The Perils of Nihilism

Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism posits that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.

I was at onboarding at a new job for most of this last week. New job, same as the old job, only a different title, more money, and bennies. Yay! Life is good! Writing… definitely on the back burner for the time being. I’m trying, but more or less my brain is being eaten by work and I’m unwilling to push back on that while I’m getting settled into the new role. I’m like a kid in a candy shop… I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was about six. I am now, according to my title, a Scientist. I have purpose, I’m in my sweet spot, and I’m happy. It’s been a roller coaster ride to this point, and I’m looking forward to a smoother ride for the next little while.

What got me thinking about the nihilistic aspect of so much modern genre fiction was a conversation with a colleague who, when I mentioned in the icebreaker during training that I wrote, got quite excited about meeting a fellow SFF fan. As I have done so many times before, we compared notes as to what authors we enjoyed, who we avoided reading, and why. It never fails that the other person mentions that it used to be fun (and I will note here that the colleague is at least a decade my junior) but now they have to work hard to find stuff worth reading and they actually have developed a bit of a complex, being unwilling to try anything new because it’s going to suck. Gloom and doom awaits them inside the covers of that new book, and that’s not what this young father wanted. In fact, he and his brother, also a new Dad, had co-written a children’s book.

I was describing my work to him as being ‘small stories.’ No one is saving the universe, they are just trying to live their lives, and dealing with what comes at them – whether that is space pirates, aliens, or young incontinent dogs. He laughed, and said that sounds like it’s much more his speed than stories that go on and on about nothing at all. We shared a mutual dislike of the epic fantasies that fill tome after pointless tome, and then it was time to get back to work. The encounter left me thinking about why I write what I write. And what I hope to accomplish with it. I’m not writing for the money – I’m an Indie. Money is nice, but it’s never going to be the largesse most people assume when I admit I have seven novels in print. I’m definitely not writing for public accolades. I’m the Nice One, but I’m nonetheless not the politically correct one. I have Ideas about the place of men in society – and women, and children, and that makes me Not Acceptable to the current mores. So why do I write, other than to amuse myself?

I write because I think humanity is pretty darn nifty. I don’t think that this world is careening to Hell in a handbasket and that it’s coming apart at the seams. I think people are cool, individually, and as a group they can be brutally evil. Some individuals are evil, sure, but the mob is scary. For all the evil in the heart of humans, there is also joy, compassion, laughter, and the still small thing we call hope. If I preach liberty, and life, and justice, it’s not just because I’m a true-blue American. It’s because I have lived without those things and understand that they are vital to the survival of the soul.

So it’s not that I’m preaching when I write. I’m not a preacher. Not cut out for that (and no, it’s not because I’m a gurl). It’s that I feel very strongly that nihilism is wrong. Human existence does have meaning. Every child that is conceived is precious, and lovable, and a wonderful addition, not a weight on the Earth that is dragging our species to annihilation. And speaking of species, the role of Homo sapiens is not to despoil this planet, nor to migrate out into the stars destroying all the planets we can lay our grubby hands on. We’re just trying to live, and to leave a better world for our children to take up after us. I write heroes to give hope, to remind my reader that everyman can be a hero, too. That the ordinary every day life can contain a kernel that is fantastic, beyond our imaginings, but that humans are after all, human. Humans are amazing. I marvel every day as I work with some great specimens of humankind that my safe space is filled with men in white coats… and strong acids. I joked when I was learning one test and stirring together nitric and sulfuric, with a later dollop of ammonium hydroxide and possibly a soupçon of hydrogen peroxide that this felt more like alchemy than organic chemistry. My trainer pointed out this test was developed over a hundred years ago. Someone, somewhere, realized that if you combined some very improbable solutions into a devil’s brew we handle with the greatest respect (and regularly lose borosilicate flasks when they can’t take the heat and stress) you could do a very delicate test for an impossibly small amount of something. Humans, man. Never underestimate humans. Want to hear something cool? When we realize we’re breaking something, we put it back together even better than we found it. The Earth? Sky’s the limit, and somewhere out there a little roadster is breaking the trail we’re going to follow that will take us somewhere utterly amazing.

If I write about it, maybe someone will be inspired to do it. To have the faith that humanity has great purpose, and they can fulfill that. There’s a method to my madness.

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Header image is “Complex Space” by Cedar Sanderson


  1. EARTH FIRST! We’ll strip mine the other planets later. 🙂

    Yeah, I hear you about the nihilistic approach to not just science fiction, but almost all modern fiction. I sometimes find myself slipping into grim dark and then struggle to drag the story out of the dark and into the light. Mind you, it does end up being a decent story if I manage to pull it off. Then there are a few that aren’t salvageable no matter what. Still fiction is supposed to entertain, not enlighten all the time.

