Does the future have to be dystopian?

27 Sep

So the next big sci-fi show is on its way soon. Terra Nova is an epic programme which has cost Sky £200,000 for every minute shown and features a ruined Earth, a rift in space allowing time travel and Dinosaurs no less.

“Set in the year 2149, a time when all life on planet Earth is threatened with extinction due to dwindling worldwide air quality and overpopulation. Scientists discover a rift in space-time that allows people to travel 85 million years back in time to the Late Cretaceous period on the prehistoric Earth of an alternate reality, offering a chance to save humanity. The Shannon family join the tenth pilgrimage of settlers to Terra Nova, the first human colony on the other side of the temporal doorway.” (From Wikipedia:

My question is: Why does the future always have to be dystopian? It’s become a short hand for the future in Science Fiction; we know it’s the future because everything has turned to crap.  There are so few books that start “It’s the year 2157 and everything was great really”. Okay, it’s not a great opener but you see this premise rarely, if at all.

It’s a contradiction for most people which has for some reason come to be widely accepted; science can be used to improve human’s lives but the future will still be crappy. A few examples of the dystopian future that spring to mind are “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, “A Brave New World” and “The Time Machine”.  Each has a dystopian future crammed full of either (or a combination of) wars, radiation poisoning, suppression of the masses and cannibalism. Brilliant.

One of the utopian futures that I can think of is that of Star Trek. A future where humanity has discarded money and strives to better themselves and humanity as a whole. They still have wars, sure, and they make for great stories, but these are external (as in aliens attacking rather than civil wars) to humanity which generally enjoys a good life.

 I’m not saying it’s lazy, I’m not even saying it’s bad. I love dystopian novels as they tend to be richly detailed novels which present us with the author’s view of the future (whether accurate or not). What I am interested in is your view on sci-fi and dystopia; is it becoming the norm or is it just a great writing tool?

To see how much the idea of dystopian future has grown look at this list on wikipedia:


Posted by on September 27, 2011 in Uncategorized


8 responses to “Does the future have to be dystopian?

  1. ccglazier

    October 1, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Grim and cliche as it is, “Dystopia” offers easy conflict fodder and atmosphere for the fiction writer. And then there’s actual human history to consider.

    It does get tedious and depressing, which I think is one of the many reasons Star Trek’s alternative positive image is so popular.

  2. Simon Stone

    October 1, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    Hmm… I was going to comment on this. Then I read “ccglazier” and frankly he said everything I was going to.

    I do think it’s also a study in how optimistic/pessimistic humanity (or at least western culture) is about our future if the majority of future settings portray a grim reality. I for one am not entirely hopeful about the long-term future. Or rather, I hope, but don’t have much faith.

  3. Ryan G. Sanders

    October 3, 2011 at 11:25 pm

    For my 5c, I think a large part of it is the setting itself as a catalyst for the story. The dystopian factor subjects characters to certain events and circumstances that can’t otherwise be achieved in a rosey-world. It’s hard to show struggle, or at least survival without a stage that creates it, unless you get into ST territory, it’s also funner sometimes to arm the characters in those kinds of stories with technologies and ideas we have today, only altered to reflect the future – whether that’s a certain religion becoming more or less than it is – or more literal – or a weapon/piece of tech we have now getting grimed up, but otherwise usable.

    As much as post-apoc can get boring, I think it’s infinitely more interesting than a shiny future, unless of course that shiny future is on the brink of something that could throw it into dystopia. We already have that in a fashion now; everything might look dandy from one POV, but from another it’s collapsing from the inside-out. There’s no need to show a world crumbling and make it SF, we could just make it contemporary, but a world in disrepair – one ‘after’ the collapse, the ‘recovery’ with a new set of problems. That’s interesting…

    …did any of that make any sense? Maybe I need more tea.

    • stuffwhatiwrote

      October 4, 2011 at 7:24 am

      Like your ideas there, can see you’ve thought of this type of thing before! Like you say, dystopian futures are a perfect backdrop for SciFi stories, that’s why I like ’em so much. Thanks for the comment.

  4. pippajay

    October 4, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Perhaps current and recent history make many believe that our only future is dystopian? Sometimes world events make me feel things can only get worse rather than better.

  5. Dan G Swindles

    October 4, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Great post, as proved by some great comments

    I agree with a lot of what’s been said so I can’t add too much, not that it’ll stop me commenting anyway

    I agree that a dystopian setting may be more conducive to writing an engaging story, as stories tend to structured around coping with struggle and resolving conflicts. Even in utopian visions, like Star Trek (I can’t really think of any others right now, there must be more?), there’s still struggle and strife.

    I personally think that a dystopian future is more believable too, especially in the short-term future, as humanity is heading deep into the over-population of a world with diminishing resources (fresh water, food & fuel), so conflict and famine seems inevitable, especially as we don’t show any signs of being able to deal with our biggest problems. Depressing.

    Ryan G. Sanders raised a great point too about the interest of “shiny futures on the brink of dystopia”. This is one of reasons why I love Mass Effect so much, it sets up a shiny utopian near-future (its not perfect, but its pretty good), and then places it on the brink of annihilation. This kind of story really appeals to me, probably as its happened so many times in our history, and will likely happen again.

  6. Crafty Green Poet

    October 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    I’m just about to start writing a novel. The setting will be fairly dystopian – I’m extrapolating from current negative environmental situations but from there the characters will be able to do something positive – I think that that element of working from negative to positive can be a good reason to go for a dystopian future. It also makes for more interesting storytelling though, as other comments have said, Utopia can tend to be bland and uninteresting from a storytelling point of view. Also dystopian settings allow more for the exploration of issues….

  7. Scott J. Robinson

    February 8, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    Yeah, I’m late to this conversation, but if you want to read a great book about a bright shiny future try Pacific Edge (I think that’s the one) by Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s one of the 3 Orange County novels. It’s a long time since I read it, but the future was a happy place.


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