Beyond Dystopia

Elvia Wilk and Claire L. Evans on the changing role of science fiction in the age of COVID-19 and catastrophic climate change.
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Elvia Wilk and Claire L. Evans.Photo: Calla Henkel & Max Pitegoff (left), Alex Marks (right).

The overlapping crises of the past few years have presented writers of science fiction with a new set of fundamental questions. What use are dystopian futures in a society already sick with cultural pessimism? How can we imagine new ways forward while hurtling towards certain ecological cataclysm? How can sci-fi evolve, in short, to speak to the anxieties and needs of this peculiar time?

To get thoughtful answers to these questions, I sat down with two of our foremost students of literary dystopia. Elvia Wilk, author of celebrated anthropocenic tragicomedy Oval (2019), is about to publish Death by Landscape, a mind-bending essay collection on how fiction can help us reconsider our place in nature—and move us beyond the outmoded dystopian-utopian binary. Claire L. Evans, a world-class science and technology essayist and Grammy-nominated singer, has just edited a new anthology of contemporary science fiction Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn (August 2022), a vital slate of speculative near-futures by some of the most exciting sci-fi writers working today.

Death by Landscape, by Elvia Wilk.Soft Skull Press.
Terraform: Watch/Worlds/Burn, edited by Brian Merchant and Claire L. Evans.Macmillan

I was curious how sci-fi has primed us for the civilizational ruptures we’re all facing, and how the genre might change in response. Fortunately, this basic prompt inspired a much deeper discussion—about why science fiction needs to be uncoupled from its fabled predictive capacity; about how corporations have become the chief authors of speculative futures; about what it would mean for science fiction to extricate itself from its colonial origins; and whether the vibey solarpunk movement could turn out to be more subversive than it seems. I’m smarter for it and, if you keep reading, you soon will be too.

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Leon Dische Becker

Reading your upcoming collections, I gathered that the two of you have probably read more contemporary science fiction than anyone I know. How did this great backlog of dystopian visions influence your personal experiences of COVID? Did you feel more prepared than the rest of us?

Elvia Wilk

I wasn’t prepared at all! I don’t think any amount of reading could have prepared me. The reading I had done that felt somewhat useful wasn’t science fiction; it was about the Black Death and other extreme plagues during the Middle Ages. Plagues happened pretty often back then and they were extremely apocalyptic. For centuries, people lived like the end was literally nigh. Reading about historic plagues helped me embrace hyperbole: it’s valid to feel like the world is ending when your world is ending.

Claire L. Evans

If I’m honest, COVID kind of burned me out on purely dystopian or utopian futures. It made me resent the binary even more. Utopia and dystopia are two sides of the same coin, and I think we need something a lot more nuanced—like the quantum state of possibility that exists when the coin is still in the air and hasn't landed yet. That’s why I like your [Elvia’s] work so much.

LDB

Yeah, I loved Death by Landscape’s critique of that binary: utopia and dystopia are always happening simultaneously; they’re just unequally distributed. How do we break out of that unhelpful dichotomy, as writers, editors, and readers?

CLE

One of the more interesting ways out is to think about science fiction in terms of affect: not as something that is necessarily prescriptive or predictive, but instead focusing on the sensations it evokes—unease, revulsion, attraction, dread. To me, the most powerful science fiction has always been that which embodies me the most. Feelings are honest, more honest than predictions. Maybe I’m saying that because COVID left us all alone with our feelings for a really long time. And we're still wading through all of that now.

EW

I emphasize that in the book—the need to uncouple science fiction from predictive capacities. “Will it come true?” is just a very functional view of what a story can do. It treats stories like they’re trend forecasts or stock market speculations. I recently read this book by Ned Beauman called Venomous Lumpsucker, a sci-fi masterpiece. In an author’s note at the start of the text, he says that everything in this book is an exact depiction of how things will actually happen in the future—except that currencies have not been adjusted for inflation. I thought that was such a good and funny way of anticipating what so many people expect from science fiction, how complete and totalizing it’s expected to be. But fiction is much better at showing what all these many little dystopias feel like, as opposed to exactly what will happen. Fiction writers will never be better at anticipating the future than corporations are, and that’s not what we need from fiction. Reading a story like a roadmap and checking it against reality is a boring approach.