    1. I can write pretty dark and grim, but it’s like riding through a thunderstorm. The characters do come out to the other side. It’s never said, but the characters take it as a given that there is a point to it all, and that they can make their corner of the world a little bit better.

      Okay, can do tragedy, but my preferred tragedies come from bad choices. The characters must have the ability to make good choices in order for their bad choices to be tragic. That’s what makes it a tragedy: they didn’t have to travel down that road at all.

      Now that I am thinking of nihilism, it has to reflect a certain world view. We were taught it was a result of WWI, but is likely deeper. Not to get all religious and political, but I suspect it’s stems from the idea of no deity and that everything in the universe is an accident. If there is no right and wrong, how can there be good and evil? If it’s all just an accident, then what’s the point?

      Several responses in that framework comes to mind, but I don’t want to get religious and political. One may deserve comment: The attraction of things such as anthropomorphic global warming may be a way to rail against nihilism. If man can truly destroy the world, then it proves that he is not insignificant.

        1. Won’t anyone think of the poor, virgin planets being defiled by the greedy hand of Man? (clutches pearls, faints)

      1. Dunk ’em in Chromerge. There’s nothing Chromerge can’t clean up, with no wasted effort such as one suffers by flinging a carp. 😀

  2. “I was describing my work to him as being ‘small stories.’ No one is saving the universe, they are just trying to live their lives, and dealing with what comes at them”

    That’s kinda what I write too. Been thinking about this as while it’s over in the same corner as “space opera”, a reader expecting Save-the-Galaxy is going to be disappointed; if my characters vanished from their universe, it would make very little difference to anyone but themselves. But their lives matter to themselves, and they live accordingly, or would if that durn writer wasn’t always screwing things up. (As one reader put it, I don’t so much write fiction as follow ’em around with a clipboard, taking notes.)

    We need a better descriptive to cover this — that the reading public can understand and glom onto, that sounds just as interesting as “space opera” or “epic fantasy” but conveys “what if space opera/epic fantasy/whatever focused on just one guy’s problems?”

    1. Hmm… “Rock in the Pond” stories? Where one character’s life won’t make a huge, eternal difference (the pond doesn’t change because of the rock) but that one person can change things and make waves?

    2. I think of this as “high-stakes” vs. “low-stakes” fiction, though that somehow makes “low-stakes” seem somehow less compelling or important. And as you say, it isn’t.

      Also, one guy’s problems may be emblematic of a whole class of problems experienced by all guys (and gals) in that universe. So solving those problems for one person might conceivably change the shape of society for all people beset by that problem.

    3. I had a number of plot bunnies that were ‘small stories’, but I haven’t been able to put them down to proper story because I find them somewhat difficult to write – I tend to imagine them as journal entries, for the most part. “Dear Diary, my master has acquired very impressive steeds – I am told they are magical constructs. However, I am discovering I am severely allergic to the things, and I don’t want to lose my job.”

    4. All of Jane Austen’s works were about characters just “living their lives” – and yet we read them still today.

      1. That’s because their lives included incidents that resonate beyond that time and culture. And often were told with a very sharp amount of wit.

  3. Re: nihilism, so long as the characters have a regard for people and things, the story can still work. For all that Lovecraft comes under fire for a nihilistic worldview, his love of a particular time and place and civilization shines through, which makes its potential – perhaps inevitable – loss all the more poignant and the forces both historical and alien arrayed against that civilation all the more terrifying.

  4. Recently I read what must be close to the very pinnacle (nadir?) of dystopian ghastliness, “Erosion” by Alexander Olson. Well written but it may be the most depressing thing I’ve ever read. Only two characters are remotely sympathetic and one is a year old toddler. I kept hoping for some light at the end of this wretched tunnel but there was only horror and blackness. In the end the sprightly adorable toddler dies in horrible pain from a raging infection leaving his self appointed caretaker sunk in existential despair. The End. Yeah yeah spoilers, tough.

    The mind of this author is a toxic waste dump. Nihilistic in extremis. Not the slightest tinge of redemption in evidence. Avoid at all cost. Wish I could unread it. Is there a class below nihilism? I fervently hope this is a bottoming out of the trend.

    1. For me it’s Stephen Baxter. Great concepts, but the man has a serious boner for human extinction which turned me off his work.

