Deborah Orr, a regular columnist in The Independent newspaper, has written an interesting piece (in the 25/7/07 edition) on the place of science fiction and fantasy in modern literature, with particular reference to dystopian thinking in general and the disasters (actual and potential) of modern life in particular.
Her starting point is the attitude people have to such major problems, especially the way in which we try to interpret events in a way which suits our preconceptions while resisting any implications which run counter to them. Climate change is a good example of this, with the evidence being seen through the filter of politico-economic beliefs. Those who firmly believe in the rightness of the untrammelled free market style of capitalism are unable to accept the implications of the theory of human-caused climate change and tend to regard it as some kind of socialist conspiracy (this is my paraphrase of her argument).
She refers to Black Mass, the latest book by the philosopher John Gray, in which he traces the history of Western millenarianism – the belief in some ideal future society. He suggests that the Iraq war is the result of an apocalyptic fantasy that it is possible to achieve by force a dramatic change, in this case in the direction of liberal democracy. He argues that all such projects will inevitably end in tears, and blames utopian thinking for believing that they are possible. Instead, he argues that we need more dystopian thinking, and should be paying more attention to such works as Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Wells' Island of Dr Moreau or Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Other suggested works, perhaps less familiar (at least to yrs trly), are Zamiatin's We, Nabokov's Bend Sinister, Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Ballard's Super-Cannes.
Orr argues that SF, formerly not taken seriously by the literary establishment, is now achieving a degree of credibility to the extent that such SF themes are now becoming part of the mainstream fiction. She points to Pulitzer Prize-winning (and, more significantly, Oprah-approved) Cormac McCarthy's The Road, concerning a post-climate catastrophe USA, and Sarah Hall's The Carhultan Army, "a futuristic fantasy in which a group of radical feminists make a stand in Britain against a repressive, authoritarian economic collapse", as well as recent works by Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing. Even children's fantasy is not immune; Orr refers to Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now, set in the aftermath of a future war. However, she points out that all three of these books contain their own wish-fulfilling optimism which indicates the problems which we are going to have in changing our attitudes sufficiently to be able to divert the perilous course being taken by our civilisation.
I can recall various SFF stories (apart from the novels mentioned above) which have been been truly dystopic, just getting worse until the grim ending. However, these rarely seem to be very popular - they're admired at best, rather than liked. The problem, I suspect, is that people cling on to hope, to the belief that even if everything isn't all right on the night, at least there is room for optimism. But is Orr right? Are we too optimistic for our own good? Or would a diet of unbroken pessimism just pitch us into apathetic despair?