Dive into the depths of popular fiction and you notice two different flavors! One offers hope for its denizens with characters who can work to get past conflict and achieve goals. Another creates a bleak hellhole were conflicts are overwhelming and desires often fade into the abyss. While neither is better, one could notice a trend when it comes to popularity. But, why does dark trump light for many? Let’s find out.
Speculative fiction as a whole reflects us, our views, and our world. Take science fiction, for example. It is a reflection of relevant theories and hypotheses, sociopolitical events and ideology, and general viewpoints of society. One couldn’t help but notice that dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, and horror-tinged sub-genres have become more popular in response to the turmoil we’re experiencing in the “Information Age” world. With all this turbulence, anxiety, and general chaos; you can’t blame people from seeking a creative form to share their opinions. These opinions can be vent pieces to voice frustrations towards these topics, escapes to give the reader a sense of thankfulness for what they do have, or even speculating in the end results of many of these problems. So, with what I’ve blabbered about above, why isn’t more positive fiction popular in today’s audience?
One theory I have is people like to see an underdog rise up from the impossible. The more imposing the environment, the greater their accomplishment seems. Now, lighter fiction is rife with conflict. Many of the adventures on the Starship Enterprise were filled with potentially deadly conflict, sometimes on the ship itself! But, these is a sea of light battling with the occasional darkness, while darker genres are “Points of Light” surviving against a world of darkness. The triumph of the oppressed resonates with modern audiences to a greater degree than White Hat manages to arrest/take down Black Hat and makes an obnoxious wise crack. Perhaps this had less to do with idealism as it did overplaying bland stereotypes, or perhaps people got sick of sugary sweet “heroism”. (Sorry, John Wayne! Your old westerns just haven’t aged too well…)
To jump back a good 50 years, so-called “Spaghetti Westerns” are a fantastic example of this. Prior to the “revisionist western”, these movies were about noble paladin archetype sheriffs and lighthearted rogues getting rid of nasty bandits. However, the more Italian style western gave us a focus on corrupt politics, down to earth gunslingers, morally confused drifters, anti-hero outlaws, and the like. This version of the west wasn’t pulp serial kiddy fare on the Saturday morning boob-tube. Stories weren’t just good guy saves the day anymore. Now it was, avenging your dead loved ones, surviving war, finding peace in a hectic and violent world, questioning your authority figures, defending your ideas in a world that hates them, among other themes. In an age contending with the Vietnam War, these themes were much more popular among jaded youth.
By that same token, YA Dystopian fiction applies to that same principle. This same generation is coming out of a war that resulted in a similar gruesome ending like with Vietnam, a federal system that has displaced incompetence and ability to work with itself, corrupt corporate politics rearing its ugly head, civil liberties and civil justice being equally put on the line, among countless other issues. As such, dystopian fiction gives youth a chance to vent and lament their anger of a failing system and broken world, with characters trying to cope with the troubles they face on a daily basis.
This is the part where I stop as fun! Another theory is quite simply, “darker and edgier sells.” This shameless pandering sells to all the “cool kids” who wanna look badass by wielding as many katanas as possible while wearing a trenchcoat and top hat no less! (Don’t look at me, it was quintessential gritty 1990s RPG fashion!) And wouldn’t you know it? Rebellion has turned into a consumer product all of its own because of it. If this wasn’t the case, “Mallpunk” super outlet “Hot Topic” wouldn’t exist! In one way or another, we feel good when we’re justified in our defiance of some rule or standard. As such, businesses take note of this and dish out a wide variety of pulpy lurid goodness to appeal to our inner schlock junkie! For some, it gives them the illusion that they’re suddenly more mature for embracing darker content and more intense subject matter. The irony of this is that without substance to back it up, the content becomes nothing more than juvenile dreck attempting to create a mature environment. Because internet tough guys are the embodiment of maturity, I take it! Perhaps others feel that “GRIMDARK” forms of fiction are more realistic, as their viewpoint of the world is heavily drenched in cynicism. However, it could be argued that heavy cynicism is no more realistic than extreme idealism, as it created a skewed viewpoint that tries to bend the world in the viewer’s favor. This is perhaps one of the reasons why I was disappointed with Fallout 3. The self-aware referential humor was stripped away in favor of everything being dark and gritty. Needless to say, I got bored and apathetic. As such, New Vegas pleased me greatly with a wide variety of eccentric NPCs, morbid comedy, and delightful weirdness to check out. New Vegas is how you take GRIMDARK tropes and play with them in a way that’s still pretty delightful in its own weird way. And speaking of which, there’s more than one way to twist GRIMDARK and BRVTAL in an epic way! And in the GRIMDARK future of Earth, there is only WAR!
Perhaps another reason is simply some people don’t know or want to know about more positive works of fiction. Because we’re so easily stuck in extremely bitter and dreary doldrums. As such, we’re too stubborn to just out of this “anti-comfort” zone. Part of it could be fear! Sure, it’s not likely for us to run to fallout shelters because we think someone’s gonna drop a Big Fucking Bomb on us. In its place, it’s a new Cold War fear. In a sense, we’ve become a culture of fear and the media we consume only reinforces us. If we choose media where everyone, their neighbor, and grandma is a bomb, assault rifle, and techno-hacking gizmo carrying terrorist/psychopath/in-general-not-nice-person, then perhaps we feel justified in sealing ourselves in little boxes of paranoid anxiety. A more positive image would contrast with our alienation, our distrust, our aforementioned frustrations. And when you view things from such a terrified perspective, it’s almost alien! Now, for those who don’t rely on alternate-media and other fringe mindsets, we want to feel equally justified that everyone else is a horrible person. That comparatively, we’re pretty decent people dealing with a shitty world. Of course, this is just an excuse to allow flawed and fallacious reasoning to go unchecked. In the post-apocalypse genre, all the assholes are gone and it’s just you to party till you fucking drop (of radiation poisoning)!! But, would such a nihilistic and self-serving outlook indulge in anything else?
Now, let’s say you’re unaware of many optimistic series. Perhaps the mainstream is too content with pushing forth a more jaded view than a positive one, for many reasons. Among many critics, displaying anything remotely utopian or hopeful is grounds for being preachy and forcing your views onto other people. Perhaps you’ve been pressured by peers to avoid looking for said series because it’s “boring”, everyone’s “bland” and “idiotic” and the hero is a “Mary Sue”… all because things aren’t excessively bleak. To which I say, don’t give into the peer pressure and do not give into such negativity! There’s nothing wrong with embracing stories with a happier outlook, just like there’s nothing wrong with taking a happier outlook itself! Besides, if all of us could just look on the bright side for once, things would seem a little less awful in the world!
Now, is that to say that lighthearted media hasn’t made a comeback in an age of brooding angst akin to ’90s comic books? One could argue that is has! If recent movies by Marvel like The Avengers and X-Men: Days of Future Past are any indication, it’s perfectly fine to have your media lighten up a bit. Give the audience a chance to breath, maybe even a chance to laugh! This is one of the reasons I much preferred Pacific Rim to Godzilla. While both were Kaiju-fighting epics, Pacific Rim realized that the movie needed to be fun, rather than show a confused bland white soldier dude stare at the screen for half of the film. I’m not against media have a darker edge (as it has its audience and can actually be used for good in some cases), but I’m tired of it being abused and used as near-holy rhetoric. It’s okay to approach something with a brighter mindset too, after all!
This is a slightly drunken Doctor Necrotic, signing out!