Don’t Diss Dystopias

Ramez Naam,  Slate

This piece is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Thursday, Oct. 2, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on science fiction and public policy, inspired by the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. For more information on the event, visit the New America website; for more on Hieroglyph project, visit the website of ASU’s Project Hieroglyph.

Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson is worried about America. “We have lost our ability to get things done,” he wrote in 2011, in a piece for the World Policy Institute. “We’re suffering from a kind of ‘innovation starvation.’ ” And part of the problem, he wrote, is science fiction. Where science fiction authors once dreamt of epic steps forward for humanity, now, “the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone.”

Others have picked up where Stephenson left off. In an op-ed for Wired titled “Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology,” Michael Solana wrote, “Mankind is now destroyed with clockwork regularity. … We have plague and we have zombies and we have zombie plague.”

Well, Stephenson wants to do something about that. He’s urged science-fiction writers to help reignite innovation in science, technology, and how they’re used, and his mission helped create Hieroglyph, a new anthology of optimistic, aspirational science-fiction stories. The collection includes stories from Stephenson himself and some of the best science fiction writers in the business, several of whom also happen to be my friends. The thesis behind Hieroglyph, that one of the roles of science fiction is to dream bigger, to help us imagine positive outcomes for society—is one that I fundamentally agree with.

But in our enthusiasm for aspirational science fiction, let’s not be so quick to dismiss the importance of dystopias.

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