Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Utopia

A Light in the Dark

Tom Swift

In his recent post “Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?” Graeme McMillan reflects on the dire portraits of the future portended by summer science fiction blockbusters. Here McMillian gestures toward—but does not ultimately articulate—a very specific cultural history that is infused with a sense of nostalgia for the American past.

“There was a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a “can-do” attitude.”

McMillan goes on to write that “such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole.” And McMillan is not wrong here but he is also not grasping the entirety of the situation

To be sure, the fallout the followed the idealistic futures set forth by 60s counterculture—again we must be careful to limit the scope of our discussion to America here even as we recognize that this reading only captures the broadest strokes of the genre—may have had something to do with the rise in “pessimism” but I would also contend that the time period that McMillan refers to was also one that had civil unrest pushed to the forefront of its consciousness. More than a response to hippie culture was a country that was struggling to redefine itself in the midst of an ongoing series of projects that aimed to secure rights for previously disenfranchised groups. McMillan’s nod toward disillusionment is important to bear in mind (as is a growing sense of cynicism in America), but the way in which that affective stance impacts science fiction is much more complex than McMillan suggests.

McMillan needs to, for example, consider the resurgence of fairy tales and folklore in American visual entertainment that has taken on an increasingly “dark” tone; from Batman to Snow White we see a rejection of the unfettered good. Fantasy, science fiction, and horror are all cousins and we see the explorations of our alternate futures playing out across all three genres.

In light of this it only makes sense that the utopic post-need vision of Star Trek would find no footing; American culture was actively railing against hegemonic visions of the present and so those who were in the business of speculating about possible futures began to consider the implications of this process, particularly with respect to race and gender.

Near the end of his piece McMillan opines:

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, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.

Here, McMillian demonstrates a fundamental failure to interrogate what science/speculative fiction does for us in the first place before proceeding to consider how its function is related to its tone. I would stridently argue that this binary about hopeful/pessimistic thinking is misguided for a number of reasons.

First, it is evident that McMillan is conflating the utopic/dystopic dimension with hopeful/pessimistic. While we might generally make a case that the concept of utopia feels more hopeful on the surface this is not necessarily the case; instead, I would argue that utopia feels more comforting, which is not necessarily the same thing as hopeful. To illustrate the point, we need only consider the recent trend in YA dystopic fiction which, on its surface, contains an explicit element of critique but is often somewhat hopeful about the ability of its protagonists to overcome adversity. Earlier in his piece McMillan refers to this type of scenario as a “semiwin” but I would argue that it is, for many authors and readers, a complete win, albeit one that focuses generally on humans and individualism.

The other point that McMillan likely understands but did not address is that writing about situations in which everything “goes right” is not actually all that interesting. In his invocation of the science fiction of the early 20th century McMillan fails to recognize the way in which that particular strain of science fiction was the result of a very specific inheritor of the notion of scientific progress (and the future) that dates back to the Enlightenment but was largely spurred on by the 1893 World’s Fair. Additionally, although it is somewhat of a cliché, we must consider the way in which the aftermath of the atomic bomb (and the resulting fear of the Cold War) shattered our understanding that technology and science would lead to a bright new world.

Moreover, the fiction that McMillan cites was rather exclusive to white middle class amateur males (often youth) and the “hope” represented in those fictions was largely possible because of a shared vision of the future in this community. Returning to a discussion of the 70s and 80s we see that such an idyllic scenario is really no longer possible as we understand that utopias are inherently flawed for they can only ever represent a singular idea of perfection. Put another way, one person’s utopia is another person’s subjugation.

I would also argue that it is, in fact, easier to imagine a future where everything is right because all one has to do to engage in this project is to “fix” the things that are issues in the current day and age. This is easy.  The difficult task is to not only craft a compelling alternate future but to consider how we get there and this is where the “pessimistic” fiction’s inherent critique is often helpful. Fiction that is, on its surface, labeled as “pessimistic” (which is really a simplified reading when you get down to it) actually has the harder task of locating the root cause of an issue and trying to understand how the issue is perpetuated or propagated. Although it might seem paradoxical, “pessimistic” is actually hopeful because it argues that things can change and therefore there is a way out.

Alternatively, we might consider how the language of the apocalypse is linked to that of nature. On one axis we have the adoption of the apocalyptic in reference to climate change and, on a related dimension, we are beginning to see changes in the post-apocalyptic worlds that suggest the resurgence of nature as opposed to the decimation of it. McMillan laments that we should “try harder” if we can’t imagine a world that we have not ruined but I would counter this to suggest that many Americans are intimately aware, on some level, that humans have irrevocably damaged the world and so our visions of the future continue to carry this burden.

