We’re overdoing dystopian sci-fi. Can we please take a break?

Gautham Shenoy February 23, 2019 5 min

At a recent event that I participated in, as part of a panel on imagining the future and the cities of tomorrow, the mood was overwhelmingly pessimistic with dystopian visions dominating the discussion. And it was with no small amount of consternation that I heard the moderator talk about the young children he teaches art to: when asked to draw what they think the world and Bangalore will look like in the future, all the children drew illustrations that showed death, decay and burning buildings. I was almost tempted to say, “I blame science fiction dystopias!”, as the SF author, Bruce Sterling often does on his twitter feed, only half in jest.

It is but natural that these young children from the art class and all the adults present at the event feel cynical and pessimistic about the future because the present seems to be full of fear and anxiety, and too few things happening around the world give us any cause for celebration. By reflecting these fears and anxieties, and projecting them into the future while amplifying them by degrees, a lot of the science fiction of recent times has moved in a direction that seems furthest from happy. And this is why the need of the hour is more hopeful science fiction stories. Speculative futures that, give us reasons to be optimistic, without being Pollyanna-ish. Perhaps, it’s time to take a break from reading bleak visions of the future and give dystopian literature a rest.

This is not say that dystopian literature should not be read. Because if nothing, we need these cautionary tales to learn our lessons of all that could go wrong and work towards avoiding these undesirable futures, as has been written about in a previous edition of this column. But we need to strike a balance and currently, the scales are not in hope’s favour.

This is where projects and anthologies like Neal Stephenson’s Project Hieroglyph come in. Stories that give us hope and show us we are still capable of doing big – and good – things. Or the XPRIZE interactive anthology to which some of the world’s most visionary SF writers contributed their techno-optimism infused visions of our future, our world as it might be in 2037.

Also read: Can science fiction really, realistically help build better futures? It’s trying to (yet again!)

The Verge’s Better Worlds is ‘a science fiction project about hope’.

One such recent project that has given me much hope that perhaps the tide may be turning is The Verge’s Better Worlds, described as ‘a science fiction project about hope’, partly inspired by the aforementioned Hieroglyph anthology.

“At a time when simply reading the news is an exercise in exhaustion, anxiety, and fear, it’s no surprise that so many of our tales about the future are dark amplifications of the greatest terrors of the present. But now more than ever, we also need the reverse: stories that inspire hope” writes Laura Hudson, The Verge’s Culture Editor in her introduction to the project.

The Better Worlds stories are written by some of the really fine SF writers around – such as John Scalzi, Kelly Robson, Rivers Solomon, Peter Tieryas and Justina Ireland, to name just a few – and each story comes with an audio/video adaptation. It is recommended that you read the stories first before watching/listening to the adaptations. In Better Worlds, you will read stories of a woman leading an open-source revolution to build rockets so people can escape to a better future on Mars; of an island using AI to defend itself against hurricanes; of an artist and an AR researcher who stumble upon something wondrous in their quest to decode a mysterious global hallucination; of an AI designed to moderate games who comes into its own and more. The only thing these stories have in common is a sense of optimism, a sense that things can be better, and hope. “The stories of Better Worlds are not intended to be conflict-free utopias or Pollyanna-ish paeans about how tech will solve everything; many are set in societies where people face challenges, sometimes life-threatening ones. But all of them imagine worlds where technology has made life better and not worse, and characters find a throughline of hope”, writes Laura Hudson.

Of course, there are many who would say that to indulge and immerse oneself in such hopeful stories is to take recourse to escapism. But is that such a bad thing? To quote from Neil Gaiman’s The Reading Agency lecture, “I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

‘If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”

Hopeful, optimistic science fiction can – and does – show us a better world, a future that is different from dystopian dreams. If it be escapism, so be it. As British writer CS Lewis said of escapism and escape, “What class of men would you expect to be most hostile to the idea of escape? Jailers.”

So maybe, just maybe, it’s time for you – and me, and us all – to take a break from bleak visions and dystopian futures and escape the prison that the present seems to be, into a brighter future with optimistic science fiction and hope it comes to fruition. After all, if the future is not a happy one, how can we hope to Live Long and Prosper?


Updated at 02:51 pm on February 25, 2019  to update typo. Decode was spelled as decade earlier.