert J. Sawyer in reference to his WWW Trilogy in an interview. I asked about the idea of a moral arrow through time: "the same force-complexity-that produces consciousness also naturally generates morality, and that as interdependence increases, both intelligence and morality will increase."

He said, You may say I'm a dreamer-but I'm not the only one. My own thinking on these issues has been informed by many other people, including the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and nonfiction author Robert Wright, who wrote Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny and more recently The Evolution of God. Bob and I were recently both speaking at a public-policy conference in Washington, DC., sponsored by the New America Foundation; it was the first time we'd met, and we've become friends. But, yes, I'm a dreamer, and an optimist, but I'm also a realist, I think-and I don't think those are contradictory things to be.
This fiction is uplifting and optimistic! Optimism in fiction can be very effective.

At the other extreme, I just started reading The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi. This book is very dark and dramatic. The teaser copy says Soldier boys emerged from the darkness. Guns gleamed dully. Bullet bandoliers and scars draped their bare chests. Ugly brands scored their faces. She knew why these soldier boys had come. She knew what they sought, and she knew, too, that if they found it, her best friend would surely die.

This reminds me of fascinating comments made by Warren Hammond in reference to his KOP Trilogy in an interview. I asked: SF academic Edward James has said "the ability of the writer to imagine a better place in which to live died in the course of the twentieth century, extinguished by the horrors of total war, of genocide and of totalitarianism." Do you agree? Disagree?

He said, I've never heard that before, but I have to agree. I don't think it's true for all writers, but it is for me. I've seen the ovens of Auchwitz and toured S-21, the Khmer Rouge's infamous prison that held an estimated 17,000 prisoners between 1975 and 1979. Of the 17,000 prisoners who went in, there were only seven survivors. Seven.

The truly horrifying thing is knowing these atrocities were committed by regular people. Not all Nazis were monsters. And not all Khmer Rouge were monsters. Many were patriots. Many were idealists. Many were just scared to stand up to authority.

Knowing how easy it is for humans to kill each other, I find it impossible to imagine a future where our problems will all be solved.
Very dramatic! Clearly, pessimism can also be very effective in fiction.

What's your preference in reading and writing? Optimism or pessimism?

1 comment:

Rebecca Taylor said...

Optimism--absolutely. But that wasn't always the case. I think age, becoming a mother, and working with young kids in schools really plays a major part in what sort of books I'm attracted to as well as what kind of fiction I write. I am sensitive to the passionate words of others and as such, profoundly impacted by them. Quality, well researched pessimism can leave a shadow over me that lasts a very long time. And rightly so. There are atrocities in this world that should not be forgotten, ignored, or pushed under the rug. But dwelling in it reduces my ability to be a positive force in the lives of my own children and the children I work with. I work in the everyday horrors, and I constantly struggle against that pull of overwhelming "It's all so terrible, it's all too much." So for me, right now anyway, it's simply a matter of making choices in leisure activities that help keep me up as much as possible because it would be very difficult to decompress and function well otherwise.