You don't read many sad scifi stories, and CivilWarLand In Bad Decline is full of scifi stories that are at the least speculative fiction and at the most full-on scifi with mutants and ghosts and stolen memories via mechanical devices and the things. As I read them, one a day only because too much of them would wear me down further (and I was already very down last week) I wondered now and then why it is that you don't see so many sad science fiction, or sad speculative fiction.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote very very sad stories. I read most of his books one summer when I lived in Milwaukee, over two decades ago. It was the summer I worked at the Grant Theater and at Subway, and I was a sophomore or junior in college, living in a studio apartment on 22nd and Clybourn, near where one day Bill Clinton would stop at a diner. He didn't go there until 1996, when I was already living in Madison and going to law school, and I never went to the diner that he would later visit; back then I was poor enough that I had to work at Subway, because one of my meals each day was the free meal I would get eating at Subway. I ate a sub sandwich a day for nearly two years. Not that I was complaining, although I was very poor.
I would go get my books at the used bookstore near the Grand Theater, picking up paperbacks for a dollar. It's funny; I realize now that I walked by the library nearly every day and yet I never went there to get books, even though I was so poor.
I read all the Kurt Vonnegut books that summer, working 60+ hours a week and not getting more than two days off the entire summer, and by the end of summer I was pretty depressed. I always attributed it to reading so much Vonnegut, but now I see maybe it was just that I worked a lot and didn't make a lot of money and didn't have very many friends, and wasn't really sure where I was going in life.
But the Vonnegut didn't help.
Reading George Saunders was different. I've got a really full life now, and even though last week wasn't great, it wasn't anywhere near as bad as when I was in my 20s and reading all that Vonnegut and walking nearly everywhere because bus fare was expensive. But still, the stories were very depressing -- albeit, as I've said, great, well worth reading. Maybe that's why I remember that summer so much, out of all the summers (46, now!) of my life: because of the sadness that stuck with me through the memories of Vonnegut.
David Sedaris wrote, in Leviathan, about remembering sad things:
Honestly, though, does choice even come into it? Is it my fault that the good times fade to nothing while the bad ones burn forever bright? Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story: the plane was delayed, an infection set in, outlaws arrived and reduced the schoolhouse to ashes. Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.He was talking about how his memories of sad times stick to him, even in the midst of good times. Science fiction tends to be an optimistic field: the future, even when its an apocalyptic scenario, ends up being so bright we have to wear shades. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, inventions make lives better. I think even Blade Runner had a kind of happy ending, although Phillip K. Dick could vie with Vonnegut and Saunders for the saddest writers around.
There's a place for sadness. I used to like to listen to sad songs when I was down, letting the songs pull the emotions out of me, shape them into something. Now, I sometimes use stories to do that -- my own stories, in part. Over the last year, as I wrote a lot of short short stories, many of them came out sad. Not all of them, but many of them. Who could blame me? I had a lot going on last year: my dad got sick, I saw the end to 14 years of building a law firm, we had a lot of stresses going on. Taking any stress, any sadness, any worries, and putting them into the mouths of robots and cowboys and dinosaurs, is a form of control. I think that's what reading sad stories does now, too: it helps take an emotion that's too immediate and distance it a bit. Oh that sadness, that's just from the story, I can think, and blame Vonnegut or Saunders or Dick and then later, from a safer distance, examine it and take it apart and put it back together.
That's 10 minutes.