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Lazy Dystopias
Alex Steffen, 29 Dec 08

Recently, I've been buried in a bumper crop of lazy dystopias.

Now, I'm not against dystopian fiction as a means of social critique. Not at all. I think showing how present intentions may come to grief is necessary art. Not every creative act needs to embrace the politics of optimism.

But I am bored by imaginings of collapse that follow tired patterns. I am even more bored by futures that refuse even to invent a new visual aesthetic.

Just to pick (no doubt unjustly) on one example:

Why is the dystopian future always literally dark? Why is it always raining or overcast? Why is the architecture always a mix of hyper-modernism, brutalism and squatter slum? Why is the politics always so transparently totalitarian, so fascist-plus-rebels? Why is it so retro and abstract?

Why doesn't the dystopian vision ever include sunshine and children playing in its ruins? Why does it not include the constant, untiring efforts of most people to do what they can with what they have to improve their situations? Why are most people in the dystopian future always powerless to change anything? I could go on, but you get the point.

The biggest problem with dystopian fiction is not its pessimism. I do think there's a serious issue about who's interests are best served by making people fear the future, but I think the biggest problem with most dystopian fiction is its laziness and derivative quality. Lazy futures act like visionary static, crackling and dirtying the signal-to-noise ratio, making it harder not only for truly insightful futures to be found, but corrupting the ability of normal people to see why those visions are worth understanding.

Better by far to not envision the future at all, than to make a lazy dystopia.

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Read the Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin. It is a dys-utopia--fantastic and awful. Not so much bad aesthetics. Also not a lot of techno-fixes.

Posted by: Ruben on 29 Dec 08

I was playing the dystopian game Superstruct; a massive multiplayer online forecasting game. After a few weeks playing, I started to feel rather disgusted. Most of the players seemed to be preoccupied with disaster and suffering, rather than projecting a vision of the future. They called themselves realists, but in my opinion this behaviour is more like disaster tourism much like spectators at a road accident.

Mayhem has become a form of entertainment. Fear is a way to mobilize people. It worked for Bush and it worked for Superstruct. I guess spreading a particularly dangerous and thus important message makes the messenger feel important too.

But war is not a glorious event, it's sitting somewhere waiting in some cold place and getting shot by a sniper when you go out for a pee. Same for disasters, it's not so thrilling to actually be in it. Not very glorious and that's my fear, how do we keep people motivated to work on positive change, like World Changing is attempting, when the situation is just shitty and demoralizing and any feelings of excitement and glory have gone.

Deep down somewhere, I suspect that this excitement that comes with the anticipation of turmoil motivates people, perhaps even for this World Changing initiative. I don't condone it, but I like to be aware of it so lazy dystopias don't smother positive visions of the future.

Being positive is not equal to being naive and predicting disaster is not equal to being visionary.

Posted by: Theun on 30 Dec 08

Wow, Theun said it all so perfectly!

I think, for we mass media shaped Americans, that it is a combination of the false god of the bright shiny all-new future as put forth aggressively by the advertising industry for decades and the counterpoint narrative that has washed over us from "scifi" (starting from the very beginning) where man is always humbled by nature and then by his creations (whether nature is part of it as in Frankenstein or not as with Terminator).

Both of these media stories are artificial, laden with agendas that are not in keeping with a healthy humane society (not their mandate).

Because media has been so pervasive (and intoxicating) our locally made narratives have disappeared (like our own family's lives and folk stories that include the local community) - leaving us unmoored in an artifical environment that we desperately cling to, even tho it is patently artifical.

The take home message really, the core of what I am saying here is that its not just a lazy future but the lazy present that is the problem.

We let others craft our fantasties, from birth. We never flexed those visioning muscles, we never really even knew such concepts existed.

Its a mass phenomenon - its the consensus reality and its not likely to be changed because it IS the consensus reality.

I speak on this as the fly stuck in the congealing amber myself. I REALLY dig dystopian scifi (the good writing that is not overtly anti-feminist) and scifi movies. I can feel the visceral and innate or atavistic reaction.