Science Fiction as a genre is much more robust than McMillan gives it credit for and, ultimately, I would suggest that he try harder to really understand how the genre is continually articulating multiple visions of the future that are complex and potentially contradictory. The simplification of these stories that takes place for a movie might strip them down into palatable themes and McMillan needs to speak to the ways in which his evidence is born out of an industry whose values most likely have an effect on the types of fictions that make it onto the screen.

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To Be Free Is Free to Be

My provocation is this:  utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.

 The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag:  Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:

“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”

Without pausing she fires back:

“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”

I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast:  youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.

Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:

There is another sky

Ever serene and fair

And there is another sunshine

Though it be darkness there

Never mind faded forests, Austin

Never mind silent fields

Here is a little forest

Whose leaf is evergreen

Here is a brighter garden

Where not a frost has been

In its unfading flowers

I hear the bright bee hum

Prithee, my brother

Into my garden come!

All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.

But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.

And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.

The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone:  utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.

Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.

Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.

Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.

I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.

So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?

For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.

But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.

I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.

In short, a utopia.

What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.

I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.

We’d never know how high we are

Until we’re called to rise

And then, if we are true to plan

Our statures touch the skies

Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.


Eat My Dust: Uncovering who is left behind in the forward thinking of Transhumanism

It should come as no surprise that the futurist perspective of transhumanism is closely linked with Science Fiction given that both areas tend to, in various ways, focus on the intersection of technology and society. Generally concerned with the ways in which technology will serve to enhance human beings (along the way possibly evolving past “human” to become “posthuman”), the transhumanist movement generally adopts a positivist stance as it envisions a future in which disease and aging are eradicated or cognitive processes accelerated. [1] In one way, transhumanism is presented as a cure-all for the problems that have plagued human beings throughout our history, providing hope that our fragile, corruptible, mortal, and impermeable bodies can forever be augmented, maintained, fixed, or reconstituted. A seductive promise, surely. Science Fiction then takes the ideas presented by transhumanist theory and makes them a little more tangible, affording us the opportunity to visit these futurist communities as we dream about how our destiny will be changed for the better while also allowing us to glimpse warnings against hubris through works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Without giving it much thought, it seems as though we are readily able to spot the presence of transhumanism in Science Fiction—but what if we were to reverse the gaze and instead use Science Fiction as a critical lens through which transhumanism could be viewed and understood? In short, what are lessons that we can garner from a close reading of Science Fiction texts can be used as tools to think through both the potential benefits and drawbacks of this particular direction for humanity?

Although admittedly an oversimplification, the utopia/dystopia binary gives us a place to start. Lest we become overly enamored with the potential and the promise of a movement like transhumanism, we must remember to ask ourselves, “Just whose utopia is it?”[2] Using Science Fiction as framework to understand the transhumanist movement, we are wary of a body of work that has traditionally excluded minority perspectives (e.g., the female gender or race) until called to explicitly express such views (see the presence of, and need for, works labeled as “feminist Science Fiction”). This is, of course, not to suggest that exceptions to this statement do not exist. However, it seems prudent here to mention that although the current landscape of Science Fiction has been affected by the democratizing power of the Internet, its genesis was largely influenced by an author-audience relationship that drew on experiences and knowledge primarily codified in White middle-class males. Although we can readily derive examples of active exclusion on the part of the genre’s actors (i.e., we must remember that this is not a property of the genre itself), we must also recognize a cultural context that steered various types of minorities away from fiction grounded in science and technology; for individuals who did not grow up idolizing the lone boy inventor/tinkerer or fantasizing about the space race, Science Fiction of the early- to mid-20th century did not readily represent reality of any sort, alternate, speculative, future, or otherwise.

