Whenever I teach my history of science fiction course, someone always asks me why so much of contemporary science fiction (whether literary or cinematic) is dark, bleak, often dystopian, and frequently filled with catastrophes and violence.
In answering this question, I begin by pointing out that dystopias have become increasingly more prevalent in science fiction over the last century, as nihilism, cynicism, and pessimism have become stronger, more influential mindsets within popular (especially Western) culture. With the Great Depression, two World Wars, the emergent threat of nuclear war, escalating environmental problems, the angst and frenzy of modern society, and numerous other global challenges, many people have lost faith in the utopian promise of progress and prosperity. Contemporary science fiction is a reflection of our cultural and social consciousness.
But there is a loop of causality, with effects running in the other direction as well. Science fiction writers often dig deeply and thoughtfully into the mindsets and values of modern society. In doing so, they find flaws and weaknesses, consider the long-term destructive consequences of current social trends, and then set about writing narratives exposing and highlighting the failings of our world and plausible imminent dangers looming ahead. Indeed, adopting such an analytical and critical approach, H. G. Wells 100 years ago wrote many futurist science fiction novels, such as The War in the Air, The Sleeper Awakes, The World Set Free, and The Shape of Things to Come, envisioning coming world disasters and dystopias that he believed were plausible, if not predictable, consequences of current social values and trends. More recently, Cyberpunk science fiction, such as in Neuromancer, Islands of the Net, and Bladerunner, extrapolating on current trends in digital technology, virtual reality, global monitoring and information networks, and the rise of powerful mega-corporations, have presented depressing and frightening visions of the near future. Such critical perspectives in science fiction of present trends and plausible future effects often influence popular culture and social consciousness, amplifying our anxiety and depression over the state of the world and what lies ahead of us.
In such analyses of our modern world and extrapolative narratives of plausible futures, science fiction creates “if this goes on...then this will happen” scenarios—what futurists call “presumptively true” predictions. (Along these lines, see Robert Heinlein’s classic science fiction dystopian novels If This Goes On... and The Day After Tomorrow). Such stories of plausible futures are often intended as warnings: we need to change and evolve how we think and behave, or else we are headed for misery and collapse. Science fiction dystopias or disasters are often presented as “wake-up calls.” Let us not be so complacent and oblivious to what is going on around us; let us not be so locked in and blinded by our habits of thought and behavior and the here and now. We need to think out ahead and expand our consciousness, see the consequences of what we are doing, good and bad, or else we will surely suffer or even perish if we do not become more enlightened. Hence, dystopias and/or disaster narratives, even if they can be depressing or frightening, have value in heightening our future consciousness about negative possibilities looming ahead of us and, hopefully, getting us to prepare for, or even better, to prevent such realities from occurring.
A couple months ago I published an essay “Living a Wisdom Narrative in the Coronapocalypse as a Character in a Science Fiction Novel.”I proposed it made good sense amidst the present Corona pandemic to see ourselves as living through a science fiction disaster novel, and it would be highly beneficial for us to attempt to live wisely (to strive to live a wisdom narrative) within this tumultuous period. In times of great challenge and stress, it is especially important to strive to be wise in our thinking, decisions, and actions. I listed a set of science fiction disaster novels that jolt us out of our complacency and can heighten our awareness and preparedness in successfully navigating through this unsettling, transformative, and uncertain time. Science fiction has repeatedly dealt with disasters, including deadly global plagues, and such stories provide a diverse set of narrative perspectives on how it would feel to live through a disaster and the varied human reactions, good and bad, in handling catastrophes.
I would suggest that it is worth considering that we might be living through the beginnings of a science fiction dystopian novel—or are even deep within it—and just don’t realize it yet. Although it may sound alarmist to seriously suggest that we are “heading into a dystopia”—of a society in which fundamental human values and ethics are pushed aside—I think that it is critically important to question the complacent assumption that it isn’t happening yet, or can’t happen here. As a wake-up call to our consciousness, we need to think about and appreciate how it would feel and what it would mean if our society descended (or is descending) into a dystopian nightmare. We should look around and with an informed and reflective mind evaluate what we see. Are we in some kind of a dystopian science fiction novel and if so, what do we do about it?
As I have explained in depth in my writings, science fiction doesn’t just address the future of science and technology and its impact on human society, but because science fiction deals with the future of everything, science fiction has also repeatedly dealt with both social utopias and dystopias. Taking such classic science fiction social dystopias as We, Brave New World, City of Endless Night, Swastika Night, 1984, Stand on Zanzibar, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Parable of the Talents as illustrative, consciousness-expanding examples, we should become informed and open our eyes to the dangers, real and potentially just around the corner, which confront us at a social and ethical level. And in line with my argument that wisdom is key in dealing with a disaster, it is also essential in dealing with dystopian trends and conditions. How could we live a wisdom narrative in a world where human rights, justice, equality, truth, or other basic ethical principles are threatened or severely compromised?
