Buried within the brouhaha of the past week surrounding the Science Fiction and Fantasy Ethics definition squabble on SF Signal and elsewhere (including here), Richard Morgan raises an interesting point that I think might provide grist for the mill:
Hmm - this again.
I missed out on the thread about taboos, and thus the chance to engage with those contributors who seemed to think that we've entered some mired slough of moral relativism in which dark editorial forces force out the notion of "good" characters, admirable heroes and positive outcomes. But luckily for me, here we are once again wondering why our fiction tends to lean towards dealing with the negatives of the human condition. And once again, it seems to me we have this question utterly backwards; ask not why our genre tends to see the human future in bleak terms - ask instead why we suffer this constant cry within the genre to make room for cheap, plastic, rosy 'n' cosy models of human development appropriate to a Disney movie for five year olds.
Let's just take our bearings here. If we look outside the confines of the genre for a moment, what is it we think is going on in the broader field of fiction? Let's take a few notable non-genre books off my (and my wife's) shelf at random and see what their subject matter is:
Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: a young woman suffers through the brutality of the Nigeria/Biafra war.
The Kindly Ones - Jonathan Littell: the Nazi Holocaust, told from the point of view of one of its more enthusiastic perpetrators.
Blood Meridian - Cormac McCarthy: brutal and blood-soaked (and painstakingly researched) fictional account of filibuster scalp-hunting in the American west circa 1850.
Andrea Levy - Small Island: two educated and dedicated Jamaican immigrants suffer casually brutal racism at the hands of their white British and American counterparts in London during the second world war and after
Cancer Ward - Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn: no commentary necessary, I imagine.
Brick Lane - Monica Ali: a woman suffers within the stifling confines of a repressive sub-culture in London's east end.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami: an ordinary man is brought into confrontation with a powerful corrupt force hidden beneath the placid surface of contemporary Japanese society and inside his own family. Along the way he revisits war-time atrocities committed in occupied China.
Snow - Orhan Pamuk: religious fundamentalism clashes with militaristic state repression in eighties eastern Turkey
The Quiet American - Graham Greene: catastrophic political innocence and arrogance march hand in hand into Vietnam from America and cause nothing but misery in their wake.
Beginning to see a pattern? Need we go on to Rushdie, Pynchon, McEwan, Proulx, Roth, DeLillo? Or the American hard-boiled crime writing tradition? Back to Shakespeare, maybe?
We award accolades to literature when we feel it has reached into the human condition, laid it bare or provided a fresh angle on it, when it has told us or made us feel something true about that condition. Bleak comes with that particular territory as standard. Humans are a dodgy, brutal lot and the project of human civilisation advances slowly and haltingly at massive human cost in blood and pain, with many retrograde steps and absolutely no guarantee of success. This is who we are. If you care about what you're writing (beyond wanting to pay the bills, that is), then you must confront this in your work and do something honest with it. Anything else is pandering.
In mainstream literature, this assumption is so much a part of the landscape that it goes largely unremarked; anyone who thinks of SF&F as adult literature should not find it sticking in their throat either.
If I had the time to sit around to think of ways to poke holes in this, I suppose I could, but I'm a bit loopy now with the allergy meds for the spider bite, so I'll just open it up for people here to examine what he says. Is "genre fiction" (however that may be defined) too prone to look for the consoling comforts, with the occasional aghast look presented when a hard, "difficult" work that dares to examine the "human condition" in unflattering lights is published?
After all, people die all the time, often in prosaic fashion, sometimes in spectacular, gut-wrenching tragedies. This wide spectrum of death, destruction, and suffering has been presented in innumerable stories and fictions over the years, but why is it a big deal when a SF/F author utilizes tried-and-true methods to explore the darker elements of human existence? It is an interesting point that Morgan raises - what do you have to say in response to it?