If we accept that many of the same cultural factors that worked against diversity in early forms of Science Fiction continue to persist today with respect to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (Johnson, 1987; Catsambis, 1995; Nosek, et al., 2009) we must also question the vision put forth by transhumanists and be willing to accept that, for all its glory, the movement may very well represent an incomplete ideal state—invariably all utopias need revision. Although we might consider our modern selves as more progressive than authors of early Science Fiction, examination of current discourse surrounding transhumanism reveals a continued failure to incorporate discussions surrounding race (Ikemoto, 2005). In particular, this practice is potentially problematic as the Biomedical/Health field (in which transhumanism is firmly situated) has a demonstrated history of legitimizing multiple types of discrimination based on dimensions that include, but certainly are not limited to, race and gender. By not attempting to understand the implications of the movement from the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders, transhumanism potentially becomes a site for dominant ideology to reinforce its sociocultural constructions of the biological body. Moreover, if we have learned anything from the ways in which new media use intersects with race and socioeconomic status, we must be wary of the ways in which technology/media can exacerbate existing inequalities (or create new ones!). The issue of accesses to the technology of transhumanism immediately becomes pertinent as we see the potential for the restratification of society according to who can afford (broadly defined, including not just to cost but also including things like missed work due to recovery time) to have these procedures performed. In short, much like in Science Fiction, we must not only question who the vision is authored by, but also who it is intended for. Yet, far from suggesting that current transhumanist aspirations are necessarily or inherently incompatible with other strains, I merely argue that many types of voices must be included in the conversation if we are to have any hope of maintaining a sense of human dignity.

And dignity[3] plays an incredibly important role in bioethical discussions as we being to take a larger view of transhumanism’s potential effect, folding issues of disability into the discussion as we contemplate another (perhaps more salient) way in which society can act to inscribe form onto a body. Additionally, mention of disability forces an expansion in the definition of transhumanism beyond mere “enhancement,” with its connotation of augmentation of able-bodied individuals, to include notions of treatment. Although beyond the scope of this paper, the treatment/enhancement distinction is worth investigating as it not only has the potential to designate and define concepts of normal functioning (Daniels, 2000) but also suffers from a general lack of consensus regarding use of the terms “treatment” and “enhancement” (Menuz, Hurlimann, & Godard, 2011). But, looking at the overlap of treatment, enhancement, and disability, we must ask ourselves questions like, “If one of the potential benefits of transhumanism is the prevention and/or rectification of conditions like disability and deformity, who should be fixed? Who deserves to be fixed? But, most importantly, who needs to be fixed?”

Continuing to apply perspectives used to analyze the intersection of race, class, and technology, we see the potential for transhumanism thought to impose a particular kind of label onto individual bodies, inscribing a particular system of values in the process. Take, for example, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough who have been criticized for actively attempting to conceive a deaf child (Spriggs, 2002). Although the couple (both of whom are deaf) do not consider deafness to be a disability or a liability, a prevailing view in America works to force a particular type of identity onto the couple and their child (i.e., deafness is abnormal) and the family will undoubtedly be forced to eventually confront thinking informed by transhumanism in justifying their choice and very existence.

However, even seemingly straightforward cases like Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius have forced us to grapple with new questions regarding the consideration of recipients of biomedical augmentation. Born without fibula, a state that would likely be classified as “disabled” by himself and others, Oscar Pistorius won gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meter events at the 2008 Paraolympic Games but was initially banned from entering the Olympic Games due to concern that his artificial legs conferred an unfair advantage. Although this ruling was later overturned, Pistorius failed to make the qualifying time to participate in the 2008 Olympics Games. Pistorius has, however, met the qualifying standard for the 2012 Games and his participation will assuredly affect future policy regarding the use of artificial limbs as well as a renegotiation of the term “disabled” (Burkett, McNamee, & Potthast, 2011; Van Hilvoorde & Landeweerd, 2010). Interestingly, Pistorius also raises larger issues about the nature of augmentation in Sport, an area that has long wrestled with the concept of competitive advantages conferred through body modification and enhancement.

Ultimately we see that while improvements in human-computer interfaces, computer-mediated communication, neuroscience, and biomechanics paint a resplendent future full of possibilities for a movement like transhumanism, the philosophy also reveals a struggle over phrases like “human enhancement” that have yet to be resolved. Although I am personally most interested in issues of identity and religion that will most likely arise as a result of this cultural transformation (see Spezio, 2005), I want to suggest that larger societal issues must also be raised and discussed. Although we might understand the fundamental issue of transhumanism as a question of whether we should accept the body the way it is, I think the more instructive line of inquiry (if perhaps harder to initially understand) thoroughly examines the ways in which transhumanism builds upon a historical construction of the concept of the body as natural while simultaneously challenging it. Without such critical reflection, transhumanism, like many utopic endeavors, runs the risk of limiting our future to one that is restricted by the types of issues that we can imagine in the present; although our path forward is necessarily guided by the questions that we ask today, utopia turns to dystopia when we fixate on a idealized state and forget why we even bothered to seek advancement in the first place. If, however, we apply the theoretical frameworks provided by Science Fiction to our real lives and reconceptualize utopia as a process—a pursuit that is ongoing, reflexive, and dynamic—instead of as a product, we stand a chance of accomplishing what we sought to do without diminishing individual autonomy or being consumed by the very technology we hoped to integrate.