CLE

Historically, that emphasis on prediction has lent validity to science fiction as a genre, especially in the mid-century. You know: Arthur C. Clarke “invented” geosynchronous satellites, and therefore science fiction isn't just some fringe pursuit. That may have been useful once, but I think we're long past that now.

EW

There is something very masculine and hegemonic about viewing fiction as a predictive tool.

A lot of dystopian fiction is kind of an imagined prophylactic for the privileged—the idea being that if we could just anticipate it, maybe we can prevent or control it.
LDB

Generally, I’m always struck by the value that’s placed in American public life on predicting unforeseen events. Every time there’s a new crisis, someone gets to do a media victory lap because they saw it all coming. Often, they’re just in the business of predicting worst case scenarios because that’s a good way to draw attention and funding to their area of investment and expertise. Terrorism experts predict more terrorism; Bill Gates predicts another pandemic. Any scenario where people living in fairly utopian conditions experience a burst of dystopian insecurity is inherently super-profitable. As a society, we seem way less interested in investing in staving off predictable crises, which will just exacerbate existing suffering. Is this corporate obsession with the future one of the reasons why so many literary science fiction writers are eschewing grand predictive stories? Or is it just very hard to imagine the distant future right now?

CLE

Imaginations of the future can be profitable, but they’re not always useful—history can be a lot more useful. The future feels incredibly short, especially now, but the past is always getting bigger. To me, the most interesting thing about the future is how it complicates the past. This reminds me of something William Gibson said in an interview with the Paris Review a while back, where he talks about watching Blade Runner and being struck by the fact that it was the first time he’d seen a representation of a future city that wasn't sterile and clean and new; instead it was past, present and future all next to each other in layers, a palimpsest of compost heaps. And I think that's key: everything we've ever made and imagined continues to exist even as new constructions and imaginations come along. What the future really invites is more entanglement. Put it all together and that’s when the compost heap really starts cooking.

EW

I recently read the first two books of Marlon James’s massive Dark Star Trilogy, and found them so invigorating. They’re hardcore fantasy novels based on a mashup of pre-colonial African mythology. I was thinking about them as a kind of decolonizing effort, and thinking that maybe fantasy is a more effective laboratory for that kind of work than realism or sci-fi, because it doesn’t treat time so linearly or worry about fidelity to events—it doesn’t even need to stick to the laws of gravity. The books are set in a medieval African world, and foreshadow what we expect to come at the end of that period, which is colonization. But they leave open the possibility that in this world things will go differently—we don’t find out. I’m into using the past as a speculative space just as much as projecting narratives into the future.

CLE

I totally agree: imagining the future doesn't have to go in one direction. It doesn't have to be linear. And one can also imagine so far into the future that it becomes indistinguishable from myth, indistinguishable from a distant past. Samuel Delany does that beautifully in his early novels—The Einstein Intersection, for example.

LDB

I wonder whether the current outbreak of perceived dystopia, and the mainstreamed paranoia about science, will spawn a lot more ultra-paranoid sci-fi. That certainly seems to be true for popular entertainment (see the new Jurassic Park or Matrix, or the planned remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau). Will literary sci-fi go the other way? Now that it feels so close to home, will writers and readers lose their taste for dystopia?

CLE

No, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Dystopian futures are a popular form of escapism because they represent a different hell than our own. We haven't crossed the Rubicon into the full-blown cyberpunk nightmare just yet [IRL], even though we're very much on our way. If we can imagine things that are worse, it makes the world that we live in seem better by comparison.

EW

Yeah, making up dystopias is often just a process of outsourcing. It reassures certain people that the bad scenario is fiction, and that it's happening somewhere else in space or time. It’s no accident that aesthetics of dystopia often happen to resemble news depictions of the developing world. A lot of dystopian fiction is kind of an imagined prophylactic for the privileged—the idea being that if we could just anticipate it, maybe we can prevent it or control it. Realizing this has really changed the way I read dystopian fiction. I no longer see it as a cautionary future tale, I see it as something happening now. I no longer see it as elsewhere. And yes, I’m still reading it. I guess I also still find fiction more palatable and enjoyable than reading the news.

