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Ask Slashdot: What's the Most Depressing Sci-fi You've Ever Read? 1365

Posted by Soulskill
from the depress-all-humans dept.
50000BTU_barbecue writes "Usually sci-fi provides adventure with happy endings for everyone. But what story have you read that resonates years later because of some insight about human nature or society that's basically cynical or pessimistic? For me it's Fred Pohl's Jem, with its sharply divided resource-constrained future world driven by politics, and its conclusion that humans are just too destructive to handle contacting alien life, especially if humans have the technological upper hand. I'm wondering what other stories have stuck in people's minds. It can be a short story, a novel or an entire series of books."
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Ask Slashdot: What's the Most Depressing Sci-fi You've Ever Read?

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  • Easy (Score:5, Interesting)

    by virb67 (1771270) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @07:56PM (#40911785)
    Childhood's End
  • Flowers for Algernon (Score:5, Interesting)

    by danimalx (2702969) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:01PM (#40911845)
    I win.
  • Bradbury (Score:5, Interesting)

    by frisket (149522) <peter@@@silmaril...ie> on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:02PM (#40911851) Homepage
    All Summer In A Day [wikipedia.org] (Ray Bradbury).
  • Where to start? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cpu6502 (1960974) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:03PM (#40911869)

    There's the famous Star Trek story "City on the Edge of Forever". The original script by Harlan Ellison is even darker, with people in the engineering section of the ship dealing drugs (which is how the doctor ends-up going nutty -- a bad trip).

    I just read a story last year in one of Gardner Dozois' Best of the Year anthologies. It involved humans boarding a generation ship that would travel to a new galaxy (50,000 years). The first 1000 years were not too bad but over time the humans became dumber-and-dumber, as they had no more challenging task then to scrub the floors/walls/ceiling and keep the ship clean. After 25,000 years they were walking on all fours & no longer bothering to wear clothes (or speak).

    At that point the generation ship was intercepted by a faster-than-light ship that "rescued" the simian-like human beings. I imagine they ended-up in a zoo. (If you have a chance I would recommend buying all of Dozois' annual anthologies. If you like Outer Limits' method of telling a different story each week, you'll like these books.)

  • by The Archon V2.0 (782634) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:03PM (#40911877)
    Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!. Of course, when I was a kid people were predicting that the Baby Boom was going to result in some mad exponential growth thing and there'd be billions of people in North America by 2000ish, so I thought I was looking at my future.
  • Here's a couple. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Robotech_Master (14247) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:04PM (#40911879) Homepage Journal

    Destination: Void by Frank Herbert. (Or as I like to call it: "Destination: Avoid".)

    Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke.

  • On the Beach (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bvdp (1517349) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:04PM (#40911883)
    Nevil Shute: On the Beach ... ordinary people doing ordinary things before they all die.
  • Ender's Game (Score:5, Interesting)

    by malraid (592373) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:05PM (#40911889)
    The ending is just brutal, I just get the feeling of everyone hating themselves after pushing a boy to commit xenocide, even though they won the war.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four (Score:5, Interesting)

    by avatar139 (918375) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:10PM (#40911983)
    When I was young, I found it depressing because of the ending. Now that I'm older I find it depressing because I've seen it begin to grow in the world around me...:P
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:12PM (#40912007)

    ...the human race just ends with a whimper.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:14PM (#40912033)

    Unknowable, incomprehensible aliens come to Earth and destroy it. It takes a while, so everybody just waits to get blown up for no reason.

    Summary:
    1. Aliens arrive
    2. Little contact with humans. We don't know anything about them and can't really communicate with them.
    3. Humans are helpless, but we do figure out Earth is doomed.
    4. Boom. Everyone dies. The End.

  • by Bobtree (105901) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:21PM (#40912155)

    Blindsight, besides being the best thing I've ever read, has a rather stark outlook on the nature of consciousness and what that means for us as human beings. I don't consider it depressing, though some might, and Watts calls his portrayal of human nature "almost childishly optimistic."

    From Watts' homepage: "Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts." —James Nicoll

  • Firefly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by exabrial (818005) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:26PM (#40912223)
    After I heard they cancelled the series.
  • by fm6 (162816) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:48PM (#40912539) Homepage Journal

    Of the titles mentioned here (that I've read), none depressed me that much. For example, Jem. Yeah, the people in it are stupid and destructive, but so what? That's what real life is like. You muddle through, you seize what happiness you can, you do what you can to make things, better.If that's not enough for you, you're in the wrong universe.

    The SF books that depress me are from authors like Harlan Ellison who wallow in their own darkness and babble profound nonsense. And there I think it's the author that depresses me, not the story.

