Two children wander away from home and find a house made of candy. I’ll stop right there. You’re getting sick of grim and dour stories, kids fighting kids and such. You’ve been on that The Road and you want a detour. Fine. But heed my warning: We need every witch and wolf we have. It’s how we make the real world better.
I am not insensitive to the concern that fiction just keeps getting darker and duller. I love the Hieroglyph Project out of Arizona State, for instance, and its devotion to optimistic science fiction. But when jewelers want to show you a how sparky a diamond tennis bracelet is, they put it up against a black background. Chiaroscuro. There is no light without dark. Our oldest stories – you and me – the ones we were told first – never started with triumph. Sometimes they never got there at all. They were tales of caution and I’m not sure they should ever be outgrown.
Outside of fandom there persists a myth that science fiction should be predictive; it needs to perform some parlor trick to prove its worth. This has never been the case. Mary Shelly wrote about the fears stirred by science. H.G. Wells wrote about imperialism, the amorality of progress and man’s ability, or lack thereof, to overcome his nature. Even Jules Vern, often touted as a visionary and futurist, did not sit down and simply describe rockets or submarines that might one day exist. He put them in stories that put them to use, by humans, for better or for worse.
1984 was not written because George Orwell thought the world would become a totalitarian nightmare. He wrote the book so it would not. Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison – and the more famous rendition,Soylent Green – pondered global warming, over population and decline in value of any surplus – even if the surplus is people. The author, and the auteur, wanted the world to veer off its course.
A book as wry and breezy as John Scalzi’s Red Shirts hints at dangers before us. Popular entertainment can desensitize us; make us callus. Superficiality can devalue life. Red Shirts won a Hugo Award for Best Novel because its real science fiction and real science fiction doesn’t come with a warning. It is a warning.
There is power in positive writing. Kim Stanley’s Robinson’s Mars trilogy, Allen Steele’s Coyote books and Karl Schroeder’s Virga sequence all show us where we can go and all the amazing things we can accomplish. These stories are valuable and we need them. They speak to the explorer in all of us. They tell us to plunge into the woods. Be clever and drop breadcrumbs (if carbs are the only tech you have.) If you want to stay alive, though, you might want to read a story about witches first. The tales can be a little dark, but illuminating, too.
Science fiction at its best doesn’t show us the future, it keeps us on our best possible path. Signs can really help. Like: Scorched Earth Ahead or Falling Asteroids. We may want to avoid those.