I do fear a mad max future because I am a mom and moms often have to think about all possible outcomes for their kids (good and bad) because being prepared is the sane way to cope with the immense responsibility of children.

I also work VERY hard to meditate on the present and practice attachment releasing as Zen teaches that attachment is the cause of so much suffering.

I also am part of the positive future by participating in the Transition Initiative.

If I can do it, I am hoping that others can do it.

Its possible to feel the fear, know it, understand why the future can be fearful and then to realize that our actions have a direct impact on our own futures. If this means creating and protecting a small nucleus of positive living in a world of chaos, then that may be what it is, for a time. The hope of that in itself is what keeps me going.

Posted by: nika on 30 Dec 08

I've seen Utopia. I've even built parts of it and live there regularly by little bits and pieces, my affordable solar room and $10 heat-reflecting window system, the farmers' market and the public display of a solar fountain, for example. Dystopia has very little attraction for me.

Years ago, I was hired to examine modern Utopian ideas for a business book. I did some of my own research, contacted Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula K. LeGuin and found that, with the exception of Ernest Callenbach's _Ecotopia_ and _Ecotopia Rising_, there really haven't been many Utopian novels in the past few decades.

We cannot imagine a world better than our own. We have lost that facility. Even a great science fiction writer like James Tiptree Jr found it difficult. From Julie Phillips' biography of Tiptree:

page 308: _I find in my heart I am so damn pessimistic I cannot imagine a better world._

I can't imagine people - men and women and children - just _living_. With everything ok. [...] This isn't age - I guess I've always been this way. Living in an essentially doomed world. [...] I care strongly that other, younger people should have a better life - but as for myself I can't imagine it.

Posted by: gmoke on 30 Dec 08

You might look at "Beyond," a short within the Animatrix, for exactly this vision. The Matrix remains an illusion, and a cruel one, but "glitches" in its program allow for latchkey kids to play with gravity. It's a great metaphor for the possibility of creative people in interstitial spaces to transcend the limitations of their position.

The short is also one of the best in the collection, simply because it focuses not on the relationship between man and machine, but on the possibilities afforded by the fictional universe. It proceeds in the most science fictional "if this, then that" manner.

Posted by: Madeline Ashby on 31 Dec 08

Also, I hasten to add that the answer to this question:

"Why is the dystopian future always literally dark? Why is it always raining or overcast? Why is the architecture always a mix of hyper-modernism, brutalism and squatter slum? Why is the politics always so transparently totalitarian, so fascist-plus-rebels? Why is it so retro and abstract?"

lies with a few different people, including Ridley Scott, Alan Moore, William Gibson, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Masamune Shirow. Scott brought us "Blade Runner," and pioneered a vision of the future that used postmodern pastiche not as a clever device (as in Nouvelle Vogue films like "Week-end"), but as a worldbuilding tool. In the same year "Blade Runner" was released, Moore published "V for Vendetta," and followed it up with "Watchmen" four years later. Both stories feature totalitarian regimes infecting previously-democratic societies and exacerbating systemic poverty and oppression. The result is a bricolage aesthetic of mingled opulence and detritus. But you could say the same about Gibson's novels from the same decade, as well as Otomo's and Shirow's manga -- "Blade Runner," "V for Vendetta," and the "Akira" manga all came out in the same year, and since then, anyone dealing with dystopian futures has struggled with the glorious burden of that heritage. We may be at the turning point, however, if other readers are feeling the same sense of saturation that you are.

Posted by: Madeline Ashby on 31 Dec 08

Well, certainly there is a bias toward negativity and pessimism when envisioning a dystopia. It's sort of part and parcel of the definition.

But I see what you're getting at. It's become very paint-by-numbers and not many have shown a full picture that includes bits of good with the bad.

There are a few stand outs of late I think. Take a look at Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake or David Mitchell's astounding Cloud Atlas.

