Our Skepticism of the Future Comes In Waves: Margaret Atwood at "Utopia/Dystopia"

On Friday, the New Yorker festival hosted “Utopia/Dystopia," a panel discussion moderated by Daniel Zalewski, with fiction writers George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, and Margaret Atwood, who was the undisputed star.

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Oct 8 2012, 12:00pm

On Friday, the New Yorker festival hosted “Utopia/Dystopia," a panel discussion moderated by Daniel Zalewski, with fiction writers George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, and Margaret Atwood, who was the undisputed star.

Saunders is best known for his innovative short stories, including "his impressive collection In Persuasion Nation. Jennifer Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and published Black Box a fantastic short story detailing the mission of a technically-enhanced female spy set in a dystopian future, in The New Yorker’s 2012 sci-fi issue.

We’re well aquainted with dystopian depictions in film, television, and literature. George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, is perhaps the best know example of a dystopian novel, but moving forward there is The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, Neuromancer, and countless others. In science fiction film and television, to find a depiction of the future that is not dystopian seems to be the exception to the rule. Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica, the recent release Looper, and too many more to name, all fall into this category in one way or another.

It seems that our cultural conditioning teaches us to view utopian depictions with a certain amount of skepticism. A future with sufficient energy for all — a future not dominated by corruption or overwhelmed by polution or advertising — while appealing, just doesn’t seem plausible given the current state of the world. But, as Atwood noted, that skepticism hasn’t always been so resolute.

“Canadians have never gone in much for utopias. The weather’s not good enough. But now that it’s getting warmer, we’re getting perkier.” — Margaret Atwood

Atwood brought up the notion that dystopian and utopian projections come in waves, and that the proliferation of these types of expression coincides with the political and cultural moment of its creation. The sincere utopias brought forth around the turn of the 19th century were, she contended, a result of the notion of the boundlessness of natural resources. We are often a cynical species, and in order for utopian ideas to resonate there must be a real sense that our food and our land and our pioneering spirits will never run out.

She cited several large-scale “utopian” experiments gone awry – Nazi Germany, the USSR, and Mao’s China – as important events in the turning tide against utopian visions of the future. The theme of utopias as imagined by oppressive states runs through Atwood’s writing; her famous dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was published in 1985. It imagines a future where the United States has been overthrown by an extreme religious, conservative regime; women have been stripped of virtually all of their rights, and they exist in structured hierarchies based primarily around their breeding capacity.

With all the current political haranguing and misinformation surrounding women’s reproductive rights, Atwood’s narrative can strike you as upsettingly prescient. But it also shows that an individual’s assessment of her surroundings as utopia or dystopia depends on whether or not she is in power.

When the need for energy sources seems increasingly endless, while the oil and coal reserves are now known and finite, dystopian narratives speak to us all the more. One wonders if technological advances in wind and solar power might usher in a new era of utopian stories. In speculative fiction, authors are obviously constricted only by the limits of their imagination. It is the manifestations of our grossest fears of government, capitalism, and environmental destruction that generally feature prominently in dystopian futures. So why in this moment do so few people imagine a future where things can get better?

Follow Kelly Bourdet on Twitter: @kellybourdet