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The Value of Dystopian Science Fiction
Jeremy Faludi, 1 Jun 05


About two weeks ago, the French city of Nantes celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jules Verne's death in a big 3-day festival. As it happens, I was also reading Jules Verne's Paris in the Twentieth Centuryrecently, his prediction of life in 1960 written in 1863 (but unpublished until 1994). Some prognostications are eerily accurate, others are amusingly or intriguingly off the mark. (For instance, there are computers and they do have keyboards, but they're keyboards like a piano's, not like a typewriter's, because the latter didn't exist yet. Also, society is oppressively conformist and materialistic, and the lead character--a poet--fares poorly in it; however, the book does not predict the backlash birth of counterculture.) This is always true with science fiction, but the hundred-forty-year time scale makes the hits & misses much more educative than those of, say, an 80's cyberpunk novel.

It exposes more of the fundamental nature of futurism: all predictions are wrong about the future, but right about the author. They are valuable because they reveal much about the world the writer lives in, and because they let us hold up the present world against a standard of comparison, to see where it fares better and worse.

Science Fiction is in large part a reaction to our fear of the world we live in now, and it always has been. From the very first science fiction novels, most have been dystopic, showing how humanity struggles to not be crushed or washed away by the technological life. Jules Verne is a prime example. For a moment, let me hypothesize that we are fascinated with imaginary scary worlds because of biology. Think in terms of simple survival instincts--you can ignore a world that is known-safe, but unknown landscapes inherently imply unknown threats. If you've already seen or imagined threats before you encounter them, you're more likely to survive the encounter, so imagining lots of wild freaky stuff is useful. It's particularly useful to imagine wild freaky stuff that's likely to happen, which you can do by following subtle trends in the present world to their logical extremes.

This is what the environmental movement has been doing for the last thirty years. Often pessimistic forecasting descends into hackneyed terriblisma, but well-done dystopian futures expose subtle underlying forces at work today, showing us how things that seem innocuous can turn dangerous when taken to their logical extremes. For example, Fahrenheit 451 was important because it exposed pitfalls of mass-media and a security-obsessed society which began to appear in the 1950's; the fact that thirty years later the TV show "Cops" really existed is only icing on the cake.

Likewise, of course, utopian futures show us positive things we can move towards; usually the innovations that come from science fiction are technological (the communications satellite, etc.), but some are social or political, and those should be tried as well. The key again is to take things that are currently innocuous (maybe even bad) and see which ones would become wonderful things when taken to their logical extremes. For instance, B. F. Skinner hypothesized in Walden Two that if taken far enough, breakdown of the traditional family structure could actually become the key to an equitable socialist paradise. Really.

Regardless of what futures you think are likely, delving into futurism (whether dystopian, utopian, or just mixed-bag-topian, pardon the lexical abuse) can give us targets for what to change to make our lives better--not just in the future, but in the subtleties of the now.

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B. F. Skinner hypothesized in Walden Two that if taken far enough, breakdown of the traditional family structure could actually become the key to an equitable socialist paradise.

Plato was a big proponent of that idea too, although he didn't see it as an outcome of an existing trend.

Posted by: Stentor on 1 Jun 05

It seems to be easier to write dystopian rather than utopian visions these days. It is frustrating that there are very few positive visions of the future available in science fiction today. Without a unifying vision and purpose, we cannot invent any future at all.

it's been a long time since Callenbach's _Ecotopia_. What other green utopias exist?

Posted by: gmoke on 1 Jun 05

"it's been a long time since Callenbach's _Ecotopia_. What other green utopias exist?"

Have a look at Kim Stanley Robinson's series of future Californias: The Gold Coast, The Wild Shore, and Pacific Edge.

The first presents a future extrapolated pretty linearly from current trends – mildly dystopian, but in an interesting way: cars, for instance, become non-polluting, auto-piloted electric wonders, but car culture and urban sprawl continue to debase culture and civil life.

The second is a post-apocalypse story, dystopian from the viewpoint of someone who likes current North American life, but also a mildly utopian vision of ordinary people making meaningful, if limited, lives for themselves in harsh conditions.

The third is a very thoughtful ecological utopia, and Robinson pulls off the difficult task of showing not only a believable future world better than our own, but also a believable path from here to there. It's the one you want for inspiration, vision, and above all conviction. The people are genuine human beings: generous, thoughtful, and passionate, also greedy, myopic, and foolish. They make a world much better than our own, not by becoming implausibly much better people, but by taking better decisions and passing better laws.

I suggest reading the entire trilogy, in part because parallels between the books will draw your attention to some of the choices Robinson made for his characters and his plots. These are future parallel-world stories, in a sense – three paths California could take – and he dramatises this by creating parallels between characters and events. He does this subtly, not merely showing three similar guys called Mike living in three different worlds, but by showing how three ordinary protagonists, not geniuses or unique outsiders or rebels, set out to live a meaningful life, and how they succeed or fail differently, given the differing scope offered by their different milieux.

Brilliant works, all three, and I recommend them highly. Try not to giggle at the portrayal of the big bad Soviets, by the way; Stan wrote these books a while back, after all.

Posted by: Dominic Brown on 2 Jun 05

Well, a utopia novel that's one of the best, though only slightly green, is Aldous Huxley's "Island". Schools don't teach it like they do Brave New World (perhaps because it portrays some kinds of drug use in a positive light, perhaps because people just prefer dystopias), but it's actually a better book.

And don't worry about dystopias being easier to write "these days". We always think that. Mark Twain is quoted as saying "Those of you who are inclined to worry have the widest selection in history" about a hundred years ago.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 2 Jun 05

And then there is the utopia/dystopia by Starhawk called the Fifth Sacred Thing. It has a similar structure to Callenbach's Ecotopia in terms of a utopian subculture that separates off from a larger dystopian society, but there is more interaction between the two.

Posted by: Lori LaVel Weston on 2 Jun 05

Two quick things:

1) "...let me hypothesize that we are fascinated with imaginary scary worlds because of biology. Think in terms of simple survival instincts--you can ignore a world that is known-safe, but unknown landscapes inherently imply unknown threats."
If you (or anyone) want to read a brilliant book about this hypothesis that you've touched on: _Maps of Meaning_ by Jordan Peterson.

2) I would be cautious of using Skinner as a source, if your point is to provide credibilty, because he has none.

Posted by: Justus on 2 Jun 05

Around the 1980s, it was almost "fun" to think about dystopia, which in those days took the form of Global Thermonuclear War. In the aftermath, society would be completely transformed; the formerly rich would be just as badly off as the poor -- perhaps even moreso. The world was going to be populated and run by punk rockers, and being fringe punk in those days I could get behind that. Also, while we knew back then that a nuclear war could happen, we also knew that it would take the form of a sudden spasmodic accident. You could literally have breakfast in the "old" world and be foraging for dinner in the "new".

Current dystopias centered around peak oil, global warming, or biological terrorism share none of nucelar war's mitigating factors. They feel deliberate, sometimes even planned. The rich will survive unscathed, the poor will exist, if they are allowed to exist, to serve them. Punk rockers won't even exist, let alone run things. Current dystopias also have an inexorability about them; there's a feeling that it all could have been avoided if we had only done something in time.

It's the difference between driving really fast and being concerned about getting into an accident, or being worried about a pre-Alzheimer's diagnosis without health insurance.

Posted by: Patrick Di Justo on 2 Jun 05

For another ecotopia, see Ursula Le Guin's "Always Coming Home."

Posted by: Lisa Boucher on 2 Jun 05



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