[1] Interestingly, in some conceptualizations, aging is now being understood as a disease-like process rather than a biological inevitability. Aside from the radical shift in thinking represented by a movement away from death as biological fact, I am fascinated by the ways in which this indicates a changing understanding of the “natural” state of our bodies.

[2] This should not suggest that a utopia/dystopia binary is the only way of considering this issue, but merely one way of utilizing language central to Science Fiction in order to understand transhumanism. Moreover, like most things, transhumanism is multidimensional and I am hesitant to cast it onto a good/bad dichotomy but I think that the notion of critical utopia can be instructive here.

[3] A complex notion itself worthy of detailed discussion. A recent issue of The American Journal of Bioethics featured a number of articles on the concept of dignity and how transhumanism worked to uphold or undermine it. See de Melo-Martin, 2010; Bostram, 2008; Sadler, 2010; Jotterand, 2010. Although “dignity” seems difficult to define concretely, Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard suggest a “personal optimum state” based on cultural, socio-historical, biological, and psychological features (2011). One might note, however, that the highly indivdualized nature of Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard’s criteria makes implimentation of policy difficult.

Works Cited

Bostram, N. (2008). Dignity and Enhancement. In A. Schulman (Ed.), Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (pp. 173-207). Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Bioethics.

Burkett, B., McNamee, M., & Potthast, W. (2011). Shifting Boundaries in Sports Technology and Disability: Equal Rights or Unfair Advantage in the Case of Oscar Pistorius? Disability and Society, 26(5), 643-654.

Catsambis, S. (1995). Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Science Education in the Middle Grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 243-257.

Daniels, N. (2000). Normal Functioning and the Treatment-Enhancement Distinction. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 9, 309-322.

de Melo-Martin, I. (2010). Human Dignity, Transhuman Dignity, and All That Jazz. The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 53-55.

Ikemoto, L. (2005). Race to Health: Racialized Discourses in a Transhuman World. DePaul Journal of Health Care Law, 9(2), 1101-1130.

Johnson, S. (1987). Gender Differences in Science: Parallels in Interest, Experience and Performance. International Journal of Science Education, 9(4), 467-481.

Jotterand, F. (2010). Human Dignity and Transhumanism: Do Anthro-Technological Devices Have Moral Status? The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 45-52.

Menuz, V., Hurlimann, T., & Godard, B. (2011). Is Human Enhancement Also a Personal Matter? Science and Engineering Ethics.

Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N. M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., et al. (2009, June 30). National Differences in Gender: Science Stereotypes Predict National Sex Differences in Science and Math Achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(26), 10593–10597.

Sadler, J. Z. (2010). Dignity, Arete, and Hubris in the Transhumanist Debate. American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 67-68.

Spezio, M. L. (2005). Brain and Machine: Minding the Transhuman Future. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 44(4), 375-380.

Spriggs, M. (2002). Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf Like Them. Journal of Medical Ethics, 283.

Van Hilvoorde, I., & Landeweerd, L. (2010). Enhancing Disabilities: Transhumanism under the Veil of Inclusion? Disability and Rehabilitation, 32(26), 2222-2227.


I Believe That Children Are Our Future

Kids say the darndest things. Or so we’re told. Maybe, then, it is only fitting that we have turned children’s responses into a form of entertainment as adults exhibit a general reluctance to truly understand what children are saying; instead of striving to understanding the process of meaning making in the world of children, we filter their words through perspectives that, in some cases, have entirely forgotten what it means to be a kid.

In June 2011, an article published in the Wall Street Journal sparked robust debate about the appropriateness of the themes proffered by current Young Adult (YA) fiction, which ultimately culminated in a virtual discussion identified by “#YASaves,” on the social messaging service Twitter.[1] Although some of the themes mentioned in the #YASaves discussion, like self-harm, eating disorders, and abuse, seem outside the scope of YA dystopia, the larger issue of concern over youth’s exposure to “darkness” speaks to an overarching perception of children derived from views prevalent in Romanticism.

