I’m not talking about science fiction that takes place in a totally different plane of existence, or in a different galaxy, or so far into the future that there is almost no connection with our own reality. (eg. Star Wars, Star Trek, etc.) I’m talking about speculative fiction that purports to look at how our world and our society will turn out in a few decades, or maybe a hundred or so years. Once you move away from aliens attacking Earth it seems that most speculative fiction, and certainly most good speculative fiction, is very pessimistic about the future.
If someone were to ask you to name a good book that tried to envision the direction our world was headed which names would pop into your mind? Nineteen eighty-four? That would be on the top of my list. How about Brave New World? The Handmaid’s Tale? Fahrenheit 451? Never Let Me Go?
All excellent books by any definition, but not an upbeat vision of the future in any one of them. Certainly these don’t represent all books, but are there any books out there that predict society is on its way to becoming fairer, freer, less polluted, more harmonious? I can’t think of any. I’m no expert on books, and maybe these examples are representative of my own taste more than they are of what’s out there. So let's look at movies, which reach a wider and more diverse audience .
Coming up later this summer, Elysium: Rich people above in an Eden. Poor people below in misery. Or from a few years ago, Children of Men: No more babies, so kiss humanity good-bye. Go further back, to Logan’s Run: Everybody lives a wonderful life, until 30; then they kill you. And there are many others.
Of course, there has to be some sort of conflict for there to be a story, so it makes sense that things don’t work out as planned in the future. But the conflicts are always because the world has become a terrible place, whether the misery is shared by everyone or is only reserved for an abused underclass that is hidden under a thin veneer of beauty or perfection. The only stories in which people defend a happy world against dark forces, either external or internal, are usually fantasies, or maybe space operas.
Nope, I may be wrong (and I expect some smarty-pants will take all of three seconds to show how wrong I am), but I think that most writers who attempt any sort of serious contemplation of where our world will be in a generation or two, or three, inevitably picture it as heading downhill. And this is not a recent phenomenon, if you consider that Brave New World was written in 1931, and Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in 1948. Have writers been so cynical or pessimistic for the better part of a century? Clearly, this trend is not a consequence of World War II, or Vietnam, or 9/11. Every generation seems to have had its exponents of a negative world view, warning about the dangerous path we’re on.
Do they think it makes for better fiction? Are they right? Is it a kind of snobbery, that looks down on any optimism for the future as naïve, or old-fashioned? Maybe it’s a specialized genre on its own, and pessimism is a necessary part of the criteria. All I know is that, as I work on my great DYSTOPIAN VISION OF THE FUTURE, it never even occurred to me that I didn’t have to.