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Why Dark?

Letter from the Editor: Why Dark?

By Rob Carroll
First Published in Issue 001 of Dark Matter Magazine, January-February 2021

It was a random summer evening in June, and for many people, the world was feeling on the verge of collapse; yet there I sat, safe and sound at home, messing around on my computer like it was any other Thursday night. Maybe—relatively speaking—it was. The COVID-19 pandemic had been stateside for a few months, and my wife and I had long since settled into our new rhythm of doing nothing, going nowhere, and working remotely from home. Plus, the weather in the Midwest had warmed enough to where we could safely visit with extended family for a brief, socially-distanced gathering outside on a back deck somewhere. It was at these gatherings that my parents would sit six feet away from my one-year-old daughter and make silly conversation with her, or perhaps just watch with joy as she ran around the back yard like a giddy child possessed.

So, yeah. Maybe it was just another Thursday night.


But that’s when the question on my computer screen reminded me that no, life wasn’t normal—not for me; especially not for others—and to pretend otherwise would be a lie.

Why dark science fiction? the question asked.

It was a question that had been emailed to me as part of an interview regarding my role as Editor-in-Chief of this new thing I had started called Dark Matter Magazine. I began the project on a whim a couple of months prior and, lucky for me, some people were actually beginning to take notice. They even wanted to hear my thoughts on things. Unlucky for them, I’m not very interesting.

Why dark science fiction?

The question stared me cold in the face.

It might as well have just asked: Why dark? That’s what it was hinting at, wasn’t it? Or maybe even more poignantly: Why now?

It was a fair question to ask, and one that I had pondered a lot in the weeks prior. If it were any other year, the question would have been easy to answer: I love dark fiction, and I love science fiction, and I love them even more together. But such an answer—honest though it may be—felt tone deaf amid the current sociopolitical climate.

Despite my selfish attempt to normalize life, in reality, the United States was absolutely reeling from the kind of cataclysmic confluence of events that are only experienced once every few generations. The pandemic was no doubt the headline on most news days, but contributing equally to the chaos were symptoms of climate change (e.g. tropical storms, hurricanes, and wildfires), symptoms of economic crisis (e.g. massive unemployment, failing industries, and widespread small business closures), symptoms of racial injustice (e.g. family separations at the border, Black men and women dying at the hands of police, and threats to immigration programs like DACA), symptoms of authoritarianism (e.g. an administration working to undermine a national election, a science-denying pandemic task force, and a president that routinely demonized the American free press), and yes, even symptoms of state-sanctioned white supremacy (e.g. “stand back and stand by”).[1]

Why now, indeed?

Why not seek to publish work that is hopeful? Work that envisions a brighter future. Work that offers solutions, builds bridges, champions truth and justice, aims for peace.

To be honest, I don’t have a great answer for that. While it’s true that I often adhere to the Frederik Pohl theory of science fiction—”A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile, but the traffic jam”—I can’t help but think he’s only half right.

And then it dawned on me.[2]

Dark fiction is not necessarily devoid of hope or progressive solutions, and it most definitely does not ignore injustice. In fact, dark fiction is a great way for both artist and audience to explore existing power structures that are hindering love and liberty. It gives us the courage to look those obstacles boldly in the face, together. Once those structures are identified, we can strip them of their power and march fearlessly onward toward catharsis. Catharsis is a starting point for hope. Hope blossoms into change. Change culminates in healing.

So while dark fiction might not pose a direct solution within its pages, it successfully shines a light on the problem. Society needs artists who are brave enough to wave their torch at the shadows just as much as society needs the artists who are willing to take what once was dark and haunted and make it bright and livable again.

The more I think about it, the only real difference between dark fiction and hopeful fiction is the way in which the story ends. Dark fiction ends with a question. Hopeful fiction ends with an answer. Dark fiction urges contemplation. Hopeful fiction inspires action.

Without contemplation, there can be no meaningful action.

Without action, contemplation is made powerless.

Pohl isn’t saying that the future is doomed to dystopia. He is merely urging mankind—artists especially—to examine the roads ahead. He is asking science fiction writers to brave the wilds with torch in hand, ready to expose the dangers that lie in wait. Pohl is asking us to be contemplative people of action. He is asking us to pave the road, map the wilderness, and forge a better future.

Hope will greet us there.


Rob Carroll

[1]  I am writing this letter during the final week of October 2020, and the country is still suffering from most, if not all of the problems listed. To make matters worse, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States just recently surpassed 225,000.

[2]  These final paragraphs on dark fiction’s relation to hope and a brighter future were written on November 8, 2020, the day after Joe Biden was announced as the United States President-Elect. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I found the words I had long been looking for on this of all days.

© 2020, Rob Carroll

Issue 001 Collection