The case for optimism, cont’d: On dystopian YA fiction and our missing utopian futures

Though his very excellent Mortal Engines series (drop everything and go read it now; you’re welcome) itself has strongly dystopian elements, Philip Reeve nevertheless criticizes the pervasiveness and unrelenting grimness of dystopian YA fiction today:

Half of the science-fiction stories that I read in my teens seemed to predict terrible ends for us all, but the other half concerned themselves with bright, shining futures in which human beings would spread out among the stars, having overcome such trifling problems as poverty, war, and racial prejudice. As far as I’m aware, no one in the YA field is writing things like that anymore: if they are, their books have yet to achieve the same high profile as the dystopias. It’s as if optimism has become so hopelessly quaint that we can no longer allow ourselves even to imagine a better future. […]

Yet the world in which we now live is actually far closer to the hi-tech futures that the optimists of the 1950s and ’60s envisioned than to any of the blighted wastelands that the doomsayers predicted. It’s true that many of science fiction’s sunnier visions seem naive today: racism and war persist; spindle-shaped rocket ships can’t carry us to Mars, and I still haven’t got the jet pack and flying car that I remember being promised. Yet in many ways, our society is kinder and safer, and some of today’s technologies are far more impressive than flying cars. Some of this may have come about precisely because the children of earlier generations were excited by fictional visions of a brighter future and ended up as the scientists and social reformers, innovative engineers and hi-tech entrepreneurs who helped to make it happen. What sort of future awaits a society whose young people are taught that there’s nothing to look forward to but decline and disaster, and that decline and disaster may be all that they deserve?

It’s entirely natural that YA authors should try to reflect the fears about the future that young readers feel, but I’m coming to think that we also have a duty to challenge the prevailing pessimism of mainstream culture. Dystopian fiction, while appearing to offer a radical criticism of modern society, is often deeply conservative. Portraying our civilization as doomed, it looks to the past for answers — to the rugged individualism of the frontier spirit, or a meek retreat to preindustrial ways of life. I’m happy to celebrate and recommend the excellent dystopian novels that I mentioned above, and I’m certain that there are many others every bit as fine, but I think what we could really use right now are a few utopian novels to set beside them.

Read the whole thing.

The image above comes from another fascinating article, Alexis Madrigal’s “The Lost Dream of Trippy ’70s Space Colonies.”

More reasons for optimism here.


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One response to “The case for optimism, cont’d: On dystopian YA fiction and our missing utopian futures

  1. Pingback: What happens after The Day the Sun Stops Shining…Find out what could here! | Kim Koning

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