Enjoying the end times

Posted: November 26, 2014 in reading, watching
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Day after day, I’m currently writing science fiction with a grim setting. And I’m enjoying it. I’ve also enjoyed reading and watching quite a lot of science fiction that has that darkness to  it. The harrowing dystopia of the The Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic teen angst of The 100. Hell, I’m still a fan of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting, even though I haven’t played or read anything set in it in years.

It seems almost perverse to take pleasure in such dark futures. After all, this is science fiction, a form designed to show the amazing and wondrous things that the future could hold. So why do we do it to ourselves? Do we find hope in seeing people struggle against the darkness? Do we find failed futures more convincing? Do they act as a warning? Is it just easier to create conflict that way?

It genuinely perplexes me. There are so many potential explanations it’s hard to work out which are relevant, never mind common for those creating and experiencing this sort of fiction. So I’ll ask – do you enjoy dark science fiction, the stuff where bleakness plays a larger part in the setting than hope? And what about it appeals to you?

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Comments
  1. I loved the Hunger Games, they were just so readable, but 1984 was one the dullest books I’ve ever read and look at the impact that’s had on dystopian fiction. It’s an interesting question, I definitely enjoyed the Hunger Games and I’m obsessed with the Walking Dead but the more serious the dystopia i.e. Never Let Me Go or The Road, as much as I can appreciate it for being good, I don’t particularly enjoy it, they make me uncomfortable. But that in itself is a real achievement of it’s form.

    • It’s getting slightly off topic, but that discomfort is also something I found watching Breaking Bad. It’s sublimely well executed, but to the point where it’s hard to watch. Achieving that level of discomfort is entirely appropriate for a drama about the drug industry and cancer, or about a post-apocalyptic setting, but what’s appropriate and admirable definitely isn’t the same as enjoyable.

      I wonder if that’s part of the pleasure – seeing something that captures darkness skilfully, and to an extent that’s on the edge of what we can comfortably bear, creating an extra thrill of uncertainty?

  2. Maybe part of the appeal is that once we leave the theater or put down the book or turn off the TV, most of us don’t have to deal with that darkness anymore, except for in the abstract. It expresses our cultural anxieties in a tolerable format, and if done correctly leaves us with a sense of catharsis.

    Though I do think some of the darker dystopias express an unwarranted pessimism about human nature and are mostly for those people who think they’d do best without the rules of society ‘confining’ them…

    • The thought that some people might think these settings would suit them better is pretty chilling in itself. Has potential as an interesting character concept, in fact, must remember that one.

      I think that catharsis argument’s a very important one, along with the other aspect of that experience, where the rest of the world looks brighter by comparison with the darkness.

  3. awjo1991 says:

    It’s an odd concept that we love the idea of dark futures. I watch the Walking Dead and catch myself thinking ‘I wish I lived in this world’ Then I feel terrible.

    I’m sure I would hate it if the Z apocalypse actually happened

    • Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever thought that while watching the Walking Dead. There is something cool about their lives on the road though, and the sense of community, which I guess shows there’s something light in even the darkest shows.

      • awjo1991 says:

        One reasons I think is the whole less stress and limitations from society -not to get deep or anything haha. I do think “wow, I wouldn’t have to worry about money! Freedom!”

        But I guess that worry would be replaced by fear of being eaten or shot.

        • That gets into some interesting questions about the nature of freedom and society, doesn’t it? I mean law and order restricts my freedom to go wherever I want, but it also frees me from some of the fears of violence from others. Much dark sci-fi shifts the balance of that, either towards freedom of action but loss of safety, as in apocalyptic settings, or to total freedom from such burdens as free will in dystopias like 1984.

  4. Michelle Mueller says:

    I think there’s something we look for when we watch humanity struggle. Perhaps some writers–and subsequently readers–just need to deal with reality that way. Reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or The Handmaid’s Tale — both are bleak, dystopic worlds. Both hit close to home. And though their worlds aren’t ours, exactly, they are close enough to make us uncomfortable.

    Given a choice of two fictional universes, I’ll always choose the darker one, generally. Or at least the one that feels the most honest. Perhaps a bleak future simply seems like the truer reality to us? Maybe I’m just overly cynical.

    • That point about it feeling more real is an interesting one, and may be part of why I like a lot of these stories, especially when they incorporate very human psychological darkness to match what’s going on around them. It’s probably telling about their appeal that I, and I suspect others, enjoy these stories more when we’re in a good state. When life gets dark I’ll reach for Star Wars or a sitcom instead.

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