When I teach the period of Soviet history between Khrushchev’s retirement and 1985 or so, I tend to sum it up as grey. Brezhnev, Andropov, their successors kept watch over a grey country where concrete was the building material of choice, where the snow turned grey in the cities, where conditions slowly grew worse as things went unrepaired or were patched and mended but not really replaced. Individuals fared better, or worse, and had their own stories with color and joy, but as a collective whole? Grey.
Why grey? I’d argue that grey is what is left when hope goes away.
It was not the time of fear that Stalin’s rule was. It was not the time of struggle and endurance, where living through another day or week was a victory of unimaginable power like WWII. But nothing really changed despite the promised eventual victory of socialism over corrupt capitalism and the development of the final phase of economics and history, true communism where the state has withered away and all are equal and happy. In general, life was grey. Not so bad that people rebelled, not so good that everyone had enough of everything they wanted or even needed. Government promises never kept led to a loss of trust and an erosion of hope.
When the material world is all that truly matters (Marx’s basic philosophy), and that world is stagnant or growing worse, why hope? Here and now are everything. If you look back over thirty, forty years of here and now and see only a slow decline, who would dare to keep hoping?
There’s a reason the name “grey goo” was fastened onto genre fiction, mostly science fiction and fantasy, that emphasized the depravity of humanity and the dystopic nature of the imagined future. Humans can do nothing right. We destroy everything we touch. We extirpate helpless, peaceful species. We roam the stars only to corrupt them. Future Earth is a hell-hole, a toxic wasteland, an irradiated warning to other civilizations to stay away. Humans are innately and uniquely depraved and there’s no hope for a better world aside from a few of the grim survivors. The world would be better off without humans.
Blargh! I read enough of that in the late 1980s when I was in my “wear black and write depressing poetry and mope about the unfairness of life” phase. I like to think I outgrew it. There were the “nuclear war leads to Mad Max but worse” books. There were “last man on earth is a cad” themed YA novels. Oh, yes, nuclear winter was going to freeze everyone to death. Any wonder I latched onto the Horseclans novels? Yeah, there’d been a nuclear war that leveled everything, but the books were about survivors and hope and, ahem, sex. Not great literary material there, but really fun stories about great big telepathic cats. I read around the sex.
As a historian, I managed to avoid doing much research or reading about the period from 1919-1939 in European history until five years ago. I couldn’t stand the grey, depressing toil of reading about how Germany and other parts of Europe spiraled into the clutches of the NSDAP and other equally charming groups. I avoided political history like the plague. Actually, I enjoyed reading about plague (Black Death, other pandemics) more because people actually survived and things improved over time.
The older I get, the lower my tolerance for grey goo seems to be getting. I need hope. Yes, characters can go through hell. Yes, terrible things happen, heroic last stands with one or two if any survivors, but I need hope. Humans have our flaws but we’re learning and making things better. We go to the stars, liberate other species from an evil empire, and muddle through. The brave prince slays the evil dragon, defeats the corrupt mage, and wins the hand of the beautiful princess, who happens to be rather good at keeping things running and keeping clean sheets on the bed while he’s off dealing with the nasty usurper making life miserable in the kingdom next door.
Some of my stories are grim. Neither Rada Ni Drako nor Elizabeth von Sarmas get their hearts’ desire: families and children. Others endure persecution for no reason besides being something those in power want to make go away. Stavros George Zolnerovich endures torture and slavery. But there’s always hope.
Hope makes the difference. Hope makes Rada Ni Drako dig in her claws and survive. Hope turns Elizabeth from a condemned girl into a brilliant general (OK, hope and a lot of hard work and a most unusual mule.) Hope and a texting cat, and his siblings, turn S. G. a decent human and a warrior of sorts. While charity may be greater than faith and hope (if you go by the King James translation), without hope, the book goes splat. Or goes flying across the room, never to be read again.