Why Are There So Few Sci-Fi Utopias?

Last weekend, my Twitter friend DL Morrese posted a link, and a question. Where are our bright science fiction futures?

The TL;DR for that article is:  Mainstream sci-fi movies always show the world destroyed at the end. Where are the sparkly space ships flying cars and happy aliens?

We started a conversation about it on Twitter, but I didn’t have time to wrap my head around it completely.  Now that I’ve had some time to mull this over, I have three things I want to say about it, and I hope we can reopen the discussion, with perhaps more people joining in.

  1. Sci-Fi is social commentary
  2. Story means conflict
  3. No hope? Pish Posh

I think the premise of the article is misguided, and some of the arguments flawed. I think the author is looking in the wrong places. (I won’t go into the fact that they are only talking about television and film sci-fi…. though you can assume there’s a hearty eyeroll that they seem to think dystopias aren’t way older than the 1970s.)

Sci-Fi is Social Commentary

Dystopias serve – and have always served – as warnings. They are the “turn back now!” signs along the decision making paths of the present. They are harbingers of possibilities.

Our news media and governments thrive on creating an atmosphere of fear. These people in power want to keep us worried, keep us afraid. So, we are easily led down those dark paths of fear and hatred.   I think sci-fi authors, perhaps especially, can see where those paths lead.  They aren’t shiny places with laser guns.  Hence: Dystopias.

McMillan says “That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.”  That was one of the two arguments that I also posed. It’s far easier to imagine a dark future. (Here is the link to the conversation.)

There’s more to it though. I don’t think the audience would get behind a Utopia. I think the fact that we are working within an overriding atmosphere of fear and hate means that dystopias are what will “sell” in the marketplace.  I can’t see a studio getting behind something so happy and shiny.  Frankly, the ratings would suck.

Story Means Conflict

As a writer of a Dystopia, my first thought was that a Utopian world offers no conflict.  A Utopia would have to have something – some form of darkness and shadow to show the light.   You can’t have the Eloi without Morlocks.   A Utopian vision is lost without showing the alternative disintegration.


I don’t think dysopias today are 100% bleak in terms of mood. I cover that more in the next section.

In the article, McMillan compares the hopeful future depicted by Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of Star Trek (interracial and inter-species harmony, scientific progress beyond our imaginations) to the dystopias that we see in the mainstream today, including the rebooted vision of the Trek ‘verse.

You know what’s “hopeful” about Trek? The framework. The technology. The world-building.  Each episode met with a new alien species, new redshirts died, and then the away team saved the day. Was that really hopeful? Really? Because I’m not convinced.

McMillan already said that a happy ending didn’t necessarily mean hope for the future.  All of the Trek series have enemies. The Borg are avoided, but never defeated. The Klingons join the Federation after years of war…. I still don’t see where this is the “bright” future McMillan is wishing for.

I don’t think it would be as good a story if it were that black and white.

No hope? Pish Posh

McMillan says mainstream science fiction seems to be “stuck in a rut of hopelessness.”

I’m intrigued  that he thinks there is no “hope” in the genre.  The truth of the matter is that the genre itself has moved away from world-building as the basis of the story, and into character-driven arcs.  So much of the hope that exists lies with the indomitable nature of the human spirit, of love, of overcoming the odds.  I think this is where I find hope, regardless of the world.

I don’t think crazy technology and all-white spaceships are what draw me to Science Fiction anyway. It’s the humanity. And in the humanity, there always lies a seed of hope.


2 thoughts on “Why Are There So Few Sci-Fi Utopias?

  1. Great post! I think that science fiction is, at its core, about what it means to be human–the lovely and the hideous parts alike. I wonder if it’s even possible to write a true utopia. How could imperfect people/writers create a perfect world? Our struggles as we try to move a little closer to perfection are the stuff of myth and legend.

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