Bringing back hope to our imagined futures

Neal Stephenson has called on his fellow science fiction writers to dream big, stay optimistic, and step away from the dystopian writing of the past. But not everyone agrees. 

  Science fiction often embraces dystopian visions of the future, including war or societal breakdown, such as in George Griffith's 1893 novel The Angel of the Revolution.   The British Library/Flickr  (public domain)

Science fiction often embraces dystopian visions of the future, including war or societal breakdown, such as in George Griffith's 1893 novel The Angel of the Revolution. The British Library/Flickr (public domain)

Award-winning science fiction author Neal Stephenson is very upset that NASA shut down their space program. 

In a 2011 article for World Policy Institute, Stephenson laments our “inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program" and entreaties science fiction authors to do something about it. His view is that science fiction benefits science in two ways: first, by inspiring young people to take up careers in science and engineering, and second, by providing a fully realised image of an alternate reality in which compelling innovations have been achieved. He goes on to argue that the way to maximise these benefits is to write aspirational utopias that illuminate a path forward, rather than nihilist dystopias that dwell on the potential dangers of the technology we already have.

  Neal Stephenson at a book signing at GDC Online in 2011.   GDC Online/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Neal Stephenson at a book signing at GDC Online in 2011. GDC Online/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In an attempt to promote and popularise the writing of positive, utopian sci-fi, Stephenson partnered with Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination to create Project Hieroglyph. In 2014, the project launched its first book, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. The book is a compendium of 20 short stories by well-known writers and thinkers that challenge us to “dream and do Big Stuff". It aims to offer a "forward-thinking approach to the intersection of art and technology that has the power to change our world.” That is certainly a worthy goal.

Stephenson himself acknowledges that this is a bit rich coming from the author of Snow Crash and many other books that feature less-than-rosy visions of the future, but that shouldn't be held against him. After all, people are entitled to change their opinions, and he is not alone in writing about the potential pitfalls of modern technology. Nihilist, pessimistic and dystopian narratives make up the vast majority of science fiction. But is it true that the prevalence of these narratives is having a ‘wet blanket’ effect on scientific discovery and invention? 

Following Stephenson's article, many writers came out in defence of dystopias. Ramez Naam, writing for Slate, applauded the “tradition in science fiction of warning tales that have influenced our society—in positive ways—just as much as aspirational stories have.” There are many examples of this, the most famous being the father of dystopian science fiction, George Orwell's novel 1984, written as a warning of the rise of totalitarianism following the end of WWII.

  A presentation of George Orwell's 1984 on the US television show Studio One in 1953.   CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

A presentation of George Orwell's 1984 on the US television show Studio One in 1953. CBS Television/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The late 1940s and early 1950s saw a huge ride in pessimistic art of all kinds, not just science fiction. Throughout history this kind of work has seen spikes in popularity during times of war, poverty and fear. Following WWII, Jean Paul Satre and Albert Camus popularised existential nihilism, a personal philosophy that rejects any higher purpose or meaning. This made sense to a world that had recently experienced such meaningless loss and devastation, and so the art of the time, especially science fiction, reflected this feeling.

This is because science fiction isn't about the future, it's about the present. In the words of sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow: “Science fiction exposes the aspirations and the fears of the people who are writing it at the time.” This is possibly more true of science fiction than of any other genre. The reason why this might be is succinctly explained by Doctorow in Skynet Ascendant:

"As I’ve written here before, science fiction is terrible at predicting the future, but it’s great at predicting the present. [Science fiction] writers imagine all the futures they can, and these futures are processed by a huge, dynamic system consisting of editors, booksellers, and readers. The futures that attain popular and commercial success tell us what fears and aspirations for technology and society are bubbling in our collective imaginations."

This goes some way towards explaining why existential nihilist narratives (think True Detective) and dystopias (think Hunger Games and The Walking Dead) are so popular right now. We are without doubt living in a time of extreme uncertainty and fear; the war on terror is endless and everywhere, while climate change threatens to end life as we know it. Faced with meaninglessness, uncertainty, and the realisation that our lives are not protected by a higher power, existential nihilism is the appropriate response now just as it was following the end of WWII and at the beginning of the Cold War. There is a secret component to existential nihilism that makes it especially appealing in tough times — it empowers the individual. 

  Science fiction has long had a diverse range of views on the future of humanity and our relationship with science and technology.   Jim Linwood/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Science fiction has long had a diverse range of views on the future of humanity and our relationship with science and technology. Jim Linwood/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Albert Camus said: “The realisation that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning.” The next step is to create your own meaning in an uncaring universe. This empowering effect is tied up with why people cling to dystopian narratives in times of crisis. Existential nihilism encourages us to recognise our individual agency, the same way protagonists of dystopian narratives are forced to take control of their own destinies. Faced with the totalitarian overlords or an environmental apocalypse, what else is there to do but get up and fight? Even what is considered to be the most depressing, bleak depiction of the future, Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, can be read as ultimately hopeful.

Doctorow recently released a new novel, Little Brother, inspired by George Orwell's 1984. It tells the story of innocent children in San Francisco who are illegally captured and tortured under suspicion of being terrorists. While such a tale could be considered pessimistic, it is also contains that common element of empowerment. In an interview with Diane Coutu for Harvard Business Review, Doctorow explains “the novel encourages young people to take control of technology to assert their freedom in the twenty-first century.” 

Meanwhile, back at camp Hieroglyph, Stephenson's view on the utility of utopian sci-fi appears to be shifting. For Hierogyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, he discussed the construction of a 15 mile high tower to help launch vehicles into space. He later said of the story: “What I found out pretty quickly is that so many brilliant people have been thinking about that exact problem for so long that it’s almost a waste of time”.

William Gibson’s view is that to divide the vast expanse of science fiction’s influence into utopian or dystopian camps is a “pointless dichotomy” - and in the end, this view is perhaps the most useful. 

No matter what one decides to label it, all good science fiction narratives have the capacity to inspire.