A few months ago, I happened to watch a rather chilling Youtube video which pointed out some of the many ways that the programs on your smartphone can track you and spy on you. Although I thankfully don’t own a smartphone, this video made me think of the dystopic sci-fi genre.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to define “dystopic sci-fi” as being any story that presents a dystopian view of the future at the time it was written, regardless of whether it contains any overt sci-fi elements.
Anyway, the dystopic sci-fi genre is one of the most modern genres out there (for reasons I’ll explain later). Arguably, the first popular dystopic sci-fi novel was George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” which, when it was first published in 1949, tapped into widespread fears about totalitarian governments. After all, it was just four years after the end of World War Two and the Soviet Union was also still a major world power at the time.
Although Orwell’s novel still has a lot of resonance today, it is for very different reasons than the ones that existed in 1949. The theme of all-encompassing government surveillance was kind of a large background detail in the original novel but – when someone compares something to Orwell these days, they’re probably going to be talking about surveillance rather than about communism and/or fascism.
Even in Alan Moore’s “V For Vendetta” graphic novel from the 1980s, he intended the omnipresent government surveillance cameras to be just a background symbol that would emphasise that Britain had been taken over by a fascist government. In addition to this, he also points out the obvious fact that dystopic sci-fi is always about the time that it was written too.
Of course, when you read “V For Vendetta” these days, the thing that jumps out at you isn’t Alan Moore’s fears about 1980s politics, but the fact that – like Orwell – the government is spying on everyone. The fact that we essentially all live in one giant panopticon these days.
So, why am I talking about all of this stuff? Am I just being paranoid?
Well, probably. But, the main reason why I’m talking about all of this stuff is to illustrate something about the dystopic sci-fi genre – namely that it only really “works” when it emphasises current fears. In other words, in order to be taken seriously, a dystopic sci-fi story has to have modern relevance. When a dystopic sci-fi story loses it’s modern relevance, then it becomes nothing more than a cross between a joke and a historical curiosity.
A good example of this would be an old American movie from the 1980s called “Red Dawn“. It’s a dystopic alternate future movie about the Soviets invading America and, at the time, it was probably quite chilling.
But, even though I only watched it once on VHS when I was a teenager (in the early 00s), I just kind of saw it as a silly action movie rather than a chilling warning about the future. After all, the film had long lost it’s modern relevance and – well – it had turned into something of a joke.
In 2012, they tried to remake “Red Dawn”, with North Korea taking the place of the Soviets from the original film. Although I haven’t seen the modern remake, I very much doubt that it had the same impact as the original movie did for the simple reason that no-one is worried about North Korea invading America.
Orginally, the filmmakers had apparently wanted to make a film about China invading the US but decided against it for political and financial reasons. Even this arguably more “plausible” dystopic future story is still laughably absurd, given how China and the US both heavily depend on each other economically. The two countries may not be allies, but it’s fairly obvious that they have something of a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship with each other that would be ruined if one tried to invade the other.
So, yes, dystopic sci-fi only really works when it is directly relevant to modern fears about the future. This is why background details from dystopic fiction from the 1940s-80s can still be part of our modern culture, but how single-issue dystopic stories often quickly go out of date after a few years.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