Leigh Brackett on Pessimism

Leigh Brackett

If you spend a lot of time reading/watching the news or plumbing the depths of social media, you may feel like everything is going to crap. You may be feeling like it’s time to despair, or that things have reached an all-time low.

And I’m not going to pen an essay arguing how wrongheaded this is. I’m not even sure I disagree with the sentiment.

As our society has embraced secularism and postmodernism and grappled with contemporary evils, pop culture has shifted to reflect this sickness of the soul. “Grim-dark” fantasy reigns, and science fiction has contracted, more content now to turn inward to psychological and sociological meditations rather than exploring the possibilities of far-off stars and strange alien civilizations. Many popular superheroes aren’t even heroic anymore.


But you know what? The pendulum swings. The worm turns. And none of this is new.

Master SF/F author Leigh Brackett, back in 1975, lamented the pessimism of then-modern scifi. In an interview with Tony Macklin she commented (emphasis mine):

“I get a little bored with pessimism, too…for one very big reason. Apart from science fiction, I am a tremendous ancient history buff. I have been since I was exposed to The Ancient World in school when I was a kid, a very young kid. Great book, if you remember. And this world has always been such a place of, my God, strife, bloodshed, pestilence, famine. It’s turned turtle three or four times just on its own. Climates have changed, entire species have been wiped out, Tamerlane slaughtered his 70,000 at Isfahan, the Crusaders slaughtered their 70,000 at Jerusalem. It’s a dreadful world in many ways. But it always has been! It’s also a perfectly marvelous world. And I love it. And I’ll never live long enough to see all I want to see of it. And I don’t have this pessimism for how everything’s terrible and mankind’s all gone to pot, and…no, I don’t have a paranoid view of the world that some of these writers have, which they’re perfectly welcome to. And it’s theirs and I wish them joy out of it, but…they seem to feel that everybody’s against them.”

This of course isn’t to say that one can’t be pessimistic and be a great SF/F writer. Without having delved too deeply about their histories and worldviews (always a precipitous starting point for conjecture, I know), I’d venture that Poe and Lovecraft and Bradbury, for example, maybe not have been the most cheerful and optimistic of guys, yet they were literary geniuses.

But there’s something about Brackett’s writing that reflects her rejection of despair and pessimism. Her stories hold their share of violence and tragedy, but they also feature a sense of wonder lacking in too many modern tales. She knew how to craft heroes because she believed in heroes. She knew how to astonish and awe because she believed the world to be a dreadful and marvelous place.




In this vein, I would urge new writers – write with wonder and optimism!

And readers – stories with heroic heroes and (sometimes) happy endings aren’t childish or simple. They’re hopeful, and they reflect a more beautiful facet of the world in which we live. Game of Thrones can be a lot of fun to read or watch, but if you find yourself eventually tiring of perpetual baseness and ignobility and gray morality, consider refreshing yourself with some of the more classic and uplifting tellers-of-tales, who have largely fallen out of vogue in recent years. After all, during these trying times we could all use a little bit of fantastical cheer.


  1. Yep, you have to believe in heroes to write about them. I think that is what gets me the most, that so many people mock and ridicule the heroic.

    And while I’m not a Captain America (comic) fan, that storyline that you showed the one snippet of, that was just horrible. The debasement of the heroic is truly a sickness of the soul. I really like how you put that, as it just fits so (sadly) perfectly.


  2. Thanks for posting this, PCBushi. I have never seen that quote from Brackett before, and I think it is quite timely. The heck with pessimism!

    Also, nice touch posting that cover of The Sword of Rhiannon; my favorite LB novel of them all.

    • Yeah. While it’s foolish to bury one’s head in the sand, I think it’s ultimately more beneficial to highlight the positive rather than dwell on all that’s wrong. Be a happy warrior.

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