March 14, 2014 5:45 pm

Why readers and writers are so fixated with dystopian visions

A scene from Danny Boyle’s dystopian film ‘28 Days Later’ (2002)©The Kobal Collection

A scene from Danny Boyle’s dystopian film ‘28 Days Later’ (2002)

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But, och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!

– Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”

There seems to be a tidal wave of bleak futures hitting us right now. “Dystopia” has become a common noun: “Where can I get a decent dystopia?” hopeful readers inquire, as if searching for a pair of socks. By “dystopia” they don’t mean a dictatorial future society but any kind of future that is unpleasant, whether it contains an organised society or not. There’s a wide range of dystopias, so defined, on offer of late – everything from the walking dead to the cindery Road – but then, there has been for a while. Remember the Pod People? Remember 1984? Remember On the Beach and Riddley Walker? Remember, for that matter, The Purple Cloud, not to mention The Iron Heel?

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But it’s the recent crop that engages our attention. Why, I am often asked, are young people so keen on writing and reading fictions about gloomy futures? I suppose the short answer would be “Ask them”, as I am not currently among their number. But I’ve heard various theories. Economic conditions aren’t so good for the young, job prospects being what they are, and economic inequality being on the increase. In the 1950s, children could expect to do better than their parents, and were fairly certain of having a job. But the old idea that those who worked hard would inevitably be rewarded has gone out the window, so the allure of zombiehood – no past, no future, no brain, no pain, no mortgage – has therefore increased.

And therefore also, fictions that offer more action than the receiving of job-application rejections appeal. Frequently, the protagonists must battle for survival – whether against a horde of ambling corpses and/or the fallout from societal breakdown, which usually includes a few marauding gangs of cannibalistic warlord baddies (as it would). There’s a noteworthy absence of functioning grocery shops in these futures, coupled with the wish that one had, earlier, learned a few useful skills such as how to kill, skin and cook a squirrel, rather than just lolling around reading dystopias. Perhaps such fictions act as a form of self-testing: in a crisis like this, how would I do? (Realistically: not very well.)

Dim economic prospects aside, the young are also faced with a long-term outlook for the planet that’s not being painted in rosy terms. Not being able to get a job is one thing but not being able to breathe is another; and that would indeed be the result were high global temperatures and pollution to kill the oceans, which make 60-80 per cent of the oxygen in the air. The lack of will on the part of political leaders has not escaped notice, nor has the resolute head-in-the-sandism so heavily promoted by large economic interests. Why is it that those at the top of the heap persist in believing that there will be a special lifeboat reserved just for them? If the planet dies, all die: such are the laws of chemistry and physics. No wonder the young opt for fictions about dilapidated futures: at least there are still people in them, however badly dressed.

Some of the recent dystopias are fanciful entertainment, or so we trust – no, the Zombie Apocalypse is not right around the corner. Some, on the other hand, give more realistic cause for alarm – yes, climate change does appear to be happening, and faster than predicted. This has given rise to a new category of fictions now lumped under “cli-fi”, but including both fanciful entertainment – no, the world is unlikely to be entirely covered in ice and/or water any time soon – and more possible scenarios. (You’ll notice I don’t mention any of these more possible scenarios, “possibility” having become a controversial term: one person’s possibility is another’s raving-lunatic nightmare, judging from the yelling that goes on in the Comments sections of newspapers.)

Do these scary fictional futures perform a more serious function? Or are they something we can’t help producing, since we are by nature future-oriented? The genetic anthropologists would have it that we’re hard-wired to be curious about what’s around the next corner, since it might be a sabre-toothed tiger (danger) or a field greener than our own (food). Even memory, the brain folk are telling us, evolved not to help us recall the past, but to help us anticipate the future – it being more crucial to our own survival – so we’ve been working on short-cuts to the future for millennia. Oracles, prophets and stargazers have had a long run of it, and there’s a reason why tea-leaf and crystal ball readers, tarot experts, and newspaper horoscopes are still in business, not to mention weather forecasters and stock market analysts. People tend to remember predictions that come true, but they forget those that don’t, possibly because we long to believe that somebody, somewhere, has a better handle on the future that we do.

Futures that can be influenced by our own actions are essential to religions: behave properly and fortune follows, along with timbrels and flutes; step out of line and you’ll be trodden like a grape in the great wine press of the Lord. Predictions of perfect happiness to come have been with us as far back as the Book of Revelations, but so have predictions about the end of the world. Indeed, the two are often combined: first the catastrophe, then the new beginning. In these eschatologies, we never see the absolute end of everyone human: religions seem unable to imagine a future that does not somehow include us, whereas scientific projections seem to have no difficulty with erasing us from the record of life as if we were a smudge. (Helpful hint for prospective religion-founders: unless a religion offers a future that contains a back door out of mortality, or, at the very least, prosperity on earth for us and our numerous descendants, it’s unlikely to have a lot of adherents.)

The construction of complex story­lines that reach far back into time and also far forward into it is uniquely human. Evolutionary theory suggests that we selected for storytelling in the Pleistocene: if you can tell the kids a story about how Fred got eaten by a crocodile, they don’t have to discover the child-eating propensities of crocodiles first-hand, and may live to pass on their DNA. Most human languages allow us to talk about far-back time and far-ahead time, and also conditional time. Fido the Dog can remember the past (he messed up the carpet, he got swatted for it) – and anticipate the future (he knows you’ll be home around 6 to dish out the dog food), but he’s unlikely to wonder where dogs came from in the first place, or what will happen to him after he dies. The conditional also may be beyond him: “Had Fido buried the bone in the backyard, he would have been able to find it again.” Thus, futures trading is unlikely to be done by Fido. Though sometimes you suspect it is. So, are our imagined futures an inevitable byproduct of grammar – if you have a future tense, you’re impelled to create content for it? If we abolished the future tense, would we be happier? Perhaps, but we’d also be stupider. Unless we developed mechanisms other than language to communicate with our fellows – chemical signalling, for instance, used by ants – we’d be unable to plan, to choose between complex alternatives, and to act together to achieve a common goal.

Perhaps these fictions about the future – not the zombie can’t-happen ones, but the might-happen ones – function as blueprints. They allow us to sketch out how things could be, should we continue down an extension of the road we appear to be on, and therefore to decide whether that is the road we want to take.

Towards the end of his life, my father – a biologist – was increasingly pessimistic about the chances of the human race. “I’m glad I won’t be around for it,” he would say, “it” being the dismal future. My mother, on the other hand, said she wanted to stick around to the year 2000 to see what would happen, in view of the dire predictions. Midnight chimed. We set off a batch of fireworks, incinerating the weeds in the backyard by accident. My mother was pleased by this conflagration, because, although by this time she was almost blind, she could see it. That was it.

That’s how things go, with dire predictions. Most of us are like my mother: we want to wait and see. A lot of the time the dire predictions don’t come true. Until they do.

Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel is ‘MaddAddam’ (Bloomsbury). She will be speaking at the HSBC Closing Festival Dinner on Saturday March 29. oxfordliteraryfestival.org

© OW Toad, Ltd. 2014

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