Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Coming in from the Cold

Although utopia—and perhaps more commonly, dystopia—has come to be regularly associated with the genre of Science Fiction (SF), it seems prudent to assert that utopia is not necessarily a subgenre of SF. Instead, a result of the shift toward secular and rational thinking in the Enlightenment, the modern notions of progress and idealism inherent in Western utopian thought find themselves intimately connected to science and technology in various forms. Early twentieth century American figures like Tom Swift, for example, articulated the optimism and energy associated with youth inventors, highlighting the promise associated with youth and new technology. [1]

After Robert A. Heinlin’s partnership with Scribner’s helped to legitimize science fiction in the late 1940s through the publication of Rocket Ship Galileo, the genre began to flourish and, like other contemporary works of fiction, increasingly reflected concerns of the day.[2] Still reeling from the aftereffects of World War II, American culture juggled the potential destruction and utility of atomic energy while simultaneously grappling with a pervasive sense of paranoia that manifested during the Cold War. As with many other major cultural shifts, the rapid change in the years following World War II caused Americans to muse over the direction in which they were now headed; despite a strong current of optimism that bolstered dreams of a not-far-off utopia (see Tomorrowland in Disneyland), there remained a stubborn fear that the quickly shifting nature of society might have had unanticipated and unforeseen effects.[3]Very much grounded in an anxiety-filled relationship with developing technology, this new ideological conflict undercut the optimism afforded by consumer technology’s newfound modern conveniences. Life in the suburbs, it seemed, was too good to be true and inhabitants felt a constant tension as they imagined challenges to their newly rediscovered safety: from threats of invasion to worries about conformity, from dystopian futures to a current reality that could now be obliterated with nuclear weapons, people of the 1950s continually felt the weight of living in a society under siege. An overwhelming sense of doubt, and more specifically, paranoia, characterized the age with latent fears manifesting in literature and media as the public began to struggle with the realization that the suburbs did not fully represent the picturesque spaces that they had been conceived to be. In fact, inhabitants were assaulted on a variety of levels as they became disenchanted with authority figures, feared assimilation and mind control (particularly through science and/or technology), began to distrust their neighbors (who could easily turn out to be Communists, spies, or even aliens!), and felt haunted by their pasts. [4] In short, the utopia promised by access to cars, microwave dinners, and cities of the future only served to breed frustration in the 1960s as life did not turn out to be as idyllic as advertised.

Suggesting that utopian and dystopian notions were not intrinsically linked to technology, this pattern would repeat itself in the 1980s after the promises of the Civil Rights, environmental, Women’s Liberation, and other counter-cultural movements like the Vietnam War protests faltered. To be sure, gains were made in each of these arenas, reflected in an increase in utopian science fiction during the 1970s, but stalling momentum—and a stagnating economy—caused pessimism and disillusionment to follow a once burgeoning sense of optimism during the 1980s.[5]On a grander scale, bolstered by realizations that societies built upon the once-utopian ideals of fascism and communism had failed, the 1980s became a dark time for American political sentiment and fiction, allowing for the development of dystopian genres like cyberpunk that mused on the collapse of the State as an effective beneficial regulating entity. [6] Reflected in films like The Terminator, a larger travesty manifested during the decade through an inability to devise systemic solutions to society’s problems, as we instead coalesced our hopes in the formation of romanticized rebel groups with individualist leaders.[7] Writing in 1985, author John Berger opined that repeated promises from Progressive moments in the past had contributed to society’s growing sense of impatience. [8] A powerful sentiment that holds resonance today, we can see reflections of Berger’s statement in President Obama’s campaign slogan and the backlash that followed his election to office—“Hope,” it seems, capitalized upon our expectations for a future filled with change but also sowed the seeds of discontent as the American public failed to witness instantaneous transformation. For many in the United States, a lack of significant, tangible, and/or immediate returns caused fractured utopian dreams to quickly assume the guise of dystopian nightmares.

Furthermore, these cycles set a precedent for the current cultural climate: the promises of new developments in communication technologies like the Internet—particularly relevant is its ability to lower the barriers of access to information—have turned dark as we have come to recognize the dangers of online predators and question the appropriateness of sexting. Moreover, technological advances that allow for the manipulation of the genetic code—itself a type of information—have allowed us to imagine a future that foresees the elimination of disease while simultaneously raising issues of eugenics and bioethics. Shifting our focus from the void of space to the expanses of the mind, utopian and dystopian fiction appears to be musing on the intersection of information (broadly defined) and identity. Spanning topics that feature cybernetic implants, issues of surveillance and privacy, or even the simple knowledge that a life unencumbered by technology is best, ultimately it is access to, and our relationship with, information that links many of the current offerings in utopian/dystopian Science Fiction.

[1] Francis J. Molson, “American Technological Fiction for Youth: 1900-1940.” In Young Adult Science Fiction, edited by C. W. Sullivan III. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999).

[2] Comics at this time, for example, also spoke to cultural negotiations of science and progress. For more about the establishment of Science Fiction as a genre, see C. W. Sullivan III, “American Young Adult Science Fiction Since 1947.” In Young Adult Science Fiction, edited by C. W. Sullivan III. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999).

[3] Bernice M. Murphy, The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

[4] See Paul Jensen, “The Return of Dr. Caligari.” Film Comment 7, no. 4 (1971): 36-45 or Wolfe, Gary K. “Dr. Strangelove, Red Alert, and Patterns of Paranoia in the 1950s.” Journal of Popular Film, 2002: 57-67 for further discussion.

[5] Peter Fitting, “A Short History of Utopian Studies.” Science Fiction Studies 36, no. 1 (March 2009): 121-131.

[6] Lyman Tower Sargent, “In Defense of Utopia.” Diogenes 209 (2006): 11-17.

[7] Constance Penley, “Time Travel, Primal Scene, and the Critical Dystopia.” Camera Obscura 5, no. 3 15 (1986): 66-85.

[8] John Berger, The White Bird. (London: Chatto, 1985).


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