Why is so much modern science fiction dark and “gritty”, even “dystopian”? We live in dark times, so seeing characters navigate a dark world might speak to our hearts and minds in a way a bright world cannot. Far less excusable in my view is when a world is not only dark, edgy, or gritty, but also bland and dull. Unfortunately much science fiction falls under this category. A great amount of ink has been spilled about the darkness of science fiction, but much less has been spilled about its dullness. Might a good heavy injection of the Sublime and the Beautiful, creating what one might call “romantic realist science fiction”, improve the genre?
The Sublime and the Beautiful in Aesthetics
What is the Sublime and the Beautiful? Both are aesthetically pleasing, but whereas the Beautiful charms and smiles, the Sublime impresses and moves. The Beautiful inspires lively sensation, the Sublime inspires steeling and astonishment. The Beautiful cheers, the Sublime awes.
Both sensations are beautiful in the sense of “aesthetically pleasing”, but whereas the Beautiful is the light aspect of beauty, the Sublime is the dark aspect. Indeed, the Beautiful is often explicitly associated with day, the Sublime with night.
The aesthetic study of the Sublime and the Beautiful was pioneered in the 18th century, and the Sublime aspect of beauty was elevated by the Romantic movement, reaching its peak in the 19th century. The great 19th century painter John Martin perhaps captures the contrast best in his two paintings, “The Great Day of His Wrath” (1851-53), representing the Sublime, and “The Celestial City and the River of Bliss” (1841), representing the Beautiful. The Judgment of Paris has a great thread, starting with a truly excellent post by Heinrich Saint-Germain, about John Martin’s art if you want to see more.
Cinematic depictions of the Beautiful are legion, but truly good uses of the Sublime are somewhat rarer; in color film the best examples, at least among widely-seen films, are (the very under-rated) “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-2003).
“The Ten Commandments” is particularly interesting, since Cecil B. DeMille’s aesthetic tastes were very antique by contemporary standards, and the film’s visuals were directly inspired by the paintings of Lawrence Alma-Tadema (born 1836, died 1912), to the point that DeMille laid out prints of Alma-Tadema’s paintings for his set designers to use as a model for the aesthetic he wanted! Aesthetically, the film is a fugitive from the 19th century, the last century where timeless beauty still predominated, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the film has always enjoyed outsized popularity among audiences. Hmm…
Introducing Science Fiction to the Sublime
So, what does all this have to do with science fiction? Well, what better setting for the Sublime than outer space? The Sublime is all about grandness, scale, awe, magnificence, and power, and what embodies these qualities more than the raw forces of a whole planet, a solar system, a galaxy, or even the universe itself? The bigger the better!
How much more imposing the “dark satanic mills” of Romantic writing and art would be if they were on a science-fictional or space-operatic scale. How much more terrifying the transformation into something inhuman, as is a common theme in cyberpunk or dystopian science fiction, would be if the transformation corrupted whole populations on a galactic scale or if the end result were incomprehensibly monstrous, so monstrous it couldn’t fit in the confines of a standard-issue Earth-bound dystopia.
Yet what do we see in our dystopian futures? Although there are pleasant exceptions, the aesthetic of “Blade Runner”, the definitive vision (even if not story) of cyberpunk, being among them, the standard dystopian science fiction setting seems almost designed to be as ugly and as soul-deadening as possible in its aesthetic, with naught a hint of the Sublime.
Admittedly this might be on purpose, just to drive home how hideous these settings truly are, but it seems to me to be a waste of everyone’s time and the creators’ talents. In addition, it’s actually even worse than just a soul-deadening drab visual landscape. The stories and characters themselves in these “dark and gritty” futures are also soul-deadening, drab, ugly, petty, and meaningless, and there is truly no excuse for that.
Romantic Realism: the Key to Artistic Greatness
And this is where “romantic realism” comes in, which includes romantic realist science fiction. The reason we have to suffer with our “art” being dominated by the drab, the ugly, and the insignificant is because our culture, and thus the art it produces and promotes (particularly in its “prestigious” echelons), lacks a belief in the individual man’s faculty of reason, of man’s volition, the power to make choices and shape his own destiny.