Consistent with the Romantic idolization of nature, children were heralded as pure symbols of the future who had not yet conformed to the mores of society.[2] (And here we see the humor presented by shows like Kids Say the Darndest Things, for we, as “knowing” adults, can juxtapose the answers of children with the “correct” responses.) Informed by a Romantic tradition that presupposed the legitimacy of children’s perspectives, privileging them over those of more traditional authorities, this stance also suggests that teenage protagonists are largely not responsible for understanding the intricacies of how their environments operate, expecting the realized world to instead align with their personal vision. Illustrating the potential pitfall of this practice, we need only look back a few years to the exclusive utopian vision promoted by President George W. Bush; dystopian for everyone who did not share his view, Bush’s “utopia” legitimized only one version of the truth (his).[3] Although discontent may be an integral part of the impetus to change, we begin to glimpse elements of narcissism and indignation as protagonists develop a moral imperative for their actions.

Building upon this model (and undoubtedly bolstered by the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s) mid-20th century YA fiction increasingly began to shoulder youth with the responsibility and expectation of overthrowing the generations that had come prior while simultaneously delegitimizing the state of adolescence through trajectories that necessitated the psychological growth of protagonists.[4] In order to save the world, teenage protagonists must inevitably sacrifice their innocence and thus become emblematic of the very institution they sought to oppose.

And even if the teenage protagonists of YA fiction represent those select few who transcend the impulse to do nothing, are they ultimately reactionary and thusly not truly empowered? An initial reading of genres like YA dystopian fiction might suggest that readers can extract philosophical lenses or skills through their identification with protagonists who struggle not only to survive but to thrive. However, further rumination causes one to question the accessibility of the supposed themes of empowerment at play:  although characters in dystopian fiction provide value by suggesting that hegemonic forces can be challenged, the trajectories of these extraordinary figures rarely do much to actively cultivate or encourage the enactment or development of similar abilities in the real world. In essence, young readers are exposed to the ideals, but not realistic actionable steps. Furthermore, although Roberta Seelinger Trites correctly cites power and powerlessness as integral issues in YA dystopia, one is left to question whether true power is a result of internal struggle and achievement or is instead conferred upon the protagonist through some external force.[5] Perhaps a product of a youth mindset that tends to focus on the self, teenage protagonists often fail to recognize (and thus comment on) the role of external factors that aid their quests; Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, routinely fails to mention (or seemingly appreciate) the ways in which her success are intimately connected to those who bestow gifts of various kinds upon her. Further challenging notions of empowerment, although Katniss develops throughout the course of the trilogy, she gives no indication that she would have become involved in rebellion had she not been forced (i.e., chosen) into a situation that she could not escape.

Echoing this idea, Lara Cain-Gray sees similar trends in the dystopian tendencies of teen realist fiction. In her analysis of Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly, Cain-Gray argues that the protagonist, Plum, longs for some measure of extraordinariness—a saving grace from a dystopian world born out of banality.[6] Here again we see that agency is ascribed to an external source as characters yearn for salvation; individuals long for someone to save them because they have not yet learned how to save themselves. Regardless of later strides made by Plum, a lack of scaffolding means that her model remains inaccessible to readers unless they have also received a jump start. If we refer back to the idea that utopia and dystopia inherently contain political elements, it seems to follow that encouraging a wider recognition of, and sensitivity to, existing social structures might address gaps in the developmental process and help youth to become more active in real life, while combatting the adult-imposed label of apathy that is currently in vogue.

Perhaps the problem lies in how we traditionally conceptualize youth as political agents (if at all). Although there are assuredly exceptions to this, the primary readership for YA dystopia—loosely bounded by an age demographic that includes individuals between 12-18 years of age—largely does not possess a type of political power commonly recognized in the United States. Prohibited from voting, a majority of the YA audience is often not formally encouraged to exercise any form of political voice; it is not until they near the age of adulthood that the process even begins to take shape with, at best, a course on Civics in high school. And, in absence of a structured educational process that promotes reflection, critical thinking, outreach, and activism, youth might be seen to cobble together their political knowledge from sources readily available to them. As author Jack Zipes suggests in his book Sticks and Stones:  The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter, youth seek out agency through literature like dystopian fiction.[7] However, one might argue that what youth are really after is a sense of empowerment that they are unable to find elsewhere in meaningful quantities.

Elizabeth Braithwaite comments on one such example of the YA dystopia’s potential political influence and agency in her discussion of post-disaster fiction. Building upon work by Erich Fromm, Braithwaite notes the important difference between social orders labeled as “freedom from” and “freedom to”:

Fromm explains that the two types of freedom are very different:  a person can be free of constraints, be they obviously negative or the ‘sweet bondage of paradise’, without necessarily being ‘free to govern himself, to realize his individuality.’[8]

Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States.

