I read and watch a fair amount of science fiction. More and more, in that reading and viewing, I encounter dystopias: societies whose distinguishing characteristics are hopelessness and misery.
Note that I’m not criticizing literary classics like Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932), Anthem (Ayn Rand, 1938), and Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949). I get why the societies presented therein are so terrible and repressive. The entire point is an existential conflict between extreme, soul-crushing tyranny and the protagonist’s aspirations for autonomy and dignity. That the circumstances under which each dystopia arose are not fleshed out? That elements of each repressive society seem at times less than one hundred percent realistic, much less sustainable? That’s understandable as an instance of dystopia as trope (and I’ve had much to say, if in a different department of this magazine, in defense of various tropes).
Some plots by their very nature require a dire, if not insurmountable, problem. The short-term aftermath of nuclear war is never going to be a happy place. On the Beach (Nevil Shute, 1957) falls into this category—but that novel, in my opinion, is compelling exactly because—and distinguishing itself from pure dystopia—many of the lingering survivors refuse to let impending doom descend into gloom. Resistance may be futile, and yet humanity goes out with its dignity intact.
But these classics I’ve cited are political or sociological in nature, and the emergent pattern that distresses me involves science fiction. The prevalence of dystopian SF, I firmly believe, is a Bad Thing. Science fiction has been called the literature of ideas.1 What does it say about the genre when such a prevalent idea is despair?
For my taste, far too much recent science fiction is hopelessly and needlessly depressing.2 You may ask: why do I care? There’s more than enough available to read or view. If I don’t find value in a particular story or movie, author or subgenre, well, I’m free to move on. True. My concern isn’t with leaving unfinished a story, TV show, or movie that turns out not to be to my taste—and it happens from time to time. My concern, rather, is with the societal message conveyed by such pervasive doom-and-gloom, especially to young (and, presumably, impressionable) readers and viewers.
Consider the many stories set amid failed economies, energy privation, and ecological collapse. Doesn’t technology, at least potentially, give us ways to avoid those pitfalls? Why offer young-adult readers such a steady diet of societies fallen prey to ill-described disasters, that then give rise to (for example) weird gladiatorial contests, hopelessness relieved only in virtual reality, and formerly developed countries largely devolved into sprawling shanty towns?
Because the world is hopeless? Not! Famous doomsayers, from Thomas Malthus (An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798) to Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb, 1968) to the Club of Rome (The Limits to Growth, 1972, and its sequel reports) have been proven wrong time and again. I’ll take a can-do, creative, problem-solving attitude—like that of, for example, Norman Borlaug (awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, for his role in initiating agriculture’s Green Revolution3)—any day over the better-known naysayers.
In the most general terms, why do recent SF stories and movies so often suppose humanity’s slow but prevailing progress over the centuries—in standards of living, life expectancies, environmental progress,4 general literacy, scientific discovery, availability of knowledge, and personal freedom—will not just halt, but even reverse?
Why, in a word, are so many SF stories fatalistic?
Fiction, like life, will always involve people confronting challenges. How about, a bit more often, we have plots show people surmounting those challenges? Addressing (and dare I say, solving?) environmental issues. Expanding the economic pie. Providing clean and abundant energy. Continuing to improve our health. Aren’t such outcomes possible through science and technology, human creativity, and the as-yet untapped wealth of the ocean floor and of an entire vast cosmos beyond our planet?
And my complaint extends beyond dystopic plot lines. I’ve found myself reacting as negatively to fiction that is only gratuitously dystopic. That is: to stories whose shorthand signaling to readers or viewers that “we’re in the future” uses economic, energy, and/or ecological implosion. As if such a collapse is preordained. As if we all accept that such doom is at hand and requires no explanation for its onset.
There are, after all, countless non-gloomy ways to signal, in passing, a story’s placement in some future. Flying cars. Robotic caregivers. Orbital billboards. Orbital/freefall pleasure palaces. Dynamic tattoos. The daily lunar shuttle. Independence Day celebrations in Basquelandia, Kurdistan, or Scotland. Great-great Granny’s vidmail from the Mount Everest trek she gifted to herself for her 150th birthday. The once fearsome scourge of cancer. Floating cities—of gleaming towers, not tethered barges and leaky hulks adrift on a drowned Earth. President Iain Armitage.5
Robert Heinlein—I forget, alas, in which book(s)—famously signaled a future in three short words: “The door dilated.”
