Why are pop culture references to the future often so dystopian?
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a larger series of Q&As that originated in the future-focused UD Magazine. To see additional questions, please visit the Envisioning the Future website.
Why are pop culture references to futuristic fiction — or, as it’s often called, speculative fiction — so often dystopian? I can think of several reasons.
I’d say it stems from a wish to imagine where present-day tendencies in technology and social culture are likely to lead. The very desire to imagine future worlds tends to lead to speculations that are either utopian, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards and William Morris’s New from Nowhere, or dystopian, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Ever since The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, American literature has generally been much more disposed to criticize American culture than to cheerlead for it. So it’s only logical that American speculative fiction — which, like all fiction, depends on conflicts to drive its stories — would follow a similar pattern.
Contemporary science fiction takes its inspiration largely from a tradition that begins with the 19th century examples of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Wells’s speculative fiction, from The Time Machine to The War of the Worlds, is frankly dystopian in order to sound a cautionary note about the trends Wells perceived in English society. Although Verne is often posed as Wells’s opposite, many elements darken his generally more optimistic view of future technologies, from the misanthropic figure of Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the satire of politicians and capitalists in From the Earth to the Moon.
Finally, many of the leading technologies to have emerged over the past century — the rocketry that made space exploration possible, the research that led to the atom bomb, the development of ever smaller microchips that fueled a revolution in information technology, the rise of social media, the Internet of Things heralded by the Amazon Echo — have come at the cost of threatening traditional notions of our humanity by diminishing our agency or erasing the distinction between people and very more human-seeming things. No wonder writers like Philip K. Dick and William Gibson would imagine futures in which these threats played disturbingly prominent roles, and no wonder a popular culture increasingly making its home inside these emerging technologies would spend more and more time contemplating their downsides.
Thomas Leitch is a University of Delaware professor of English with a particular interest in cinema studies.