Some sales news to start things off. My 500-word flash piece “Disc Stutter” was awarded 1st Place in Escape Pod’s Flash Fiction IV contest. This marks my fourth appearance in the venerable podcast, following the dark sci-fi piece “The Nightmare Lights of Mars”, my steampunk take on warfare in “Checkmate”, and my apocalyptic alternate history tale “People of the Shell.”
Also, the same week I was notified that Flame Tree Publishing’s exquisite Gothic Anthology series has purchased my story “Blood and Silver Beneath the Many Moons.” I first sketched the outline to that one while having beer and burgers with fellow writers Shannon Peavey and Eric Cline in Hollywood during the Writers of the Future Workshop Week.
Why are we fascinated by the end of the world?
I mean, seriously, tales of the apocalypse have become a global fetish. From The Walking Dead to Fallout, from the surge of YA dystopias to YAGZA (that’s my own acronym for Yet Another Goddam Zombie Apocalypse) the idea of traipsing through the rotting ruins of a fallen civilization never seems to get old. It keeps shambling forward. You know, like goddam zombies.
I was recently re-reading H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and it occurs to me that part of the answer might well be found in these two granddaddies of the genre. Verne was the optimist, writing enthralling adventures fueled by a firm conviction in the wonder and joy of science (I recall my own steadfast addiction to the How and Why Wonder Books in my grammar school library). Verne would spend hours upon endless hours in his local library, studying up on geology and marine biology and engineering, and from this thirst would be born the escapades of renegade Captain Nemo and the valiant explorations of new frontiers.
By contrast, Wells was the pessimist bordering on nihilist. His odysseys take us into the terrifying corners and disturbing ramifications of the same world that Verne was busy adoring. The pursuit of science leads Verne’s explorers to attain the center of the world; for Wells, science births the Beast Folk in The Island of Doctor Moreau. Captain Nemo applies engineering and takes us to the wonders of the ocean floor; Wells builds a time machine to show us the concluding chapter to terrestrial life — a bleak and chilling shoreline bereft of life, while the sun glares like a swollen red eye on the horizon.
Is it a generation thing, that we seem to be drawn to the darker, edgier, Wellsian vision? I recall the spate of ecopunk sci-fi in the ’70s, which made an indelible stamp on our collective vision of the future; the warnings of Silent Running and Planet of the Apes led to the Verhoevenian excesses of the ’80s, and then into the CGI-gray dystopias that followed. Yet the end of the world is an ancient concept, predating the Viking notion of Ragnarok.
Is it the enduring stamp of old religious notions, or a new cynicism, that propels cyberpunk visions to a prominence once held by the clean and cerebral futures of Asimov and Clarke? While there has been an undeniable advancement in technology and even social progress since our species decided to settle down and try out this civilization thing… the evidence seems to suggest that humanity’s greedier and darker impulses aren’t going away. And is it too nihilist of us to note that what is arguably the most optimistic future in pop-culture — Star Trek — is only possible because in its universe, humans don’t act like humans at all; rather, they seem more akin to robots who are approximating human behavior. TNG even made this a plot point, with Picard saying that the Federation can detect and root out the baser seeds from the human psyche.
Is it pure apathy and intellectual cowardice? The Japanese author Sakyo Komatsu wrote what I consider the definitive examination of this viewpoint with his story “Make Your Choice”, in which a company would give customers a choice of possible futures: technological utopia, agrarian paradise, or pollution-choked gehenna. The customer makes his or her choice, and steps through a metallic portal… understanding that they’re not going to be instantly transported to the future of their choosing, but rather, will be shunted onto a path that will inexorably lead to the chosen future as the years pass. In the story, a shocking number of customers choose the apocalyptic option, more content to think that things will end than have to face the trouble of continued challenge. The story’s stinger is that the whole thing is a scam, run by some conniving guys who are only too happy to collect money from ignorant saps. But there’s a second stinger, when one of the guys says that he’s concerned over how many politicians and scientists and business leaders are choosing the end of the world…
There’s a shift beginning to take place in the speculative fiction genre… a noticeable attempt to pushback towards more optimistic visions. The Martian is practically a return to the convictions of Verne. The upcoming Mass Effect Andromeda is all about exploration in a new galaxy. There’s even a new Star Trek series coming.
Will it work? Do we want to
believe in work for the future?
I go back and forth between bouts of optimism and misanthropy. I’m troubled by the continued influence of Abrahamic religions on global events and society; Christians and Muslims making decisions based on Dark Age texts based on Bronze Age values. And yet, the evidence suggests that religion is dying a slow death. Ultimately, I suppose, I’m an optimist. I am firmly devoted to the idea that the power of choice can make a huge difference in life; I reject inevitability, apathy, the disease model of addiction, hopelessness, fate, and the idea of rolling with the punches. The application of science will cure cancer and aging, will deflect asteroids and solve global warming. Rationality shines a clear light into the darknesses of ignorance and superstition.
How do the rest of people feel? What kind of future do we really want?