From Battlestar Galactica to Gravity, it’s easy to think that the current generation of science fiction has to be “dark” in order to be good. But we shouldn’t confuse ourselves! Just because there are so many dark and good pieces of sci-fi out there doesn’t mean that darkness makes the sci-fi good.
In fact, I think it’s important to remember that science fiction, at its roots, is the most inherently optimistic genre of fiction! Sure, says science fiction, the people of the future have problems. Sure, some of those problems are the same as the problems we have now. But the people are still there! They are still recognizable! And they are still solving their problems!
Even science fiction stories that seem the most bleak have kernels of optimism. Consider Poul Anderson’s short story “In Memoriam” (it’s available in the collection All One Universe). A short summary: Some cataclysm happens, and humans die out. Over the eons, our cities crumble and the evidence of our lives passes into archaeology and, later, paleontology. New civilization arise on Earth. Then they die out. Eventually, the Sun expands into a red giant, cooks the Earth to a cinder, and then sloughs off a planetary nebula and collapses into a white dwarf, leaving the Solar System lifeless and barren. But, in the final paragraph of the story, we visit four spacecraft – Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, and Voyager 2 – that have left the Solar System on an infinite journey into the stars.
Anderson doesn’t say it, but it’s easy for me to add the epilogue. All four of those space probes carry evidence of human civilization, including depictions of human beings and libraries of our language and culture. Anderson’s story tells us that through those vehicles, from a certain point of view, human civilization has already achieved a measure of immortality. Chuck Berry’s music will live on until the heat death of the universe. Sad as the extinction of our species would be, I find that an uplifting thought.
(A publicly available story with a similar theme is Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question,” which you can read online here.)
Still, it would be nice to have some more bright science fiction out there. That would certainly be helpful for space advocacy, as Dwayne Day of The Space Review points out in this provocative essay!
Maybe it’s time for Star Trek to get out of the theaters and back onto the air. Or maybe we can just turn to…science.