LDB

Could the current outbreak of dystopia at least offer a chance for more nuanced portrayals of how people respond to it?

CLE

I hope so. Imaginations of the future in which people are at each other's necks, marauding the streets with guns and raiding grocery stores, can be self-fulfilling prophecies. The more you tell people that this kind of collapse is inevitable, the more they prepare for it.

EW

The USA is run on the lie that if it weren’t for this massive apparatus of state violence, people would loot all the stores and murder each other.

CLE

I think we need more stories that find the utopia within dystopia. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven does that. It shows that people can rise to the occasion, even create beauty, after a disaster. So does Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which is about how people are at their best after terrible earthquakes and fires, how communities come together when they’re temporarily facing the same overarching problem.

EW

The Solnit book was really important to me. It offers a different way of thinking about collective trauma. The case studies she uses contradict all the cliches about how people supposedly descend into selfishness or violence after a disaster, and show that collective action can operate outside of a neoliberal framework of “resilience”—bouncing back, making things better again, getting back to “normal.” After a rupture, a different social world, a different ecosystem, can be built. It shows how we can create something new in a common experience of rupture rather than replicating old systems of exploitation.

In tech and biotech, there’s a grand tradition of completely missing the point of science fiction.
LDB

As you hinted at earlier, outbreaks of dystopia can help inspire utopian visions. We’ve seen some new ones emerge recently. I would hesitate to call police abolition utopian, though it does imagine a radically new social order. Solarpunk, which you also cover in your collection, Elvia, is much closer to the mark. It really does imagine a kind of heaven on earth—a radically sustainable future, healing nature, a citizen workforce of happy gardeners all living in treehouses. Critics of solarpunk say it’s all about aesthetics and vibes, devoid of substance. Is it really that vacuous, or is that vagueness an invitation to get us all dreaming again?

EW

I think it’s both vibes and substance. There are a few people who call themselves stewards of the solarpunk movement, and they're insistent that the aesthetics of a future sustainable world should be carefully considered, that environmentalism could look cool. The imagery is full of botanical Art Nouveau greenhouse references and DIY stuff—a beautiful, lively world instead of a clean, sterile city of the kind tech companies tend to offer as a utopian vision. Meanwhile, solarpunks are trying to flesh out the practical steps that could get us closer to this vision: permaculturing, gardening, sustainable food networks. Solarpunk allows me to think of the relationship between aesthetics and politics in new ways. Who knows what will happen with it. Will it go the way of steampunk and cyberpunk and become a consumer category? Or will it offer an enticing vision for a future that isn’t owned by the few, a vision that doesn’t end up co-opted and sold back to us?

LDB

It’s already kind of everywhere in advertising, in Chobani commercials, etc. It lends itself to that, because those products always imagine a return to nature, and here we have a contemporary version of that.

CLE

Solarpunk is very visual—I associate it with imagery more than text. The more marketable something is, the more it invites superficial association. Does that mean we should be trying to deliberately develop uncool utopias in order to prevent them from being digested by the mainstream? I’m not so sure about that. In this case, mainstreaming utopia is what we need. I appreciate any attempt to offer a fully rendered vision of the future that isn't drawn from an existing canon. It’s important to visualize things. The grim thing about America, as we know, is that when it comes to creating a better future, there's both a lack of will and a lack of imagination. Sometimes imagination needs a prompt. That’s what solarpunk does. It shows how things can be different and better than they are. It shows what that looks like. But getting there will take some doing.

EW

In general, working for the common good is not made to look very sexy in popular culture. That’s something to be said for solarpunk.

CLE

The question is: what would need to happen for us to get there? What would we need to build and what would we need to destroy? Something I appreciate about the Star Trek canon is that the multicultural vegan techno-future it envisions explicitly requires a total collapse of society. Maybe it's just easier to imagine building utopia from scorched earth than it is to imagine transforming the world, which I guess is sort of a corollary to that Mark Fisher quote about how it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s nice to think that the end of the world might be the beginning of a better one. But what if it’s just the end of the world?

