At one point in time, Science Fiction gave us a vision of the future to look forward to. Sure, there were little problems, the occasional war with the Klingons, or a greedy space captain who shanghais an unfortunate soul into indentured servitude. Despite those little problems, things were mostly utopian in those alternate universes. Food and clothing were both readily available, healthcare was free, there didn’t appear to be poverty or hunger, and humans explored the boundaries of both knowledge and the known universe.
In recent years, particularly since the mid-90’s, Science Fiction has moved away from utopia to very dystopian images of the near and distant future. Instead of worlds with free accessible healthcare, and food replicators that can make anything you can think of, we’re treated to countries devastated and divided by civil war, zombie apocalypses, or ones where children are locked up for a variety of invented reasons.
To be perfectly honest, I’m a huge fan of dystopian young adult fiction, particularly ones that defy traditional convention. When my daughter is old enough, I’m looking forward to reading The Hunger Games trilogy, The Darkest Minds Series, and lot of other dystopian fiction with her. I’m sure she’ll have some fantastic thoughts and opinions to share about them, and I can’t wait to hear them.
That being said, I can’t help but think about what we have lost when we moved from utopia to dystopia in our visions of the future. If we truly are what we manifest, is our dystopian future a reflection of our times? Or, have we simply become a dystopia where children are locked up because we’ve lost our ability to see a utopian future?
I was only six years old when the USS Enterprise-D began to grace television screens in 1987, and I can’t tell you for sure when I saw my first episode. There’s a strong chance that LeVar Burton’s melodious voice took me behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation during an episode of Reading Rainbow, and that was where I first discovered Science Fiction. This man, whose voice made up many parts of my childhood soundtrack (Reading Rainbow, Captain Planet, and Star Trek: TNG), led me to a place that was full of hope and optimism about the future.
Once I’d discovered TNG, there was no turning back for me, I was more securely hooked than a Tuna on a long line. My favorite episodes were those that involved Wesley Crusher, an incredible character that Wil Wheaton has taken far too much crap for over the years. I could easily see myself sitting at the conn instead of Wesley, or piloting a shuttle, or going to Starfleet Academy, or doing any number of things. The options were endless, and everyone could fulfill their dream.
Of course, with another thirty years or so of experience, I recognize just how naive that perspective was. There are all sorts of barriers to making that sort of society possible, not the least of which is losing the concept of money. But still, the fact that people could even conceive of the world that existed in TNG makes me hopeful to this day. Oh, it’s far from perfect, but it remains a paragon of hope in my mind. In fact, I return to it about every three years or so and begin to work my way through the episodes again (though I’ll admit to skipping some of them when I can recite the entire plot from memory).
In retrospect, I realize that it is kind of like watching a heavily edited example of life on board an aircraft carrier and thinking you know everything about American life. While Gene Roddenberry’s vision was far from militaristic (kids played a large role in TNG and future series), it was still a structured environment not too different from the military. In the little slices we saw of life outside the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet, things were idyllic and there wasn’t much violence, hunger, or any of the major societal problems we see today.
I believed then that we could get there…I still do…
It wasn’t long afterwards that I found myself enthralled by Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” series of stories. Despite the conflicts at the heart of these stories, the overall perception continued to be largely utopian. Humanity explored the stars, we designed robots to take on some of the more menial tasks in our lives, and things were largely good overall. It wasn’t until my twenties that I discovered the treasure trove of classic Science Fiction…Old Time Radio.
I spent a couple years working as a mobile supervisor for a security company, and as the low guy on the seniority list, I mostly worked overnights. The vast majority of my time was spent doing routine things: checking to make sure buildings are secure, checking up on guards at static posts, and responding to the occasional alarm. Because of the distances involved in covering my patrol territory, I would have ample time to listen to the radio.
On a typical 12-hour shift, I’d start by listening to some news and current affairs on CBC before switching to pop for a while. After a couple hours of music, I’d grow tired of hearing the same song over and over again and start searching for something else to listen to. One night, I discovered an AM station that would play old radio shows for a few hours every night. I began to fill the middle of my shifts with Jack Benny, Sam Spade, Joe Friday, and huge stars like Frank Sinatra in Rocky Fortune, or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Bold Venture.
What really excited me though, was the undiscovered (at least to me) treasure trove of classic Science Fiction on shows like Dimension X and X-Minus-One. I saw new worlds opened up through the writings of Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and more of Asimov’s works that I hadn’t previously discovered. While post-apocalyptic scenes were a regular part of these stories, they were used sparingly as settings. One of my favorites was “A Pail of Air”, set in a world where the only way to breathe is to dig up solid air and melt it over a hot stove.
Even these stories weren’t fully dystopian to me, though they may appear so to some. The focus wasn’t on how bad things are, it focused on the idea of hope and that no matter how bad things got, they could always get better. Sometimes it took a bit of Deus Ex Machina to make it happen, and I can’t say the timelines were totally accurate (many of them were set in the late 20th and early 21st century…needless to say we haven’t accomplished the feats the writers expected), but they always wound up with things being better at the end.
If you want a very interesting tour of how past people saw the future of our world check out Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog on Gizmodo.
I get it, I understand that a lot of the time things don’t work out like we want them to. Things aren’t always better at the end of a story, but I think that we’ve lost something when the dominant forward-looking stories of our times are based around dystopia instead of using it as a setting. When we give up hope as a central theme we lose more than just a theme, we lose our ability to see hope in our future.
In recent years, the narrative in Science Fiction has shifted from themes of hope and the common good to themes that are often reduced to simply surviving. When we stop seeing the big picture represented in the future we may get better stories, but we lose something too. We lose the ability to see our society and ourselves in better places than we are now.
Even Star Trek has become more complicated and more ambiguous in its story-telling. While many of the same themes are there, the overall image of a successful society that is based around the common good seems to have fallen out of favor in Star Trek and elsewhere. I’m not suggesting that we return to the single-dimension stories of good vs. evil, but surely there has to be a happy medium between utopia and dystopia.
I want to see that somebody else thinks we can get ourselves out of this mess without destroying ourselves, the earth, or each other. I want to see that someone out there believes that we can solve the crises in housing, education, climate, and inequality without blowing ourselves up in the process. When we stop looking towards fulfilling humanity’s full potential, we get so mired in the limitations of the present that our future potential shrinks until the future looks like an older version of the present.
Dreaming and visioning about what we could be is so deeply ingrained into the human psyche that it becomes part of our driving force. We are all encouraged to dream about what we want to become when we grow up. We spend time dreaming about what we want to do with our lives instead of what we’re actually doing. Some of us have much more modest dreams, like beating cancer without having to declare bankruptcy. Dreaming is a part of who we are as humans, and we need to embrace that.
So, for you authors and aspiring authors, and all the storytellers in whatever medium you’ve chosen, please don’t get so mired in the present that you forget to dream about the future. When you dream, make sure you include it in your stories, and give us something all to dream about alongside you. You might just be the inspiration to make it happen.
Originally published at http://matthewgwoodall.com on July 9, 2019.