Linoleum Block Print of a bookplate I made for my science fiction books depicting my interpretation of the “Spaceship and Sun” symbol of Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire
For most of my life I have been a science fiction* fan. My impressions of the science fiction novels I read, and the movies I saw, when I was young were that, for the most part, they were optimistic. Science would advance, humankind would spread out to the stars, and, in the end, the good guys would win. Today, most of the science fiction I read and see is dark and less optimistic. While science still continues to advance in science fiction, it is frequently in negative ways. We seem less likely to spread out to the stars. In the end, despite who wins, it is rarely clear who the good guys are. For a long time, I blamed Philip K. Dick for the change. His fiction has always had a dark side, and I thought the turning point for mass media was when they turned his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the movie Blade Runner. It just seemed that, after Blade Runner, everything was dark and dystopian.
I started to think about this as I recently watched the Amazon Prime series Electric Dreams, based on short stories by Philip K. Dick. As I watched the series, which is quite good, I once again started to blame him for turning science fiction dark. I began to write an essay on the subject. A strange thing happened as I started to write my essay. As I thought about the science fiction I had read, or watched, over the years. I realized that it really has always had dark and dystopian elements. What changed was not science fiction, but me. When I read science fiction as a boy, I was less sophisticated and less analytical. I saw wonderful adventures about amazing places, events and things. I did not see what was below the surface.
I probably began with reading the early science fiction classics including Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Having read these as a young boy, they all just seemed like adventure stories. I didn’t recognize that they all had social commentary and were, in their own ways, somewhat dystopian, some more than others. For instance, in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (and later in Mysterious Island) we learn that Captain Nemo is of Indian descent. He is driven by his hatred of imperialism in general, and British Empire in particular, whom he blames for the death of loved ones…so he roams the oceans of the world sinking warships. In The Time Machine, what could be more dystopian than the fact that the Morlocks feed, and then feed upon, the Eloi?
After these classics, I moved on to the novels of The Golden Age of Science Fiction; works by EE “Doc” Smith, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and many more. I found these books in general to, again, be exciting adventures. Many are now referred to as “Space Operas.” Galactic Empires! Fleets of Spaceships! As I said above, for the most part, they appeared to me to be optimistic, and in the end, the good guys would win. Looking back on these novels which I enjoyed so much, I don’t think I want to read them again. The Galactic Empires were frequently corrupt and discriminatory. Those vast fleets of spaceships would destroy other fleets, and sometimes planets, wiping out entire races. Alien races were frequently not to be trusted and assumed to be hostile. I’m sure that if I re-read the novels today, some would be fine, but others would come across as racist, sexist and xenophobic. I believe the 2021 Ken Goldman would be appalled by some of the novels that the 1960s Ken Goldman loved.
I think the first time I recognized that I was reading dystopian science fiction was either in Junior High or High School when I read George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I’m sure that most of you have read, or are familiar with, one or both of these novels. The societies we see depicted in both are definitely dystopian. Sadly, from time to time, I think I see some aspects of those societies leaking into our society today.
I still believe that science fiction is getting darker and has been doing so for a while. I don’t think it is all because my perceptions have changed. I think Star Trek is a good yardstick for seeing this evolution. For the most part, Star Trek: The Original Series and Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) were basically optimistic and yes, the good guys usually won (though, sometimes Captain Kirk did swing hot and cold, sometimes he would do some pretty good things, and sometimes he would do some pretty awful things). In these Star Trek series, it was clear who the good guys were. We started to see this change with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). Star Trek: Voyager, whose filming overlapped DS9, had aspects of both TNG and DS9. I happen to be currently revisiting DS9 as I follow along on a podcast exploring Star Trek. It is definitely darker in many ways and, I believe, helped lead to the more recent, darker Joss Whedon Star Trek movies of the Kelvin timeline (sorry if none of that makes sense). The more recent Star Trek: Discovery (which keeps getting better and better) and Picard, both show a much darker, and less optimistic, side of the Star Trek universe. Both are good shows, but darker, much darker.
So, why did this happen? Did it happen? Was science fiction always dark and I was oblivious? Was it really Philip K. Dick’s fault? No, I do not believe that it was, it was just that Blade Runner opened my eyes to this. In general, is fiction getting darker? Is it a reflection of our times? I don’t know, but I would love to hear your thoughts.
BTW, if you would like to see some science fiction that not only is not dark, but is humorous and quirky, check out Resident Alien on the SyFy channel. The first season ended recently, but you can still stream it online…
*These days many people use speculative fiction rather than science fiction, and I think, in many ways it is a better term…