Utopia Or Dystopia: Modern Sci-Fi Reflects Our Fear of the Future
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For all the extraordinary scenarios the genre creates, science fiction stories typically depict one of two possibilities for humanity’s future. The first is a post-scarcity utopia in which technology has permanently solved the problems of starvation and want, enabling us to turn our attention to the exploration of the stars. The second option, which has become much more common in modern works, depicts the opposite: a humanity that failed to resolve its deficiencies before the onset of a paradigm-shifting event, leaving us to wither in dystopia.
Whether the story envisions a Star Trek-style utopia or a The Expanse-style dystopia, sci-fi writers base their fictitious worlds on what they see as the inevitable result of a key inflection point; either a cataclysmic event or the invention of world-changing technologies. Typically, this inflection point predates the narrative, which focuses on the characters as they navigate the world this event has created.
In utopian tales, the inflection points are often unacknowledged. Such is the case with Star Trek, which doesn’t address Earth’s shift from Capitalism to the “Treky Economy,” which appears to be a form of highly-advanced Communism. But in the dystopian stories, the ones filled with brutal deaths and daily struggles to survive, the cataclysmic events are always present, as they create the central conflicts the characters face. For example, The Last of Us has its virus outbreak day, The Expanse is set in a solar system in which humans clung to Capitalism until it was too late, and The Book of Eli exists in what fragments of society remain after a nuclear holocaust.
It is a sad reflection of humanity’s current state that contemporary science fiction seldom imagines us reaching utopia. While the 20th century was filled with hopeful sci-fi like the many iterations of Star Trek and the happy-go-lucky The Jetsons, such optimism is few and far between in today’s entertainment.
Perusing the internet lists of “Top SciFi Movies of the 2000s” confirms our pessimism. Avatar, arguably the most prominent movie of the past two decades, is an explicit critique of American colonialism. With the help of the military, humans attempt to excavate the coveted resources of planet Pandora with no regard for indigenous life. A personal favorite movie of mine, District 9, shows our inability to handle immigration and refugee crises, inevitably leading to an “othering” of the extraterrestrial species and the poor living conditions that come with segregation.
In video games, which have always tested the limits of mainstream culture, the message is more explicit. BioShock, Fallout, Prey, and The Outer Worlds all depict societies that were unable to move past the profit-over-people of Capitalism, even after world-altering events like the discovery of extraterrestrials or the literal end of the world.
Heavy on Science, Light on Fiction
No matter if we watch them on an iMax screen or read them in the pages of a library book, the most popular stories are always those that resonate with us. There’s a reason nearly all modern sci-fi shows a bleak and dreadful world. It isn’t that movie producers and authors are depressed, but that dystopia is where most of us think we are headed.
According to Gallup, only 42% of Americans think it is “very likely” (13%) or “somewhat likely” (29%) that the younger generations will have better lives than their parents. This is a plummet from the 71% who believed the future would be better at the start of the millennium.
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