Q & A

What if the future is a disaster?

The future is not only the domain of economic projections. Writers have long imagined future worlds where life is a totalitarian nightmare, or hubris has led to nuclear or environmental catastrophe. While each dystopia contains unique horrors, the stories often spring from the same well — a feeling that the way we're living now is unsustainable.


Q: The dystopian genre has persisted for more than two centuries. Can you explain its origins and progression?

The whole idea of dystopias and utopias taking place in the future comes almost automatically as soon as people realize that the future is going to be different from the past. Early utopias would be set on some island or over a mountain or in a hidden valley, never in the future. At the end of the 18th century, right at the time of the founding of the United States, as well as the scientific revolution, everybody got the idea that the future was going to be different from the present. And when they started conceiving utopian plans for, say, perfect societies of the future, they were almost always contrasted with a dystopia — a bad thing that either could happen or was happening all around us, which the utopia was supposed to solve. Eventually, the dystopia overtook the utopia, which pretty much petered out.

Dystopian and utopian visions from the 19th century focused on injustice, strife, peace, and war, but especially on socioeconomic justice — alleviating the gap between rich and poor. A great example is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, which was a great success and actually started a movement in the late 19th century for change. It called for a complete reorganization of society in which everybody was employed by the state and everybody worked until they were 40 years old at a job they were suited for, after which time everybody could retire if they wanted. Everybody got exactly the same pay, whether they were the president of the administrative services or a lowly sewer guy. This was written during a time when labor and management were shooting each other in the streets, so a lot of people found it very appealing. In Bellamy's book there was no revolution to get them out of the dystopia; everyone just came to their senses. He set his utopia in the year 2000, so it's pretty clear things didn't work out as predicted in the book.

Q: Why has the dystopia become more prevalent than the utopia over time?

Dystopian works shine a light on what people are worrying about. They reflect a society's insecurities. There are basically two types of dystopia. The first is the total collapse of society and war of all against all and people scrabbling for the remains of a collapsed civilization. The other kind is the dystopia of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where everything is perfect and complete and everybody is taken care of, but it's just a dead world in which there is no imagination, no creativity, no personal liberty, no individuality. It's all crushed out of people. Sometimes you get both, as in 1984, where Orwell creates a world that is a terrible place, where nobody gets anything but everyone is pressed into this kind of communal togetherness and forced to believe everything is actually wonderful. This is the worst of all worlds.

On a basic level, dystopias are more popular because they're better stories. Utopias can get boring. A visitor arrives — either by falling asleep in the past and waking up in the future (as in Bellamy's novel) or just somehow showing up — and he doesn't understand this new place and must be shown around by a wise man who shows how they have solved all the problems. But in a dystopia, you get a bunch of people fighting against a terrible power or fighting against each other for the last scraps of a failed society. Think of Mad Max. It's just fun. I wrote a dystopian novel, Beasts, and an ambiguous post-collapse novel, Engine Summer, and I can tell you they were a blast to write.

Q: How do dystopias reflect changing concerns over time?

After World War II, we start to see the dystopia where the dominant theme is the collapse of society as a result of the nuclear bomb. The destruction is both environmental and social — all social organization is gone. If you're looking for how the dystopian novel reflects a society's concerns about its sustainability, you can't get more obvious than this. There is also a dystopian mode that focuses on a perpetual war between two great powers. Both sides are forced to create terrible human societies in order to keep the war going. You've got the chaos of war and also complete government control. It's pretty easy to see where in the fears of the time that came from. One thing I find really interesting about 1950s dystopian science fiction is how there is still a great belief in technology and its possibilities — in the wrong hands it leads to universal surveillance and totalitarianism, but the technology works perfectly.

Q: Things changed dramatically in this country in the 1960s. How did this impact dystopian literature?

This is the period when we start to see the environmental dystopia. And it coincides nicely with the rise of the environmental movement, when people first started to really wonder if our society was sustainable. So you get the kind where the population explodes uncontrollably, and there's not enough food for everyone and the cities are filled with slums of starving people. You get riots and a total collapse of government services. We don't get those anymore. I'm not sure what happened to them. Apparently that concern is over. But for a while it was very big. Do you remember the movie Soylent Green?

Q: "It’s people!"

Right. They start eating people, calling it "Soylent Green," because there's nothing else to feed the people. That was particularly big in the 1970s. At the same time there is the rise of dystopias envisioning the actual death of the earth. This is the "rape the earth" dystopia. Forests are ravaged; the natural world is altered, as well as our own genetics, which are manipulated by foolish scientists. You can sense a change in the attitude toward technology from the 1950s. And it's understandable. I wrote Beasts, which is about recombinant DNA creating species that are both animals and people and the consequences when they get out of the lab. At the time I was reading a lot about recombinant DNA, which seemed both exciting and a potential serious concern.

