The long-awaited sequel to 1982's 'Blade Runner' seems inspired by present-day concerns. But amid the grim apocalyptic narratives, authors such as Ed Finn and Neal Stephenson and Cory Doctorow and Kim Stanley Robinson and James Bradley and Jeff VanderMeer and Annalee Newitz argue that futuristic fiction should leave room for optimism and vision.
Recent dystopian blockbusters seem to be jostling in a grim race to be the first to reach the seventh circle of hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” But some science-fiction writers are tired of the sorts of pessimistic futures depicted in movies and TV shows such as “The Hunger Games,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Black Mirror,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
In response, influential authors Neal Stephenson, Cory Doctorow, David Brin, and Kim Stanley Robinson argue that futuristic fiction should, instead, offer an inspiring outlook about mankind’s ability to shape its destiny. But do the kinds of stories we tell ourselves have a cultural impact on shaping a better tomorrow?
The long-awaited sequel to the original “Blade Runner” certainly seems inspired by present-day concerns. It’s eerily in sync with Space X and Tesla founder Elon Musk’s claim that artificial intelligence will come to view humanity as an inferior species and destroy us. “Blade Runner 2049” also predicts bad outcomes from genetic editing, neurotechnology, surveillance technology, and energy use. The future’s only bright spot, it seems, is for umbrella manufacturers.
That sort of thinking made Mr. Stephenson wonder whether the pessimistic outlook of his profession had contributed to a defeatist attitude and lack of ambitious vision among scientists. So, in 2011, the author of classics such as “Snow Crash” cofounded the Hieroglyph project with the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. The big idea: Develop science fiction stories with optimistic thought models and imaginative blueprints. The theory is that these narratives will, in turn, inspire scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to tackle major projects such as designing crewed spacecraft or finding viable alternatives to fossil fuels.
'No such thing as defeating the technology'But some science-fiction writers, including Ramez Naam (“Nexus”) and Daniel H. Wilson (“Robogenesis”), counter that dystopian tales can be just as valuable in shifting thought paradigms. Case in point: Mr. Wilson’s “Robopocalypse,” a story about a machine uprising so terrifying that readers may decide to leash their Roombas.
“I used that meme as a red cape to get the bulls to chase me,” says Mr. Wilson. “My goal was to subvert that theme. What I wanted people to take away from ‘Robopocalypse’ is that there is no such thing as defeating the technology. We are technology. We don’t survive without technology.”
And while novels such as Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” Maja Lunde’s “The History of Bees,” and Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One” offer little respite from apocalypse, they’ve won both critical and popular acclaim.
“If you think that the present is better than the past because of science and technology, then you are much more likely to find optimistic science fiction about the future to be plausible,” says Ms. Postrel. “If you think that science and technology have done nothing but destroy the planet and ruin our health, you will be drawn to pessimistic science fiction.”
Indeed, one puzzling aspect of dystopian science fiction is why stories about dismal futures are so popular during an era of unprecedented human progress. Global poverty is declining, infant mortality rates are falling, and life expectancy is rising.
'The importance of hope'But perhaps the debate over utopian versus dystopian fiction should be reframed. A more helpful distinction might be the difference between nihilism and existentialism in science fiction. Amid doom-and-gloom scenarios, does the hero or heroine have agency and an ability to win the day?
“Dystopian fiction is pleasurable because we can enter from the side of the hero and track the hero’s journey and their statement,” says William Warner, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“New York 2140,” the latest book by Robinson, posits a future in which post-climate change Manhattan is partly submerged underwater. But his dystopian scenario is, in many ways, utopian. New York is flourishing as a "SuperVenice" in which, Robinson writes, “Not a few experienced an uptick in both material circumstances and quality of life.”
Correction: The Hieroglyph project is run out of The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University.