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The Dark Side of Dystopian Fiction

In 1966, the deck of the Enterprise was shown in fabulous technicolor. Men and women of all backgrounds, and even planets, worked together in brightly colored shirts identifying their rank, cheerfully tackling philosophical issues with the bright light of morality and civilization. Fifty years later, the Enterprise is flying again, but this time with highly filtered black and white promotional shots and a darker war-torn storyline. It’s not news that Into Darkness took the franchise into some darker territory than much of The Original Series seems to cover. But this is a trend that’s shadowing pop culture at the moment as dystopian futures pervade movies and novels.


It’s understandable. Science fiction has long been an excellent way of critiquing the status quo, and with the current state of affairs, there’s a lot to critique. With America still struggling through the debt crisis after years of war, civilian shootings on the rise, and an increasingly bleak and divisive political scene, it’s easy to see why the imaginings of the future are full of zombies and corrupt government officials. There’s definitely a place for The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead. They’re easily parables for the world today, and with the right audience, works like these can inspire change. But the flood of darker themed science fiction needs to let up. When even Superman boards this doomsday bandwagon, it’s time to ask some questions.


Of course critical fiction is important, and dystopian works are a great way to raise questions that initiate change. But what can these stories lead to? Just imagining how the future can go wrong isn’t enough. Writers and movie makers and artists need to imagine how the future can go right. In 1966, Star Trek imagined a future in which a black woman worked on the deck of the Enterprise; a Russian character was put in the show in the midst of the Cold War. Star Trek looked forward positively, and good came from that. Integration happened; the world today looks light years closer to the imagined peace and acceptance on the Enterprise. People sent rockets into space; they went to the moon. Smartphones put communicators in the hands of everyday people. These and many more leaps forward, both culturally and technologically, have come from looking forward to the future. Sharing positive views of how the future can be is just as important and necessary as sharing cautionary views.

At BookExpo America this year, Neil Gaiman told a story about attending the first nationally recognized science fiction convention in China. While there, he asked one of the Chinese officials why they were hosting the convention after years of regarding it as subversive. The official said, “In China, we’re really good at making things people bring to us, but we don’t invent, we don’t innovate.” When Chinese officials went to the people who innovate, people like Google and Apple and Microsoft, they asked them what they read as children. And the innovators answered, “’We read science fiction. The world doesn’t have to be the way it is right now. We can change it.” It’s that idea that is vital in the culture that is consumed. While dystopian thrillers may be cleaning up at the box office, it’s important to also remember that the future isn’t just full of zombies and oppression and corruption. With a little optimism, there’s a lot of possibility there, too.