We Need Dystopias Now More Than Ever
Only a venture capitalist could argue, as militarized police descend on poor Americans with riot tech, that we should stop talking about dystopias.
The Hunger Games. Lionsgate
It seems a strange time to implore authors to "Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It's Making Us All Fear Technology." That call, after all, was issued precisely when the nation was fixated on the highly dystopian spectacle of heavily militarized police officers storming streets lined with unarmed protestors in a suburb in middle America.
Writing inWired, Michael Solana argues that writers should be glorifying the potential of technology instead of issuing warnings of its perils: "for their capacity to change the way people think and feel about technology, the stories we tell ourselves can save us—if we can just escape the cool veneer of our dystopian house of horrors."
That seems easier for someone to say when they aren't staring down the barrel of a highly assault rifle or fleeing flash grenades or being blasted by an LRAD sound cannon, and instead work for a "venture capital firm dedicated to the identification of and investment in highly scalable technology companies," as his bio states.
It certainly wasn't Solana's intent, but he has powerfully illustrated how differently the future is often viewed within the Silicon Valley bubble—and hasn't thought much about why the genre he is frustrated with is currently so popular.
When I began reading the headline, I immediately figured its construction would end with 'Because Dystopia's Already Here' or some such. Especially since one of Wired's top competitors, The Verge, was simultaneously featuring as their lead story a piece titled 'Is This How Dystopia Begins?' in reference to the events in Ferguson.
Dystopian literature has, in other words, already provided a popular, obvious (yes, perhaps too obvious), and useful reference point for many to understand and contextualize the ill tide of current technological trends.
Many look at Ferguson and recognize the seeds of a society depicted in, say, Elysium or The Hunger Games. Those films offer a lens through which to consider the wealth inequality, militarized policing, and prejudice against minorities that is informing those events—and where those trends might conclude if left unaddressed. Ferguson is a stark example of our cautionary fiction aligning, regrettably, with reality, right here in the richest country on earth.
(A more valid gripe about dystopian lit is that it tends to describe what are commonplace woes in much of the world happening to wealthy white Americans, then bemoaning them as novel.)
We need our dystopias more than ever. As Motherboard futures editor Claire Evans often points out, our science fiction almost always tells us more about the present moment than it does about tomorrow. Films, TV shows, and books that portray the widening gap between the elites and the poor and the use of technology to subjugate the have nots are beyond apropos right now.
So when Solana, an employee of a venture capital firm, writes that "Our fears are demons in our fiction placing our utopia at risk, but we must not run from them," it isn't just myopic, it borders on ignorance. What utopia? There is no semblance of a utopia in sight for any save the richest techno-optimists. Structural inequities are placing society at risk, and no technology alone is going to fix them.
Furthermore, sci-fi is often best when it's subversive—from early classics like Edward Bellamy's utopian Looking Backward to H.G. Wells' capitalism-critiquing The Time Machine to, of course, 1984 and Brave New World to, most recently, Snowpiercer and, yes, The Hunger Games—not when it's an advertisement for technology invented by companies that Solana's firm might like to invest in.
Now, Solana's point is also that we need more Jules Verne's and Arthur C. Clarke's predicting new technologies (they're credited with dreaming up the submarine and satellite communications, respectively), and future societies for readers to become enamored by.
In this call, he's not alone. Cyberpunk laureate Neal Stephenson, for instance, has beseeched writers to stop being so pessimistic and "get big stuff done"—that's why he helped found the Heiroglyph project, which is working to imagine space elevators and massive towers, and generally doing exactly that.
But that's evidence that the two strains of speculative fiction aren't mutually exclusive—Stephenson himself imagined an astonishingly iPad-like 'Primer' in his very dystopian Diamond Age, and Kim Stanley Robinson thought up hollowed-out asteroid barges, roving mobile cities on Mercury, and empowering gender-bending biotech in his opus, 2312. By the way, in that book, Earth is still burning.
In other words, these sci-fi writers are being pragmatic—they're envisioning a crumbling world and the fascinating technology that might help save or distract us from it. Yet there's still a reason that we can't wave off pure dystopias, either. They help diagnose our ills and suggest a few ways forward; Elysium, as ham-handed as it was, ends with universal healthcare. The Hunger Games, meanwhile, has actually inspired real-world revolutionaries in Thailand.
Films like those may be relatively sterile big-budget Hollywood entertainment, but they still convey a message that is eminently and unfortunately relatable to an increasingly large and diverse slice of the world: There's a sharpening divide between very comfortable elites, like people who run venture capital firms, and those whose labor the elites are profiting off of. Those who worry, in addition to how they're going to pay their bills, about persecution at the hands of militarized police and digital government surveillance.
The few who don't need to think about dystopia, and the vast majority who do.