Admittedly, regrettably, civilization isn’t on some inevitable upward march from one new height to the next. We’ve all seen far too many instances of regress amid the progress. We’ve all seen heartbreak and backsliding, seen some people left behind as others thrive. And yet, the overall positive trend since the advent of science—and I’d venture to guess that most readers of this magazine have a degree of confidence in science—remains evident. And hence my cri de coeur: why, even as we live longer, healthier, more (materially) comfortable lives is our literature increasingly predisposed toward despair?
We’re Homo sapiens. Let’s try to live up to the name we gave ourselves.
Suppose the dystopian trope continues to entrench itself. At what point does this negativity cease to be a trope, a storytelling convenience, and become expectation? Pessimism? Defeatism? A self-fulfilling prophecy? Because progress doesn’t just happen. Progress requires ongoing human endeavor.
A few words especially for my fellow authors:
We’re free, of course, to write what stories and scripts we wish, just as readers are free to read and view whatever they prefer. I would never dream of suggesting otherwise. There will always be a market—and in some storylines, and for some authorial messages, the need—for dystopia. Within the genre, too. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm, 1976), for example, has quite the downward spiral—despite dogged efforts, and ongoing failures, to address and reverse an existential crisis—until the dramatic, hopeful, and brilliantly foreshadowed conclusion. And while, as another example, the post-apocalyptic world of Lucifer’s Hammer (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, 1977) has an abundance(!) of post-disaster awfulness, the book’s overriding message is of hope, as a dedicated few do battle with despairing fellow survivors to protect what remains of civilization.
So keep those existential crises coming. By all means, factor in the inevitable unforeseen consequences. Also: nasty complications, crushing disappointments, unimagined setbacks, winners and losers, and nostalgia for too many good things lost in the turmoil. Despite all of which, we might see—as I, for one, yearn to see—more story inhabitants learning from those experiences, and remaining open to the possibility that things can get better.
I aspire to write stories offering a nuanced look at possible futures: neither Pollyanna-ish nor defeatist. I believe human intelligence will continue to find—and, if needs be, to fight—its way into viable, sustainable options. I’m confident that humanity has it within our power to construct a wonderful future—so long as we don’t permit a myopic focus on the glitches of the day to dissuade us of our ability to fix and move past any and all such.
And, I believe, many readers here see the same hopeful potential in what lies ahead.
1 As one citation for that characterization among many, consider this statement from the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction (at Kansas University): “Science fiction is the literature of ideas and philosophy, answering such questions as, ‘What if?’ or ‘If this goes on . . .’ ” http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/SF-Defined.htm.
2 Why don’t I name specific modern genre dystopias? Because my issue is not with individual stories having dystopic elements or themes—many of them (not that I claim to be a literary critic), taken in isolation, being well-written, thought-provoking, and/or entertaining. Because I’m not trying to pick a fight with any of my contemporaries. Because (read on) it’s the trend, the possible cumulative effect, that concerns me. Because I expect you’ll have no difficulty coming up with your own examples of the trend.
3 Better to save a billion or two people from starvation than be hysterical about “Frankenfoods”—while, in the process, freeing up great swaths of marginal farmland to be restored to a more natural state.
See “Father of the Green Revolution—He Helped Feed the World!” http://www.scienceheroes.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=68&Itemid=116.
4 Remember killer smog? Probably not, but there was a time such pollution killed thousands in First World countries. That kind of air pollution now occurs only in developing countries.
See “The Great Smog of 1952,” Christopher Klein, https://www.history.com/news/the-killer-fog-that-blanketed-london-60-years-ago.
5 Armitage is the child television actor who portrays Sheldon in Young Sheldon (prequel to The Big Bang Theory). Just to suggest there’s also a current TV show I like.
Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech and aerospace for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as his hobby. Since 2004 he has written full-time.
His novels range from near-future technothrillers, like Small Miracles and Energized, to traditional SF, like Dark Secret and his InterstellarNet series, to (collaborating with Larry Niven) the space-opera epic Fleet of Worlds series of Ringworld companion novels. Lerner’s 2015 novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, won the inaugural Canopus Award “honoring excellence in interstellar writing.” His fiction has also been nominated for Locus, Prometheus, and Hugo awards. Lerner’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies, collections, and—most often—in this magazine. He also writes about science and technology, notably including a long-running series of essays in Analog about science and SF tropes—updated and expanded into Trope-ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction.
His website is www.edwardmlerner.com.