On a level arguably more immediately pressing for a teenage readership, however, let us invoke the issue of bullying, which has become a somewhat high-profile topic in recent educational news. In line with the discussion surrounding forms of oppression elsewhere, much of the rhetoric present in this topic focuses on a removal of the negative—and admittedly quite caustic—influences of teenage aggressors. Prompted by a rash of high-profile suicides attributed to this phenomenon, New York Times columnist Dan Savage started a project entitled “It Gets Better.” Ostensibly designed to encourage youth to refrain from suicide (and, to a lesser extent, self-harm), “It Gets Better” seemed to effuse a position saturated with the ideology of “freedom from.” Although an admirable attempt, “It Gets Better” ultimately projects a hope for a static utopia free from bullying—which, as has been previously demonstrated, inevitably leads to a dystopia of one sort or another. By telling youth that things will get better someday (i.e., not now) we are ultimately choosing to withhold information about how to make it better. Intentional or not, we have begun to slide into a practice of knowledge containment that mirrors the regimes of dystopian societies as we fail to challenge youth to become active participants in the process of change. Propelled by thinking grounded in a stance of “freedom from,” we are, in indirect ways, in the name of protection or aid, stripping youth’s access to information that would act to empower them.

In marked contrast, we witness a different tonality in movements like those involved in the support of gay marriage or the Dream Act. Perhaps coincidentally, both efforts have embraced the notion of “coming out” and the liberation that this freedom of self-expression brings. “Freedom to,” it would seem, allows individuals in the modern age to effectively begin the process of challenging patriarchal and heteronormative stances—as any child of the 1970s and Marlo Thomas’ “Free to Be…You and Me” well knows.

So what do we do, then, with the complex space represented by the intersection of youth, adults, publishers, and YA fiction? Ultimately, I argue for a reevaluation of the value of youth voices in discussion surrounding YA fiction. As adults, our natural inclination may be to protect children, but we must also endeavor to understand the long-term implications of our actions—after all, isn’t our real goal to equip the next generation with the tools that they will need to become successful citizens of the world? We must walk a narrow line, fighting our tendency to view modern youth as romanticized wunderkind while respecting the demographic as one that is increasingly capable of amazing resilience. If our generation is to have any hope of disrupting the adversarial cycle so prevalent in YA dystopian fiction, we must take it upon ourselves to educate youth in a way that encourages their empowerment while remaining open to all that they have to teach us. It is only through this integration, and a more sophisticated flow of information, that we can hope to avoid the manufacture of a disenfranchised generation destined to suffer the ultimate indignity of being born into a dystopia. To get there, we must whole-heartedly engage with children, seeking to understand the ways in which they process information and perceive their environment. Although we are armed with mountains of theory, we need to realize that we do not necessarily know better—we merely know differently. We need to take the time to truly listen to our youth and attempt to see the world through their eyes:  focus groups can be used to ascertain descriptive language while large-scale surveys provide an element of generalizability. Inventories might help researchers get a sense of things like the pervasiveness of self-harm or the recuperative value of YA fiction. Follow-up interviews or focus groups could help us to evaluate the effectiveness of treatment programs, allowing us to alter our course should the need arise. In short, we need to actually talk (and listen!) to those whom we would serve.


[1] See Meghan Cox Gurdon, “Darkness Too Visible.” The Wall Street Journal. June 4, 2011 and Sherman Alexie, “Why the Best Kids Books Are Written in Blood.” The Wall Street Journal. June 9, 2011 for constrasting views on this topic.

[2] Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.

[3] See Sargent, “In Defense of Utopia.” 2006 and Maureen F. Moran, “Educating Desire: Magic, Power, and Control in Tanith Lee’s Unicorn Trilogy.” In Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Adults, 139-155. (New York: Routledge, 2003).

[4] See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000).

[5] Trites, Disturbing the Universe. 2000.

[6] Lara Cain-Gray,  “Longing For a Life Less Ordinary: Reading the Banal as Dystopian in Sonya Hartnett’s Butterfly.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 35-38.

[7] Jack Zipes, Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. (New York: Routledge, 2002).

[8] See Elizabeth Braithwaite, “Post-Disaster Fiction for Young Adults: Some Trends and Variations.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 20, no. 1 (2010): 5-19 and Erich H. Fromm, Escape from Freedom. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994: 34).


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).