In fact, just as science fiction disaster novels often contain wisdom narratives in which one or more central characters grows in wisdom through having to confront and address the challenges presented in the story—such as in Earth Abides and The Purple Cloud—there are also also wisdom narratives in various dystopian novels where the heroes or heroines aspire to wisdom and evolve in the process. As illustrated through all these novels. there are models in science fiction for living wisdom narratives amidst dystopian realities.
It could be argued that seeing the world through “dystopian eyes” is psychologically damaging and socially destructive. Indeed, perhaps pessimism about our current society is an exaggerated and factually ungrounded mindset. (See, for example, Stephen Pinker's book Enlightenment Now and The Millennium Project.) As noted at the beginning of this essay, contemporary science fiction can be criticized for being too dystopian and bleak in its visions of tomorrow.
But here’s where we come to a critical point. Consider, for example, Wells’ novel, The Shape of Things to Come. Based on his analysis of flaws within contemporary human society circa 1930, Wells foresees in this novel, another world war emerging that will eventually destroy modern civilization; but then he imagines that following this descent into chaos, a better world will be born that will transcend the limitations and weaknesses of the present. After the darkness, comes the light. In order to create a utopian (or more evolved) social reality we must be tossed about, confront some significant challenges and social failings, and remake the world along better lines. This is the drama of The Shape of Things to Come. This is often the dramatic plot of human life: facing and confronting problems, challenges, and crises and then finding solutions, recreating our lives, and moving forward.
A dystopian vision, such as 1984, with no plausible way out of an imagined horrendous future, is psychologically depressing and destructive to the human spirit, generating feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. While still acknowledging the real possibility of a descent into dystopia, the more empowering mindset is to envision a constructive and hopeful response to the envisioned terrible reality in which we could find ourselves. Life is filled with problems and challenges, big and small, and I doubt there is any “perfect” world emerging in the future, in which all pain, misery, and injustice will be permanently eradicated. But an informed, realistic, and effective optimism is one in which problems such as plausible disasters and dystopias are foreseen and understood, and proactive responses and solutions are imagined. In such hypothetical scenarios I suggest that the best, most constructive response is a wisdom narrative.
It seems to me that there many indicators of the plausible threat of a dystopian reality taking hold in the United States of America. Indeed, many would argue that the dystopia has already arrived, as the power of big business and the rich elite have eroded democracy, justice, equality, and the environment; as theatrics, disinformation, and hyperbole have replaced truth and the value of ethical character; and as shallow commercialism has overpowered deeper meanings for human life.
Personally, I am more concerned about this dystopian danger to the ethics and values of our society than I am about the corona pandemic. In fact, I see the disaster of successfully addressing the corona pandemic in the United States as primarily a failure of ethics and morals. For example, rejecting the conscientious pursuit and application of scientific knowledge and minimizing concern for the safety and health of others in favor of power, personal pride, irresponsible freedom, social image, and unrelenting economic growth is a severe moral failure that has greatly contributed to the spread of the disease. Is this a moral failure in leadership or our collective consciousness? It is both, since the center of the cyclone and the surrounding whirlpool mutually amplify each other.
This is why wisdom is especially important in understanding, confronting, and dealing with a dystopian reality, since it is wisdom (defined as a core set of mental abilities and ethical virtues) that is lacking in a dystopia. To overcome a dystopian reality, we need to assert/reassert the central values of ethics and wisdom in what we do and how we think. The opposite of a dystopia is a wise society. (See Future Consciousness for an extensive treatment of wisdom, wisdom narratives, and a wise society.)
In the agitated craziness in the United States (or in any similarly unsettled country across the globe), it does seem that we are living in a bad dream, indeed embedded somewhere in the drama of a science fiction dystopian novel. Yes, it can happen here since human society is what humans collectively support and create, and if we do not embrace and practice “the true, the beautiful, and the good”—to borrow an expression from Plato—we will end up living in a world of lies, ugliness, and evil. It is our responsibility to confront the challenges—to identify and rectify the core problems rather than ignore them—and to pursue wisdom, enlightenment, and our own mental and ethical development. This is the answer to the darkness looming on the horizon.
Evolution of Science Fiction Webinar Series
Two New YouTube Videos on the Evolution of Science Fiction Webinar Series:
For those who missed the first two webinars on the Evolution of Science Fiction here are the videos (minus the discussions).
In this second webinar in the series, we will compare fantasy, ancient mythology, and modern science fiction, looking at the similarities and differences among these genre and modes of consciousness. Mythic narrative, which delves into the fantastic and transcendent and historically has been an essential component throughout human cultures, shares a lot in common with contemporary science fiction. But to a significant degree science fiction is informed and inspired by scientific theories of reality and modern ways of thinking, whereas ancient myths reflected earlier views and perspectives on reality. In this regard, science fiction offers for our contemporary world credible and often inspiring narratives of the fantastic and transcendent, providing modern “myths” about the future for the future. We will also examine in this webinar how science fiction even goes beyond the future, in considering alternate realities and universes, and how science fiction is “evolutionary” mythology.