Is sci-fi a downer?

Is dystopia closer than we think?

Have you seen the film ‘Looper’? I did recently, and rather enjoyed it, although it is fairly gory. It could have been much gorier, so I’m glad that they kept the violence to only the non-gratuituious (if that is a word?).

Discussing it later with a friend, I mentioned that it painted a rather dark view of the future, and he said:

But isn’t that what science fiction is for? If it doesn’t show a dark future, how will we know what to avoid?

Now, I grant you that quite a bit of science fiction is indeed rather dystopian, my own novel ‘The Artemis Effect’ included.Β  There are those who would say that it needs to be to create the conflict necessary to a story. But is this true?

Reviewing my bookshelf, it seems that in interesting trend appears. The more serious works: those which truly do try to look into the crystal ball of the future, do indeed paint rather a dark picture. There are plenty of post-apocalyptic stories, and ones where science or society has gone badly wrong in various ways, destroying either the environment, or any kind of positive social structure, or both.

To be honest, if you pay too much attention to the news, it can be hard to see any future but a dark one. Happy headlines just don’t seem to happen.

However, the notable exceptions on the bookshelf are those which take a more light-hearted view: I’m thinking now of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, and ‘The Road to Mars’ by Eric Idle. ‘Red Dwarf’ even.Β  Are these books less valid versions of science fiction, just because they are frivolous? Are they any less likely to be accurate predictions the future? Not necessarily. ‘Hitchhiker’s’, as I’ve said before, is in many ways rather philosophical, and has an innate understanding of human nature, which is not at its core uniformly evil.

I’m wondering if it is maybe the easier road for science fiction to take, to explore a dystopian world, than to try to provide an invigorating story within a world which is a great improvement on our own? Does the fantasy genre do a better job of dealing with utopias than sci-fi?

What are your thoughts? Love to hear from you. πŸ™‚


18 thoughts on “Is sci-fi a downer?

  1. wow — good questions. In short perhaps since the Enlightenment Western man has displaced God with his own will and the glance in the mirror is frightening.

    In fantasy, magic and Gods and absolute good and evil still exist which gives the opportunity to be measured and succeed.

    Plus heroes need protagonists like natural catastrophes or governments to overcome and they are easy to believe in.

    Many bad things may happen, but I believe in the ability of men and women to solve problems and for the most part that has been happening through my life.

    • Interesting point about fantasy – there definitely is more absolute good and evil I think. Does this make it more one-dimensional, or black and white? I suppose it’s always simpler in a story if we can spot the good and bad guys easily, but I’m not sure that’s how human nature really works!

      • How are you? Any news ?

        Perhaps the step from childhood to adult is to acknowledge the grey in good and evil and character.

      • I’m good thanks – no news as yet!
        I seem to recall some kids at school with plenty of grey in their character! They can be pretty brutal at times, whether intentionally or not.

  2. Hey, you didn’t mention Doctor Who! πŸ˜€

    I love “Hitchhiker” to bits, and in a few episodes of Doctor Who there have been nods towards Douglas Adams (who wrote a few episodes) and Arthur Dent.

    Also, “The Fifth Element” is set in the future and I find that to be all kinds of fun! Oh, and let’s not forget “Firefly” πŸ™‚

    I like to think that, whatever happens, there will always be a Doctor or a Mal Reynolds to come swooping down and raising a ruckus/putting things right πŸ™‚

    • Sorry – major omission there! I don’t have that many of the Dr. Who books, and I was looking at my bookshelf at the time. But at least the older ones are certainly not dystopian – in fact very much tongue in cheek, which is what is so appealing about them I think.
      ‘The Fifth Element’ is great fun, but still quite a dark world in many ways – all the rubbish piling up, tiny flats, widespread gun use etc. At least they kept the lighter side too – Ruby Rhod is all too believable! πŸ™‚

  3. It’s interested that Sci-Fi has become social commentary on the future of things to be. I think the really scary thing is that previous predictions of the future came true and we became too complacent to really care about it. The future never looks bright unless you’re reading propaganda.

    • I find it actually helps to read things like ‘New Scientist’ – there are some truly astonishing things happening in the scientific world which can give us all some hope. πŸ™‚
      You’re quite right about the complacency issue though. Amazing what we can get used to. Personally, I hate to think that the world will have no tigers left, and no-one seems to care all that much.

  4. “Does the fantasy genre do a better job of dealing with utopias than sci-fi?”

    First, there has never really been any society that could be considered a utopia, so in a sense, utopian SF is just fantasy. Fantasy doesn’t deal with anything at all except entertainment and wishful thinking. I prefer realism in thinking about the future. Overall, humans have done pretty poorly with the world we’ve been given, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change. Future humans will be living out the consequences of our history. I doubt that there’s going to be anything cheery about it. Still, SF can put more focus on the possibilities for living humane and worthwhile lives while coping with the harsh realities.

    • Maybe if there was a society which was a utopia, the people living in it didn’t realize it at the time?
      I tend to agree with you on fantasy, but it can at least provide some escapism from the real world, which can get a bit overwhelming at times.
      I think the concept of sci-fi being able to focus on the possibilities of living more humane lives is a good one. I did write a short story for Luna Station Quarterly which was kind of on this topis, but it dealt with alien races, not people. Definitely worth pondering further. Thanks! πŸ™‚

  5. I enjoy reading science fiction for the chance to imagine the future, whatever that may be. I don’t think it has to be depressing or show us what to avoid even though a lot of it does do that. There are some great ones out there that aren’t overly depressing – Pastwatch, Contact, Stranger in a Strange Land – and yours wasn’t depressing. I do like end of the world type books even though I don’t usually like depressing things, but to me it can also be a chance for nature to fight back, so I think that’s why I like them.

    • Yes, I think you’re right. I may have mentioned it before, but I heard an interview with P.D. James, and she said that crime fiction was incredibly popular during and just after the war. Even though people are killed, the murderers are usually brought to justice, and people found that rather comforting. So maybe it’s something of the same thing: the future may be dark, but perhaps there is a way to survive it?

    • It probably depends a bit on the authors involved too, and even which aspects of their world you focus on. The world portayed in ‘Looper’ really is pretty nasty though – poverty, crime, exploitation. At least at the end you don’t know how the future will pan out, and it seems to have a glimmer of hope.

  6. I would note that Star Trek had a very utopian few of the future. I think science fiction explores all possible futures, good and bad. What sells at any particular time may be reflective more of how we are feeling at the time. Now, things are tough, science predicts dire environmental degradations coming soon so perhaps its no surprise that the future looks somewhat distopian in our literature. When Star Trek was in its heyday, the world was progressing and it all looked pretty good. Dr. Who of today is darker, more distopian than the original versions.

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