As popular fictional narratives about a bleak future seem to leap off screens and pages and into reality, it’s never been more important to consider that all is not lost. We look at why dystopian narratives are popular and why we need to re-invest our imaginations in utopian ones.
The primer on dystopia
Dystopia isn’t necessarily always about the nightmarish doomsday scenarios that dominate popular media like where AI, infectious disease or natural disasters have gotten out of control (that’s apocalyptic fiction). Instead, the word simply describes “a bad place,” a society that’s largely functioning but has basically lost its way so much that it sucks to live in it. Most of the time, this is brought about by a society’s ruling powers that exert unshakeable influence on:
- Economics: where rigid controls on the economy create huge class divisions.
- Family: where entire families and even the definition of “family” is systematically controlled.
- Religion: where faith becomes either a basis for persecution or for oppression through a theocratic government.
- Identity: the expression and actualization of an individual’s essential being are strictly controlled.
- Violence: as an institutionalized means of maintaining control or “balance” à la Battle Royale or The Hunger Games.
- Nature: nature including animals (and human instincts) are centrally controlled.
Without the more visible (and easier to dismiss) high-concept apocalyptic images we see in film, TV, and games, it’s easy to see alarming developments in some societies that resemble what was depicted in dystopian literature written in the past two centuries.
Why we’ve been here before
If you do find yourself looking at dystopian or speculative fiction, you’re going to find prolonged conflict — an essential element for most stories and arguably what helps them sell. And this hasn’t just been the case recently, it’s happened several times in the last century. Yvonne Shiau details the motivations that drove several successive phases of dystopian fiction in Electric Lit:
- The genre is defined (’20-30s): George Orwell and Aldous Huxley would explore themes that would regularly appear in the genre, each touching on a different fear. Orwell feared our destruction at the hands of the powers that be, Huxley at the hands of our own comfort and complacency.
- The threat of war and technology (’50-60s): The end of World War II inevitably fueled speculation about World War III and worse outcomes. Major technological advances like the first satellite, the invention of the first personal computer and the Turing test for intelligence in computers fueled authors’ suspicions about technology.
- Corporate impact on our bodies (’70-90s): Public concerns shifted from war to other issues such as the environment, economics and the impact of private corporations on how we value and perceive our bodies. Works from this period include The Handmaid’s Tale and Neuromancer (which gave way to cyberpunk).
- Youth against the world (’00-10s): The genre becomes heavily associated with youth and their conflict with the cruel world gone awry, possibly following in the wake of events such as 9/11. Works like The Hunger Games are adapted and continue to fuel renewed interest in the genre.
While dystopian fiction has regularly allowed us a way to explore our fears about the future, the issue is that those narratives have the capacity to be pervasive enough that they become self-fulfilling prophecies when people accept them as inevitable. And when they dominate the media discourse and thus the mainstream public consciousness, it will inevitably seep into ours as well despite all our attempts to think critically — or optimistically.
Why we need to imagine utopias
All of these factors point to one overarching angle: it’s mentally expedient and commercially viable to imagine more pessimistic outcomes, especially when those themes are already present around us. And as Eleanor Tremeer points out in her Gizmodo article, we never get to see “what happens after the victory,” when our protagonists triumph over evil and a new age begins. Arguably, doing that takes as much effort as it does imagination. But it’s not impossible.
One of our biggest tools in fighting the urge to worry lies in the fact that yes, “we’ve been here before.” Our recent Editor’s Letter touched on history’s capacity to repeat itself (or at least “rhyme”) with our emotional reactions following suit. This is true in the sense that every generation has feared the “end of the world” only to see it lead to another generation where the ensuing prosperity (or at least improvement) makes us forget what happened last time.
As creatives and artists, it’s often our job to tell stories and tell them in certain ways. But we also have the ability to tell powerful new stories and create new realities through our work that doesn’t yet have a perceivable basis in reality. We just have to ask ourselves, “what does the best case scenario look like,” and then temper that with reality and the relevant constraints.
As humans, we’re naturally susceptible to worry as much as the next person — and there’s certainly a lot to worry about these days. But history has shown that every generation has confronted fears of the world headed for an untimely end, and eventually recovered. Without being able to live those phases in history and see the ups and downs, it takes a lot to resist the urge to internalize our current dread that no, “it’s for real this time. We’re screwed.”
So then, what’s the cure for despair? Some of the solutions we once dreamed of may no longer be feasible in their current state due to our current considerations of sustainability or ethics, but that’s no reason to abandon those trains of thought outright.
Instead, it might be helpful to view utopia and dystopia as push-pull forces that lead us forward: We might not be able to avoid all of the bad on the way, but we can absolutely imagine a future that isn’t just ‘okay’ but in fact, great. As one Sarah Connor (played by Linda Hamilton) famously put it in Terminator 2: Judgement Day: “There is no fate, but what we make for ourselves.”