In defence of dystopian fiction: Why we also need sci-fi that imagines bleak futures

Gautham Shenoy August 19, 2017

Arthur Galton was just a botanist at Yale who was trying to find a chemical method to make soybeans to flower and fruit earlier. Little did he know that his research would one day be weaponised, contributing as it did to the development of the deadly herbicide and bio weapon Agent Orange, used so devastatingly by the American troops against the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Later in life, he mused on the misuse of his research saying, “Nothing that you do in science is guaranteed to result in benefits for mankind. Any discovery, I believe, is morally neutral and it can be turned either to constructive ends or destructive ends.” And what goes for science goes well for technology, media and even religion – for everything is a double-edged sword, it just depends on who wields it and to what end. The fork in the road could lead us to a happy place or could take us to a place where things aren’t that happy. This where dystopian science fiction comes in.

A dystopia – the opposite of an ideal state or a utopia – is a society that’s more than just ‘not ideal’. Dystopias are bleak, with totalitarian governments often wielding and manipulating technology, media and religion as tools to keep people in check (or distracted), where freedoms are limited, to say the least, censorship prevails, and nonconformity is a crime.

So why would anyone want to imagine – much less predict – a bleak future like this? Ray Bradbury, speaking about his Fahrenheit 451 – a classic of dystopian fiction about a book-burning society doped up on technology and television, that invited censorship upon itself – said of it, “I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.” And therein lies the true value of a dystopian book or film. By being an ‘anti-prediction’, the term Margaret Atwood used to describe that other dystopian classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, saying that maybe if a bleak future was described in detail, perhaps it won’t come to pass because people will know how things will be and how it got to that.

Good dystopias (an oxymoron if ever there was one!) take our worst fears and give it form and shape in the context of a story well told. Like that most prescient and relevant of dystopias, George Orwell’s 1984, with its portrayal of ubiquitous mass surveillance, loss of privacy, revisionism, and state-controlled media. Dystopian stories are cautionary tales that we would do well to draw lessons from – to pay attention to the times we live in and be aware of how things can change for the worse quickly – if not for anything to see the early signals of a looming dystopia or one that is already here.

I say ‘already here’ because while conceptually, dystopian societies are set in the future, it’s not hard to see elements that contribute to the making of a dystopia around us. Perhaps that’s why we’re inured to them or find them boring, bleak, depressing or even worse, familiar – exactly because we’ve seen things happen around us that are dystopian tropes come alive. Like for instance, the above-mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale, which feels eerily contemporary though it was written in 1985. Samit Basu was spot-on when he said – at the New Worlds Weekly sci-fi meetup last month – “Dystopias are already here. They’re just not very evenly distributed” (paraphrasing William Gibson’s oft-quoted maxim about the future). Perhaps if more people read literature about dystopias, they won’t become ‘evenly distributed’, because no one in their right mind would want to live in one.

It is said that those who don’t learn from history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat it. I’d paraphrase that to say that those who don’t learn from fictional dystopias are doomed to live their reality in it, if not now, in the future.

So if we are to learn from Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – a book that is supremely relevant to today’s times – maybe we would all read more and watch mindless television a little bit less. If more people were made to watch Matrubhoomi, we’d see less female foeticide/infanticide because no one would want to live in the nightmare that is a nation without women. If you could make more people see different and very plausible scenarios of what awaits us on the other side of a globally warmed and drowned world, they’d take climate change more seriously to stave it off, if we can. The downsides and societal implications of genetically-engineering human ‘designer’ babies, for instance, can be seen in the movie, Gattaca and some more lessons learnt.

So while we definitely need positive science fiction that seeks to inspire by imagining better futures for humankind, let’s not be dismissive of – or diss – dystopian fiction, the other side of the coin, for it too has the same role to play, in its own way.

And now, there’s just one more thing to do before I sign for this week – the announcement of the winner of last week’s New Worlds Weekly contest. For his very human entry about what he’d do if he found himself to be the last man alive, winning the deluxe edition of Volume 1 of Y: The Last Man is Yogesh SP, who said he’d first feel very sad at having lost his family and friends but would hunker down to find his true purpose and then write a first-hand original account of the story of the last man. Congratulations Yogesh! Do get in touch with us with your mailing address and other details, and get ready to enjoy Y: The Last Man.

On that note, I bid you farewell dear reader and hope to meet you back here again next week, as we continue our journey further into science fiction with yet another edition of New Worlds Weekly. Live Long and Prosper!


Lead Image: Cover of a Penguin edition of arguably the most famous dystopian book, George Orwell’s 1984, with the three slogans of the Party, ‘War is peace’, ‘Freedom is slavery’ and ‘Ignorance is strength’.