Monday, January 7, 2013

Reaction on Utopia Versus Dystopia


Are stories about utopias morally superior to stories about dystopias? By writing about futures where governments break down, resources run dry, pandemics run rampant, and zombies wolf down unsuspecting pedestrians, are we making those things more likely to happen?

Give credit where credit is due, +Robert Llewellyn asked a provocative question in his post to the the sci-fi community the other day. Does the preponderance of dystopian, post-apocalyptic (a word he doesn't actually use, but I feel fits his description of most zombie movies) come from the fears of the ruling class (predominantly white, anglo-saxon and rich)? Are these futures presented to us because that's the future the elites fear, one of rapidly reduced power and prestige? 

Robert quickly back-tracked from his question on whether or not dystopias are ever written by the under-privledged. Of course there are, from all over the world. There are also plenty of writers from conservative or elite backgrounds more than happy to churn out their own brand of utopia (see Ayn Rand and Orson Scott Card). But I want to give Robert credit where credit is due, sometimes the value of a question is not whether or not it can be answered but whether or not it provokes interesting ideas.

Now, if you've been reading my blog this week, you know that I have a thing for Star Trek and its vision of a future. There's conflict and disagreement and tragedy but the series embraces an irrepressible optimism on the course of the human development. Star Trek believes in a brighter future, a utopia of explorers and scientists and dreamers pushing out into the stars, free of most material constraints, simply looking for new worlds. It's an appealing vision but never an unchallenged one. Before The Next Generation was even over, reactions against its pieties and perspectives were already appearing. In many ways, Star Trek Deep Space Nine functions as a rebuke of the universalist, relentless humanism of The Next Generation. Still later, Firefly would cast utopian world builders as the enemy, as assimilators and imperialists of limitless hubris.

Could we see the pendulum swing? Culturally, this year has more, not less, post-apocalyptic, dystopian science fiction in store. From Oblivion to After Earth to World War Z, the culture still seems in the thrall of dark, discouraging visions. Even Star Trek seems to be toeing the line, the title of the sequel of 2008's re-boot is "Into Darkness," after all. But I, for one, am just about done with apocalypses and grungy, down-rent futures. I have no idea if a dystopia is more reactionary than a utopia, but I do know one thing.

I'm bored of them. 

It may be tougher to construct interesting utopian fiction but it's not impossible. It's even been done before.
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