Let’s put away our copy of the Mockingjay for a second, and ask ourselves a question: What do we want the future to be?
Last week I wrote an op-ed for WIRED in which I called for a more positive framework for thinking about science and technology in our fiction. The response was swift, and furious, the primary criticism roughly: but we are already living in dystopia. Right this moment, Ferguson, Missouri, is descended to some kind of horrifying, militarized police state. How could anyone possibly be asking for less negativity?!
But my thinking has always been that story is a powerful human tool; with the right narrative, an audience is introduced to new ways of being, and there is tremendous opportunity here — can we lay the foundation for a better world in science fiction, and then realize it? And if our fiction is this powerful, what sort of damage has this past decade’s obsession with dystopian sci-fi done to us?
Science fiction has always built our culture powerful frameworks for thinking about the future. Computer sensors, “electronic paper,” digital newspapers, biological cloning, interactive television, robots, remote operation, and even the Walkman each appeared in fiction before they breached our physical reality. Has there been any major technological advancement that wasn’t dreamt up first in man’s imagination? Simon Lake—American mechanical engineer, naval architect, and perhaps the most important mind behind the development of the submarine—said of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general of my life.” This was a man who created space travel in the pages of fiction decades before Sputnik, while Arthur C. Clarke imagined satellite communication into existence in 1945, a full 12 years before the Russians fired the first shots of the Space Race. Who invented the cell phone, Martin Cooper or Gene Roddenberry? Who invented the earliest iteration of the computer, Charles Babbage or Jonathan Swift? And the list goes on. Either art is imitating life, or science fiction writers have been pointing to the future for over a century.
So what the hell are we supposed to make of The Hunger Games?
What if instead of merely highlighting the horrors of the world, our authors helped us navigate away from them? At least in some part, they used to do this. Merely depicting the horrific world of the Road, or Divergent, or Battlestar Galactica will never save us from the nightmare futures they depict.
We don’t need another doomsday prophet telling us how bad things are. All of that is pretty obvious. What we need is a vision of something better, a future that we actually want, and then maybe we can navigate ourselves away from this mess.