Who Will Win In The Battle of Utopia Vs. Dystopia?
And why is every vision of the future so dystopian?
Computer Love is a monthly column that investigates new technology with the purpose of making it feel less dense and more fun. In this installment we examine science fiction’s penchant for pessimism.
Depictions of the future are so populated with depressed cyborgs backlit with hazy neon, climate catastrophe, or human batteries sedated into oblivion that dystopia feels inevitable. Even narratives constructed around utopian possibilities eventually sour and reveal sinister figures lurking in the shadows, ready to exploit a humanity lost in pleasure. Why is it so difficult to imagine a world where basic needs are met and all people can live out their days in pursuit of love, creative expression, and peace?
In one of the earliest depictions of utopia, Homer describes Odysseus’ visit to the palace of King Alcinous in Scheria (believed to be present-day Corfu, Greece). Cloaked in a concealing mist, he is able to witness the riches within the palace walls, which include a garden full of apple, pear, and pomegranate trees that bear fruit year-round. After regaling the king with tales of his adventures, he leaves paradise for his home in Ithaca. A few centuries later, in the hit sequel to the Torah, the apostle John tells the Dylanesque tale of rapture, which includes plagues, shitty tattoos, and assholes on horseback. After so much fire and brimstone wrought on this world by an angry god, a millennia of peace is ushered in, solidifying the interlinked nature of dystopia and utopia.
There’s an undercurrent of smugness in the way reading-list science fiction like Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 are taught in schools. The discussions around them become reductive and oversimplified in a way that amplifies the distance between when they were written and where we are today. The moral warnings within these books fall on deaf ears because we are already decades into the dystopia they foretell.
In the grimy space-faring or artificial intelligence-dominated settings of Blade Runner, Alien, or Terminator, the technology is just beyond our own, so it still manages to frame the way we think about our immediate future. These dystopias are in the sweet spot between foreign and familiar and manage to feel relevant fifty years later. More recent dystopias are focused on projecting current economic disparity to its most amplified conclusion. In The Hunger Games, Elysium, and Mad Max: Fury Road, the triumphant conclusion is essentially a return to a less severe inequality. Utopia is rarely imagined to be born out of dystopia, but dystopia is the inevitable result of utopian ideation.
Even the rare depiction of a functional utopia eventually becomes corrupted by a disruptive force. The idyllic seaside town of Seahaven Island in The Truman Show serves as an open-air prison for the single man it is built to serve. In the comic book oases of Wonder Woman’s Themyscira and Black Panther’s Wakanda, harmonious societies are thwarted by men with six packs. History has shown that idealistic enclaves like Jonestown or Rajneeshpuram can quickly descend into fascist horror. While the failure of utopian projects creates suspicion and cynicism towards idealism, there are structural and more abstract reasons why dystopias reign supreme in western science fiction.
Perhaps the most obvious function of dystopia is built-in conflict. To tell an affecting story, an obstacle needs to be overcome, and if you’re imagining a future where everything is perfect… there’s not much story. There is also an implied nostalgia-tinged narcissism in contemplating how far the world will fall after it leaves us behind. For visionaries comfortable exploring a world beyond themselves, dystopian stories serve as a method for pushing our reality to its breaking point. Utopias function inversely to hypothesize unattainable perfection, which breaks down when a second person with agency is introduced. If we reframed utopia as an imperfect compromise possible within our own time, would we recognize it as utopia?
Between February and June of 2021, UNICEF and Gallup conducted a global survey asking young people in 21 countries how they felt about the future. The results indicated a trend toward optimism in low-income countries like Indonesia, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Mali. They cited better access to information, improvements to living standards, and life-saving medication as reasons to feel good about the future. Young people in wealthier countries like the United States, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain however, believed the negative effects of capitalism, climate change, and a damaged economy would lead to a world in decline.
As our ideas of how to shape the future become more nuanced, many writers have called for alternatives to the utopia-dystopia binary. In an essay for the Guardian, Margaret Atwood calls out the integrated nature of these visions for the future and gives it a new label: “Ustopia is … the imagined perfect society and its opposite—because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other. In addition to being, almost always, a mapped location, Ustopia is also a state of mind”. The futurist Kevin Kelly suggests an equally measured term: “Protopia is a state that is better today than yesterday, although it might be only a little better. Protopia is much much harder to visualize. Because a protopia contains as many new problems as new benefits, this complex interaction of working and broken is very hard to predict”. Meanwhile, Slavov Zizek implores us to turn away from the two concepts of utopia: one of unattainable perfection and the other of capitalist seduction. Instead, he thinks we should pursue a desperate vision for improvement that is without precedent and is born out of pure “innermost urgency”.
The multiverse mania of the past few years has begun to explore more intricate understandings of identity and relationships by identifying “canon events”, events that occur in every possible universe. Though the multiverse device is getting a bit tired, this idea may serve as a useful tool for thinking about the future. As we shape personal and fictional stories of our own future, maybe we can start by establishing a fundamental understanding of the essential elements we want to be part of the world beyond.