I've reviewed the latter on my blog:

Too many DO rely on the old PKD vision of the future. And while I love his work, it would be entertaining to see the genre evolve beyond the dark, dirty techno-aggressive backdrop.

Posted by: AJ on 31 Dec 08

Fantastic commentary Alex. I've been saying the same thing for YEARS, and it was one of the primary motivation for creating Futurhi ( back in 2003.

I believe the dark spell started with Blade Runner and Mad Max, and was quickly followed by the elaborate worlds of cyberpunk by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling that cemented into our culture how the future would look.

This dystopian way of thinking became so pervasvive, that even Star Trek started it's irreversiblt disintegration into bleak dystopian versions(DS9, etc) soon after Roddenberry died.

Most science fiction sucks precisely because it's too lazy to imagine let alone devise workable solutions to how these futures can either be diverted or ameliorated should we find ourselves in them. This pessimistic malaise that afflicts so many otherwise intelligent thinkers continues to motivate me today to keep writing, inspiring and working towards better solutions.

Good work Alex!

Posted by: Paul Hughes on 31 Dec 08

Counterexample #1: 'Gattaca' was bathed in light that depicted a world that was not necessarily a nice place to be. Its darkness was to be found in the ubiquitous specimen jar.

(And a simple pronouncment: 'that piece can only be played by someone with six fingers'... So much for the rest of us!)

Counterexample #2: My take on Superstuct is that many folk, in their preliminary setups, got stuck into the dramatic possibilities of life in 2019 and overdid it to the point that they were describing life in 2029 (when things could be predicted to be in free fall, but hadn't hit the ground yet). Nevertheless, quite a few accounts/suggestions were humorous and not at all despairing.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 1 Jan 09

What a great bunch of comments and a wonderful post.

I am reminded of Nelson Mandela's Nobel Prize speech, when (quoting Marianne Williamson) he spoke about how it is not the "dark" which scares us, but the light.

Could the biggest obstacle to transitioning to a sustainable world be that we are AFRAID of a world where we would be happier? Does the vision of a future in which planet and people mutually thrive scare us because, if we can do that, if we really can create a world of peace, beauty, justice, and joyful existence for all, then how unbelievably stupid have human beings been for thousands of years?

Misery, war, and suffering may be the worst form of "waste" on the planet, the completely unnecessary waste of all our biophilic energy for creating a version of human existence on Earth that we all love to live in. And, like carbon, it's invisible. So we don't see all the joyful love for existence that we are wasting on imagining futures that, in the end, are not any different from our present.


Posted by: MimiK on 2 Jan 09

What an important discusssion. There is creative power in positive vision.

If we only dream bleakly and envision the bummer future, where else could we wind up?

We want to "animate the desirable story." "Ally ettiquette is to become a vibrational match for the derirable future." I quote Caroline Casey, whose radio show called the Visionary Activist Hour has been hot on this topic for years.
(You can listen to this show by podcast and on-line at

We don't want to get stuck in critique. True, the world train is going off the rails, but...

it's also possible that an amazing

techno-organic high culture

could emerge and create centuries of global renaissance.

which would make a pleasing movie to watch and be in.

Posted by: Theo T on 3 Jan 09

To be fair, can you imagine any near future in which slums do not make up a major part of urban architecture? More than half of the world's population live in urban centres now, and some massive chunk (a third, a half, something like that) of those urban dwellers are living in slums. It will take a long time for them to vanish, and it seems highly unlikely that a "dystopian" future would have the resources handy to clean them up in any way that wouldn't involve purges (which would give rise to a totalitarian-with-rebels type political situation).

It's lazy, yes, but also a likely end result of business-as-usual... which is what dystopias tend to be extrapolations of.

As for darkness - well, darkness isn't nice to look at. You're right of course, it's potentially very lazy - but there are plenty of good reasons for someone to make that aesthetic choice. After all, total originality isn't the only reason for doing something.

