Wednesday, June 18, 2008

“Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…”

I stumbled across this post from Althouse--the premise of which I agree with--but which contained the above quote: “Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…” My response was:

What? No! The Golden Era of Science-Fiction was steeped in optimism. It was gritty sometimes, and foresaw many unpleasant ends, but the underlying principle was a faith in technology to help man conquer time, death, etc. You could debate the roots of SF, that Verne and Wells and Gernsback were more agnostic but that’s more complicated. They’re certainly not dystopic in the modern sense.

Movie sci-fi was much the same way until post-”2001: A Space Odyssey” (which itself is far from dystopic). Yes, there were alien menaces, but they were conquered by heroic man and his gigantic human brain. Dystopia became fashionable in the ’70s and “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max”/”Road Warrior” had the advantage of being stylish and cheap to evoke, especially the latter.

The change in attitude was so drastic, that by the '80s series "Star Trek: The Next Generation", an exasperated Gene Roddenberry had to write--well, let me quote Ed Driscoll:

Almost 20 years ago, I remember buying an early version of the guide handed out to writers on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the late 1980s. In order to prevent another round of episodes where Evil Computers Run Amok and the heroic captain of the Enterprise must destroy them, Roddenberry inserted a passage that reminded his writers that the crew of the Enterprise aren't Luddites: technology is what got them into space and keeps them there, so avoid writing anti-technology screeds.

Ed has his ideas about what caused this, but it's interesting to note that the series didn't stop with the anti-technology and humans-are-evil memes to its ending day. I seem to recall one of the last episodes being about how warp-drive technology caused damage to the physical universe.

Conceptually, this is as amusing as global warming, raised to an infinite power. (Space, it seems, is really, really big. Damaging it would seem to be problematic.)

A late Ray Bradbury story, "The Toynbee Convector" is actually a perfect analog to what science-fiction (at least during the Golden Age) was meant to do. Basically, John Campbell and a bunch of writers felt that the only thing they could do to keep Man from destroying himself was turn his attention outward, to the conquest of the nature and the universe.

Some dystopia is, of course, quite good. The classics (Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) are good reading, for example, based on some fairly sound observations. E.g., what we now call "Political Correctness" was identified by Bradbury decades ago, though he mistook the form it would take. (He also describes iPods and cell phones pretty well, though they seem so much more sinister when he did it!) 1984 stabs at a similar totalitarian control, from the angle of a Soviet-style state. And Brave New World is not entirely unimaginable, though horribly, I could see it evolving at a social level. (Not just people all wanting to have super-babies, but people wanting their children to be just like them--including having all their limitations.)

But, as I've mentioned, I'm particularly hard on dystopic visions, particularly post-Apocalyptic ones. I found Haldeman's recent book to be interesting, for example, but he leveraged some heavy-ass technology to explain his world. A good dystopia has you wondering about human nature. A bad one has giggling or thinking maybe the author has an axe to grind, like Handmaid's Tale. A good one extrapolates reasonably from observable human characteristics (the desire to no be offended nor to give offense, as in Fahrenheit 451, a bad one works backward from some creepy setting and makes a statement about Man's general bad-ness, as in Children of Men, where the end portrayed doesn't follow logically from the bad circumstance.)

But I digress. One of the reasons dystopia is so common is that it's easy. It's the science fiction equivalent of "clap humor". Make a dystopic future where religious fanatics have taken over, or men are oppressing women, and you'll get readers believing you're soooo profound and have such a good grasp of things.

In any event, the perversion of science-fiction into a shopping list of all the ways we might fail is just that: a perversion.


  1. I agree with your premise that early SF was as optimistic as it comes. I don't agree that dystopias replaced that theme, rather, it is in addition to. (After all, where do you go as a writer after you get tired of 'gosh-wow!'? You flip it upside down and write 'OMG!' stories.

    I also think that if you look closely at many of the post-Rodenberry-chiding ST episodes that feature tech gone amok, you'll note that its also technology (plus human creativity) that solves the problem.

  2. Yes, that's largely true, though note that some of the final TNG episodes--in particular, the one where the warp drive was destroying th euniverse--there wasn't a tech solution. They actually went for "conservation", i.e., limiting the amount of flying done to certain areas of space.

    Very not sci-fi.

    I don't remember seeing the issue come up again because, let's face it, it's a dog fiction-wise.

    "To boldly go where no man has gone before, but only if we can do so without disturbing the universe's perfect balance."

    Doesn't work to well.

    It's not just sci-fi, either, if you think about it. Most narratives are based on the ability of humans to solve problems.

  3. Crap. They're playing with the power here which messed up my last response.

    I was noting that you're correct that dystopic visions largely augmented rather than replaced themes, at least in literature. (I don't really know what the modern state of SF is, I tend to read old stuff.) But the dystopic vision has always been in the literature, it just began to become the accepted (and expected) style in the '70s.

    Classic SF wasn't so much about either utopian or dystopian visions (though that's always been a sub-genre), but about humans using technology to solve problems. Society was good or bad or in-between, and Man had a problem to solve. Terraforming Mars or, say, building a better society (which is not the same as utopian).

    Movie-wise, though, it's hard to see where dystopia hasn't completely dominated since the '70s. You got your "Star Trek" franchise, though with a streak of technophobia in the later movies, and you got your "Star Wars" franchise, which isn't (couldn't be?) technophobic, though the recent trilogy is rather misanthropic (to its own detriment).

    Other than that, whatcha got? The first part of Iron Man? (I don't know if you count comic books in with the SF; I see you've given the subject considerable study on your site.)

    And, if you've seen it, the first half of Iron Man--pro-technology, pro-human and patriotic--is positively shocking. It almost evokes Verhoeven's subversive Starship Troopers, which is of course meant as a satire on patriotism, and is misanthropic.

    It's probably telling that the big franchises are not dystopic. Somebody might get the idea that people don't like depressing visions of the future.

  4. I enjoyed your post, and would be interested to read your thoughts on Metropolis. We just watched it last night, and I'm struggling to understand the intent. Clearly dystopian. But is the technology the problem, or flawed humans and economic systems? What do you think?

  5. There are easier questions to ask, for sure. lol

    It's been a few years since I've seen it, I'm not sure I've seen the original cut. (I'm not sure the original cut exists?) And the answer does depend on which version you've seen, sort of like Blade Runner?

    But, with Lang, we can rest assured that he felt flawed Man was the problem. He didn't much care for men, or even Man, which you can see in a lot of his movies.

    And there was a definite duality about technology, very influenced by the Marxism of his time, to say nothing of WWI, but even the Gothic tradition: Is the robotic version of Maria good or bad or both (depends on the cut)?

    There's so much religious imagery in the movie, too.

    What there isn't any of, notice, is the idea that machinery can make life better for everyone: In this future, machines don't help everyone: They demand sacrifices of the downtrodden to keep the elite living lives of luxury.


Grab an umbrella. Unleash hell. Your mileage may vary. Results not typical. If swelling continues past four hours, consult a physician.