Science fiction, it can be argued, dates back as far as the 2nd century AD, when Hellenized Syrian satirist, Lucian, wrote A True Story, which contains a lot of what we would call sci fi tropes and themes. Extraterrestrials, interplanetary warfare, AI, and travel to other worlds, all feature in Lucian’s work.

Modern science fiction has its roots in the Age of Reason (1600-1700s) when stories like Gulliver’s Travels and Somnium by Johannes Kepler were written. But these, and other early works of sci fi, including the famous Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and the works of H G Wells and Jules Verne, didn’t have that dystopian element that’s become an overwhelming trope of science fiction novels and films today.

So what’s made dystopian science fiction such a central theme of modern storytelling?

What Is Science Fiction?

Probably the best place to start is to define what science fiction is. Whilst the prevailing stereotype is of distant planets, aliens, atomic blaster guns, and faster-than-light space travel, this is just one aspect of the genre; the fantasy sci fi. In fact, science fiction has a wide range – from hard sci fi that goes into science fact in excruciating detail, to feminist utopias and dystopias, cyberpunk, steampunk, environmental sci fi, space opera, space westerns, superhuman stories… you get the picture.

Mostly, however, all science fiction has a speculative element: a ‘what if…?’ that is elaborated on and brought to its logical conclusions.

Conflict

The first, and perhaps most obvious, point to make about why dystopian science fiction is such a popular subgenre, is the need for conflict in every good fiction. Without tension between two opposing forces, a fiction lacks depth. There must be an obstacle to overcome, a darkness to contrast against the light. It’s about texture of emotion and character; tension is what drives action.

Warnings

Of course, we already live in a world of conflict. However, we are generally less conscious of it than perhaps we would be if it wasn’t quite so prevalent. Conflict becomes the norm, and so the job of fiction, of any genre, is to wake us up to the issues we are missing as we go about our daily lives. With science fiction, the trick is to push these conflicts to their logical conclusion.

The most obvious example is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, which is widely regarded as having foreshadowed a lot of the technological developments we see today. You could probably not go a week without someone remarking that something they’ve come across is ‘just like Nineteen Eighty Four’. Though written back in 1949, Orwell’s dystopian novel still has enough impact to open our eyes to the problems inherent in our own society.

The dystopian landscape is usually the result of a society that is actually trying to create a utopian society, the perfect society. However, the upshot, as the ideals of that utopia are realised, is a series of damaging negative consequences due to some unforeseen flaw that has a serious impact on the lives of individuals. These flaws can range from political and economic failures to social stratification, identity, and religion. There are also plenty of sci fi dystopias where the downfall is an over-abundance of technological advancement.

“Sci-fi lets you look at a society where things are done in other ways; ways too complicated to expound on in an essay. How could you generate a superficially gender-equal, godless society and then expose its failures? It is just too complex.” – Ada Palmer, Feminist Sci Fi Novelist and Historian.

In short, science fiction is the ideal way to demonstrate a theory, whatever that may be, without recourse to didactic or overcomplicated academics.

Fight or Flight

Technological culture, i.e. that within which we are living right now, has many features of a dystopian science fiction. Escape is ultimately impossible, and it is equally an unproductive course. One can never stand outside culture in the process of critiquing it. Our task, therefore, is not to find a way out of our tech dystopia, but rather to go forward from inside technological culture itself.

This is a fact that is often overlooked, particularly by the hard left, who are largely those who most strongly resist technological culture. That being said, many – if not most – of the true luminaries working within technology are doing so in order to enact positive change. Whilst that in itself may sound like the premise for a dystopia, the same notion applies: in order to bring something into line, you must not flee into some primitive escape route, but engage with the threat.

In this way, dystopian science fiction often reads as an instruction manual, at least in the subtext. It identifies issues that may be reminiscent of our current situation, and what the negative implications could be. This in itself may hold a light up to the problems ahead and allow us to digress into less fraught territories. But the identification of issues and how they manifest also instruct us on how to potentially deal with them once they arise, and thus teach us how to deflect the blow from technological micro-aggressions as we progress through time to an ever more tech-centred future.