Posted by: Chris L on 5 Jan 09

Dystopias are by definition negative visions of the future. Some are more interesting than others, but they tend to have similar characteristics. I'd add Cormac McCarthy's The Road as an almost ludricrously over the top dystopia that takes its bleak future vision way too seriously.

Utopian thinking is what is missing from our culture and our current moment, but I have to say there are some damn good reasons for that.

I agree with the post above that Ursula LeGuin is the most sophisticated writer of futures that are mainly good but still complex and problematic. In addition to The Dispossessed, there's her extraordinary but not very much read Always Coming Home, as well as The Left Hand of Darkness.

Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time posits a crux between two possible futures, one utopian, one dystopian. The utopian future still has a lot of problems. Her dystopia: He,She,and It is about a largely ruined world, yet still offers a lot of hope.

John Crowley's Engine Summer is another too often overlooked complex future vision, mostly utopian, but with a profound sense of loss at the failure of the society that preceded it.

Mike Davis has a whole chapter in The Ecology of Fear about how dystopian visions are often very reactionary, and are simply an imaginative means of ridding the planet of one's enemies or showing what it would be like if "they" took over.

I've done a lot of thinking about this myself. My journal What If? Journal of Radical Possibilities, which I'm trying to revive in online form, arose out of a utopian fiction reading group. You can see what we read on the site.

Posted by: Christy Rodgers on 5 Jan 09

Fear is core motivator for dystopian visions. But they are just that...visions. In my opinion humans live in a world that tends to look back at the past or obsess over the future. It is very rare to find someone who lives in the moment. This preoccupation with the past and future is a life lived in the non-exsistent, which most would agree is a form of insanity. In other words humans live in a mutually agreed upon form of insanity. Perhaps we need to be here now rather than somewhere else.

There are those among us who do live a life of vision that is rooted in the present and based upon principles of mutual respect, compassion, and justice. Certain yogi's, some spiritual leaders, and vegan's. Vegan's? Yes, they are a group outside of religious heirarchies that live live's of equanimity. They see the world as one more so than most groups, a biota as it were. While some may think that the vegan life is a life of personal denial and sacrifice, it is not. It is rather a life of radical inclusion.

In other words, as long as we are attached to the old heirarchies of business, science, militraism, religion, and so on, we will not be able to be in the be free of fear. Unless all can live without fear then most will live in fear.


Posted by: Harold Brown on 7 Jan 09

I'm glad you wrote this piece. I've often experienced similar feelings about these "Terminator"-like extrapolations of the future from the some of the worst elements of our present.

To be honest, I've also felt a certain frustration even with many green imaginings for the potential aesthetic future. I find a certain dearth of visionary inspiration, for instance, in hay bale architecture. It's too "square" for me, too aesthetically conservative. What ever happened to the radical paradigm-changing designs of Buckminster Fuller, for instance? Even the (potentially totalistic) arcologies of Paolo Soleri seem to me to be worth revisiting. Tiny-scale "small footprint" architecture like high-end Kacszynski cabins and trailers for upscale green yuppies strike me as crypto-reactionary. I much prefer the visionary (and relatively inexpensive) ferrocement architecture designed and produced by Roger Dean (which admittedly looks a bit like hobbit houses). I fancy beautiful residential towers draped and woven with garden greenery rising into the sky. All this may strike some as hopelessly and naively romantic, but I find that vision of a potential future far more inspiring than those that currently prevail. It seems to me compatible with a world of humans in balance with nature, being consciously part of and not in opposition to it.

Video games have been mentioned here, and they are important. They're the one entertainment industry that's currently expanding, not contracting. They're bound to have a powerful influence on the imaginations of those who play them, notably the young. Yet most video games, even some very good and imaginative ones, are based on war, violence, conflict, and present no vision of a positive future. Sim City, with its cubistic forms and social conventionalism, strikes me as hopelessly retrograde. We need much better, more beautiful, aesthetically and imaginatively compelling video games that consciously promote a positive vision for the future. I for one would love to be involved in producing something like that.

Posted by: Kevin on 6 Feb 09

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