Dystopian science fiction stories have always been popular, but they seem to be in demand now more than ever. George Orwell’s 1984 became a bestseller, again, following an explosion of interest in post-truth after the election of Donald Trump. From Black Mirror to Blade Runner 2049, we can’t get enough of dystopian sci-fi, so why are we so obsessed with how the future can go wrong?
Dystopian sci-fi conjures up societies that are undesirable or frightening. Corrupted visions of our own future. However, they usually say more about the time they were written in than what the future will be like.
Orwell was worried about Stalinism and how it was poised to spread across Europe after WW2, sweeping away the democratic socialist movement that Orwell was a champion of. Any accurate predictions made about listening devices and CCTV are an unhappy byproduct of this.
Does the sudden demand for Orwell’s novel indicate that we’re worried about the rise of an authoritarian state? The popularity of last year’s TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale indicates that there is concern about how an oppressive dystopian society would treat those it sought most to control. Are we all bracing ourselves for the horror to come?
Popular culture is full of examples of authoritarian future states that bear a striking resemblance to 1984. There’s Terry Gillingham’s Brazil, in which correcting a bureaucratic error in the mechanisms of the state’s tyranny leads to Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) becoming a victim of the authoritarian state. There’s The Hunger Games where the elites in the Capitol force the oppressed to sacrifice their children for their amusement. A feature of these dystopias is that ordinary citizens are constant witness to (and likely victims of) horrific acts of violence.
Our fears don’t just take the form of authoritarian states abusing their citizens. There are plenty of sci-fi dystopias where all of society has collapsed. These are grim visions of a future were humans eke out a miserable existence. The Road, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, is an example of this. As are The Book of Eli, Twelve Monkeys, Francesca Haig’s novel The Fire Sermon and Ram V & Dev Pramanik’s new comic Paradiso.
With sea levels rising, the parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere getting to alarming levels and frequent outbursts of bellicose rhetoric from Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, it’s no wonder that people are more worried about the complete end of human civilization than ever.
Of course, society doesn’t have to completely collapse for a dystopia to be filled with humans eking out a perilous and depressing existence, nor does there have to be an authoritarian state. There are plenty of sci-fi futures where we are ground down by mercilessly oppressive private companies.
Ridley Scott’s rain-soaked, bleak vision of … er … next year comes to mind. The original Blade Runner is a society built on slavery, ruled by corporations, where the law is enforced with unflinching brutality. Warren Ellis’s comic Transmetropolitan is another example.
All of these dystopian futures are grim, but they remain consistently popular because there is something comforting about them. There is comfort in a future, however grim, when the terrible things that happen are for a reason. If bad things happen to you, because you live in a dystopian society, that is more comforting than bad things happening to people at random and for no reason, as they tend to do in our world.
These depressing visions of tomorrow do offer some guarantee of safety and stability for the people who embrace them. Dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World seem quite appealing if you can just conform to their very rigid view of a hierarchical society and accept that nothing will ever change.
Being a battery inside The Matrix would be nice, unless someone yanked you out and made you eat gruel while a mad revolutionary ranted at you about destiny. Would you mind not having emotions if you lived in Equilibrium? Minding is an emotion, and you wouldn’t have that if you lived there so I guess you wouldn’t mind.
The most comforting part of dystopian science fiction is that it is just that, fiction. Dystopias remain popular because they allow us to explore our worst fears about the present and how they will play out in the future. Not only are they warnings about what is going wrong, but they offer us hope that humans will survive even the worst oppression that the future can throw at us.
Give all these reasons, I can see why we love creating and reading dystopian stories. I can imagine they will be popular until we stop worrying about the present or the future. This poses a new question: which dystopian future is the scariest? Nick and I discuss that question in the podcast below: