I should have posted this earlier this week, when it went up, but the political season's heating up in Asheville and my job has kept me quite busy. This is happy news though. After a long, work-induced hiatus, I've returned to the Coilhouse blog with a piece close to my heart, on how the vision of a dark tomorrow became the norm, and some of the writers who made that happen.
A main reason this topic's particularly important to me is because I give sci-fi a little more credit than most, and not just because I happen to really like it. The idea of not just a few writers, but an entire genre striving to write about what happens next is a radically new phenomenon in the grand scheme of things. Isolated and wonky as sci-fi can often be, its very existence impacts the kinds of futures we envision and strive for (or fight against). It often functions as the proverbial pebble in our collective mental pond.
So, without further ado, read the whole thing:
I always thought danger along the frontier was something that was a lot of fun; an exciting adventure, like in the three-D shows.” A wan smile touched her face for a moment. “Only it’s not, is it? It’s not the same at all, because when it’s real you can’t go home after the show is over.”
“No,” he said. “No, you can’t.”
Story goes like this: there’s an emergency ship en route to a plague-ridden planet, carrying essential medicine. The pilot finds a stowaway; a young girl, Marilyn, who just wants to see her brother.
The pilot now has a problem: he has enough fuel to get himself to the planet, but no one else. Interstellar law is clear: all stowaways are jettisoned immediately.
But space captains are heroic sorts. Whatever harsh decisions the author puts in their background to prove their grit, this is still a story. This time will be different. Marilyn is the perfect, plucky sidekick-in-training; surely the pilot can figure out some way to save both her and the planet’s populace.
No. There is no solution. She says her goodbyes and is ejected, with “a slight waver to the ship as the air gushed from the lock, a vibration to the wall as though something had bumped the outer door in passing, then there was nothing and the ship was dropping true and steady again.”
The above is from Tom Godwin’s The Cold Equations. When it came out in Astonishing Science Fiction in August, 1954, it shocked the hell out of the magazine’s readership, used to the last-minute triumph of human ingenuity.
Godwin’s classic was only the beginning. The ensuing decades would see American sci-fi delve into realms unthinkable to its forebears. Desperate to shake off the genre “urinal,” as Kurt Vonnegut so succinctly termed it, writers first ditched one of the key assumptions: that the hero will always save the day. Maturity, in this view, meant uncomfortable truths. Often, it meant unhappy endings, not just for the protagonists, but frequently the entire world.
This is a scattershot story of how the bleak tomorrow came to reign, and how it changed our visions of the future.