Monday, June 1, 2015

Dreamers: Disenchanted with dystopia...

Last week, I discovered that Brad Bird and Damon Lindelhof made a movie just for me. It was an old-fashioned sort of movie, with an old-fashioned message of hope. Yes, it was a little preachy, but it's a sermon worth hearing and I loved it unabashedly from its goofy vacuum cleaner jet pack to its steampunk rocket to another dimension.

It wasn't just optimistic, it was anti-cynical. As we've come to expect from Brad Bird, it was practically utopian, but in a practical way.

I must be honest with you: as a general rule, dystopia bores the snot out of me.

It's not that dystopian stories should not be told, but by dwelling solely on the inevitability of decline, we've shot ourselves in the collective foot as a literary movement and as a society.

There are dystopian stories that need to be told and certainly valid uses of the milieu. I haven't had a chance to see Fury Road yet, but the cultural conversation it spawned is evidence that dystopian futures still have the power to make us think about the dystopian now. And science fiction does and should have a role to play in warning us of the future consequences of current trends. All the same, I feel deeply and personally that we took a wrong turn somewhere.

I really want to blame the "Same but different" approach that publishing and Hollywood takes whenever something is successful. Katniss's adventures in the Land Beyond Running Man means that we're going to spend awhile feeding fictional kids into a futuristic meat grinder whether we like it or not. Just as the success of the first Avengers has doomed us to a hundred 'shared world' movie franchises and team-ups, we're also staying far too long at the dystopian dinner party, wringing the last marketing dollar out of the genre until there's nothing left of it but a husk of post-apocalyptic cliches.

Lest you think I watched Tomorrowland and had an epiphany, I said almost those exact words in November 2011 shortly after finishing Howard Carter. Howard is aggressively anti-dystopian without ever venturing into utopian. Its story rests on the refutation that cycles are unbreakable. Its stance is pointedly and fearlessly anti-fatalist.

I tried very hard to walk the line between the two without betraying my central idea that the thing I miss most in modern science fiction is the sense of hope. Hope that children can make better choices than their parents. Hope that humanity can improve and change. Hope that the ingenuity of humanity can eventually triumph over the inhumanity of humanity.

Zombies are so over-done there's nothing left on the bone. The Dystopia became just another setting and more often than not these days, it seems to be another setting: Do I set this novel in post-apocalyptic wasteland or Belgium? Attacking the underlying set of assumptions that make these apocalypses feel inevitable is the bravest thing Bird and Lindelhof have done, and should garner them a much larger audience than the latest disaster flick, no matter how charming Dwayne Johnson might be.

I used to like dystopian stories for the same reason I used to be more enthusiastic about zombie movies: they meant something. These two semi-connected constructs were our muse for decades, an airing of inchoate fears about the state of the world and stark, if at times hyperbolic, warnings about our inevitable fate should we continue on our current path. Regional and economic inequities are given a harsh and satirical spotlight among the adventure elements of The Hunger Games. I haven't seen the movie yet, but the evocation of a feminine warrior element at the center of Mad Max: Fury Road has given rise to a valuable and ongoing societal debate around the gender assumptions that it leaves shattered in its wake.

But will its message of equality give rise to more? Or will its success give rise to a storytelling wasteland of tropes and cliches written on the back of a napkin by movie execs who cannot see past the dollar signs to the message that filled those bags with cash?

I fear the latter.

If you're with me and you too miss the idea that we should and can dream, and that positing futures should be at least as much about hoping for better tomorrows as it is foretelling doom, go see Tomorrowland.


  1. I've wondered for a while if the proliferation of dystopian fiction so far this century isn't akin to the apocalypse cults of previous centuries. Perhaps this means is the 21st century way of dealing with an unsettled future in a manner more gentle than building closed communities on the distant frontier while we wait for Armageddon to come.

  2. I finally saw Tomorrowland when it came to a local $4 theater after it finished most of it’s run in the theaters. I had been hesitant because of all the criticism it received. Even the public didn’t turn out in droves as I had expected.
    But I’m glad I saw it, even though Brad Bird did disappoint.
    There were many things I loved about it; a young Frank Walker arriving at the 1964 Worlds Fair, the room at the top of the Eiffel Tower with figures of Verne, Tesla, Edison and Eiffel and their part in Tomorrowland, and more - and as you spoke so well about the general heart of the movie.
    But I didn't care for the (odd) violence, as in Casey bashing the head of the robot/animatron with a bat. Hugh Laurie miscast as Nix or maybe it wasn’t his fault that the character was poorly written. And it seemed that overall, Bird didn’t really commit to or was unsure what he wanted to do with the movie and it felt disjointed/awkward at times.
    Still I liked it. And I agree with you when you say, “the thing I miss most in modern science fiction is the sense of hope. Hope that children can make better choices than their parents. Hope that humanity can improve and change. Hope that the ingenuity of humanity can eventually triumph over the inhumanity of humanity.”
    I enjoyed the post.
    PPS - Admittedly I haven’t seen a lot of zombie movies but I do love Shaun of the Dead.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).