This month’s first official Sci-Fi Month post here is by Karina Sumner-Smith, author of the Towers Trilogy. I recently finished reading Radiant, the first book in the trilogy, and am now glad the other two books in the series will be released next year! Radiant is unique with some beautiful writing, and I also loved the friendship that developed between Xhea and Shai (like Karina Sumner-Smith I would love to read more SF/F books with great friendships between women). She’s here today sharing her perspective on the oft-asked question of what happened to hope and wonder in science fiction!
What Happened to Hope and Wonder in Science Fiction?
by Karina Sumner-Smith
If you attend SF conventions, you’ve probably heard this conversation before – or one of its many tired variations. What happened to the great, bold futures that science fiction once imagined? Where has the genre gone wrong?
I’d participated in such conversations online and off – sometimes having interesting discussions, sometimes mentally filing the complaints somewhere between “nostalgic” and “old man ranting at clouds”. But it was only as I sat on a panel with three older male writers, listening to them decry the loss of hope and wonder in modern science fiction, that I started to react.
They spoke of their early memories of space travel – of the first humans launched into space, of the moon landings, of that feeling that anything was possible. And now they looked at science fiction and what did they see? Dystopian landscapes and tyrannical governments. Dark stories about bleak futures.
What happened to the wonder, they asked. What happened to the hope and promise for the human race?
It felt, to me, like mourning for a genre that had lost its way – and it was that, more than anything, that made me angry.
A moment of silence came. “Do you know my first memory of space travel?” I asked into that quiet. “Challenger.”
In contrast to their earlier stories, I talked of being four years old and watching on television as something went terribly wrong after liftoff. I hadn’t truly understood what I was seeing in that moment, only knew that my mother sat down very suddenly, very abruptly, on the coffee table. My mother never let anyone sit on the coffee table.
I talked of spending days in my dorm room watching as crews searched fields for the wreckage and remains from the space shuttle Columbia.
Of NASA budget cuts. Of projects cancelled or failed.
“No one has walked on the moon in my lifetime,” I told them. “Yet you try to tell me that it’s my generation who has lost their wonder? That it’s the young people of today who have let everything slip and fall into ruin? You don’t understand. You had the dream and the potential and the opportunities, and you messed it all up. You got hope and moon landings and that bright, glorious future. I got only the disasters.”
I still remember the other panelists’ expressions. “I … never thought about it that way,” one finally offered.
I’ve heard it asked, “What was the first book that got you hooked on science fiction?” For me, there was no first. SFF was always part of my life.
The child of two science fiction and fantasy readers, I was raised on stories of dragons and space adventures. As I grew, I read all the genre work I could find: Asimov and McCaffrey, Heinlein and LeGuin and Clarke. I swung wildly between extremes, consuming fantasies by David Eddings and Mercedes Lackey for months, only to switch suddenly to Larry Niven and hard SF classics. For years, my to-read pile was stacked high with books that smelled perpetually of the used bookstores in which I’d found them.
It was all amazing to me: so many new horizons, new worlds, new futures, new possibilities. Even the darker stories, the bleakest landscapes, were made bright by my sense of discovery.
Yet I never once mistook science fiction for truth. Wondrous and clever as the stories were, it was blazingly obvious that the future imagined in the “golden age” and beyond, for good or ill, bore little resemblance to the world of my adolescence and early adulthood. After a while, I began to yearn for stories that better reflected the world, the people, and the future that I knew.
The future is glorious, those older stories told me.
You’re wrong, the newspaper replied.
Somewhere along the way, I think we started to believe that science fiction had a responsibility. We weren’t just writing about an imaginary future, but about our possible futures, telling stories as if they were stepping stones on the path leading humanity forward. And if that’s what we believe, however far back the notion may linger in the subconscious, is it any wonder that so many cringe to see that the beacon toward which we’re travelling has become darker, that its light has flickered and been cast in shadow?
Yet for all the triumphant pointing when a technology first imagined in a science fiction story is made real, great SF isn’t necessarily about prediction. If stories are a crystal ball, I contend that they show us not visions of the future, but our own images, warped and reflected back to us.
That’s why we can’t simply tell the same stories over and over; why our future is imagined and re-imagined and rewritten year after year. We’re telling stories that speak not to the people we were, not the futures we imagined in years gone past, but the people we are and are trying to become.
What happened to hope and wonder in science fiction? They’re still there, shining threads woven into the tapestries of the stories we tell. They, like the rest of us grew and learned and changed.
And, like us and the genre we love, they’re changing still.
Karina Sumner-Smith is a fantasy author and freelance writer. Her debut novel, Radiant, was published by Talos/Skyhorse in September 2014, with the second and third books in the trilogy to follow in 2015. Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things,” and ultra-short story “When the Zombies Win,” which appeared in two Best of the Year anthologies. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.