“Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…”

I stumbled across this post from Althouse–the premise of which I agree with–but which contained the above quote: “Science fiction has always been strongly dystopian overall…” My response was:

What? No! The Golden Era of Science-Fiction was steeped in optimism. It was gritty sometimes, and foresaw many unpleasant ends, but the underlying principle was a faith in technology to help man conquer time, death, etc. You could debate the roots of SF, that Verne and Wells and Gernsback were more agnostic but that’s more complicated. They’re certainly not dystopic in the modern sense.

Movie sci-fi was much the same way until post-”2001: A Space Odyssey” (which itself is far from dystopic). Yes, there were alien menaces, but they were conquered by heroic man and his gigantic human brain. Dystopia became fashionable in the ’70s and “Blade Runner” and “Mad Max”/”Road Warrior” had the advantage of being stylish and cheap to evoke, especially the latter.

The change in attitude was so drastic, that by the ‘80s series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, an exasperated Gene Roddenberry had to write–well, let me quote Ed Driscoll:

Almost 20 years ago, I remember buying an early version of the guide handed out to writers on the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the late 1980s. In order to prevent another round of episodes where Evil Computers Run Amok and the heroic captain of the Enterprise must destroy them, Roddenberry inserted a passage that reminded his writers that the crew of the Enterprise aren’t Luddites: technology is what got them into space and keeps them there, so avoid writing anti-technology screeds.

Ed has his ideas about what caused this, but it’s interesting to note that the series didn’t stop with the anti-technology and humans-are-evil memes to its ending day. I seem to recall one of the last episodes being about how warp-drive technology caused damage to the physical universe.

Conceptually, this is as amusing as global warming, raised to an infinite power. (Space, it seems, is really, really big. Damaging it would seem to be problematic.)

A late Ray Bradbury story, “The Toynbee Convector” is actually a perfect analog to what science-fiction (at least during the Golden Age) was meant to do. Basically, John Campbell and a bunch of writers felt that the only thing they could do to keep Man from destroying himself was turn his attention outward, to the conquest of the nature and the universe.

Some dystopia is, of course, quite good. The classics (Brave New World, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451) are good reading, for example, based on some fairly sound observations. E.g., what we now call “Political Correctness” was identified by Bradbury decades ago, though he mistook the form it would take. (He also describes iPods and cell phones pretty well, though they seem so much more sinister when he did it!) 1984 stabs at a similar totalitarian control, from the angle of a Soviet-style state. And Brave New World is not entirely unimaginable, though horribly, I could see it evolving at a social level. (Not just people all wanting to have super-babies, but people wanting their children to be just like them–including having all their limitations.)

But, as I’ve mentioned, I’m particularly hard on dystopic visions, particularly post-Apocalyptic ones. I found Haldeman’s recent book to be interesting, for example, but he leveraged some heavy-ass technology to explain his world. A good dystopia has you wondering about human nature. A bad one has giggling or thinking maybe the author has an axe to grind, like Handmaid’s Tale. A good one extrapolates reasonably from observable human characteristics (the desire to no be offended nor to give offense, as in Fahrenheit 451, a bad one works backward from some creepy setting and makes a statement about Man’s general bad-ness, as in Children of Men, where the end portrayed doesn’t follow logically from the bad circumstance.)

But I digress. One of the reasons dystopia is so common is that it’s easy. It’s the science fiction equivalent of “clap humor”. Make a dystopic future where religious fanatics have taken over, or men are oppressing women, and you’ll get readers believing you’re soooo profound and have such a good grasp of things.

In any event, the perversion of science-fiction into a shopping list of all the ways we might fail is just that: a perversion.

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