In Praise of Bright Futures: Balancing optimism for and criticism of human advancement

Readers of science fiction may wonder these days if the word “dystopia” shouldn’t really be “pantopia” or something similar—Greek for “every place” in opposition to utopia’s “no place.”  The market is, after all, saturated with oppressive governments, technologies, and societies: they’re seemingly everywhere. Many writers, editors, fans, and critics have already noted the ever-present dystopia in SF, seeking instead visions of the future that are more optimistic than those presented in the dark future Earths wherein just about everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.  Anthologies such as Arizona State University’s Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future, for example, work to this end.

This call for portrayals of brighter futures in SF would help realign the genre with the sense of wonder at its roots. But as a reader and fan of dystopic literature, this leaves me with a couple questions: first, what does the dystopic form do for stories that makes it so useful in SF and second, do we really need this form to do the dystopic form can do?

Why is the dystopic form so useful?

I’ll admit: dystopias got me back into reading SF after a time away in which I mostly read literary fiction. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me GoThe Handmaid’s Tale is usually the first SF book I’ll recommend to someone who has qualms about reading the genre. These are all stories of deeply human characters struggling against an inherently unjust system. Put oppressed sympathetic characters on a flawed future Earth, and we’re going to cheer for them.

That the characters in dystopic literature are usually humans living on an at least somewhat recognizable Earth gives the genre much of its weight. In an interview, Ray Bradbury noted that “[s]cience fiction is also a great way to pretend you are writing about the future when in reality you are attacking the recent past and the present.” We can see humans acting much as we would in settings that are, more or less, the result of extensions of present societal trends or technologies. Or, more significantly, we can see humans manipulated into acting much as we feel we wouldn’t.

Can we criticize what dystopias critique without using the dystopic form?

So, dystopias are useful, but do we need them to examine human behavior in future situations where society—or some part of society—has gone askew? If the point is to look closely at governments, economies, technologies, or other large-scale factors in human behavior, maybe we do. But not necessarily. The problem with dystopias is that they are inherently pessimistic about humans and the future; non-dystopic stories can be equally optimistic about human behavior and still manage to drive home a point about these larger-scale issues.

In the excellent Lightspeed: Women Destroy Science Fiction! Special Issue, Charlie Jane Anders’ story, “The Unfathomable Sisterhood of Ick” manages to do just this. Mary has just been dumped by her boyfriend Roger. Mary’s long-time friend Stacia, who has trouble maintaining romantic relationships, talks Mary into convincing Roger to record his early memories of their relationship onto a “memory wisp.” Stacia then integrates Roger’s memories into her own, which causes Stacia to act erratically. Mary starts dating Dave; Stacia’s odd behavior threatens to break up Mary’s new relationship. Rather than breaking things off with Mary, he helps her help Stacia rid herself of Roger’s memories. The story closes on Mary keeping both her friendship with Stacia and her relationship with Dave intact.

The story examines the possible disastrous outcome of the technology without oppressing the whole of (or great swaths of) society. Granted, were everyone implanted with Roger’s memories, the story would be quite different, but that’s not necessary to make the larger point.

A second recent example of technology gone wrong in an optimistic setting is in Mary E. Lowd’s “Pegacornus Rex,” in Daily Science Fiction from 15 September 2014. This flash story in which Marla does not remember to turn off the 3-D printer overnight results in her daughter using said printer to create the potentially dangerous title creature. Here the critique—again, of technology used without fail-safes—is set in a story fairly optimistic about human behavior. Leia, the ten-year-old daughter, shouldn’t have used the 3-D printer, but she’s got the imagination and initiative to put together something pretty clever. That a girl feels confident in her ability to use such technology: there’s the positivity.

YA in particular has embraced the dystopia. And while middle school and high school may have felt pretty dystopic for many of us, stories such as Kelly Sandoval’s “Everyone Will Want One” in the September 2014 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction show us that this doesn’t have to be the case. A warning against parental meddling through technology, the story follows thirteen-year-old Nancy Sterling as she is manipulated, by a toy her father has given her, into becoming more popular. Ultimately, the toy breaks, and she has to rely on herself and a friend to help her find her way out of the identity she’d taken on. Again, this achieves in miniature what a dystopia might have done in society as a whole: gadgets that tell us how to act with whom to provide us with better social standing. We can hope that this idea stops with Nancy’s broken toy and does not cascade into a whole society fashioned by a corporation’s willingness to act on human fallibility.

So, no more dystopic literature?

The dystopia definitely has its place in SF: it’s probably the best form for showing the “person(s) against society conflict” in cases where the majority of the population is affected negatively by whatever is oppressing the protagonists. Human weaknesses such as the bystander effect can take on a much weightier tone when no one stands up to the corporation or government at fault for creating the dystopic society. And dystopias excel in demonstrating the effects of taking an idea or action, possible useful or necessary at its beginnings, to its detrimental extremes.

But we need to make room for—and an audience for—the more hopeful views of the future in SF novels and stories. These critiques set within more optimistic views of the future give us space to explore the ideas of harm that could could come from technology, social trends, and the like, without implying that we have to reach the depths of dystopia before we can do something about them.