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Dark Realism


At the nadir of despair, Freya, the protagonist of Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora begins asking the advanced artificial intelligence running her generation starship, conveniently named Ship, for uplifting suggestions to keep up the morale of survivors of a failed interstellar colonization effort. The Ship dredges up accounts of similar survival situations, describing an entire genre as Dark Realism, a term it uses for literature incorporating a style of pessimistic naturalism. Examples such as Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to Antarctica among others describe a style of narrative concerned with survival against incredible odds, where every misstep might invite disaster.




Robinson's idea of Dark Realism stuck with me this past year. Perhaps it’s the tenor of the times but I've found myself increasingly interested in apocalyptic themes and dystopias. It's always been an interest of mine but one that has increasingly occupied my creativity for the past two years.

Dark Realism, as I've come to understand it, is a body of literature, some of it self-aware, other parts of it operating in isolation, that describes a pitiless, inhospitable universe in direct opposition to human existence. A big thread of this would be familiar to any fan of Cosmic Dread but I've been working to investigate more traditional speculative genres as well. I plan to do more work on this concept as the year goes on, but at the moment I offer up this essay as an introduction to what I think Robinson was getting at.

First off, the idea that the universe is an implacable foe of humanity and life in general is obviously a very old one. Skim through the Old Testament and find any number of examples of God having it out for his own creation. Nihilistic urges run through classics as diverse as the Illiad, Medea, and Chekhov's Three Women.

However, the body of literature I'm attempting to describe reaches it full flower in the wake of Weird Fiction's invention (Blackwood, Machen, and, of course, Lovecraft) of Cosmic Horror. As expressed in works as varied as "Willows," and "Mountains of Madness," this literature describes mankind's insignificance in the face of vast, impersonal forces that control the universe or await in precarious slumber. Later science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and James McDevitt wove those elements of existential dread into work that might be considered a bit more plausible than the workings of Elder Gods with unpronounceable names.

One early example of this is the 1954's "The Cold Equations" by Tom Godwin. The short story itself concerns the fate of a young girl who stows away on the wrong space ship and has generated a fair share of discussion and criticism over the years. The basic criticism of the story, that it represents an egregious failure of engineering rather than any universal "nature's law," holds water with me. And yet, the aesthetic experience of the story, the idea that comparatively small mistakes are punished with fervor by physics and mathematics, transcends its icky political subtext.

In more recent years, this strain of science fiction has cropped up in one of my favorite writers - Peter Watts. Watts is a complicated figure in modern SFnal literature. His nihilistic worldview makes for depressing reading, and his version of the future is largely unadulterated  by gestures towards piety and sentimentality. And yet, for the purposes of this essay, it's also instructive as a catalog of what Dark Realism looks and sounds like.

Watts, as a Dark Realist, portrays a world seized by entropy, marked by decline and erosion of meaning. As the universe slides farther and farther into disorder, the only revelation is how little the universe cares for human assumptions. Sentience, free will, and value of catharsis are laughable concepts to the author and the universe he describes, barely worth the effort of derision.

More recently, Dark Realism seems to have embraced two big topics. The first is the Fermi Paradox and the other is Global Climate change.

The Fermi Paradox is the mystery of how, in a world filled with countless stars and planets, it should be that we have no evidence of life out there. Where are all the aliens? One cannot scrape the surface of this question without being confronted with the humbling scale of the universe and the terrifying possibilities its apparent emptiness suggests. Is there some force, or Filter as some term it, that culls advanced civilizations before they have a chance to spread out to the stars? Or is there something innate in the nature of life and intelligence that suppresses it?

Watts answer was blunt: intelligence is not the same thing as sapience and the universe prefers the former.

Stanley's Aurora gave an answer that still strikes me as horrifying, plausible, and somewhat reassuring for all of that. Also add as examples the Ship's realization that many human bromides such as "every bit helps," have little traction in the harsh reality of Newtonian physics.

In his Academy Series (Engines of God, the first novel, is the only one I've read) James McDevitt goes with a force that actively destroys civilizations, a power attracted by one of the most basic products of intelligent beings. In addition, Engines of God includes an updated Cold Equations scenario.

Liu CiXin, the author of Dark Forest, rivals Watts in his grim appraisal of the universe. Unfortunately, his central argument is bound up heavily in the resolution of his second novel so I'll simply say that Dark Forest is one of the best hard science fiction depictions of Cosmic Dread I've read so far.

To be clear, Dark Realism is something distinct from apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian literature, and from cosmic horror. The first three genres tend to include dark and nihilistic themes but are mostly concerned with comparing our world to some horrific vision of an alternate reality. Dark Realism describes the universe itself as being hostile. And while this is close to Cosmic Horror, Dark Realism bends more towards the plausible, using existing science to point out the ways in which our world is not as human-friendly as we tend to think.

I've got my work cut out for me. I hope to collect together work towards the end of this summer to offer a more complete appraisal of this body of literature but for the moment I'd strongly suggest anyone interested in this idea to read one or all of the works mentioned above.


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