When I was young I used to read science fiction. I don't now and haven't for a very long time. So I'm in no position to assess the diagnosis of trends within SF that was recently offered by John Gray in the New Statesman. But the piece does prompt for me a linked pair of questions: (1) How is it possible to be John Gray? (2) How miserable do you have to get in order to be him? In case that should seem rather too personal, I take John Gray in what follows as merely representative of a more general human type.
What Gray writes about the development of science fiction chimes in with his general lack of enthusiasm for the notion of progress. To cut the longer SF story short: it was once the case, Gray says, that at the same time as warning of the dystopian and totalitarian dangers carried by some ideals of remaking the world, SF writers believed 'that human beings can shape the future', change things for the better. 'Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre.' Or, again: '[f]antasy was understood as an exercise in which alternative worlds were imagined in order to create new possibilities of action'. Not any more, apparently. These humanist assumptions, Gray says, are 'no longer credible even as fictions'.
I mean how, then, does one get out of bed in the morning? Not John Gray himself, since, as promised, I am not going after him personally and, for all I know, he may have the most cheerful of temperaments and fill his day with individually rewarding projects. But taking the view he favours as representative of a category of terminal pessimism about the possibilities of making life better for the species to which one belongs, how keep a smile on one's face and in one's voice? The necessary points are already made (by our 'John Gray' figure himself) and should be conceded by readers of good sense. Certain types of world-reshaping ideal are to be opposed and rejected. If the ideals fail to acknowledge the frailties and limitations of humankind, as well as its legitimate diversity, and its inalienable rights, and rather more than that too, which I'll bypass since this is a relatively short blogpost - then take care; treat them with suspicion. But how set aside the elementary human quality of hope? Of practical hope that to specific problems there may be specific solutions; that, in the light of trends that have already made life better for huge numbers of people than earlier generations used to enjoy, further improvements might now be worked for; that fighting for democratic conditions of political life is a worthwhile enterprise; that fighting against groundless prejudices and hatreds and against injustice is always necessary; and so forth? Not only is this part of a humanist vision; it's a virtually ineradicable feature of human life. You know, you get out of bed, you think about how to improve the dark or shining day.
Or else you don't. You tell the world that such hopes aren't credible any more even as fictions. Well, go on, 'John Gray' - that should be one brilliant party. Here's Primo Levi:
You may be certain that the world is heading for destruction, but it's a good thing, a moral thing, to behave as though there's still hope. Hope is as contagious as despair: your hope, or show of hope, is a gift you can give to your neighbour, and may even help to prevent or delay the destruction of his world.
These words, of course, are informed by an experience in extremis. But even outside of that, a discourse of long-range cynicism and despair is to be shunned. It is more affordable by some than by others. (Via.)