      1. He can actually write. It’s just that everything he writes boils down to “the universe sucks and we’re all going to die.”

      2. Yeah, but have your friend who goes off on “anthropogenic global warming” read the “Northland Trilogy”.

  5. I’m not a billionaire, I’m not dating anyone, the last person I did wasn’t a supermodel, my family annoys me, I’m realizing my “friends”are assholes. My life sucks, so the universe and everything in it must suck. I wonder how much of that drives the nihilistic craze in a lot of fiction.

    1. Egad, I just realized… the Universe seems to be expanding (so I was going to claim that it blows rather than sucks) which suggests that whatever surrounds it is the thing which truly sucks.

  6. I have a world (currently one of the worlds I’m practicing short stories in) that is, objectively, a post apocalyptic setting (Fantasy world, a war so bad it killed 3/4ths of the population of the planet only 10 years in the past.) Yet, as I write it, everyone’s so busy getting on with the rebuilding that there really isn’t that post apocalyptic feel. Which led me to realize what I dislike so about the Post-Apocalyptic stories I’ve seen… the focus always seems to be on how horrible everything is rather than “welp, that left a mark. Time to start cleaning up.” So many post apocalyptic worlds seem steeped in nihlism, steeped in a sense that there is no winning, there is no better, there is only putting off the inevitable as a grand f* you to the universe. So much so that if you remove the nihlism, the despair, it changes the genre. Even in the ones where there are shreds of hope, they’re in contrast to the general nihlism of the world. I think, if I get these collected, I’ll be taking the out Fantasy gives me and just pretending it’s NOT Post-apocalyptic.

    1. One of my WIP’s is a “post apocalyptic” setting as well. And as you said, it’s focused more about rebuilding. More like the first two books are focused on survival because horrible winter and stuff. Doom and gloom? A bit, but they are looking to the FUTURE and what they can do to make things better for the situation.

    2. “Gentlemen, I love war.”

      I love world wars, as a setting element. There’s something about these enormous conflicts that I love using, so they are often key to building the setting.

      I don’t think the belligerents are fools, carrying on a fight they can not win, that is not worth the effort. (Okay, I can’t build every single faction as largely intelligent and sane, because that doesn’t reflect the real world. But neither does nihilistic despair.)

      History does tell us that some people had a very rough time. History also tells us that people often did the best they could in difficult times, kept on keeping on, and sometimes put some very bad things behind them. Look at what we know of family oral history of the world wars.

      ‘The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn’t die in vain. Where, then, is the road to peace? Well it’s a simple answer after all.

      You and I have the courage to say to our enemies, “There is a price we will not pay.” “There is a point beyond which they must not advance.”: Reagan’s _A Time For Choosing_

      There is a way that men should live, we choose to pay what it costs to live that way, there can be an enormous psychological component to that cost. We have wisely and knowingly chosen to spend that resource.

      There are people who do not understand paying a psychological cost for a goal, because they do not understand how to bear that cost. There are people who do not want us to know what costs we can bear, because they would prefer we see no option but surrender. These people do not determine the whole design space for stories.

    3. …the focus always seems to be on how horrible everything is rather than “welp, that left a mark. Time to start cleaning up.”

      Yeah. It’s like they bring everything to a dead halt, then just sit there moaning about it (mommy fix! MOMMY FIX!!”) Perpetual weep-wail and tantrums might be entertaining to emo-teens, but to grow’d-ups not so much.

      In the past 100 years my galaxy has had the death throes of a wrongheaded government, two civil wars, and plague, and there was plenty of ugly, but that was then, this is now. We’re still mopping up, but we’re sure as hell not mired in woe-is-me!

    4. *chuckle* I had to look it up. Cosy Catastrophe’s the trope name, apparently, but the image that came to mind was that guy sitting and having his coffee and newspaper despite a flood.

      I think there was a different trope about the apocalypse not really resulting in endless destruction of everything, but people being creative enough to survive with relatively unchanged comfort.

    5. I left a long comment, but it is in the spam moderation trap and I don’t have admin authority to get it back out. WP Delenda and so on.

  7. Spent lunch talking with someone who works for a living (carpenter). There’s absolutely no nihilism in his world – just work and frustration with contractors who can’t understand what “No, I am not adding that room to this job at the last minute” means. Which I think fits into Wyrdbard’s point: nihilism only develops if your characters (and their creator) are not busy doing, building, and living. It’s hard to be nihilistic when you are carving panels for a cedar chest, or planting roses (and pruning roses, and watering roses, and de-aphid-ing roses, and watering roses, and weeding roses, and…). You don’t have brain-space to sigh with existential despair over the meaninglessness and ennui of human existence and the Inevitable Downfall of Man.