EW

I'm guilty of this. I wrote a novel that ends with the world burning down. At the time it was the only way I could imagine getting somewhere new. Now I’m trying to write fiction where the world doesn’t have to end for something to change.

LDB

I think of solarpunk almost like a science fiction meme. How we fill out the big empty spots in the template—the specifics of how we get there—is for everyone to decide. Biotech companies are really excited by that challenge. They believe that their tools are the missing step to achieving the utopia of solarpunk, that growing all imported commodities in a lab would shrink our carbon footprint—that we could regrow extinct plants and create new ecosystems. At the same time, I think that a lot of people who are invested in radically ecological futures do not envision these new worlds being chock full of genetically modified chestnut trees or patented lab-grown organisms. In many people’s minds, there is still an uneasy binary between natural and unnatural—as we’ve seen in the widespread suspicion of GMOs and RNA vaccines. These companies are interested in changing these perceptions through storytelling, their very own little sci-fi ventures. As a science journalist, Claire, how critically do you think people involved in science engage with science fiction and the role it plays in attitudes surrounding their work?

CLE

When I used to interview scientists, I would always ask them if they were into sci-fi, because it seemed like a relevant question. The answer was always yes. But scientists are also incredibly specialized, so siloed in their disciplines—and the politics of their disciplines—that they are almost incapable of communicating big-picture ideas about the implications of their field.

LDB

I guess their marketing departments, their storytelling departments, sort of do that part.

CLE

Yeah, and it strikes me that the scientists are often at odds with those storytellers. Their highly specific, technical discoveries are often diluted beyond recognition by PR departments and the press. The scientists end up resenting the big headlines about their own work, because they make it seem as though they're making grander claims than they really are. Talking to a scientist is often a process of narrowing back into specificity to find what is true and interesting about their work. PR departments need to tell big stories, because that’s an essential part of fundraising: living robots can reproduce, a spinach plant sent an email, and so on. But the scientists themselves often find that kind of hyperbole annoying. 

LDB

Some of these companies have an ironic engagement with dystopian sci-fi blockbusters. A synthetic biology company I work with uses Jurassic Park in some of their merch, one of those ’90s franchises that really built on the emerging, often-paranoid fear of biotechnology. I was surprised by this at first, but maybe laughing at yourself is the best way to show that you’re nothing like the sinister corporation from the film. Nevertheless, these popular Manichean stories are implicated, at least aesthetically, in the current burst of bioethical paranoia; the conspiracy theories about COVID’s origins, for example, seem heavily inspired by the ’90s-early aughts canon of anti-biotech blockbusters. Should scientists and science communicators be more wary of these stories?

CLE

I think there's a grand tradition of completely missing the point. Big tech and biotech companies tend to pull the most memorable, charismatic, and interesting images from those films, while disregarding the moral or the political messages behind them. That happens all the time. It’s what happened to cyberpunk, and of course it’s what is happening to the metaverse. Those concepts came from cautionary tales, originally. But they were cool, and when things are cool, it doesn't really matter what they’re about. The surface is enough to convey a mood and to give people the sense that they're participating in something future-like. And then that leads to, you know, real-life dystopias.

EW

The tech sector is very good at divorcing aesthetics from politics or pretending that they have nothing to do with one another. One person's dystopia can very easily become somebody else's profit. The level of delusion or optimism built into product development is just so fundamental to the way people think about progress and improvement. It seems like it’s possible to be obsessed with Hollywood dystopias that depict things like totalitarian surveillance states, to scare yourself with those stories, and yet also completely believe in the potential of technology to help us avoid disaster. We’re good at ignoring these contradictions—or, just as bad, embracing them.

CLE

I'm always extremely suspicious, for that reason, of any technology marketed using even remotely utopian language—specifically claims that some new sphere or realm is going to be a fresh start or an unspoiled new beginning. That signals to me immediately that the people who are involved in building the thing have no interest in maintenance.

