I have heard a fair amount of discussion lately about science fiction writers using a lot of dystopian futures in their stories. Neil Stephenson even discussed the point lately suggesting that slower levels of true technological advancement may be in part because of this and want to write more optimistic stories. That is great. I for one love Star Trek in part because hope is important in science fiction, but in the discussion I think a lot of people miss the most basic reason that writers often use apocalyptic futures. It’s easier.
A lot of people don’t think that much about stories, but if you take a moment to think about it dystopian futures you’ll understand why. The most important element in story is conflict. That conflict can be between man and man, man and society, man and God, ect… The problem is that if the future is a kind and peaceful place there is less conflict than if mega corporations have pillaged the planet turning it into a wasteland, leading to a nuclear war that triggered a zombie uprising.
The basic premise of many of these people is still correct. People are more likely to write dystopian stories in times when the economy is bad and people are afraid, but it is still worth remembering the simple point that futures where everything has went wrong tend to lead to easier conflicts. In fact my problem is often not so much that we have dystopian futures but that so much of science fiction is unwilling to look into the future more than a few years rather than centuries. For example instead of shows like Star Trek and Star Wars that show truly advanced technology you have shows like Fringe and Eureka with advanced technology in our own time. I like these shows, but I enjoy visiting the distant future from time to time as well and it’s OK (at least for me) to assume that sometime might come up with a way to do something that we currently think is impossible like faster than light travel because one of the things science fiction does well is point out we don’t know all that much.