How to Be Happy in Troubled Times: a Genre Writer’s Perspective on Reality

by | May 2, 2013 | Blog

It seems to me as if tensions in the world keep rising all the time. I feel like we live in a time where we just keep ratcheting up the anxiety. In a way, frankly, that’s been good for business for me, because genre fiction is doing great these days as people seek escape. Technology and time have really come together well for science fiction and fantasy (and all the other genres too numerous to name). But as good as that is for a writer like myself economically, there is something beneath the surface that troubles the artist part of me. There is, amongst us, a hatred of our time. A dissatisfaction with the collective us. There resides within, or perhaps rides upon, us this thing that steals joy from the day-to-day. And while it’s good for business, I think too much of it is bad for humanity. It’s bad for us.

I write science fiction and fantasy as my primary source of income. I write stories set in worlds that resemble the past. Medieval worlds, Renaissance worlds, even a dash of pre-history. I write stories set in the future that has yet to come. I write of times that are not now. They are always other times. Elsewhere times.

Reading things set in the glorious past is an escape, even more so if it is a fictionalized past. It’s fun to imagine ourselves in another time. It’s fun to think of the heroic figures and the gorgeous clothes they got to wear, or perhaps we enjoy the simplicity, the earthiness, the freedom to live in the heart of nature, or maybe just the heart of a simpler time. A more honorable or interesting time.

Reading about time in the future is fun in the same way, though admittedly in different ways too. We can imagine heroes in that anticipated time who can do things we never could do and never will. We can imagine that the problems of our world are solved, that humanity pressed through its foibles and animosities, or perhaps simply lived through them, and yet emerged in a time of greatness again, a time of triumphant exploration, scientific and galactic expanse. In a way, the future mirrors what we see, or believe we see, in history. The fantasy of the future represents the fantasy of the past. Sometimes the problems of today are solved. Sometimes they are not. But there is one thing that is always the same. Us.

Which is why I think there is no better time. There’s not. The old west was not better than today. To be a gun fighter or a cavalry colonel was no more glorious or heroic then than it is now to be a Navy SEAL or a police officer. It was no more terrible either. The people living during the time of Britain’s great rise were in no better temporal locale than you are at this place in time where you are. Nor were the French, the Italians or the Spaniards better off at some point during the Renaissance. The Romans weren’t in the height of their empire. The Spartans or the Athenians at the height or depths of theirs. The Turks, the Byzantines or anyone living during the Ming Dynasty had nothing on us. Not even the cavemen who lived in the full flush of nature at its untouched best lived in a “better” time.

They didn’t.

They had struggles. Some lived better than others. There was war and pestilence and crime. There was also love and heroism and kindness. There was greatness in small parts and mediocrity for most. For some, yes, there was misery.

The people in the future won’t be better off either, because the future is just now at another time. It’s always now for whoever is alive. That is what it means to be human. We can never escape our humanity.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to rise above ourselves. Of course we should. Just like people did before us. Just like people will do long after we are gone. We should set our high ideals and work on them. Listen to the moral ideas of the great poets and philosophers. We should even indulge ourselves in the frivolous seeming passions poured into our favorite fantasy and science fiction books (especially mine, you should buy them all!). Trust me, I love reading stories that take me to far away times and places, that thrill me with the joy of spending at least some part of myself with people who truly were great. Every age has its tiny handful of people that the history books anoint in this way. Fiction has even more of them. I get it. That’s fun to read.

But I think sometimes, as I see all the hatred and vitriol that fills our society these days, the arguments and one-sided political imagery people pass around on social media, the cynicism and rhetorical dishonesty people let fly in order to feel good about some stance they have, I cannot help wonder if the rising popularity of genre fiction is due to rising hopelessness. We are all doing this to each other, and then can’t figure out why everything feels like it’s going straight to hell.