    Somebody claimed that 1984 depressed them because they saw it happening all around them. Really? Nobody's summoned me to viewscreen for mandatory calisthenics lately, and I haven't heard from the Junior Antisex League all week. Yeah, a lot of our political wingnuts (on both the right and and left) sound like they belong to INGSOC, but that's always been true. And contrary to what Orwell feared, they're further from running the show than they've ever been.

    I think a lot of this stuff depressed the hell out of me when I was a teenager because TV had trained me to believe that all stories had endings that if not happy, were at least morally satisfying. But as grownups, we need to get over ourselves. Especially Stephen Baxter, you really needs to go cold turkey on the end-of-the-world novels.

  • by Jeremiah Cornelius (137) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @08:51PM (#40912583) Homepage Journal

    God. What a drag.

    Hey! Ballard's stuff is bleak! I think someone mentioned James Blish, too. That guy's day job was working for the Tobacco Institute. No wonder...

    Then, there is the endless low-level of depression that permeates most Philip K Dick - like a miasma. But he makes you want more, somehow.

  • by drkim (1559875) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @09:13PM (#40912845)

    So right about the Philip K Dick...

    Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Man in the High Castle, Three Stigmata were just horrifying - but wonderful.

    I think while it's fun to read his stuff, no one would actually want to live in his worlds...

  • The Road (Score:5, Interesting)

    by echusarcana (832151) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @09:21PM (#40912941)
    The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Should win this contest by a mile.
  • Gotcha beat. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dr. Manhattan (29720) <.moc.liamg. .ta. .171rorecros.> on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @09:25PM (#40912993) Homepage
    The Screwfly Solution [wikipedia.org] by Alice Sheldon. Extinction of humanity in the most horrifying - and horrifyingly plausible - means possible.
  • by metrometro (1092237) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @09:41PM (#40913145)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Forever_War [wikipedia.org]

    The middle section, in which the soldier returns home to find the planet he gave up his soul for is now a wretched cesspit of crime and misery that can't even remember his war, was omitted from the original publishing, because "Shit, man, we can't print that."

    It's depressing because it's a just a retelling of the author's experience fighting the Vietnam War.

  • by Flere Imsaho (786612) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @10:06PM (#40913441)

    The story follows a manned mission to Titan. Apart from the very long term outcome, it's a thoroughly depressing read - Hacked from Wikipedia:

    En-route, one crew member dies after a solar storm. The use of a CELSS greenhouse for life support provides a continuous food supply, and the astronauts rely on vegetables, grain and fruit from the greenhouse as they travel on. But things take a dark turn as funding and support for resupply and Earth-return retrieval are cut by Maclachlan's administration (proposed and carried out by the very same men that tried to shoot the shuttle down), leaving the team with no hope for survival beyond what they may find on Titan. Once they reach Saturn and prepare to land on Titan's surface, another crew member is lost during the landing procedure with another effectively crippled. Titan is discovered to be a bleak, freezing dwarf-planet containing liquid ethane oceans, a sticky mud surface, and a climate which includes a thick atmosphere of purple organic compounds falling like snow from the clouds; and the only traces of life they find are fossilized remains of microbic bacteria similar to those recovered from Martian meteorites. The remaining astronauts relay their findings back to a largely uninterested Earth.

    Meanwhile, the Chinese, in order to retaliate for biological attacks by the US, cause a huge explosion next to an asteroid (2002OA), with the aim of deflecting it into Earth orbit and threatening the world with targeted precision strikes in the future. Unfortunately, their calculations are wrong as they didn't take into account the size of the asteroid which could cause a Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. The asteroid strikes Earth, critically damaging the planetary ecosystem. The Titan team members are presumably the last humans left alive.

    As the surviving astronauts slowly die of disease and in-fighting, they decide to try to ensure life will continue to survive: they take a flask of bacteria and drop it into a crater filled with liquid water, in the hope that some form of life will develop.

    The novel's final sequence depicts the final two crew members reincarnated on Titan several billion years in the future. The sun has entered its red giant phase, warming the Saturnian system and aiding the evolution of life, in the form of strange, intelligent beetle-like creatures, on Titan. The astronauts watch as the creatures build a fleet of starships to seed and colonize new solar systems before the expanding sun boils off the surface of the moon.

  • by mevets (322601) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @10:20PM (#40913581)

    Fairy tales are different from science fiction; and Fairy Tale is a generous classification of his typing.

  • Re:or Brazil (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nyder (754090) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @10:26PM (#40913641) Journal

    Maybe it is me, but I don't really consider 1984 nor Brazil to be Science Fiction.

    Not really much science in those fictional stories.

    When I think of SciFi, I think of stories where science plays the dominate role, like space travel, advance techonology, and of course, shit with science in it.