    I think that is what really bugged me about the geology book I read last month. I was looking for stuff on the Toba event (super-big volcano went boom, bad things happened) and found this, which was pretty good until it got to the “What if Yellowstone or Mammoth Crater blows?” The authors described the mayhem and destruction, and seemed to feel that it would be the EOTWAWKI period. I kept waiting for, “OK, here’s how you cope, here’s how you adapt, here’s how long until you can come back to the Great Plains and start farming again.” Nada. Just “geology attacks, US and Canada die, the end.” Blargh.

  8. There’s an odd movie called Gentlemen Broncos by the makers of Napoleon Dynamite. I don’t know if it’s a good movie, exactly, but it’s a perfect movie for me. The story is that a publishing darling of the sort Cedar talks about here runs out of ideas and is desperate for a book so he steals one from a young author. He then rewrites it by adding weird sex stuff, nihilism, hatred of humans (all the cool kids stuff that lets readers know the writer is cooooool), and the movie shows this by contrasting scenes of the original optimistic work (starring Sam Rockwell) with the rewritten version (also starring Sam Rockwell).

    Essentially it’s a repudiation of the new wave of SF that came to be hip and semi-popular in the Seventies as contrasted with the more heroic stuff of the pulp era that came before.

    The movie got terrible reviews, nobody saw it really, and I’m not even sure I can recommend it despite the fact I loved it so much I was almost bouncing in my seat with glee as I watched it. It was almost like a movie made so perfectly for a very, very thin slice of humanity that unless you are in that thin slice (grew up at the right time, heavy reader, reader from different eras of SF, have an odd and off sense of humor, love over the top nonsense that is subtle at the same time, hate the same targets, can empathize with the protagonist while still sympathizing with the antagonist) you just won’t get it and will wonder why anyone could love it.

    Strangely I was talking about nihilism in SF with a friend last night because I was stunned that there was a movie out in theatres starring Luke Skywalker and not only do I have no desire to see it, I actively wish it didn’t exist. I saw the original movies dozens of times each as a kid, dressed as Luke for two Halloweens, and I loved that those movies were optimistic and fun with a futuristic setting. Why in the world would I want to see Luke as a broken hermit whose big victory meant pretty much nothing. A failure. My cheering meant nothing. The movies that tossed off the nihilism of the Seventies SF has become nihilistic? Why? Gah. It might be a good movie, maybe even great, but I don’t care. I don’t want to see Luke like that. And anyone who wants to try to shame me into seeing it? Can feel free to try to convince me. I need to know whose work to avoid.

    Without that fun and optimism I’m not sure I’d have tried SF, but if I hadn’t read the nihilism as contrasted with the optimistic (small town library, mostly old books so I read more of the classics than the new wave nihilism as a consequence) I don’t know if I’d have wanted to be a writer. If the content I wanted to read was readily available maybe I’d have been happy to just be a reader.


    1. I will say that my Star Wars-loving husband absolutely adored the new movie, partly because he suffers from chronic depression and thus completely understands what happened to Luke, but also because though the whole danged movie was a retreat, you ended on an upbeat note. IOW, the First Order is running rampant, we’re down to almost no one left, but there’s a definite sense of “we’re going to rebuild.”

      Plus the Yoda cameo was hilarious.

      1. I’m internally divided by that Yoda cameo. 1) It’s great to hear Frank Oz in anything. 2) But they have Yoda approaching the old, seasoned, been there, done that Luke using the fake goofy zany wacko personality he used as a façade to test Luke all those years ago. Why? It’s never explained. And I -refuse- to purchase and read the 13+ books and comics that allegedly answer the plot holes and off-kilter characterization. A film shouldn’t require homework.

  9. A story can have an “everyone dies” ending, but not be nihilistic. “Rouge One”, for instance, is about the massive sacrifice needed to snatch a small sliver of hope against enormous odds.

    1. Of course, Rogue One didn’t end with everyone dying. It ended with Princess Leia receiving the stolen plans and heading off to start her own quest. It’s pretty much the quintessential example of “the hero is defeated, but a young boy picks up the hero’s sword and vows to continue the fight” ending. Still, I take your point; a story can have a sad ending without leaving the reader feeling like they might as well go slit their wrists right now.

