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Can science fiction map a positive future?

Drama favors dystopias, but there are ways to revel in hope without sacrificing thrills

Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

What does the future hold? In our new series “Imagining the Next Future,” Polygon explores the new era of science fiction — in movies, books, TV, games, and beyond — to see how storytellers and innovators are imagining the next 10, 20, 50, or 100 years during a moment of extreme uncertainty. Follow along as we deep dive into the great unknown.

“If you glimpsed the future and were frightened by what you saw, what would you do with that information?”

At the climax of Brad Bird’s 2015 movie Tomorrowland, the antagonist launches a standard-issue villain monologue explaining why he’s used a psychic antenna to sabotage humanity’s visions of the future. He didn’t actually set out to turn all the wide-eyed idealists who used to dream about jetpack adventures and shining automated cities into a pack of apocalypse-hungry nihilists. He just saw the possibility of a dark future, and didn’t trust politicians and “captains of industry” to steer clear of it, so he started beaming horrific prognostications into everyone’s heads:

The probability of widespread annihilation kept going up. The only way to stop it was to show it. To scare people straight. Because what reasonable human being wouldn’t be galvanized by the potential destruction of everything they have ever known or loved? To save civilization, I would show its collapse.

But how do you think this vision was received? How do you think people responded to the prospect of imminent doom? They gobbled it up like a chocolate éclair. They didn’t fear their demise, they repackaged it. It can be enjoyed as video games, as TV shows, books, movies. The entire world wholeheartedly embraced the apocalypse and sprinted towards it with gleeful abandon. Meanwhile, your Earth was crumbling all around you.

Tomorrowland’s plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. When the villain sees that his scheme for making humanity face up to their future isn’t working, he leaves the psychic beam to continue warping their imaginations and sapping their wills for the decades that follow. Why does he blame humanity for being weak-willed about making positive change, when he’s literally controlling their minds to make them sad and afraid? If he actually believes anything he says in his manifesto, why not use the same psychic booster to send out positive messages instead?

That said, there’s a germ of truth in the fundamental fears Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof express in Tomorrowland, in the idea that culturally, we’ve stopped looking forward to the future as a shiny place of improvement and enlightenment. Instead, we’ve embraced the breakdown of society as the ultimate fantasy. But Tomorrowland attributes that tendency to a cynical villain with a magic McGuffin rather than to market pressures, storytelling tropes, or basic human nature. And by blaming a real problem on a cartoon cause, Bird and Lindelof turn what could have been an insightful, enlightening message into something shrill, scoldy, and silly. They shouldn’t be asking, “How do we flip the magic switch that will make humanity optimistic again?” The right question is “Why are we so drawn to pessimistic stories, and what are they doing to us?”

Science fiction has always had a paranoid undercurrent. Going back to the dawn of the genre, it’s been used as a channel to explore and process anxieties about all the unknowns ahead, and all the ways technological innovation, societal change, and our own tragic flaws could lead us wrong as a species. But even so, the last few decades have seen an almost obsessive focus on dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic stories, and the grimmest of cautionary tales, where society has to reach torturous lows before anybody can meaningfully start fighting for the future again.

And there are certainly narrative reasons to embrace those stories of oppression and exhaustion. There’s a lot of dramatic possibility in crapsack-world futures like the one in The Walking Dead, and a lot of survivalist excitement in stories like the Resident Evil movies or the Battlestar Galactica reboot. When humanity is both threatened and threatening, and a few heroes have to face incredible odds to survive, the stakes are impressively high.

There’s a lot of wish-fulfillment fantasy in those stories, too. No matter how terrified and traumatized the protagonists are, or how much of what they love gets lost along the way, there’s still a sense that their struggles are satisfyingly easy. They’re fighting simple, black-and-white battles, full of moral clarity and self-righteousness that’s much rarer in real life. It’s gratifying to watch people face their worst fears and triumph, letting us face ours vicariously through them.

Dystopia or Utopia?
Illustration: Hokyoung Kim for Polygon

But in a particularly cynical and anxious age, when science fiction is more popular than ever, all these fantasies about society crashing and burning don’t feel like effective warnings. Instead, they encourage passive fatalism and “It has to get worse before it gets better” thinking. And they insist to audiences that everyone around them is the enemy. The assumption in post-apocalyptic books is usually that without the control valves of society, most people — maybe not your friends, or anyone you know, but the vague, unresolved “other” of the people you don’t know — will turn feral and brutal, leaving only a harried few innocent survivors to try to navigate a maze of unleashed rapists and murderers.

Endless crisis and studies of crisis have proved that isn’t true, that actual disasters usually bring out the best in people, and cause impromptu communities to form as people help each other get by. But there’s no huge drama in collective cooperation and support, so there’s less of it in fiction. As science fiction author Cory Doctorow put it in his recent Slate essay “The Dangers of Cynical Sci-Fi Disaster Stories”:

I think that our pulp fiction has done us a disservice, creating a commonsense assumption that we are one power failure away from Mad Max: Fury Road. The reality is ever so much messier, full of people trying to do the right thing—which still causes high-stakes, serious conflicts, but they’re conflicts of good faith and sincere disagreement.

But the kind of nuance where everyone came by their beliefs honestly is often difficult to show in fiction, particularly in film and TV, which thrive on fast-paced action and high threat levels. Game of Thrones’ success aside, speculative fiction mostly draws on the visceral simplicity of all-or-nothing, good-vs.-evil thinking. And that isn’t a great model for most of what we actually encounter in real life — though it’s certainly a model we can map over the real world, until anyone who disagrees with us is a hateful monster, and half the rhetoric in online discourse revolves around pretending that the opposition is a faceless evil, a bunch of fake-news people who don’t actually believe anything they say, and only exist to devil the rest of us.