I want to step back for a moment, because this is the period when I'd say the last really big utopia came out. It was called Ecotopia, and it takes place in a part of California that’s effectively separated from the rest of society. They've got the right kind of plants to grow, they reuse everything and use natural resources in a way that makes them truly sustainable.

Q: This was a time when there was a real movement back to the land, right?

Exactly. Which is an important thing to point out. Utopias are often attached to a movement. They act as a plan. Ecotopia became, along with the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of Bible for a generation of back-to-the-land types. You took them with you and went off to your cabin in the woods.

Q: And then starved.

They starved and then came back and Ecotopia was forgotten.

Q: How important is it for dystopian and science fiction writers to get their science right?

It has been very important for writers like Larry Niven or Greg Bear, who write what is called "hard" science fiction, which means that all the science is supposed to be right, as opposed to "soft," which means that you don't care as much. During the '30s, '40s, and '50s hard science fiction was a major part of the genre. But an interesting thing happened in the last 20 years, which is that most science fiction writers are not writing hard science fiction. They're not trying to make predictions; they've lost interest in the future. I have a feeling that society at large is kind of losing interest in the future. I don't think people like to think about the future anymore.

In the 1980s, I wrote a documentary film about the 1939 World's Fair, whose theme was "The World of Tomorrow," and which presented these wonderful predictions. The industries that were invited to show their stuff at the World's Fair were explicitly instructed to try to predict what their industry was going to be like in the future. General Motors presented this gigantic diorama, it covered like an acre, and you took a trip around it, and it was called the Futurama. You traveled around and you looked at radio-controlled highways and towering skyscrapers and farms covered with plastic domes. It was going to be just wonderful.

Q: When was the Futurama supposed to be in place?

1960.

Q: So today's writers don't want to look like fools.

I think that it's just not interesting to them anymore. And I think the readership got tired of it a long time ago. They don't want to be lectured anymore about how bad it's going to be in the future if we don't stop misbehaving. If you think about what's been popular over the last couple decades, you can really sense a change in how the future is addressed. William Gibson created a new science fiction category, cyberpunk, which is the last futuristic strain of dystopia to come along. He’s best known for Neuromancer, which came out in 1984. Gibson's stories were about this awful future, in which advertising was universal and the corporations dominated everything in a kind of secret alliance with government to hold power. And if you were a smart hacker — he didn't invent the word "hacker," I don't think, but he certainly was the first to employ it as a fictional trope — you could break into these centers of power and show what they were up to. The movie Blade Runner shows how this future looks. It's this sort of cultural slush of people and advertising and constant spiritual deprivation.

Nobody's trying to control anybody, in the way that old dystopias were. The powerful don't care as long as they can get your money and hold onto their own power. So you could either slip between the cracks or work as an assassin or hired hand in the cyber realities. This is very different from Orwell's future, but it's still a very bad one. It’s interesting that Gibson's more recent books aren’t really set in the future. They're set in the present or near-present, just a little bit around the corner. They don't constitute warnings; they are merely descriptions.

Q: How much of the fizzling of the future dystopia is because of the writers' interest and how much reflects a society that seems to have become less optimistic over the past few decades?

It's hard to say, but when I look around, I don’t see any social movements that are saying, "We have the capacity to make the world better," or "We have the ability to create a good life for the masses through science and technology." Looking back, we can see how there was this sense of great promise at the start of the 20th century that was reflected in the science fiction. They never doubted that science was capable of creating a whole society and successfully running it down to the last detail. Who thinks that now? Now most dystopian fiction is pure thrill without any kind of social thinking. I was part of the new wave of science fiction that came up in the 1970s and got going in the 1980s that was interested in using the tropes of science fiction and the futuristic dystopia to tell our own fantastical stories. What's interesting is that writers now using the mode of dystopian fiction to diagnose our ills or give warnings often do not come out of science fiction. Margaret Atwood explicitly denies that her futuristic novels are science fiction, but that's what she's writing. And the future she predicts is a familiarly bad one. It hearkens back not just to the classical science fiction of earlier decades — work that started from the premise "If this goes on…" — but also fits with the later type that focuses on the willful destruction of the environment.

Q: Where do you see science fiction and the dystopian novel headed in the future?

I don't know. The fact is I've sort of turned away from the future to the past. I work in an imaginary past, but one people recognize. My new book takes place during World War II, but it's about a place I made up and people I invented. In a way, a lot of us who look for other worlds to write about are now thinking of the past as we used to think of the future. My wife said to me recently, "Ah, the past is the new future."
 

Senior Lecturer in English, Creative Writing, Yale University; Author of nine novels