Science fiction must escape its dystopic trap and foster hope

Some of humankind’s big achievements of the past century—space exploration, global communications and avoidance of nuclear war—were in part due to the science fiction writers who imagined them first.
Some of humankind’s big achievements of the past century—space exploration, global communications and avoidance of nuclear war—were in part due to the science fiction writers who imagined them first.

Summary

  • Books are increasingly filled with dread of the future at a time we need literature investing in hope.

There was a big controversy in the science-fiction community last month when it emerged that the 2023 Hugo Awards, decided in October at the world convention in Chengdu, China, had inexplicably disqualified a few prominent entries from the list of nominations.Those quietly dropped included R.F. Kuang’s bestselling Babel and Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow, prompting suspicion that they might have triggered Beijing’s censorship filters. Even an entry by the legendary Neil Gaiman was disqualified. A couple of heads have rolled since then, but the mystery remains.

It should not surprise us that China’s ‘sensitivities’ had something to do with the cancellations, which came to light because of the transparent process of nominating and awarding the Hugos. Beijing’s reputation for censorship is well-deserved, but the last few months have seen writers and artists being de-platformed in Germany and the United States for expressing support for Palestinians. It is simultaneously laughable and outrageous for Ranjit Hoskote to be accused of anti-Semitism, as some deluded German organizers have done, because he once signed an open letter supporting the Palestinian cause.

Now, there always was politics in literature and art. A decade ago, the Hugos were targeted by groups of authors and fans who felt that the awards had been captured by the progressive left, often going to writers and themes that emphasized racial and sexual diversity. Calling themselves Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, they tried to promote their preferred candidates through block voting, before rules were changed to fortify the process against such operations. Progressives won that fight. More broadly, progressives dominate the world of literature.

The fact that both prizes and spots on bestseller lists are increasingly filled by people other than Caucasian males is a good thing. Contemporary fiction is no longer centred around Caucasian male heroes. This too is a good thing, even if it sometimes goes too far, as I found in some recent novels where superfluous characters had been written into the plot to tick-off diversity requirements.

Getting our novels to better reflect the diversity of the world we live is one thing. Feeding ourselves a dystopian diet through literature is another. It is unhealthy for the mind and dangerous for society. Yes, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Margaret Atwood warned us of how things can go wrong. But for over a century, science fiction entertained and inspired us with the wonderful possibilities through human agency. Star Trek and Dr Who, for instance, not only envisioned different worlds, social systems and ways of life, but gave us design specifications and use cases for many gadgets that we subsequently invented.

Science fiction is particularly important because it primes us for the future, and we create the future that we collectively imagine. Some of humankind’s big achievements of the past century—space exploration, global communications and avoidance of nuclear war—were in part due to the science fiction writers who imagined them first.

Surveying the scene today, I see that dystopian themes dominate. Twelve of the 20 nominees of the 2023 Goodreads Readers Choice Awards for Science Fiction had dystopian themes, up from six the previous year. To add to Orwell’s totalitarian state, Huxley’s eugenics, Atwood’s patriarchy and Miller’s nuclear annihilation, we are now filled with dread from artificial intelligence, techno-capitalist and post-human futures. Quite a number of books feature a post-apocalyptic world brought about by climate change. In comparison to the dozen or so ways in which we will arrive at a dystopia, there are very few that offer hopeful or balanced visions of the future world.

And young people are growing up on this literary diet, adding to the several anxieties they are already surrounded by. There are more young people in the developing world and a hopeful vision of the future could channelize their aspirations into positive outcomes. Hopelessness, gloom and zero-sumness can easily become self-fulfilling, because the strongest prisons are those of the mind.

This is not an argument for a techno-utopian trip. In a previous column, I argued why Marc Andreessen’s techno-optimist manifesto was dangerously over-the-top.

Rather, I am making the case for more imagination. I think it is an indictment of the science fiction genre today—and perhaps prevalent market forces—that it is unable to look beyond conditions of the present. Instead of boldly going where no writer has gone before, book after book treads the beaten path to a dystopia.

It cannot be that at a time when we have unprecedented amount of technological power dispersed around the world, we can only think of the many ways in which things could go wrong. We cannot expect hopeful narratives from activists and policy wonks, but we should expect them from authors of speculative fiction.

Tailpiece: Unlike the Goodreads Readers Choice Awards, the 2023 Hugos were not heavy on dystopian themes. There is hope.

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