Bereft of this, the culture’s view of art becomes not, as Ayn Rand put it in “The Romantic Manifesto”, “a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgements”, but rather man “as he really is” in all his insignificance and filth. Thus any and all parts of life, no matter how dull, drab, petty, or ugly, become included within art, and indeed must be included, even emphasized, lest one stray too far from the mundane and fail to emphasize how meaningless the will of the individual truly is in life.
This, as Robert Tracinski points out at his website, is the lingering influence of the school of “Naturalism”, and is the source of the unbearable dullness and bleakness of so much “high” art in our age. In our view of the future, in our science fiction, even in our dystopias, it is this dullness, not the darkness, that is the true cause of their repulsive ugliness.
Characters making choices that have meaningful effects upon the world around them is essential to almost any story. In so many of these dull, bleak, dystopian science fiction works the characters either have no volition at all or make choices that have no meaning, as they are powerless to affect the world around them, even if only in a small way. Given that it’s not too surprising that audiences tend to lose interest in such stories and their characters and come to not care at all what they do or what happens to them.
Romantic Realism: Good even for Dystopias
I have criticized the trend of science fiction to portray dark futures and worse worlds than the one we live in today, but that doesn’t mean dark science fiction worlds or even dystopias are bad or lack artistic merit. On the contrary, dystopian romantic realist science fiction, one that is dominated by the aesthetic of the Sublime and where characters can and do make meaningful choices, can harbor within it some of the most human and compelling stories the imagination is capable of producing, even if this potential is only rarely realized.
So how can science fiction writers, artists, creators, worldbuilders, and other creators improve upon this grim situation? Although good dystopian fiction, including good dystopian romantic realist science fiction, is possible to create, the dominant view of the future we labor under today is one that will inevitably be worse with less prosperity, less peace, less liberty, and even less humanity than we have today.
For a bright, bold, vivid, hopeful View of the Future
A hopeful and even utopian vision of the future provides a much-needed antidote to this pessimism that pervades society. The “solarpunk” movement is perhaps the most prominent trend of recent years that seeks to effect such an improvement in our collective view of the future, but many more such movements can be envisaged.
I myself have offered what I’ve called, for want of a better name, “nuclearpunk”, a bright or at least vivid vision of the future much like solarpunk, only instead of solar and renewable technology being the center it’s nuclear technology, up to and including nuclear pulse propulsion to reach the planets and ultimately the stars.
With a generous helping of influence from Gerard O’Neill, when it comes to space colonization, that is essentially the setting my three (soon to be four) novels takes place in. Although there is still plenty of conflict and drama, the world is a brighter and better place; technology is more advanced, the people are richer (to the point their investment portfolios are big enough to maintain a socially acceptable standard of living without a job!) and more prosperous, and the level of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law is higher.
Technically much of my work doesn’t even take place “in the future”, because my science fiction setting is an alternate history that began with a much better and brighter 20th century. By the year 2021 the aspirations of futurists for humanity to become a wealthy spacefaring civilization have already been achieved! Why wait for the future to improve the world when you could reach out into the past instead? I admit I have idiosyncratic reasons for making my setting an alternate history, but a big reason is that I want to show, if only in fictional form, that not only a future but also a present day that’s better is and was possible.
As S.K. Ditta put it in his review of my novel “Letters from the Airy Deep”, “Its vision is of optimism, of hope, and of a basic confidence in human beings.” That’s very true, since my setting is bright and optimistic, and I do sympathize greatly with the school of romantic realism, which if I had to guess does show in my writing. “A basic confidence in human beings” is a romantic realist view.