LDB

Both the unspoiled new beginning and the barbarism of dystopia have a strong colonial subtext, which is certainly true of a lot of early science fiction. H.G Wells’ highly influential scientific romances, for example, were jam-packed with fears of degeneration and reverse colonization. You write about the colonial origins of sci-fi very eloquently in your essay collection, Elvia; for example, how the “other” in H.P Lovecraft’s books always seem to be coming from the global south. You also write extensively about many sci-fi authors that have attempted to radically depart from these hegemonic inclinations. How far removed is sci-fi at this point from its fraught origins, and what work is there left to do?

EW

The invention of science fiction as a genre happened during the Imperial Era and, in many cases, was an extension of the colonial expansionist project. The idea of first contact with the “other,” the idea of colonizing other planets, the idea of discovering ancient civilizations beneath the sea—all these plots have colonial implications, and are driven by the dream of discovery and conquering. The unconquered, supposedly unspoiled space is often presented as a “before,” creating a linear construction of time that moves in one direction through technological progress. I think those early science fiction plots are being repurposed and appropriated in fascinating ways today, to challenge the idea of before and after, cause and effect, inside and outside, self and other. The question becomes: Who are “we”? Who gets to write the story?

CLE

I think some science fiction tropes are eternal, like the encounter with the “other.” I don't think that goes away, because we continually resituate ourselves in relation to what the “other” is. In the ’50s, the “other” was Soviets and women and gay people; in the ’60s, it was the self. In the ’70s, the “other” became the “we” and vice-versa, and thankfully the “we” evolves with every new voice in the genre. But there are aspects of these tropes we must transcend. Like, encountering an alien is about as unlikely and as irrelevant to our near-term problems on Earth as encountering an artificial super-intelligence. Narratives of encounter with aliens and robots can be a distraction from what's more important: coming to know, understand, and protect the many forms of intelligence that exist around us on Earth already, and questioning what the imagination of these alien or augmented intelligences is enabling. We're so in love with the story we're telling ourselves about AI that we willfully blind ourselves to the actual material conditions of creating it—the way that it concentrates wealth and power and energy in harmful ways. And we’re so enamored with Hollywood’s stories of armed conflict with aliens that we're not questioning the more indirect but equally violent ways in which we impose violence on millions of other species around us.

LDB

Is that where contemporary sci-fi can be particularly useful: reimagining our place in nature?

EW

Hopefully, yes. I'm very interested in the way that the natural world has been situated as the “other” in Western culture. Nature has either been framed as threatening to humans or as a benevolent, romantic force that could rescue us from our diabolical, destructive impulses. At the moment, in the age of extinction, there's a lot of ambivalence about how to portray the natural world. Is it ultimately our opponent that we have to learn to control, or will it save us from ourselves? We use nature as a foil for these questions about ourselves, just as we use technology.

I have this fantasy that computers and plants are already talking to each other behind our backs.
CLE

Computers are just glorified rocks, in the end. If we can imagine that computers can be people and can be intelligent and can dialogue with us, then we can do the same with plants. It would actually require much less work, because plants are already intelligent. I want more fiction that gives us a lens on that—that helps us see what's already around us. And helps us imagine how those minds operate, how those minds see us.

EW

I have this fantasy that I mention briefly in the book that computers and plants are already talking to each other behind our backs. It does seem more likely to me that AI will figure out how to communicate with a plant than that people will endeavor to do that and succeed. People are not very good at listening.

CLE

I just finished a piece about computer models and simulations of microbial communities. There's this idea in model-making that fidelity is not the goal. Because even if it were possible to create a one-to-one model of the world, the results of such a model would be impossible to interpret—or as difficult to interpret as nature itself. And so, to build useful models, we have to choose what’s meaningful and what isn’t. It’s highly subjective. The living system is already a perfect model of itself, and everything else is just an interpretation.

EW

The map that matches the territory is not a useful map! In my fiction, I've been very interested in simulations, because they seem destined to disappoint. Really, it’s the gap between the simulation and the real thing that I find interesting. If I had to make a case for fiction, that might be it. It’s a simulation that doesn’t aim to exactly predict what will happen. An extremely imperfect simulation.

CLE

I like that. It's an interface between us and the world.

LDB

That seems like a great place to end up. Thank you both for this illuminating conversation! I learned so much. Now I’m going to rewrite all my questions to sound smarter than they were. ♦

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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