The degeneration of civility, empathy, and honesty aren’t science fiction’s problem to fix, but as we try to imagine what the future will look like, it’s certainly a problem for the genre to consider and address, just as it addresses every other aspect of human life by extrapolating where it might go. Pessimistic popular futures like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books are positive in that they almost always show heroes emerging from the ashes to start the slow climb toward the future. But they also assume everything has to burn down before anything gets better.

So are there ways for science fiction to model a wholly positive, upbeat future? And if it’s possible, can writers do it without being… boring?

Looking back on the utopian fiction field, it seems doubtful. In the long history of science fiction, virtually every story about a utopia has really been a disguised story about utopias’ hidden dark side. A privileged elite may enjoy themselves in a post-scarcity, post-misery society, but they’re probably sacrificing their freedom or their humanity in the process. Books like Brave New World, The Giver, Uglies and its sequels, Childhood’s End, Logan’s Run, and so forth all lay out peaceful societies where war has ended, and conflict is looked on as a barbaric artifact of an uncivilized past. But there’s always a hideous downside, and a hero who has to escape the utopia in order to experience the full range of life’s possibilities.

And the conventional wisdom says there are no good stories in a utopia, because if a world’s problems have been solved and there’s no conflict, how do people grow and change in dynamic or exciting ways? There always has to be a flaw, a secret darkness to uncover, and an underdog to resist the confines of stability and contentment.

Family overlook green verdant landscape with dark brown dystopia reflected beneath them

While utopian fiction may be a hopeless exercise, there’s endless room for positivity that doesn’t come at an entire world’s expense, and that doesn’t leave audiences wrung-out as well as exhilarated. Books like Andy Weir’s The Martian (one of the all-time bestselling science fiction novels) might provide a strong model for positive science fiction — stories where the stakes are high and lives are on the line, but there’s no oppressive overlord or worldwide catastrophe to deal with, and the answers come from educated human effort and ingenuity. Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel New York 2140 is another new utopian vision that acknowledges conflict, and admits that humanity makes its own disasters, but also models better ways of living in the future. The entire solarpunk movement rests on the idea that fiction should suggest ways to solve problems besides stabbing them with laser-swords.

Creators may resist these kinds of positive messages out of a fear of seeming saccharine or impractical — or just giving up on the sugar-rush satisfaction of sending a wide-eyed, innocent Luke Skywalker off to battle the dark, intimidating force of Darth Vader, and having the good guy win. They may also see systemic problems as too complicated to fit into a narrative, or too intimidatingly big to address. But audiences who are tired of apocalyptic thinking and grueling violence may find it worth pushing back in favor of the more promising, hopeful, and helpful work they want. When Polygon talked to Asimov’s Science Fiction editor Sheila Williams for our roundup on the radical changes in science fiction literature over the past decade, she said audiences prefer the positivity:

What I tend to find is, readers prefer stories that give them hope at the end, and writers prefer to write stories that are really tragic… I totally understand why the authors write that way, but I also understand why the reader wants to feel there’s a reason to get up tomorrow morning. I understand there’s so much pressure right now, it’s so difficult. But I do think there are a lot of writers that are trying to imagine a way forward, a step in a positive direction.

With the professional author, I think it’s got a lot more to do with the dramatic arc of the story, and the feelings of anxiety about the future and the world, and worrying maybe that the problems are too big, that any one story can’t solve everything, so it becomes a little overwhelming. But if you take these problems apart and just deal with one individual [character or issue], looking at genetic research, or AI or whatever, staying specific, it’s easier to have a more positive arc to the story, without worrying about the entire collapse of civilization.

While Tomorrowland’s vision of the properly optimistic retro-future — the version of tomorrow where we all have friendly robot servants and flying cars — seems quaint and dated now, there are certainly other ways to approach the future as if it held some kind of promise. The popular science fiction literature of the moment has already moved away from the peak of its fascination with apocalypses and annihilation, and toward poppy, fast-paced novels with more colorful emotional palettes. (For examples, see the extensive list of recommended books at the end of our interview piece about the changes in science fiction over the last decade.) Disney-style blue-sky visions of the future aren’t as en vogue as they used to be, but escapism never goes out of style, and these days, part of escapism is getting away from the nihilism and weary anger that comes with the daily news.

It isn’t up to any one particular writer or creator to change their artistic vision in order to preach pious positivity, or deliver socially approved messages. And it isn’t up to any individual reader or viewer to change their tastes if they really love zombie novels, or grim-’n’-gritty military SF, or YA angst-athons with a Chosen One taking on an entire malicious, abusive empire.

But as with every other choice we make about where we spend our time, attention, and money, it’s worth considering what keeps us going and brings us joy. In the same way doomscrolling through our rage-filled social-media feeds doesn’t actually help our psyches, reading or watching fiction about how desperate and terrible the future will be might just not be the best choice for our ongoing mental health. There’s a righteous, furious outrage in plumbing the depths of human ugliness through shows like The Handmaid’s Tale or Man in the High Castle. But it may not match the satisfaction of reading, watching, and recommending science fiction that feels like it cares about humanity, and holds out hope for its future — not just for a few selected, scattered heroes pulling their bruised bodies from the wreckage, but for the rest of us, too.