Star Trek as bright optimistic Romantic Realist Science Fiction
Interestingly, another person, who hadn’t read it yet at the time, once told me that I set an expectation that one of my books would almost be along the lines of an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. Although I can think of no direct parallel between a Star Trek story and any of mine, I am a Star Trek fan, and that may be (subtly) reflected in my writing. More to the point, “Star Trek” is perhaps the definitive example, at least in popular culture, of a bright, optimistic, hopeful future, one that is confident in human beings, so the comparison being made isn’t too surprising.
Star Trek, at least the version from The Original Series through Enterprise, fits in well as romantic realist science fiction. All of reality or “man as he really is” in all his insignificance and meaninglessness is not shown, but rather the parts of reality that convey a message, tell a story, or raise interesting questions. Man’s choices have meaning and affect the world in the Star Trek universe.
The bright and optimistic view that the future will be a better place shines through in Star Trek, being challenged but in the end reaffirmed even in “Deep Space Nine”, the original “dark and gritty” incarnation of Star Trek. Indeed, the volition of the characters, their ability to make choices that meaningfully affect themselves in the world, the cornerstone of a piece of romantic realist science fiction, is even emphasized in “Deep Space Nine” like in no other series.
The aesthetic Decline of Star Trek
Interestingly, Star Trek itself reflects the evolution toward a bleak, drab, dull, and inhuman view of the future. In The Original Series, produced in the mid to late 1960s, the sets, the colors, the aesthetics, and the settings are vivid and full of color. The color is even further enhanced by vividly colored lights illuminating the various surfaces, like the grey walls. The architecture and design is pleasingly futuristic, even if they’re too influenced by mid-20th-century Modernism to be truly beautiful. The women are feminine, with miniskirts and long hair being dominant fashions.
In none of the later series does any of that ever really come back. As early as 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” the dominant colors of the interiors become silver, black, grey, white, and beige, and through the end of Enterprise in 2005 that never really changes. The dark, dull, and drab design is a remarkable contrast to The Original Series.
The uniforms put up more resistance, with a resurgence of color in the 1980s and early 1990s, but that too faded to drab by 1996, never to come back. The women also never really look as feminine again, eventually devolving to a drab androgynous short-haired pantsuit aesthetic that sets in after the late 1980s. Woman guest characters never enjoy costumes that are as wild, frilly, and girly as in The Original Series again. In a word, the aesthetic becomes boring.
A Star Trek “What if?”
This could have worked to the franchise’s advantage if “Enterprise” had vivid colorful uniforms, miniskirts, long feminine hair, and wild frilly girlish costumes as the dominant fashions of the 22nd century, along with equally colorful interior design. After two centuries of World Wars it makes sense people would want to live it up and women would want to be women again, thus retroactively making the 23rd century Original Series look an after-effect of the Third World War. Now that would have been cool!
This would also have reinforced the drab aesthetic as reflecting the Federation’s and Starfleet’s authoritarian and militaristic evolution. The Federation itself becomes steadily more villainous in “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine”, and this could have culminated in a late 24th or early 25th century series depicting that turn sparking a civil war to restore Federation principles. Pitting the continuity and unity of the Federation against the principles of the Federation would have been an awesome premise. If the principled side, that I’d also give a more vivid “retro” aesthetic, won, at the cost of splintering the Federation, it would reaffirm the bright optimistic future and shake up the setting, opening space for new adventures and conflicts.
Girly Girls and manly Men of the Future
As you can probably tell I like The Original Series aesthetic the best, but my setting is less a Star-Trek-style “1960s in space” and more like “the long 19th century in space”, because what we think of as the long 19th century never really ended in my alternate history, instead continuing through the 20th century.
To take just a few examples, girls wear skirts and dresses, keep their hair long, wear wide-brimmed frilly hats, tie huge bows around their waists and heads, and try to keep a soft curvy hourglass figure. Some changes, like makeup and miniskirts becoming accepted, still happen, though. Not coincidentally that’s the aesthetic I find appealing, but it’s at least a plausible development.
