Thursday, November 06, 2008

What Will Hope do for Science Fiction

In my 32 years I’ve not seen anything like the current atmosphere here in the US and even the rest of the world. The best single word for it seems to be HOPE. Late Tuesday night after the election results confirmed Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States of America the scene was simply amazing. Spontaneous celebrations erupted around the country. People celebrated from the White House to Times Square and even here in the relatively small city of Flagstaff, Arizona, people drove around honking car horns, screaming for joy and celebrations erupted in downtown. The next day came as a daze of ‘I can’t believe it really happened’ and millions felt a true hope for the future of our country that has been missing.

Now, I’m much more of a realist than an idealist and I fully realize that the US is still a very divided country. However, this is nothing like any election I’ve experienced in my lifetime and the hope that those I know and that I feel myself cannot be denied. It seems much of the world feels the same way.

In this post-9-11 world things have changed. This change is reflected in all walks of life and science fiction has certainly embraced the reality. Look at everything from Ken Macleod’s The Execution Channel to Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley and from Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother to David J. Williams’ Mirrored Heavens. Science Fiction writers have taken stock of the world and look toward an ominous future.

So, I ask does the election of Barack Obama change the game. Will Obama really change things or will he be more of the same for the US and the world? How will science fiction writers address the hope that permeates much of the world – at least temporarily?

I really am curious to hear from readers, writers, editors, and others. I suspect that any change will be some time in coming, less than hoped for, and that it’s too premature to see how science fiction will react, if it reacts at all. But, I still feel that hope and it cannot be denied.


Eric said...

It has the possibility to change everything. As we mentioned yesterday of our podcast, there seems to be a correlation between the positive science fiction produced while Clinton was President and the cynical science fiction under Bush.

The deciding factor will be whether or not the current wave of hope continues. If it does, then we are looking at the return of positive science fiction.

Adam Whitehead said...

The atmosphere in the US does seem somewhat analogous with what we in the UK experienced in 1997 when New Labour came into power after 18 years of Conservative mis-management. The hope and expectation of change was quite palpable. Whilst he'd been writing before, it was during this period that Peter F. Hamilton, arguably British SF's most optimistic figure aside from Banks, became the UK's biggest-selling SF author, so perhaps there is something to that argument.

However, it was also during this time that the much darker and more cynical Reynolds and Morgan rose to fame, so I am dubious about the correlation working for long. Also, the 1997 boom in the UK was also linked to a moment in history when we were producing excellent films, music and literature all at the same time and everything in general seemed great, whilst the economy was booming like it never had before. None of those other things are happening in the USA at this time.

I'd say that any boom of optimism related to Obama's election will not be long-lived. Even if he excels as President and guides the country out of its current troubles, it won't happen overnight and there will be some rough bumps along the way which may cause some to lose faith. That may be reflected in the type of books that are written.

SQT said...

I'm a bit of a cynic on the whole "hope" thing. It's not that I have anything against Obama, I just think hope will be short lived during the current economic crisis-- the issues are bigger than one man.

I think the media will try to give credit to Obama for everything that goes right in the world during his administration just as they have tried to crucify Bush. I worked in the media so I know better than to believe in any objectivity. I know for a fact that the vast majority of people who work in the industry are liberal so all this talk of hope, while lovely, is mostly illusion in my opinion.

I tend to think that sci-fi will reflect what's going on in the world regardless of leadership. When I was growing up during the Cold War, all the villains were Russian. After 9-11 the villains were terrorists. Now... they'll probably all be Wall Street executives or mortgage lenders.

David J. Williams said...

It's a great question, Ken (and thanks for the reference to MIRRORED HEAVENS). Obama's election has halted what seemed like an inexorable slide toward a police state; he faces enormous challenges but for the first time in many years it looks like we actually have a president intellectually/emotionally prepared to handle them.

That said, I'm not sure I'd expect SF to change fundamentally. Our society (and our species) remains very much on the brink, and to the extent that one of the functions of SF is to dramatize that Big Picture, I think (and hope) that will continue.

I suspect, though, that the real change might be to get more people to pay attention to SF, and take it more seriously. It's not just a matter of the GOP's war on science ending. It's also that we finally have a president who thinks/cares about what the world will be like a hundred years from now. How can that not help the only literature that's engaged with that question?

Neth said...

Thanks all for the responses

eric/adam - I also have noticed the trend and I recently heard Charlie Stross talk rather elegantly about the differences between British SF and American SF. His basic thought is that the British hit rock bottom in the '90s sometime and that now things can't help but look up. Things in the US are currently looking very much downward and this affects the styles of fiction (particularly SF) as a result. I have to agree with his observations.

sqt - well, I have to disagree that with your stance that hope is an illusion. Mostly because I feel hope myself and I know that it wasn't a biased media that caused it. I also know that large numbers of my friends and family are also feeling this hope. So, the hope is real. The question is how long will last. I'm not sure what the answer is - it will be dependent on how Obama carries things forward (or not) and on events (both in and out of the economic world) that he doesn't really have any control over. For now, I'm remaining optomistic, which feels strange.


I'm glad you stopped, as I am really curious about how authors view this - espcially authors of near-future SF (or I suppose not quite near future as is your case).

I've felt that SF (near-future SF in particular) has taken the idea of an American police state, American fascism, or and similar and started to run with it. I think that the election of Obama will likely shift this focus more towards corporate bad guys - I think that David Louis Edelman's SF just got even more relevant (even if it isn't near-future).

I think that the long-range view of the world isn't going to change anytime soon due to the looming environmental crisis of global warming and the political destabilations that will result. Maybe changes will happen in the next 10 to 20 years to create some optimism, but I don't see right now. And let's face, at least in terms of good SF, optomism doesn't sell as well ;)

Jetse de Vries said...

Hi Ken,

Interesting post. I believe SF needs to become both more relevant, and that, right now, there is an overabundance of dystopian SF and a dearth of positive SF.

Therefore, as an editor, I am trying to put my money where my mouth is by editing an optimistic, near-future SF anthology for Solaris Books.

Solaris Books Press Release;

SHINE anthology weblog;

A related post on the SHINE blog;

I'm trying -- as Eric mentioned above -- to help initiate the return of positive science fiction. And both Solaris Books and I are thinking it will sell, as well.

Do feel free to hop over to the SHINE anthology website and discuss.

SQT said...


I guess what I mean by illusion is that I think it will be short lived-- so illusion might not be the best word since it's very real to those who feel it. I just think we go through political cycles as a nation and when the cycle moves in the direction the media wants it to, then everything is given a much rosier complexion. I absolutely wish for nothing more than the resounding success for the Obama administration but I am very doubtful that he can possibly live up to the hype (who could?).

Neth said...


You sound even more cynical than I am (in spite of this blog post, I always rather skeptical, and generally an out-right cynic).

-jeste de vries

That's exactly the sort of thing I was wondering about. I should find it to be no surprise that people were thinking along these lines long before I did. I look forward to following the progress of this anthology.


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