Optimistic… Fantasy?

I’ve been hearing a lot of calls lately for optimistic, upbeat science fiction. There are at least two anthologies coming soon that want it, and apparently there was a minor fracas in the blogosphere recently over one author’s calls for an “ethical” stand against negativity. (Is negativity unethical? But I digress.)

I have to admit that I haven’t felt much of an urge to heed these calls for a number of reasons, but probably the biggest among them is that I just don’t get it. I don’t feel like I’m drowning under a swiftly-rising tide of vitriol and nihilism; really, I’m feeling more hopeful about the SF/F/H fiction genre lately than I have in a long time. In fact I had to think hard to remember the last “downbeat” novel I read (Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man), and I’m not sure I could really consider it downbeat, because however ugly it got in the middle (and boy did it; PTSD-inducing tragedies happened to everybody in that book) I knew that by the end, good things would happen. (And they did, quite satisfyingly.) Not necessarily happily-ever-after, note; fantasy novels have no problem killing off major characters or invoking a bit o’ the old Armageddon. That said, there is a certain tendency in fantasy novels to “put the world to rights”* once the MacGuffin of Power is back on the Pedestal of Safety, and the Stoic Heroine has successfully landed a Stoic Hero in bed, if not at the altar. This happens even in dark fantasy, though with a bit of role reversal or moral relativism thrown in — the Dark Lord turns out to be a good guy with bad PR (e.g., Jacqueline Carey’s Sundering duology), or gets redeemed in the end (e.g., C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy), et cetera. It happens so consistently that I literally can’t remember ever seeing a true “rocks fall, everybody dies” ending in fantasy.

Which got me thinking: maybe 50% of what I read these days is fantasy. Could that be why I feel no desperate craving for optimism?

Maybe all these optimism-craving sciencefictionistas should just up their fantasy intake a bit, and then they’d feel better.

* There’s probably a lit-critty term for this, but hey — I majored in Psych, not English.

3 Responses to “Optimistic… Fantasy?”

  1. 1 Domini
    June 18, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    I’ve been feeling that I want some more upbeat SFF myself.

    I think it’s less that we’re being overwhelmed with horribly dark nihilistic books of gloom and doom, and more that we’re short on really upbeat books that also have a satisfying “everything works out” heroic ending. Urban fantasy, for example, has become much more common, and most of those don’t have an upbeat tenor (happy things might happen, but they’re not books to give you warm’n’fuzzies). Not all urban fantasy is super-dark, but the voice and style for most of those that I have read are much more “gritty”. The characters are more jaded, less optimistic. Most sci-fi I’ve read tends towards this type as well–it’s often “real” and “gritty” in tenor and voice, and less optimistic and hopeful.

    Sometimes it’s nice to have a Good and Just Superhero around, or a story that is positive and upbeat rather than “gritty” and “real” and “human”. More Superman, less Batman, so to speak.

    Or this is how I’m feeling it, at least.

  2. June 18, 2009 at 5:01 pm


    But how are “gritty” and “real” and “human”… pessimistic? I think that’s the thing that confuses me the most about this whole push for optimism. Some (though not all) of the optimists seem to be saying that you can’t have a realistic, diverse, complex world, or dense/artsy prose, and still achieve that feeling of warm fuzziness at the end. One of the most optimistic, interesting urban fantasies I’ve read lately was Kate Griffin’s A MADNESS OF ANGELS. It’s very gritty, with magnificently chewy language, set in modern-day London in all its filthy, polyglot, class-obsessed glory. And yet the story’s theme focuses on the joy and preciousness of life (in fact the magic system centers around this concept), and the inherent beauty that underlies this terribly dirty city. Terrible things happen; the protagonist suffers horribly. Yet through all this he keeps a wonderfully snarky, hopeful attitude that’s got me waiting eagerly for book 2 of the series.

    Most of the urban fantasies I’ve read (especially the “new” urban fantasy — like that of my Magic District-mates — as opposed to the “old” urban fantasy of folks like Mieville) have this underlying optimism. Granted, I don’t read a ton of urban fantasy, so you may have a better bead on the genre than I do. But seriously — even Batman has an optimistic core. Why would he keep fighting, if he had no hope of making a difference?

    I guess I’m just not sure what people are asking for here, since optimism doesn’t really seem to be the problem. I think it’s more of a tonal difference that I’m not hip to, somehow.

  3. 3 rachelaaron
    June 19, 2009 at 5:06 am

    Honestly, my English teacher used to frown on SF&F because he said it was too happy, not enough gritty realism. I told him I was just reading for the dragons, sex, and magic and he left me alone :D.

    I can kind of understand the depressing angle, especially among the New Weird books, which always end with sort of a “we’ve lost all our limbs/hope/powers, but at least the world’s still here, if a little more messed up” kind of way. But honestly, we need a little bitter to go with the sugar sometimes. When I want happy, I go read some Ann McCaffery. I’m up to my ears in space cats, precocious children, and singing magic lizards before I know it.

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