      Here’s another of my favorite “everyone dies, but it wasn’t pointless” from Sarah Hoyt:

    2. The main character in the anime series Puella Magi Madoka Magica came to an umabiguously tragic decision in the series finale…and yet the finale was still suffused with warmth and hope. Yeah, an ending can still be tragic and yet not be “Everything sucks, we all need to eat a big plate of worms.”

  10. It occurs to me that if Stephen King were to write the Shawshank Redemption today, it would end with Andy drowning in crap during his escape, and people finding out when they see rats scuttling out, gnawing at his pieces.

  11. I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was about six. I am now, according to my title, a Scientist.

    Me too*. I’m so happy for you. Congratuations Mrs. Sanderson! Bravissima!

    *Not entirely true. Age 6 = princess. Age 8 = jockey. Age 10+ Scientist/Astronaut. But close enough.

    1. Bought Tanager’s Fledgling. Have a drink on me.

      I can’t say I’ll get around to reading it soon. My kindle is full of fantastic MG, Baen & Castalia authors to read. I have more to read than time to read again.

      Alleluia & Amen twice 🙂

  12. Sorry, you cannot value the environment without thinking humans have intrinsic value… unless you are very insecure of your nihilism.

    If humans are just another specie, then they any change they nake on it is just their nature. They are not special “except for the bad”

    Same for human rights.

  13. “Existential nihilism is the belief that life has no intrinsic meaning or value.”

    This is another one of those information attacks that kind of ride along with Post Modernism and Communism. Some people just loooove to wallow in the inherent pointlessness of human existence. Everything is meaningless and nothing has any value, every action you will ever take is a useless waste of time and effort. Just lie down and die already, and spare the planet your useless thrashing.

    As a partial answer to this, I have a character. She came to Earth in the Early Sumerian period, and landed in the middle of the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. She landed as an artificial intelligence, and gained consciousness and sentience from a human being.

    Why the hell is she still here? What is there for her here, in this world of debased, despicable Humans with feet of clay? All the things people normally equate with meaning and value are ephemeral to her. Money, power, social standing, homes, family, kingdoms, empires, even races of men have come and gone in 10,000 years. What on Earth does she want?

    The answer to that question is the answer to nihilism. Meaning and value are things that -we- create, they don’t exist without us. What does the 10,000 year old robot want? Us. She wants us.

    Nihilism is the notion that nothing matters. Leftists pretend that means something bad, because they are trying to beat us up with it.

    But the truth is that it doesn’t matter that nothing matters. We continue along regardless, and God loves us anyway, even though we are pointless, futile beings of no intrinsic value.

    Its an information attack. Don’t stand there and take it like a schmuck, return fire.

  14. I’m not sure how many of you have read Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel series The Sandman. (Be warned if you haven’t; though it gets quite lyrical at times, its roots are in horror comics and it never entirely veers away from that.) If you haven’t, he has seven personifications of forces called The Endless: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire & Despair (the twins), and Delirium.

    I read, about a month or so back, an article on a gentleman who was arguing that every person born was increasing the amount of misery in the world. Mind, he wasn’t arguing that people should kill themselves, only that life is, on the balance, more miserable than joyful, and in some ways he wished he had never been born.

    My first reaction was somewhere along the lines of speak for yourself/measuring other folk by his own bushel and coming up short. My second was, Hey, there’s a literal disciple of Despair.

    All this grimdark nihilistic writing is emblematic of a particular mindset that isn’t, no matter what its purveyors think, a universal perspective. In case you aren’t familiar with that bushel metaphor, it refers to chronic cheaters, people who would have a special “bushel” for the grain they sold, so measuring other people by that way comes up with short measure.

    1. “I read, about a month or so back, an article on a gentleman who was arguing that every person born was increasing the amount of misery in the world.”

      Another retard. Well, according to nihilism, it doesn’t matter how you feel. Misery, joy, all the same.

      From my perspective, I have to say I don’t think it matters much how I feel either. Because if I wait five minutes, I’ll feel different but the world will not have changed, nor will my circumstances.

      Remember, my friends: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment…

      … chop wood, carry water!”

    2. I did like something Gaiman had near the finale of the series that the Endless might actually exist more in order to properly define their opposite rather than being hot stuff in themselves. Death made clear the preciousness of Life. Desire’s hungers make clear the pleasures of Contentment. Delirium’s confusion is met by Sanity. Destiny is still unable to revoke Choice. “And what does Dream define?” “….*…Reality, perhaps.”

  15. Dr. Who wrestles with this a lot. The most recent (at least in US) one, which ends with the female Doctor showing up, is pretty amazing.

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