By Abby Goldsmith
In the future, the rich will live in a state of drugged splendor, while the poor will be slaughtered in forced labor camps. Class disparity will be huge. Global warming and modern science will transform life on Earth into something alien and unrecognizable. No one will care about basic human rights, or U.S. Constitutional rights, particularly the right to free speech. Not only will history be forgotten; a pack of lies will replace it, and no one will remember the truth.
This vision of the future describes a wide swath of dystopian fiction. The first major wave came with the Golden Age of science fiction, including A Brave New World (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953), although one could argue that The Time Machine (1895) and a few others represent an earlier wave. Now we’re in the midst of a bigger wave, one that has picked up steam in the last few years. Uglies (2005), The Hunger Games (2008), Skinned (2008), Saturn’s Children (2008), The Maze Runner (2009) and The Windup Girl (2009) all received critical praise, awards, and bestseller status. The trend continues especially in the Young Adult category, with Super Sad True Love Story (2010), Wither (2011), Divergent (2011) and more.
If fiction reflects the views of the era in which it is written, this is a disturbing trend. It indicates that our society is pessimistic and paranoid about the future.
Yet many dystopias skip some logic in order to make their premises work. In The Running Man (1982), by Richard Bachman aka Stephen King, the future U.S. population ignores deadly air pollution and rampant poverty because they’re addicted to free reality TV shows, known as Free-Vee. This premise follows up Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which also depicts a future where TV is the opiate of the masses. The fear was that TV will replace people’s ability to think for themselves; it provides entertainment that no truth-speaker can match, so people will accept TV as the only trustworthy source of information and education.
With the advent of the internet, that fear seems outdated. People can freely choose where to obtain information and education, and which sources to believe. The latest incarnation of the reality TV dystopia, Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, depicts the impoverished masses as fully aware of their helpless plight, despite the free reality show entertainment that their government forces them to swallow. They would rebel if they had weapons. Only the rich are duped, and that is only with the help of strict class segregation, brainwashing techniques, and military law enforcement that includes torture.
Why the change in treatment? Current audiences no longer find it logical that everyone would unquestioningly trust a single source of information. The premise of The Running Man only works if you accept that everyone in the U.S. would willingly give up their right to free speech, the first amendment of the Constitution, and trust a TV network to never lie. In that dystopian world, although the internet was never invented, there is ham radio, air traffic control radio, and other ways to spread information independent of the TV network. Given how many people in our world are eager to believe in conspiracy theories and other unpopular ideas, the same would be true in a dystopian future. Why wouldn’t someone spread rebellious ideas over a ham radio show? What would stop the impoverished masses from believing the worst of the rich upper class, and then rising up to overthrow the totalitarian government? The answer: They’d do it.
That’s because in real life, totalitarian regimes or dictatorships require a strong military to back them up. Spreading disinformation through mass entertainment is only half of the equation. The other half is an oppressive military. Adolf Hitler would have lost his grip on Germany without Nazis. Korea would be one nation again, if not for North Korea’s nuclear weapons and military force. Yet in scenarios such as The Running Man and Fahrenheit 451, the only law enforcement mentioned are ordinary police officers or firemen. Apparently TV is such a strong drug, and deviants are so rare, extraordinary law enforcement is unnecessary. This goes outside logic. A critical reader will understand where those fears came from, but can no longer accept the premise.
The new wave of dystopian novels mostly ignore the issue of free speech and the internet. They invariably depict a world where the right to free speech is inexplicably gone. The thing is, I can’t imagine the Western world giving up this right without a fight. I can’t buy such a dystopian society unless it is the legacy of some huge war. A few dystopian novels give a nod to this fact; The Hunger Games takes place in a future built after a nuclear war that destroyed North America, and the Uglies takes place in the aftermath of terrorism that destroyed worldwide governments and economies. However, many writers gloss over the history of their dystopia, depicting the future as an unbroken continuation of our current society. This presents a logic problem. Given the basic rights that we expect, would U.S. society really sit passive, without a fight, while the U.S. government took away free speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to a fair trial? I think not.
