Dystopia No More! Please?
As we reel from the Walking Dead season finale, ramp up to the release of Hunger Games in theaters and ponder the possibilities of that Dark Tower adaptation coming back from the (presumed) dead, one thought comes clearly to mind: Enough with the pessimism already.
There are, of course, all manner of reasons why a post-apocalyptic setting for your science fiction/futuristic action movie/any kind of glimpse into the world of tomorrow rings true, not least of which is the contemporary obsession with the idea that everything is going to hell at a higher speed than we would like, and by the way, we’re all doomed. Having a future setting that fulfills all of our worst case scenarios to some degree is, therefore, surprisingly comfortable and relaxing; it lets us feel good about being right, even if what we were right about is actually the collapse of civilization and society as we know it (To be fair, most shows and movies never really think that one through beyond “Things will be a bit dusty, and everyone will wear leather and probably a scarf to protect them from some generic environmental collapse,” so it’s not like entertainment is really being made from fictional people’s misery (Yes, it is)).
It helps that such pessimism and expectation of disaster is the culmination of sci-fi decay, which took the utopian science wonderlands of early SF through the “realism” and “they’re just like us, working stiffs!” of 2001 and Alien to the depressing conclusion of “Of course the future cannot save us, we are terrible people with terrible and destructive ideas” thinking, which can only be the post-apocalypse (There’s something even more inherently depressing about that term than just plain “apocalypse,” too: “Post-apocalypse” always feels like shorthand for “Sure, an apocalypse would be really, really bad, but think about how bad it’s going to be afterwards. Seriously, that’ll really suck, like really bad.” Good lord).
Ultimately, though, I think we’ve come to the point where such post-apocalyptic depressive futures are… well, done. Not just that they’re played out and overly familiar (Although they are, let’s be honest), but also that it feels increasingly lazy to default to “what happens… after the end of the world?!?” as the setting – or worse, the plot – for whatever the story is being told. I want stories that feel new, or different, or at least something that tries to imagine a world other than the one we’re already in or have been told to expect from countless movies, television shows and other media throughout the year.
It sounds ridiculous, but coming up with an optimistic future seems more imaginative and, these days, more interesting than visiting a dystopian world devoid of hope apart from our heroic lead(s) one more time. Think of the way that Star Trek stood out a few years ago, just by daring to set a story in a future where people haven’t screwed everything up and are trying to better themselves, society and, yes, the entire universe. I’m not demanding a million stories just like that – That’d somewhat defeat the point of “Let’s have something different!,” wouldn’t it? But… Can’t more people at least look at that kind of thing as a starting point and offer up something other than the end of everything you love, and what comes afterwards, part 73?