Darkness Defined (SF vs. Fantasy Redux)

Despite (or maybe because of) all the really interesting answers people came up with last time I brought this subject up, I’m still thinking about why fantasy out-sells science fiction.

If you’re just joining this discussion, it started with a post by Eleanor Arnason over at the Wyrdsmith’s blog, in which she discusses a panel she attended where was postulated that a majority of people prefer fantasy to science fiction.  Some of the reasons listed included that science fiction was:  too hard, too dark, and too much like present day reality.

There’s a lot to talk about there, and I covered some of it in my own earlier post here at SF Novelists.  But I recently had an epiphany about this idea that SF is too dark. 

My friend CV Rick, who blogs as The Ninja Writer, has started an on-line science fiction/fantasy short story club.  Every week, on Friday, he posts links to various SF/F short stories that are available on-line and encourages people to take an hour or so out of their lives to read them and then join in a discussion.  Lately, he’s been listing short stories that are up for major awards.  Last Friday’s was “Tideline” by SF Novelists’ own Elizabeth Bear.

Someone, it might even have been Rick, commented that in their opinion ”Tideline” story fell into the “dark and depressing category” that turns off a lot potential science fiction readers. 

My comments are going to include some spoilers, particularly about the ending, so you have been warned.  Go read the story now and come back if you don’t want your reading of the story to be affected by my opinions of it. 

I don’t think “Tideline” is depressing at all.  In fact, I think it’s incredibly hopeful.  Sure, the adoptive mother-caretaker, the war machine Chalcedony dies at the end.  Her death, however, is not without meaning or purpose.  In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.  She’s able to finish her own personal mission — making mouring necklaces for her platoon — AND she sends the young human she’s adopted and successfully raised on a quest to find people to remember the stories of each soldier. 

To me, that’s incredibly hopeful.  Having personally experienced any number of random and purposeless deaths, a life with meaning is, in point of fact, a precious and awesome thing.  More to the point, Bear does an excellent job of letting us know that Chalcedony’s time is limited.  We are shown at the very beginning how damaged and old she is.  Her death is not unexpected, what she does with the time she has left is what’s surprising… and inspiring.

What is even more hopeful to me, is that Bear’s story shows how ordinary actions — raising a child — can lead to extraordinary results. 

In my opinion, anyone who reads “Tideline” as “dark and depressing,” isn’t reading between the lines enough.

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  1. 1. Gomi

    Exactly. I read “Tideline” a little while back and felt the same thing. While SF can be darker than fantasy (though some great fantasy can be really dark), one of SF’s great strengths is showing the end of the storm. “Tideline” resonates with modern readers because of its darkness (time of war, shadows of death, etc) but then proceeds to show that hope still exists. Given SF’s ability to link present and future (explicitly in some cases), it works very well in that capacity.

  2. 2. Chris Coen

    I wonder if those readers who comment on SF being “depressing” are really commenting on the subgenre of dystopias? It can certainly be depressing to see on the page the results of the way we live today, and tempting to reject the vision rather than admit to fault.

  3. 3. Sandra

    Swooping in with my big bag o ignorance about the story and the prior discussion, but the one statement you made at the end summarizes what may be a potential problem with the genre:

    “In my opinion, anyone who reads “Tideline” as “dark and depressing,” isn’t reading between the lines enough.”

    Maybe it’s that need to be an active reader, one who reads between the lines, that is the turn-off for the genre? I know some fantasy has similar requirementsto read between the lines (Fire Logic comes to mind), but is that typical of fantasy as a genre? I haven’t read it in ages, but I don’t recall that need to think about the underlying message, not in the same what that I have to for most SF stories.

  4. 4. Karen Wester Newton

    Well, since we’re talking about sales figures, maybe it’s partly that fantasies tend to be written in a series, more so, I think than science fiction. A reader who like a fantasy will by all 5 -6 books in that series. He/she already knows they like the characters. But books that stand alone don’t come with as much of a built-in audience.

  5. 5. Mike Brotherton

    Not only are there dystopias, there’s the classic story of “playing god” (e.g., Frankenstein or almost any Michael Crichton book) that invariably ends badly. Cyberpunk also tends to be “dark and depressing.” I think all it takes is a few subgenres to color the whole swath. The perception is definitely widespread as my novels, nominally optimistic about the future, have been noted as being exceptional in the current market for that property.

  6. 6. lyda morehouse

    Sandra, I think you may have hit on something. One of the things I tell my students about science fiction readers is that we’ve been trained by our genre to read carefully. Writers of science fiction can be more subtle with hints about the nature of their aliens, etc., because science fiction readers tend to naturally attempt to ferret out information about the world, culture, etc., they’re reading about.

    I guess there *is* something to this idea that SF is “too hard,” although I’d prefer to say that, like fine wine or dark roast coffee, science fiction is an aquired taste.

    However, that doesn’t translate very well to big sales numbers, does it?

  7. 7. Soni

    Mike B

    I disagree that cyberpunk is dark and depressing, although it could just be me. I’m a bit of a subversive and vaguely anti-social geek by nature, so I often find the “Blade Runner” style futures freeing and intriguing (like a dark street that turns a corner just before it runs out of visual range), rather than dark and depressing.

    Sure, these settings are no place to raise a family. But if you’re a rogue coder, “street entrepreneur” or similar personality, they’re a time of much wildness and open-ended possibilities. Since I tend to relate to these marginal types anyway, I find myself deeply entranced by the potentialities of cyberpunk.

  8. 8. bob charters

    I’d say it has to do with the reason people read: as an escape. It doesn’t matter how depressing the actual narrative is, whether it’s Frodo and Sam in middle of Mordor (the most depressing setting I can imagine) or Pepper picking off Asteca priests above the Wicked Heights (just finished reading Crystal Rain). Mordor is a different world than ours, and therefore, an escape. Nanagada is in some corner of our own Galaxy, a possible home for some of us (according to Tobias Buckell), and therefore not really an escape — at least for some readers, not including myself. I’d agree that Tideline isn’t depressing, but it’s still a possible future, and therefore, not far enough away from us to be an ideal escape.

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Lyda Morehouse

Lyda Morehouse is the author of the science fiction AngeLINK series. She's won the Shamus and the Philip K. Dick Special Citation for Excellence (aka 2nd place). Her books have also been nominated for the Romantic Times Critics' Choice and preliminary Nebula ballot. She lives in the deep-freeze of Saint Paul, MN with her partner of twenty-odd years, their son, and lots and lots of cats (and fish!) Visit site.

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