Many dystopian novels deal with the concept of de-humanizing a subset of people–such as androids, cyborgs, or robots–so that they lose their basic human rights. In The Windup Girl, androids are legally property and can therefore be abused or killed by their owners. In Skinned, cyborg versions of dead people are feared and hated as poor copies of the people they used to be.
The logic problem is that these future societies completely disregard the advantages that an android has over a biological human. In The Windup Girl, the android can move super-fast and learn languages faster than any human. Why would everyone agree to treat her like garbage? She would be a great asset to any corporation, government, community, or family. I can’t believe that every single person in that world would disregard her superhuman skills. Even Nazis (the obvious comparison) tried to use skilled workers rather than throw them in with unskilled workers. The hate/fear reaction might be normal for some people, but wonder and ambition would be just as likely. Likewise, in Skinned, I had trouble understanding why cyborgs, or ‘skinners,’ were persecuted. Logically speaking, why would anyone in a position of power de-humanize people who survived death by going through a high tech medical process? Most people would embrace a way to avoid death and aging, even if it meant adjusting to a new mechanical body. Eternal youth is one of the great human dreams. Sure, there might be a vocal minority against it, but I can’t believe they would ever become a majority.
One more implausibility that jumps into many dystopias is rampant, socially-endorsed drug use. In Pretties and Specials, the government drugs and lobotomizes people in order to keep them docilely happy. In novels like Skinned, The Giver, The Running Man, and A Brave New World, everyone gets stoned and that’s just the way it is. I can’t believe any human society would agree to this without a fight. People are always questioning and challenging authority. Sometimes it’s cool to be straight edge or subversive. That’s human nature. In Pretties, it’s clear that two surgeons feel guilty for helping to lobotomize every teenager in society . . . but to me, two seems like an implausibly small number. I don’t believe that hundreds of surgeons would happily go along with the rules while only two protest.
Some dystopian settings are just whimsical backdrops, but many tie into current events in an effort to convey a dire warning. Predictions certainly have precedents in fiction. Modern objects such as satellites, escalators, submarines, and data tablets have all appeared in science fiction before the first prototype was built in reality. Cautionary tales serve a valuable place in fiction. However, a good cautionary tale ought to take reality factors into account. I disagree with the vein of pessimism running through contemporary science fiction. The world economy is in a slump, but that doesn’t mean the end of all life as we know it.
When reading these cautionary tales, it’s important to keep a long-view perspective. Your peers might like to party, but that doesn’t mean everyone would enjoy being stoned twenty-four hours a day. You might feel like an island of smartness in a sea of idiocy, but that doesn’t mean surgeons would agree to lobotomize everyone for a paycheck. You probably know some racist assholes, but that doesn’t mean everyone in society would agree to de-humanize a targeted group and throw them in gas chambers; not unless we gain some new laws enforced by Nazis. You might be concerned about the effects of global warming, but that doesn’t mean every nation will passively sit and get stoned while vegetation dies and their own populations starve to death. It doesn’t mean that we’re all going to need gas masks. It doesn’t mean that bioengineered mammoths will replace petroleum as our best source of energy. You might be concerned that religious extremists or ideological lobbyists will destroy the free world, but as long as we uphold the U.S. Constitution and have the military strength to defend our laws, no one can remove our basic human rights. You might worry that corrupt politicians will stealthily vote away our liberties while everyone around you zones out on TV and YouTube, but as long as we have the internet and the freedom to say whatever we want and reach an audience, that can’t happen.
It’s not that bad. Really.
In contrast, take a look at places like North Korea, Burma, Turkmenistan, or Taliban-ruled areas, where these dystopian settings are a hard, cold reality. There are places in the world where Big Brother really is watching, and where the poor live and die in abysmal slums. Dystopias don’t happen to an armed, informed populace. A dangerously corrupt government can only take root where common people already lack legal rights, or the ability to enforce their legal rights. Here in the free world, we have free speech, the power to gain an audience, and the right to bear arms. I wish more contemporary fiction writers would keep that mind.
Abby Goldsmith is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, with sales to Escape Pod, Fantasy Magazine, and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. She creates video game art by day and writes novels by night. Visit Abby online.