Not in Utopia Anymore: The Rise of Dark SF

Lately it feels like “dark SF” is coming up everywhere — during panels at conventions, in online discussions, and in the submission guidelines of magazines like Apex and ChiZine. Now, “dark fantasy” has been around for a while — a kind of not-horror, not-wizards-and-elves but still dark and supernatural genre — but “dark sf” as a term is relatively recent. So what does it mean, and what makes it “dark”?

Lately it feels like “dark SF” is coming up everywhere — during panels at conventions, in online discussions, and in the submission guidelines of magazines like Apex and ChiZine. Now, “dark fantasy” has been around for a while — a kind of not-horror, not-wizards-and-elves but still dark and supernatural genre — but “dark sf” as a term is relatively recent. So what does it mean, and what makes it “dark”?

Dark SF isn’t simply horror and it isn’t exactly noir, although it certainly mixes tropes from both genres with science fiction. What distinguishes it is that it intentionally goes against the grain of traditional science fiction, which presents threats to utopias. In Star Trek, for example, the tension always comes from a chaotic force threatening an orderly, peaceful and idyllic existence, whether it’s Khan, the Doomsday machine or the Borg. In traditional science fiction, human ingenuity and will triumph over the challenges of technology. Jim Kirk finds victory through sheer guts and determination. The human brain and spirit hold out hope in Fahrenheit 451. And in Brave New World, though John ultimately kills himself, it is after tremendous resistance to what he sees as a corrupt society.

In dark SF, the world never was utopian. Ridley Scott’s one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner provide two of the best examples. Certainly Blade Runner’s plot of intelligent creations rebelling against their makers hearkens back to Frankenstein, but it’s the dystopian world that Scott creates that makes it truly dark SF. It’s overcrowded and trash-strewn. The poor live at ground level in the remains of 20th-century buildings (including the Bradbury Building) while the wealthy live above in newly constructed super structures.

In Alien, the Nostromo is about as far from the white and pristine Discovery One of 2001 as one can get. (Although the Nostromo’s influence on the Alexei Leonov in 2010 is notable, almost as if to acknowledge the shift in science fiction that Alien provoked.) Much has already been made of Alien as a haunted house story set in space, so I will not dwell on it, but I feel it’s the “truckers in space” metaphor that pushes it further into dark SF. While the crew of the Enterprise(s) could disagree with one another, they were highly trained, heroic, professional idealists. The crew of the Nostromo bickered, swore, sweated and freaked out.

It would take decades, though, before Scott’s vision hit the mainstream, on television, with shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica. Shows like Babylon 5 or Stargate may have been on the forefront of pushing SF into darker places than Star Trek, but those shows felt like they happened on sets. Firefly and BSG grounded themselves in a day-to-day reality. And by day-to-day, I mean a place where things stop working, lights burn out and there’s not as much room as you’d like.

And perhaps it is that grounding in reality, in all its messiness and imperfection, that defines dark SF. We’ve been talking about science fiction, but you can see the same trend in the broader arena of speculative fiction. Take Harry Potter. Chris Columbus’s take on the first two films offered a bright, fun world. Alfonso Cuarón set the series on a darker, grittier path that it would follow until the end (including a disturbing torture scene in The Deathly Hallows, Part I and a squirm-inducing death-by-snake scene in Part II). Street clothes replaced the robes and a sombre palette replaced the first two films’ primary colours. Christopher Nolan offered a more realistic Batman than Burton or Schumacher in Batman Begins and went further by evoking a 70s crime genre like The French Connection in The Dark Knight. Even the Lord of the Rings movies took this dark, realistic route. Clothes were ripped, dirt got under fingernails and buildings were cold, dingy places.

We live in a cynical culture lacking in ideals and romanticism. In the real world, we view captains of industry as robber barons exploiting their customers and employees. Sports stars must be ’roided up to keep breaking records. We wait to see which musicians or actor will get divorced, arrested or OD.

Perhaps that’s what we expect — and maybe demand — in our speculative fiction. Returning to Ridley Scott, initially Rick Deckard in Blade Runner refuses to hunt replicants. He needs to be threatened. He’s not suave, brilliant or rippling with muscles. Hardly a hero, he’s simply ruthless and calculating. (He might even be a machine.) Captain Dallas of the Nostromo isn’t a square-jawed Jim Kirk ready to take on the alien. Rather, he’s terrified. In another piece of dark SF cinema from the early 80s, John Carpenter’s The Thing, MacReady is an unlikable jerk who survives by being willing to torch anyone he thinks might be the alien.

In an interview on io9, Josh Friedman, producer of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, summed up his show as: “Flawed people trying to figure their shit out … We’re not heroes. But we can do heroic things once in a while … And I don’t want someone showing me what it’s like to be awesome in the face of hard times. I’m probably not gonna be awesome in the face of hard times. I’m gonna be scared and mediocre and I don’t need to feel worse that I’m not awesome.”

Perhaps the essence of dark SF isn’t setting or theme, but recognizing the dark, flawed side of human nature. Advanced technology can make our lives easier, but it does not make our nature any better. (And we don’t need television, films or novels to tell us that; we can see it in our day-to-day lives. Think about it the next time some who is looking down while texting crashes into you and doesn’t offer an apology.) Cable news and the Internet bring us live coverage of riots and scandals from around the world. Any romantic ideal of the noble human collapses under the weight of evidence that we are still violent brutes. Idealistic notions of a better tomorrow or a noble hero who fights for what is right against all odds fall flat. In reality, Jim Kirk would have pushed his luck one too many times and ended up space dust. Likely, it would have been someone like the pragmatic Bill Adama — a dark SF hero who knows when to retreat and when to put ideals on hold in order to save lives — who got the better of him.

Living in this postmodern world, we demand a certain level of realism in order to identify with characters and scenarios even in speculative fiction. While we look to stories to offer us an escape, it is getting harder and hard to buy into Gene Roddenberry’s noble, near-perfect vision of the future. Just look at what J.J. Abrams did with it.

So I ask you to consider what you prefer to see in your SF: Visions of ideal societies with heroes who are ruled by their better natures, or flawed characters doing their best in an imperfect world? Or is there a third option?

Matt Moore is a science fiction and horror writer and the Marketing Director for ChiZine Publications, a small, independent publisher in Toronto. His fiction has been published in several magazines, including twice in AE.

His story from AE #1, “Touch the Sky, They Say,” is nominated for an Aurora Award.

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