    Brazil is about Governments. Not science, but about political issues.

    1984 is about Governments. Not science, but about political/social issues.

    they are Fiction, yes. Science Fiction? I don't think so.

  • by 3nails4aFalseProphet (248128) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @10:48PM (#40913847)

    I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is definitely on my list. For those that haven't read it, I would describe it as equal parts a continuation of WarGames (if they didn't avert nuclear war), Paranoia (the RPG), and Saw. Shake well. Others that deserve a mention that I haven't seen yet:

    Living Will, by Alexander Jablokov. A man diagnosed with Alzheimer's creates an A.I. preserving his own personality. You know pretty early in the story what the A.I.'s final duty to it's creator must be, which only makes it more heartbreaking when the time finally comes.

    The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke. Techies are hired by a cult to build a computer system to document all the names of God. The cult believes when all the names are recorded, the universe will end. The techs are convinced they need to get as far as possible from the cult before the final name is recorded and their belief system is shattered.

    What Eats You, by Norman Spinrad. Absolutely trippy first-person debriefing of a cop after a horrific "incident" in a brutal future L.A. where personalities are injected like drugs. Did I mention the cop telling the story is Joe Friday? Then again, ALL on-duty cops are injected to be Joe Friday. Like I said: Trippy.

    The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. The ending may be "happy" for a couple protagonists, but damn... what a depressing way to get there.

  • Re:or Brazil (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @10:57PM (#40913915)

    Hahaha, this is hilarious. Being Brazilian, I always though Brazil (the movie) whas a great and believable caracterization of a fictional sci-fi future for Brazil (the country). But I never expected someone to actually believe that Brazil (the movie) wasn't fiction!

  • by Pantero Blanco (792776) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @11:37PM (#40914257)

    The short story "Dogfight" from the Burning Chrome collection has a young street criminal discover that he has a talent that could bring him a legitimate source of income and friends.

    Since it's my answer to the title question, you can guess that it doesn't end well. The whole story's online here [voidspace.org.uk] and a couple of other places.

  • by garett_spencley (193892) on Tuesday August 07, 2012 @11:45PM (#40914325) Journal

    It's funny because people who come across as entitled to me are the ones who hold the exact ideas that Rand was so strongly against: altruists.

    The ideas of social responsibility, duty, innate obligations to "society", "greater good" are the ideas that hold that is reasonable expect individuals to think and act pro-actively in certain ways for the benefit of others. The demand that an individual love everyone equally is making a claim to an individual's most deepest and intimate emotions. That's a sense of entitlement if I've ever heard one.

    This is not Rand's definition of the word "liberty" but it is one that I think she would have liked: "Liberty, in a political context, is an environment in which all relationships are consensual."

    Here's quote of Rand's on the subject of conflicting interests:

    "When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept 'rational' is omitted from the context of 'values,' 'desires,' 'self-interest' and ethics." - Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

  • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @12:33AM (#40914629) Journal

    First of all, yes, I have actually read "Atlas Shrugged".

    Yes, I do realize that Rand itself saw some manifestations of what is normally referred to as altruism as rational self-interest at work (the book has that, in fact, even in some quite explicit forms, like the rescue of Galt).

    The real problem with Rand is that her understanding of what "rational" is, is very much dogmatic, and often more emotional than rational in practice. In other words, what she proposes as rational self-interest masquerading as altruism, does not in fact match the real world. The model of behavior that she proposes and glorifies in the book is not in fact rational - it's way over to the other side from the balance of self-obsession vs altruism which results in the best (statistically speaking) outcome.

    In particular, she severely overestimated the importance and self-sufficiency of individual against the society. Her whole model is based on the premise of vast superiority of occasional "heroes" - personal, individual superiority - against the mass of the species as a whole. "Heroes" who single-handedly guided and caused progress by act of their sheer will and ingenuity, pretty much regardless of the environment, and in fact often directly against it. That is essentially what the book is all about. The problem, again, is that there's no evidence really backing that premise. Rand followed it because it matched her beliefs, but a rational philosophy cannot be based on a belief. An internally self-consistent one can, and Objectivism is certainly self-consistent in that sense, but consistency does not imply usefulness if the initial set of axioms contradicts reality.

    The other oft repeated mistake is that such "selfish altruism" is solely a product of rational thought in the first place. In practice it actually arises much earlier than the ability to rationalize, and is seen among many animals. Among some of them it defines some of the crucial traits that distinguish them as species, and humans are in fact one of those species (we are far more "altruistic" than other great apes, and historically our lineage seems to have been more cooperative, judging by anthropological evidence to date). We shroud that in elaborate social rites (itself a result of evolutionary selection of our societies!) that re-enforce and multiply the effect, but that feel of guilt for doing the "wrong thing" at the back of your head is just as much genetics as it is conditioning.

