Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Culture: What Is Wrong With Dystopian Science Fiction?

(Drivebycuriosity) - It seems there is a new cult: dystopian science fiction (wikipedia). The majority of movies which are regarded as science fiction draw a pessimistic picture of the future:  Hunger Games, The Road, Divergent, Oblivion, Equilibrium, The Giver and many more. It´s the same with science fiction books - especially those catering the young adult. Time magazine complains that "science fiction seems to have become stuck in a rut of hopelessness" (time) and the website io9 claims that positive science fiction is dead (io9).

I enjoyed some of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic films & books myself like "Blade Runner", "Mad Max" and the novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. But I would like to have more selection and a more balanced view of the future.

It seems that movie makers, authors and publishers are catering the pessimistic Zeitgeist (driveby). It looks like that many people are pessimistic and the producers of dystopian films & books deliver what their audience - the market - wants. Risks are overblown; chances are downplayed and the current fears - founded or not - are extrapolated into the future.

Dystopian movies and books also bank on a general fear of science and technology, a modern form of luddism. Scientists are often described as evil and mad, often they are pictured as tools for sinister powers. I think this trend could foster an unhealthy snowball effect; gloomy visions of the future could amplify the current pessimism, making depressive people even more depressive and foster an anti-science sentiment.

The dystopians often refer to the decline of the Roman Empire which lead to the dark ages in Europe (through the 15th century). But during Europe´s decline in Middle East Arabian cultures peaked and in China the Tang Dynasty flourished (618–907 AD), which is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization: a golden age of cosmopolitan culture (wikipedia). There was no general decline of human culture, at least not in the last 2000 years.

                                                                      Irrational Fears

I believe that the general pessimism about the future - and the cult of dystopian - is irrational. The future isn`t bleak, things don´t get worse all the time. Quite contrary, history tells us that human conditions have been improving over the time. Life in the 16th century - and before - was miserable but it got slowly better. In the 19th century the improvements gained speed and have been been accelerating since then (mauldin). For instance child labor disappeared in the Western countries and vaccines for tubercolosis, tetanus, diptheria & other diseases were discovered (Timeline). In Western Europe and the U.S. even the welfare recipients have a higher life standard than average people at the beginning of the last century, including TVs and refrigerators.

Around 100 years ago (naute):
- The average life expectancy in the United States was just 47 (forty-seven) years.
- There were no insulin and antibiotics
- The average working week in US manufacturing was around 55 hours (visualeconsite)
- Only 14 percent of the homes in the United States had a bathtub.
- Only 8 percent of the homes had a telephone. A three minute call from Denver to New York City cost eleven dollars.
- There were only 8,000 cars in the US and only 144 miles of paved roads.
- The maximum speed limit in most cities was ten mph
- Planes were highly risky and flown just by adventurers
- There existed no radio broadcasting. TV was just science fiction.

Today we work much less and consume a lot of things and services that didn`t even exist in the first half of the 20th century. We all benefit from technological advances & entrepreneurship which have been boosting productivity, cmfort and wealth. And the progress is still accelerating. Almost any day something new comes up which makes our life more comfortable: Self-driving cars will have fewer accidents; Internet connected watches will help to monitore out health; in 2013 the first kidney grew in vitro in the U.S. and the first human liver grew from stem cells in Japan (wikipedia).

There is no reason that the positive historical trend should stop or reverse its course. Humans have always found ways to achieve a better life - for themselves and for others. And the fear of science and technology is irrational. Scientists gave us penicilin, antibiotica and insulin, they laid the foundations for cars, trains and planes and they created electrocardiography, laser, computers, Internet and all the other technologies which make our lives safer and more comfortable.

I believe that coming generations will live even longer and healthier thanks to science and technological progress (forbes). They will benefit from new medicaments; nanotochnology will create new and better materials, including carbon fibers that are much stronger & less heavy than steal; 3D printing will make many things much cheaper; stem cell therapy will treat or prevent more and more diseases.

I will still enjoy some well made dystopian films & books, but I want more science fiction that shows that people will be capable to solve problems in the future as they did in the past.



  1. Actually your assertion (while I commend you for taking a positive outlook and for supporting a positive view of science and technology, which I share as well) is still inaccurate.

    The dystopian authors and film makers reflect a general social awareness of the fact that our planet IS on the verge of severe repercussions from the very things you have cited. We have lived a much more comfortable lifestyle than our predecessors, however we have become the victims of our own success.

    This planet is losing resources at an alarming rate. Climate change is also taking place at an unprecedented level. Humans ARE overpopulated by a massive margin.

    Our planet's resources can sustain only 2.54 billion humans without impacting climate and renewability of non fossil fuel natural resources. That's a scientific fact. We have over 7.42 billion humans and growing. We were last at 2.54 in the early 1970's.

    Couple this with mass media and a social feeling of religious, political, economic, and climate crisis and turmoil and the general outlook for many people is not promising.

    I believe you have placed the metaphoric wagon before the horse. You assert that such negative reflections can drive further adversity and exacerbate feeling of gloom or anxiety. The fact of the matter is that dysyopian authors or creators often reflect what society IS actually feeling.

    This is also evident in studying modern literary trends and history. More negatives are expounded during times when the public at large are concerned with war or economy. Animal Farm and other books that were popular during the cold war and post Vietnam/Korean war era in the US were reflections of American concerns and fears of the day.

    I'm always pro optimism. But I am a realist as well. This planet will only sustain us so long before we do push it to the point of our own extinction. That's not pessimism. Its an observable fact. We are depleting natural resources faster than they can recover. The world won't end. But our time on it will. And dystopian themes will continue to be popular with people as a whole because it does reflect a social awareness to what we don't want to say out loud.

  2. I would echo the sentiments of skjoldhus above. More and more people are coming to understand the implications of our "disposable" society, as they realize our current way of life is unsustainable. Growth for the sake of growth is only replicatable in nature by two very dangerous organisms, the virus and the cancer cell. Both organisms continue to grow at an unchecked rate, despite the lack of resources and consequences to the host organism. We, as science fiction authors, have a duty to examine the overarching implications of the course we as a species have set for ourselves. Dystopian/post-apocalyptic science fiction paints a bleak picture, "a modern form of luddism"-as you put it, because the balance of nature suggests that we must swing back that direction in order to ensure the continued survival of the species.