Is it true that dystopias predict doom-laden futures and utopias inspire better futures?
I write near-future fiction and I frequently get asked, “Why aren’t there more utopian stories and why don’t you write more optimistic futures?”
I believe my stories are optimistic, albeit often dark and focussed on the unintended consequences of mixing messy humans with imperfect technology. Still, I agree there is an imbalance between the numbers of utopian stories compared to dystopian. You only have to look at the Wikipedia entries for twenty-first century dystopian and utopian literature. There are one hundred and six dystopian and only four utopian, of which only Iain Banks’ Culture series are novels. The imbalance is staggering.
We need an agreed definition of utopia and dystopia before we can begin to discuss their merits or otherwise. So I’ll use this definition: “Utopia: (the idea of) a perfect society in which everyone works well with each other and is happy.” Dystopia is then defined by the same dictionary as: “(the idea of) a society in which people do not work well with each other and are not happy.” These are simplistic definitions, but then utopia and dystopia are terms that are often used in simplistic ways.
To set out my stall early — I realise that one person’s idea of a utopia is often another’s dystopia. I love the way that in one of the novels that inspired Nineteen Eighty-Four, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the protagonist begins by embracing his utopia completely while we the reader see it immediately as a dystopia. While this is a tactic of dramatic irony, it does a good job of showing that it’s all a matter of perspective.
We know that the context of the times in which the writer works is crucial when thinking about utopias and dystopias, not least because science fiction is mostly a reflection of the society of the day. Although Margaret Atwood also used the past and has said of the Handmaid’s Tale that, “There’s nothing in the book that hasn’t already happened.” This could lead you to believe that in the real-life versions of this dystopian nightmare, the Commander would have seen his world as utopian — it’s all a matter of perspective. In 2019, the Financial Times published an article posing the question, “Orwell v Huxley: whose dystopia are we living in today?” It’s a good question and an article worth reading. What’s fascinating is that it takes for granted that we are living in a dystopia. Although, right now, it’s hard to imagine an article asking whose fictional utopia we are living in. That said we’re far better off living now than in mediaeval times. But the fact that many commentators still consider today’s world to be dystopian shows a desire for a better world. We have an inherent hope for that elusive utopia and we are prepared to strive for it.
So, rather than push for more utopian stories we should question why there’s an imbalance between utopian and dystopian fiction; whether they fulfil different functions; and how they can both be inspirational.
Why is there an imbalance between utopia and dystopia? The Collins dictionary extends the definition of utopia by including the phrase, “which you feel is not possible.” To write a story based in a world that you feel is not possible is difficult without straying from science fiction into fantasy where science fiction is a genre rooted in plausible extrapolations and fantasy can build on flights of imagination unencumbered by logic. On top of that, stories need conflict. If the world in which the story is based is perfect where does that conflict come from? If the story centres your protagonist striving to overthrow a utopia that would logically mean that one person finds the world imperfect. Ergo, no utopia. One way to address this would be to introduce danger from an external source –aliens, the sentient AI or time-travellers, for example — but the only current example of a utopia-with-conflict model that I can think of is Iain Banks’ socialist Culture series where, “Most of the books focus on the jarring collisions between the Culture and other species with other ways of life.”
It’s certainly easier to imagine and write a dystopia because it’s easier to create the conflict and sadly it’s less of a stretch from our current reality. As human beings, we need safe places to explore the things that scare us, the things we worry about, and this is what dystopia is very good at. For example, we use the extremes of the existential threat from a sentient AI in The Terminator or Oceania’s state control in Nineteen Eighty Four as ways of exploring what it means to be human, especially in light of the faceless and unbending dictatorship of the machine or the state system. However, with their black and white portrayals of a dystopian future, these extremes are in danger of anaesthetising us against the more immediate threats, such as bias in machine learning and surveillance capitalism.
Put simply, I suggest dystopias are more popular mainly because they’re easier to write than utopias, they’re easier to believe and we thrive on being safely scared. But, does that mean they are incapable of inspiring a better world?
It’s indisputable that dystopian fiction gives us plenty of warnings about what to avoid and by speculating on those unintended consequences it gives us a common everyday focal point to have the discussions we need to have. Would it be as easy to think about the downsides of a connected society that’s always being watched by those with power without Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four? Or the consequences on the human psyche of the persistent web-presence of the dead without the Be Right Back episode of Black Mirror? Probably not. Dystopias show us what to look out for and this has real impact on real people’s lives. For example, someone made the often quoted point on one of the UK’s smart city websites that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four was a warning, not a ‘how to’ guide, and one of my readers told me that she listens to the news differently after reading my fiction.
There is a danger that dystopias provide us with a deficit view of the world rather than with inspiration for a better world. However, dystopian fiction can inspire change if it’s done well, but we have to acknowledge that it can also suck away the energy to imagine a better future.
At the 2014 National Book Awards, Ursula Le Gun said, “I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.”  She has a point. And yet I can’t believe in the black and white debate about utopia versus dystopia. When it comes to near-future fiction it seems blatantly obvious to me that humans are unpredictable and technology often goes wrong. Therefore, the most believable place to situate stories is the grey place in-between utopia and dystopia. That’s what I’m interested in, the unintended consequences of progress in the context of exploring which optimistic futures might be possible. It’s the bumpy journey from where we are to where we’d like to be; that’s where real-life takes place and where interesting fiction happens.
In near-future fiction this is often achieved by speculating about the technology on the horizon, such as the application of blockchain, democratised social media, smart cities and big data. For example, in The Blockchain Blues, I use the technology as a way of enabling micropayments of tax so you can vote on the issues you care about, a true capitalist democracy. In The Potential, I use smart cities and big data so that a personalised virtual assistant can go anywhere in the city to watch and learn about a new lover and predict the probability of long-term happiness. It’s not clear cut in either whether they are utopian or dystopian and each of us will have our own view.
If we’re hoping for a positive future then good dystopian fiction will help us see what could go wrong. It will help us imagine how to get there and which fork in the road to choose on our journey. Whereas utopian fiction only helps us imagine the destination.
Frederick Pohl said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” That’s true, but it should also be able to help you decide if the automobile is worth the traffic jam. Another slightly leftfield approach of portraying the journey from a dystopia to a utopia is Ray Bradbury’s The Toynbee Convector (no spoilers here, in case you haven’t read it).
With all this in mind, I too would like to read and write more positive futures. As well as writing to entertain I write to inspire readers to consider what the future could become. We know it’s not set in stone and it’s not simply in the hands of those in power. Which is why I use the tag-line, the future is ours and it’s up for grabs, for my Nudge the Future series of sci-fi shorts.
In conclusion, I’m attracted to writing in worlds where the ambition is a utopia and the journey towards it is used as the conflict. And, it’s probably not a huge surprise that this is exactly what the novella I’m currently writing attempts to do.
As Laura Penny said back in 2015, ‘Right now, the future seems dark and frightening and it is precisely now that we must continue to imagine other worlds and then plot ways to get there.’
This article was first published in the Spring 2020 edition of the British Science Fiction Association magazine Focus.