What dystopias tell us

October 28, 2012 — 3 Comments
I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Science Fiction has everything to do with tackling the problems of the contemporary world; if David Betz at Kings of War can blog about Judge Dredd, then I guess I’m in good company.

Seriously, though, I enjoyed the post… which considers how much dystopias can teach us about the contemporary world.  In addition to holding up a mirror to contemporary problems, Betz writes that a dystopian story like Dredd can help us understand why desperate people in anarchic environments might invite even the harshest guardians of justice–like the Taliban.

I’ve read a lot of discussion lately about the current obsession with dystopias.  Somehow, our culture haas migrated from C.S. Lewis’ vision of “a fawn carrying an umbrella and parcels through a snowy wood” to teen dystopias where children murder each other.

That’s a pretty remarkable shift if you stop to think about it, and it has people talking.  Consider this article by James Pinkerton comparing the sunny optimism of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the despair of Blade Runner.  Or this brilliant article by Brian Phillips, which understands Star Trek: The Next Generation in the context of America’s post-Cold War optimism.  Amy Sundberg asks if science fiction has gotten too depressing.  For SF author Neal Stephenson, the answer is yes; he has actually created a new project called Hieroglyph to rally SF authors into writing more optimistic fiction.

As someone who is immersed in the problems of the contemporary world, I have to admit that I find the tilt toward dystopia somewhat refreshing.  I like uplifting stories and believe that one role of fiction is to call us toward higher and better lives, but I also expect serious fiction to grapple with the reality of the human condition.  Unfortunately, too much golden age SF oversold the future; authors and their devotees believed that technology and progress could bring something akin to religious salvation.  Arthur C. Clarke envisioned that 2001 might bring the next stage of mankind’s evolution; instead, we got September 11th.

In my view, modern dystopian authors have simply rediscovered what Thucydides told us almost 2500 years ago.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

3 responses to What dystopias tell us

  1. I love a good uplifting book. I enjoy good sci-fi. I think the previous obsession with happy sci-fi might have more to do with enlightenment, Reason (as opposed to reason), and utopian ideals. Part of the turn away may be a postmodern reaction to that over optimistic modern thrust from the past.

  2. Glad that you enjoyed the post. I really do think sci-fi is great for exploring the big philosophical issues of the day. Stephenson’s point about the current bleakness of visions of the future, as opposed to those of the ’50s through ’70s is well made. But these things go in cycles. H.G. Wells was pretty relentlessly pessimistic. He was also, by and large, on the money, at least as far as futurists go. His books almost all contain some sharp contemporary commentary. War of the Worlds can be read as an essay on imperialism. The War in the Air war’s inherently escalatory nature and also the way that offence and defence naturally achieve a new stasis. The Time Machine’s observations on work and society seem to me relevant today, very much so. The Island of Dr Moreau should be read today too.

  3. Thanks for the comment, David, and good point. The history of SF is much more complex than a descent from optimism into pessimism. As a side note, I noticed on Goodreads that one of my friends in SAASS (the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air & Space Studies) is reading “The War in the Air” as part of the program.

    Emily, I think you’re absolutely right. A world based on “enlightened Reason” hasn’t quite turned out like its champions expected.

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