That hopelessness I think is, at least to some degree, why genre fiction sells so well these days. It gives people hope because they expect somehow in the future it will all not be like it is now—which is like it was and always has been. And even knowing that as most people do, I think people really want to believe that somehow generations before had it better than we do today as well. That they were more romantic “back then.” That their heroes were more heroic and that the achievements of their ages were more interesting. War was justified in those other times, even glorious. Evil rulers always fell to the armies of right and righteousness. Politicians were less corrupt. Merchants less unscrupulous. Etc.

But they weren’t.

Now really is the best time. It really is. Yes, we could focus on the wrongs and problems in the world. Our media certainly does. It plays and plays and plays all the tragedies of our time, frequently having to look far and wide for a tragedy to show us because, well, on any given day, on most given days, nothing terrible happens nearby. Don’t believe me? Watch your local news. Watch where the murders are they report on all the time. The kidnappings. The terrible fiery travesties. I’m not saying these things aren’t terrible, but watch where they are. Pay attention to how many bad things happen near you, as opposed to how many happen somewhere far away. I see reports of terrible car crashes reported several times a week from states three thousand miles away. Why must I see that? Is it really news for me? I mean, I suppose to some that may seem harsh, like I don’t care, but it’s not for lack of heart that I suggest we have a problem here. My point is, do we, each one of us in our individual lives, need to be made aware of every single tragedy that happens in every single city, town and neighborhood in every single state, every day, at all times? On the LOCAL news? Is there value in that?

You can answer that for yourself. I have no authority to dictate. My point is merely to point out that, with all the hate and vitriol that fills the Internet, it’s pretty easy to get sucked into the cycle of negativity. It’s not just the 24-hour news cycle of negativity, the CNN Effect, but the cycle of lazy politics, of moving to the fringe, of filling up with hate and fear and letting people convince you, letting yourself convince you, you convincing others … that somehow every other time was or will be a better time because our time is so awful now.

It isn’t. It wasn’t. And it won’t be.

This is the best time. We think it’s boring and mundane. We think it’s really jacked up. We think the time before our time, or the time after our time is the one we wish we could have instead. We think that despite whatever negligible nod we’ll make to something better about today, about something we know is awesome about right now, about all the things that are awesome about right now, it will be better later, or it was better before. That’s what we think.

The people in those other times thought the same way. They looked back. They looked forward too. Just like you. They thought today would be better than the time they had too. They will think today was better than what they get someday.

Imagine, 200 years from now, people will read about our time and, with a wistful sigh, wish they could have been here. They’ll wish they could have been you. They’ll be envious of you. Think what you would say to them about that! Think of how you might complain.

And what would you say about today to someone from 200 years in the past, someone who all their life thrilled at the idea of living in a world where there were space ships and laser beams?

Romantic notions of history are fun, but now is always where it’s at. All I’m hoping is that people will stop, at least for a moment, and remember that.

The only people who love and are content with the age they live in are the ones who recognize that they love their lives and can be content with reality. They realize that they must be. We must be. This is the age we get. This one. So own it. Enjoy it. Be a good person and have fun. Do good, care, be engaged, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Let cynicism and anger go.

Notice I’m not challenging you to take up some cause. I’m not asking you to find some secret store of motivation and suddenly become someone you might not want to be. Some hero from a fantasy. I’m just saying, let that dark stuff go.

Be happy. Embrace your today as if this world IS the fantasy. Because it is. Live your life as if now is the height of the greatest era of all time. Walk around and look at the wonder of your world. Marvel at the technology. Marvel at the beauty of nature as it exists. For the height of society for what it is. For the height of anything. Don’t hate what you see for what it isn’t, or for what it might become. Take at least a little time off from the angry knots of activism, from the ranting of your outrage that the world might change, that time might change. Take a breath and just allow yourself to enjoy it for what it is.

Whatever you think will happen tomorrow might happen or might not. Your crystal ball is no better than mine. Meanwhile all your worry and angst is robbing you of the romantic moment in history that you already have, that you are having. The only one you get. This is the best time. The moment that comes next is the future of this one. So have fun. Take a tour of the future universe. It begins now: