Over the Transom: The Not-So-Dark Future

You’ll hear the same advice repeated in books, magazines, and blogs aimed at writers: Do bad things to your characters. Raise the stakes. Give them something they care about and then take it away. And then do it again.

Dark is cool. Dark is edgy; it gives us that frisson of excitement that comes from a close brush with danger. If recent pop culture is any guide, we love our anti-heroes, from the Nolan/Bale incarnation of Batman to Walter White. We gravitate toward grim settings populated by characters with nefarious motives. What will that evil mastermind do next? How many more people will suffer while the good guys struggle to turn the tide, when it’s far from certain they’ll succeed?

You’ll hear the same advice repeated in books, magazines, and blogs aimed at writers: Do bad things to your characters. Raise the stakes. Give them something they care about and then take it away. And then do it again.

It’s solid advice, up to a point. It certainly beats letting characters coast through life without encountering any serious obstacles, or only facing the kinds of problems they’re able to solve, like the hero of a video game progressing through carefully constructed levels. But stack the cards too much against the protagonists, or society, or humanity as a whole, and dark can become exhausting.

It also becomes dull. At AE, we’ve certainly published our share of stories about sacrifice, defeat, or characters facing overwhelming adversity. But after reading too many of these in a row, the stories with a more optimistic outlook are the ones make us sit up and say “I want to see more of that.” And humour, when successful, can come across as a breath of pure oxygen in an otherwise inhospitable atmosphere.

Perhaps the draw of the Dark comes from a perception, to paraphrase Tolstoy, that happy futures are all alike, and every unhappy future is unhappy in its own way. But it turns out that dystopias tend to come in just a few flavors: government and/or corporate oppression; lawless society ruled by warlords; aliens/robots/zombies run amok; the aftermath of nuclear Armageddon or ecological disaster. The grooves of these narratives are well-worn, to the point where they’re almost comfortable. It’s true you can tell almost any kind of story in these settings, but sometimes one has to wonder whether the gritty backdrop is integral to the narrative or just the set dressing.

On the other hand, as Kevin Kelly recently pointed out, we don’t spend nearly enough time imagining future worlds we’d actually look forward to living in. And once you start picturing them, it turns out there are just as many — or even more — possibilities for interesting stories that take place within brighter futures (and not just ones that are bright for the chosen one percent while the other ninety-nine remain mired in the muck).

Of course, the advanced future won’t be all unicorns and rainbows. After all, we’ll still be some flavor of humanoid and still have human-like problems. There’ll be some definition of crime. We’ll have conflicts and differences of opinion. One person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. (I, for one, hope that once we have intelligent surfaces and networked everything we’ll be able to think of better applications than punishing teenagers who have the gall to commit graffiti.)

Is it boring and uninspired to create a shiny world where food and energy are abundant, everything is connected, and we’re free to pursue our interests wherever they take us, only for people to struggle with the same stupid problems that we have for centuries? I don’t think so. Not if those stories can tweak one parameter of our lives and show the effect that change can have on those age-old tensions within each of us, explore how we’re endlessly adaptable yet always carrying the legacy of our ancestors in our genes. Not if these stories give us a lens through which we can glimpse a facet of ourselves that might otherwise remain hidden. After all, isn’t that what stories are for?

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