  • by theshowmecanuck (703852) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @04:18AM (#40915735) Journal

    I didn't find Liebowitz all that depressing. At least we're told that there are colonies in space where man still survives.

    How about On The Beach by Nevil Shute. Written at the height of the cold war, it starts at a point in time where everything in the world is dead or soon to be because of a nuclear war, except Australia, South Africa, and Southern South America. But that is only because the wind patterns haven't brought the fallout there yet. The story takes place in Australia and everyone is just waiting for the seasons to change when the weather patterns will bring the radiation south and kill everyone there too. It follows several people and through them looks at how people live knowing it is just a matter of time till everyone is dead. The author maintains that where they can, people just try to live normal lives because that is all their they can do without going into overload. Some do lose it becoming alcoholics and extreme risk takers, etc. Some are in complete denial. Some like an American sub commander, internally can't accept his family is dead and buys things for them for when he goes home. Rationally he knows they have to be dead, but can't help but deny it inside.

    The commander is in charge of a nuclear submarine that was docked in Australia at the time all the hostilities literally went ballistic. They go to Puget Sound because they hear intermitant transmissions from a short wave transmitter using morse code. While up there they determine radiatin levels aren't dropping. After someone goes ashore in air tanks they find the transmission was a broken window and a curtain brushing the sending unit. Power is on because the automatic systems haven't crashed yet.

    They go back to Melbourne and the government there starts handing out suicide pills so people don't have to endure radiation poisoning before finally dying. The book ends with all the characters including a young family with a baby born just before the war, killing themselves as the radiation in the area reaches leathal levels.

    I read the book once. It was incredibly well written. One of the best I ever read. I can't read it again. It is way too depressing. WAY too depressing. I tried once and before I even read a page I had a sort of reaction to it. I had to put it down. There was no way I could read it again. I've read Liebowitz a few times and will probably read it again some time. Not anywhere near the coefficient of depresivity that On The Beach puts out. FWIW I read it in the 70s as a teen, when you could still see B-52s routinely flying north from SAC bases in the U.S. on training runs and patrols. Back when 747s were still fairly rare you could still tell the B-52s apart by how damned high they were flying and the contrails. You could tell they had a massive number of engines by the contrails. Different time.

  • Re:Brave New World (Score:5, Interesting)

    by turbidostato (878842) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @06:02AM (#40916173)

    "So, on the one hand, we have a government trying to emulate 1984. (China). On the other, we have a thriving Brave New World."

    But our Brave New World leaders, clever as Mustafa Mond, adapt to new times and added a bit of 1984 salt to the equation: we've been always at war with Eastasia (so we never gave weapons to Al-Qaeda, and Donald Rumsfeld never shaked his hand with Saddam Hussein); it's obvious what a fine Emmanuel Goldstein Osama Bin Laden did (I was quite surprised when they killed him, but they are fast at finding substitutes); with regards of Newspeak and the Ministry of Truth, it's not only that, say, Julian Assange makes for an almost perfect Winston Smith -sex included, but that "political correctness" is pushed to absurd levels; countries like UK are not so far from the cameras everywhere distopia; and CIA doesn't even hide the fact that they play Brotherhood's O'Brian role as needed. Finally, just compare USA's current sociopolitical situation with the central 1984 motto and cry: "WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH".

    But all this formal/tactical similitudes are just superficial because deeply is the Brave New World pilosophy. As such, is not that say, photographs of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Hussein are forbidden and destroyed, or that the massive destruction weapons issue is not known to be fake, it is that it really doesn't matter; it is not that the Big Brother prosecutes critical thinking, it is that people, all by themselves, choose religious crooks for presidents; it is not that the national lotto is faked but that people really believe that working hard and adapting to the "true way", they'll reach to the 0.01% status.

    In the end, I find Brave New World much more depressing than 1984 because for 1984 world to work, the stablishment is forced to always be on top of everything, always watching and the coertion is too visible and the obvious target to figth against. Brave New World, on the other hand, is self-stabilizing: people voluntarily choose it and the government doesn't need to search and destroy the outsiders, society itself does it.

  • Re:or Brazil (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Nevynxxx (932175) on Wednesday August 08, 2012 @11:33AM (#40918593)

    Pervasive surveillance, socio-political engineering, pharmaceutical engineering, artificial birth - it's all there. I would assume you never actually read either book.

    I wouldn't assume that. I'd assume the reader is young enough that they don't realise that those things didn't exist when the book was written.

    Sci-Fi that's good enough that when the science catches it up, it looks just like fiction. Now that's a skillful writer!

"But this one goes to eleven." -- Nigel Tufnel

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