It also serves I think to illustrate something sorely lacking even in most “optimistic” science fiction, even in most bright romantic realist science fiction: that in the spacefaring future men can be men and women can be women, that what humanity should aspire toward is a future where girls can fully express their femininity and be adored for it by everyone around them. You don’t have to become some sort of androgyne to be a good citizen of the spacefaring universe. Being futuristic doesn’t belong to those who would want all women to assume a masculine role in life. That is a message that runs throughout my work, in all of my characters and settings, and it’s a message I think the world needs today.
Girly girls can and will go into space too, there’s nothing wrong with masculinity or being a man, and both will live a full and very human life in space. Another strong theme that pervades my work is that the future does not belong to artifice, that people in the spacefaring future will be close to nature as humans were meant to live, and will recreate a green and verdant environment to live in out there, a vast archipelago of primeval forests stretching across an ever-expanding reach of the cosmos. Space habitats will be lush, life will be leisurely, and even the smallest spaceships can have trees and flowers sprouting up from their hardwood floors, joining stone walls and copper bathtubs as vivid colorful decorations all made from natural materials.
A future of girly girls skipping in their skirts through the primeval forest pinning flowers in their long hair, being made love to by their strong handsome men, enjoying their children playing at their feet, and looking up through the verdant canopy to the sight of an alien world rotating under them is the future I want and reflect in my work.
The Unknown in Romantic Realist Science Fiction: Sublime, not Ugly
Girls and boys will also go out and explore the unknown together. If the Beautiful is provided by the above vision of the future, the Sublime in my setting is provided by the rawness and immensity of the unknown cosmos, the challenges of alien worlds and races. Whenever my work strays into darkness and adversity I intend for these antagonistic forces and people to be sublime, not ugly.
“2001: A Space Odyssey”, and its sequel “2010: The Year We Make Contact”, provides an excellent example of a sublime antagonistic force in science fiction in the form of the Monoliths. They’re aesthetically pleasing but not truly “beautiful”, instead being impressive, having an air of mystery and menace without being ugly, a force that commands respect and awe on account of its immense power.
The supermassive black hole Gargantua in “Interstellar” is another excellent example, and probably a better example of a romantic realist science fiction aesthetic than “2001”. Indeed, the entire dystopian setting of “Interstellar” is a good example of making good use of the Sublime to depict a dark and worse future. Even so the story itself conveys a message of hope, of man and the human individual having the ability to shape his own destiny. Miller’s Planet and Mann’s Planet are sublime places, but none even approach the peak sublimity of Gargantua. Its immensity, menace, darkness, and great power may even make it the definitive example in all of science fiction cinema.
Wormholes to the Sublime
In my own setting, once wormhole technology is developed, which will occur about a thousand years in the future in my next story I will write, exotic places like pulsars, black holes, and galactic cores will be favored places to visit for space explorers, though (usually anyway) in less dire circumstances than in “Interstellar”!
In just the core of our very own Milky Way, there’s not only a supermassive black hole but also a great density of stars. Instead of the mere thousands of stars we can see in the night sky, there millions of stars would be visible to the naked eye, no doubt a shimmering curtain of countless points of light enveloping the night sky in a beautiful embrace, nature’s reward for those who are tough enough to make it. Starlight would be so bright that one could easily read a newspaper by its light, the sky never truly being dark by our standards.
And the Milky Way is nothing compared to what other galaxies harbor in their cores! Such locations will be the favorite places for our protagonists to visit in my next story.
Worldbuild boldly, Worldbuild Vividly
I prefer bright futures, but if and when I do indulge in my darker impulses and introduce some not-so-bright elements into my setting or into my work, I shall continue the bold and vivid artistry of my work to date. I might create a dark work, I might create a light work, I might create a beautiful work, I might create a sublime work, but what I shall always endeavor for my work to not be is bland, dull, boring, or ugly.
For any science fiction artists or creators focused on depicting the future, I strongly advise you to follow my example. Be as dark or as edgy as you want but always be bold, always be vivid, and always create romantic realist science fiction.