I recently finished a novel called Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall. It's a cute middle-grade novel that tackles a lot of tough issues about war, family, and friendship while being a neat adventure story with kids and for kids. There's quality friendship, problem-solving, and tackling of issues that I see reflected in a lot of adult work, too. I read through it in about a day. It's equal parts fun and humorously bleak (the only kind of bleak I can handle these days), with a core of optimism at the end that brought me so much joy. I loved every moment of it and thought, Yes, this is what I want in my fiction. This!
As I considered the novel and why I loved it so much, I could practically hear things detractors might say about it to devalue it as valid science fiction. From the fact that it's by a woman, to the fact that it centers women and girls as heroes, to the reality of the ending, which I'm sure plenty of adult readers would call too pat and unrealistic to be taken seriously: my brain cycled through them all. The more I realized how much I loved this space adventure the louder these Anxiety Brain Detractors got, and I was almost ashamed when I declared my love for the novel on Twitter. I was tensed, ready to get a reply going, "But that's kids' stuff, not real science fiction."
Even my brain is policing what's real science fiction these days to make me feel bad about science fiction I love. Amazing.
Directly related to this feeling is my ongoing struggle with feeling alienated from a lot of celebrated, mainstream science fiction and fantasy, where grim and gritty is cool and being serious and morose about tough topics is the way to become awards bait; it's hard to feel at home sometimes. It's to the point where I can feel actively embarrassed for not connecting emotionally with the Crapsack Novel or Angst Fest Novelette of the moment, like something is wrong with me as a reader for being uninvested and like I'm missing something that everyone else can clearly see.
But there are definitely optimistic stories out there, and they're more accessible than ever. Some recent favorites are "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer, "Tomorrow Is Waiting" by Holli Mintzer, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, Fortune's Pawn by Rachel Bach, and Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, but stories like these continue to be harder for me to find. And I'm a little shy, too, about trying new stories and new authors because I'm fatigued over being blindsided. Stories that center optimism, that value happiness, that have bittersweet centers but are ultimately hopeful are my favorite to read but increasingly harder to discover in an incredibly busy field. I feel so disconnected from some of the stories the wider community chooses to celebrate for their ability to do the literary equivalent of ripping my heart out.
I don't want to feel sad all the time, because for me it's not a sustainable way to engage with stories. Most of the time I want to be happy, and I want to dive into fiction that feeds that feeling. There are a lot of reasons I center my reading life on cheerful, trope-filled fanfiction where happiness is coded by the format, and it's often because I'm looking for joyful places to spend my time because science fiction and fantasy can be flat out depressing. It's sometimes an abyss of sadness. It gets doubly hard when considering the intersections of my identity as a fan who is a queer woman: I can have stories about women, but queer characters in mainstream, buzzed literature still have to die for whatever reason to be notable to editors (dear Big Publishing Editors: can you please buy some stories where the queer characters live, or at least if some die there's still at least two left? Much love, A Fatigued Queer Fan). Other times, we're invisible.
But it feels like—and this is just me—that to be taken seriously you have to strip the joy from the stories and focus on the rawest aspects of life and humanity to stay on top of the pile. You have to break hearts and stomp on hope to be relevant. Making people cry and laugh? Why bother when tears are more profitable? I definitely get that, because I'm currently in the Captain America fandom, where it seems we all mostly spend our time crying in agony about the rough lives of genetically modified World War II soldiers. It's attractive and so I understand why so much genre fiction explores ongoing angst and struggle and sometimes outright misery. But without levity that pressure never lets up.
I'm not here for that alone because it's a quick way to start feeling hopeless about not just SF literature but the future, too. Happiness is valuable in fiction because it influences the way we see the world around us. If all the characters we meet are sad and their worlds and situations depressing, what does that do to the way we interface with the world? What does that do to the content that we turn around and write, whether it be criticism or fiction or reviews?
The field right now feels very depressed: not the community itself (although maybe that's a part of it; how are we doing, friends?) but the literature that's being produced and published. I'm just one reader, one fan, with a particular reading footprint. It’s anecdotes all the way down this hole I'm climbing through, but it feels morose and pessimistic and dark, and not in a good way. There are pockets of lightheartedness, like the recently launched Mothership Zeta, but on the whole when I look over lists of upcoming books or consider short fiction recommendations I'm braced for straight-up dreariness and a possible heart stab with a beautifully turned phrase.
Death and destruction and dystopia, loneliness and despair and grief, misery and high body counts and gore, these are the main feelings I get. And there is literature I love that falls into these categories, of course, because often it's incisive and fraught and amazing what authors can do to build a story that breaks your heart. I'm not immune to it, but it's not all I want, either, from a genre that uses the future to talk about our present. Because somewhere, sometimes, we're happy, right? Sometimes, somewhere, bad things happen but good things follow. We triumph sometimes.
Perhaps I'm not reading the right stories. But after reading Mars Evacuees I know what I want from my science fiction: to tangle with hard subjects but come out the other side without massive loss or a crater where hope used to be and with an enthusiasm for the future. And I want those writers who are doing it to have a field to push their work into so they and the Why So Serious? fiction can co-exist. Maybe the market just wants to have a good cry? But there's definitely a market for cheerful, funny, zany original fiction! But I'm not a publisher or editor or anyone with the knowledge to see into the heart of genre. I'm just a fan looking for some happiness and fewer oppressed or dead women/queers and ends of stories where amid the rubble there's a rainbow of possibility.
But seriously, read Mars Evacuees. It's an adorable font of happiness.