Nine Worlds GeekFest #1: Is Our Future Utopian Or Dystopian?

Science fiction writers are getting ‘carried away with fear,’ according to author Tricia Sullivan. ‘There’s a failure to imagine a positive future. As a writer it’s harder to build things up than blow things up… Finding an element of hope really does mean disabling all my instincts as a science fiction writer.’

Sullivan was part of a four-author panel debating the question Is Our Future Utopian Or Dystopian? at Nine Worlds GeekFest 2013 in London last weekend. Her remark came in response to a challenge from Tom Hunter, director of The Clarke Awards, who chaired the event. He asked: ‘How do we find an element of hope?’ Sullivan quoted from Oscar Wilde: ‘The basis of optimism is sheer terror.’ (From The Picture of Dorian Gray).


Have SF writers lost the utopian instinct?

Cory Doctorow told the capacity audience that in the classic dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell ‘constantly dangles hope’ but that hope was always lost. “You believe there’s an underground movement but it doesn’t exist.’

According to Doctorow, ‘I’m interested in the good things people do in extremis.’ He was also drawn to scenarios where the elite experienced panic (eg Hurricane Katrina). He received unanimous approval for his definition of utopia: ‘Utopia is a society that fails well.’

Stephen King’s On the Beach portrayed a society failing well, said Doctorow. ‘Instead of living the dystopia, they made it the nicest place they could.’ And he also recommended the utopian novel Pacific Edge (part of the Three Californias triptych) by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was singled out as a brilliant novel set in two co-existing societies – Anarres, a stable but poor anarchist utopia and Urras, a profiteering capitalist dystopia.

Other examples of stable utopias, according to author Jaine Fenn, are Star Trek (!) and Iain M Banks’ Culture Series, while Charles Stross put forward Karl Schroeder’s books Ventus, Permanence and Lady of Mazes, as dynamic utopias.

Utopia is a society that fails well.      Cory Doctorow

Sullivan was passionate about the challenges facing SF writers. ‘We must think about the hypothetical person out there who is disenfranchised. We must think about how they can be drawn in. People who’ve never had a shot – what about them?’

Had SF writers slipped into the habit of writing dystopias and post-apocalyptic fiction? The panel mused on this and Fenn commented, ‘I think that now we have leisure and the time to think about things we have become more pessimistic. I can’t see a utopia happening unless it’s imposed.’ Which might defeat the object!

But Sullivan replied, ‘It’s easy to put hope into a dystopian setting but I really feel that, somehow, we must think beyond everything going to hell in a handcart.’

So… a great event at the very first Nine Worlds GeekFest and now, sigh, I have even more books on my To Read list!

Next post on Nine Worlds GeekFest: Is the Future Binary? (ie girl meets boy, boy meets girl) – coming up later this week.

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