Science Fiction Doesn’t Have to be Dystopian

I love Science Fiction, whether it be in literature or film/TV, but as a fan, I’m frustrated at the moment. In the past years there was been quite a lot of product in this area, but far too much of it (in my opinion) has been in the “dystopian post-apocalyptic” camp, a genre I’ve long since found tedious. Those films all essentially come to the same conclusion: that we’re screwed, as a society, it’s our fault, and the only way out is to destroy all the technology and all of society and settle for a quiet little “triumph of the human spirit” ending. The problem with that sort of film is that it’s all emotion, no logic and no reason, two things that I think are absolutely essential to the science fiction genre.

For example, the recent film Snowpiercer had some intriguing ideas and style, but it was post-apocalyptic, dystopian, full of social metaphors and had an ending that implied the only living things on earth that really matter are polar bears. Even the good science fiction films lately have had that aesthetic, including District 9 (at least to some extent, although less than in others) and even the latest X-Men movie had to go into that grim territory. Nolan’s Interstellar, released this week, is also in that camp, focusing on the the destruction of the earth as a starting point. (From the trailer, with the plucky female co-pilot and the dedicated father to a young daughter (of course), I find it difficult to distinguish between this movie and Armageddon, although I’m sure the full film will have more than just cliches.)

There was a time when science fiction sought to explore intellectual or philosophical ideas, in order to motivate society’s progress and highlight what our species can achieve, or alternatively put things in some sort of profound cosmic perspective that encourages us to stretch our imagination. But lately the films are all sending us the opposite signal: we’re bad people who have ruined the world and things won’t work out for all but the innocent (usually a child left standing in the smouldering ruins of western civilization). This is precisely the same message people were writing and proclaiming 2000, probably even 3000 years ago, except now it’s wrapped in a secular language. It seems like somewhere along the line we completely lost confidence in our culture and civilization, if our science fiction products can be believed.

To put it another way, 25 or 30 years ago, we had Blade Runner and Mad Max, and they were fine: GREAT, in fact. But we also had ET, Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001, and even real-life based films like Apollo 13. Today you really have to seek out the hopeful and non-apocalyptic sci fi, but it’s there (Andy Weir’s The Martian is a great book, Soderbergh’s Solaris is underrated and Duncan Jones’ Moon was a great flashback to an earlier era, even if its plot twist hinged on corporate duplicity). I think the influence of anime and Manga had something to do with changing the aesthetic towards a darker, more violent place. Interestingly, this is similar to the effect that Sergio Leone’s westerns had on their American counterparts in the 1960s. Before Leone, we had High Noon and The Searchers. Great films, but of a certain type. After Leone, we had The Wild Bunch and The Outlaw Josey Wales, leading to films like Unforgiven and shows like Deadwood. It was a great and creative place to bring the western, and gave new life to a tired genre. In a similar way, perhaps anime showed western filmmakers how to pare down the generic texts, to distill it to its essential poses and moments, and then string them together on a fairly ordinary plot. When this works, it works very well, but the most famous westernized version of Manga, The Matrix, was… say it with me, now… a dystopian post-apocalyptic scenario in which human civilization destroyed itself and must seek redemption through violence. To be fair to Manga, certainly some of that genre is full of thoughtful, spiritual contemplation, but that aspect rarely if ever makes it to the big screen.

Just to be clear: I’m not arguing for an absolutely anti-dystopian sci fi cinematic landscape, where we only see people in clean uniforms and white corridors or we see poetic images of flowers and rainbows, but there has to be some sort of balance. There is another genre emerging of sci-fi film, one influenced, it appears, by video games and horror films, the “found footage” style. When it works well, we get something like Europa Report, and when it works less well we get the atrocious Apollo 18. This is a curious sub-genre and while, because of its roots in horror cinema, it does tend to go for the easy “monster eats us all” drama rather than something more profound, it’s not precisely the post-apocalyptic cliche, so it warrants a nod.

As I said from the top, I’m a science fiction fan. Dyed in the wool, own a first-edition novel, have an origami unicorn made of tinfoil sci-fi fan. The fact that I, of all people, am not satisfied with the products the film world is putting out these days should be a big wake-up call.

Which is why, on Sequart’s sci-fi week, I’m just tossing out a challenge to filmmakers and audience to ask for something different, something hopeful, thoughtful and powerful. It would be nice to see more old-fashioned science fiction. I’ll be discussing a few of the rare exceptions to this pattern in future articles this week, but this is my full-disclosure orientation, or if you like, a statement of taste and an admission of bias.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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Also by Ian Dawe:

A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics

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A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe

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New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics

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3 Comments

  1. I myself have logged this trend and I find it rather disturbing.

    Dystopic fiction is very selfish by nature. It posits that the world/civilization/country/humanism was once great, and now isn’t because someone tampered with the appropriate way things were supposed to be. This is symptomatic of what science fiction is supposed to be: inquiry. So maybe Dystopic fiction is simply a skewed Science fiction, where only the evil is emphasized, over the good.

    My book is a parody of dystopia for the reason that I think these grim futures are over played. Without giving a away any spoilers I’ll just say that I am surprised that we have lost so much faith in ourselves that we have barred all possibility that people can survive and live on.Civilizations rise and fall, and we should embrace the impending end of the status quo so we can look ahead to where it will be after.

    That’s just my two cents.

  2. Paul Spence says:

    I agree with this article that we have become inundated with dystopic science fiction novels and films. I prefer existential science fiction like 2001, Blade Runner, Dark City, and Solaris all of which use science fiction to deal with large scale philosophical ideas. I find that approach more interesting and meaningful that the formulaic exercises in dystopian visions that we currently suffer with.

  3. Lewis Manalo says:

    Whatever your taste, our stories reflect our times. The prevalence of dystopian science fiction, and superhero science fiction, have more to do with audiences seeking escapist fantasy than any real pessimism.

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