When it comes to science fiction, there is nothing more frightening than the dystopian futures that writers describe vividly in their novels. Worlds filled with terror, in lawless societies with no power, food, medicines, emergency services and many other extreme hardships for people to endure. We watch or read these stories for the surge in adrenalin and to empathise with a set of believable characters who we can identify with.
Every fictional situation seems to stem from the products of human greed and profligacy; global financial services crashed, empires wiped out and people running amok looting in the streets.
But which came first, the fiction or the fact? Are we giving society more ideas about how to self-destruct? With every dystopian film, TV series or book, are we not providing mankind with a blueprint of how to survive the inevitable?
I’m not suggesting that we should ban books or any programmes which may have a disastrous outcome, but aren’t we fairly impressionable as a species without additional negative stimulus? You only have to ask any large advertising company how best to manipulate customers. Buying groceries? How about we pump the smells of baking bread into the air vents to encourage you to buy more?
If our visual and auditory signals were skewed in favour of positive and happy ideals, would we prepare ourselves for a perfect future? Is this a case of Merton’s self-fulfilling prophecy? We think our world is doomed; therefore, we make it happen.
It reminds me of the debates over violent computer games desensitising youths until they think that massacres are normal. Yes, we are capable of knowing and understanding the difference between fiction and reality, but isn’t it also a fact that violent crimes, especially in US schools, are on the increase? Could it be that we are priming those most impressionable of society to bring about our worst fears?
The late great Stephen Hawking warned often and repeatedly about the dangers of developing ever more complex Artificial Intelligence systems, and now we have Elon Musk racing to integrate technology directly into peoples’ brains. Did he learn nothing about Star Trek’s Borg?
For every good use of technology, there is an equal, if not greater potential for harm. Science fiction writers are so adept at conjuring new and calamitous uses for future tech, some firms in Silicon Valley have employed authors to think up new equipment for them to begin developing. Those items currently in existence are often based on ideas from sci-fi TV series or books. Who would have thought that Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry would become the founding father of the modern cell phone?
The whole point of dystopian stories is to warn those in power and those tech companies against flying head-long into that future, not to speed the decline. As popular as Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is, no one would actually want to live that way, yet those in power might find it tempting to exert such control.
Seventy years ago, George Orwell was seen as a visionary. His predictions in, 1984 regarding government control and surveillance was only out by a couple of decades, but was he partly to blame for giving those in power a glimpse of what could be? Have western powers funded those technologies specifically to bring about his future?
Those of us who write near-future science fiction have an enormous responsibility to shoulder. We must show how life could be, in such a way that discourages others from striving to make it happen. That is unless we are writing about a perfect world where no one starves, gets sick or falls prey to the most wicked in this world, but let’s be real. That is extremely unlikely to ever come to pass.
The best we can do is to educate the young so that they do not become indifferent to the suffering of others, whether they be plant, animal or human since that is when the rot sets in, and those dystopian futures will look mighty attractive by comparison.