The Case for Optimism is an essay by Becky Chambers that originally appeared in the third volume of our Quarterly Almanac.
The Case for Optimism
When I was in College, I did a semester-long course on the history of musical theater (such were the perks of being a performing arts student). My recollection of the day-to-day particulars is fuzzy, but the overall structure of the class was something that grabbed me hard. We didn’t just learn the history of musical theater. We learned history. To talk about the death of vaudeville, you have to talk about the Great Depression. To talk about the Rodgers and Hammerstein era, you have to talk about America during (and immediately following) World War II. To talk about the bittersweet, musically diverse dramas of the 1970s, you have to talk about the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution. The examples go on, and on, and on.
Now, this was not the first time I’d been in a class where we dissected the social conditions surrounding a piece of fiction (reading Huckleberry Finn in high school springs to mind), but it was the first time I’d been a part of that discussion as framed within the entire arc of a century. We weren’t talking about individual works, we were talking about trends. It was, to twenty-one-year-old me, one of the most beautiful concepts I’d had my eyes opened to: a constant feedback loop between societal change and creative expression.
I imagine this concept is familiar to most folks reading this. Glance at any medium and you’ll find symbiosis. Comics, literature, video games—all of them reflect the wide spread of values and questions on the table at the time in which they were created. That’s how art works.
The contemporary trend in popular fiction (pick a genre, any genre) leans toward grit and grimdark, and for good reason. Out in the real world, our species is trying to put our 200,000-year-old brains to a task they did not evolve for: solving problems on a planetary level. Our glaciers are shrinking, and it’s our fault. Our neighboring flora and fauna are dying, and it’s our fault. Our air and water are poisoned, and it’s our fault. Zoom in a bit, and things don’t look much better. We’re at each other’s throats politically, with no clean resolution in sight. We’re still killing and exploiting each other in ever-inventive ways (and for monstrously stupid reasons). Our antibiotics aren’t working. Our wages are stagnant. We have people who don’t have enough to eat while others throw leftovers away. The marvelous technology I’m using to write this was undoubtedly assembled in a sweatshop thousands of miles from here. Harvesting the raw materials that make said marvelous technology work probably resulted in an environmental horror show. There’s nothing we can buy that isn’t doing harm in one way or another, and we’re too broke to afford things that soften the blow. And all of it may be a moot point anyway if a giant space rock shows up, because we’re too busy killing and stressing and starving to prioritize that kind of long-view planning.
We are, all of us, walking around in a constant, low-grade anxiety attack. Our stories have naturally followed suit. We are afraid, and pop culture reflects that. Is it any wonder why we gravitate toward protagonists who brave apocalypses and fight dystopian governments? Is it any wonder why so many fictional astronauts are on missions not of scientific exploration, but of human survival? Is it any wonder why our superheroes can’t agree on how best to save us? Is it any wonder why, when Ned Stark got his head chopped off, we thought about it and agreed that being the vocal good guy within a corrupt system is a great way to get yourself killed?
I want to make this as clear as I can, in case the title of this piece makes you think I’m about to come down against that: The darkness we’re seeing in fiction is a healthy thing (and weirdly, often an enjoyable thing—I was thinking of some of my favorite stories as I wrote that last paragraph). We need to unpack our fears. We need to tell cautionary tales and put up warning signs. If the only thing we did in the face of trouble was write happy endings (I say, as a writer of happy endings), that’d be disingenuous. Irresponsible, in a way. Sugarcoating of the highest order.
But there is a flipside to that. If all we have are stories of bleakness, if that’s all we’re feeding ourselves, that’s going to rot us from the inside out. And yes, sugar rots, too, if you consume nothing else. Hope without fear is naïve. But fear without hope is nihilism. It’s paralysis. We know the world is in a bad way right now, and we respond to stories that speak that truth back to us. But if the readers I talk with regularly are any indication, we need to balance that out in equal measure. We need to nourish and inspire as much as we need to gird and be cautious. Survival for survival’s sake isn’t enough, and if our response to how much things suck is to shrug and say “that’s how life is,” we’ll never change anything. We need to know that even if things are bad in the here and now, we can make positive progress if we put our minds to it. We need to believe that the struggle ahead will be worth it—if not for us, then for whoever picks up the torch. So often, fictional heroes tell us they are fighting for the chance of a better future. I’m biased here, given my own work, but I say actually showing that better future is every bit as important as showing the fight itself. Otherwise, where are you supposed to point your compass? How do you know what you’re fighting for? How do you pick yourself up when you fall down?
Don’t mistake this for ignoring reality, or being willfully ignorant of the challenges at hand. A hopeful story provides the best fuel when the gravity of the real world is well understood. That’s why the need for optimism in fiction extends not only to the big picture, but the small scale, as well. There is value—infinite value—in providing a person who can’t move forward with some active encouragement, or the relief of a pure escape. Optimism is important not just for the future as a whole, but for the individuals heading toward it. Again, a duality comes into play: Acting in the interest of individual need without considering the greater good breeds carelessness and greed. Acting in the interest of the greater good without considering individual need invites tragedy and injustice. You have to work with both considerations in mind. So it matters little whether an optimistic story is intended for the purpose of grand, ambitious change or simply to make a person feel better than they did before they sat down to read (or watch, or play). Those are two sides of the same coin.
History tells us that art is—and has always been—a mirror. It shows us who we are, where we’re at, what’s at stake. But art does more than repackage reality with a fun-house twist. There’s nothing passive about a reflection. If you aim it right, it shines light back. In the times we’re in, there are few things we need more.
Becky Chambers is the author of the award-nominated science fiction novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its stand-alone sequel, A Closed & Common Orbit. She also writes nonfiction essays and short stories, which can be found in various places around the internet. In addition to writing, Becky has a background in performing arts, and grew up in a family heavily involved in space science. Having lived in Scotland and Iceland, she is currently back in her home state of California. She can be found online at otherscribbles.com and @beckysaysrawr.
Collecting original short fiction, essays, reviews, and reprints from diverse and powerful voices in speculative fiction, THE BOOK SMUGGLERS’ QUARTERLY ALMANAC is essential for any SFF fan.
IN THIS VOLUME (JANUARY 2017): BECKY CHAMBERS, SHERRI L. SMITH, A.E. ASH, KATHERINE MACLEAN, NIGEL QUINLAN, ZETTA ELLIOTT, ALLIAH/VIC, KATE C. HALL, NICOLE BRINKLEY, ANA GRILO AND THEA JAMES
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