James Gunn has literally written the book—actually many, many of them—on science fiction. He’s the Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. (Yes, you can study science fiction in college!) Every summer, he leads the Intensive English Institute on the Teaching of Science Fiction as well as the Writer’s Workshop in Science Fiction. His books about the genre include: Alternate Worlds: The Illustrated History of Science Fiction, The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the six-volume anthology The Road to Science Fiction, The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction, Inside Science Fiction, and his most recent, Reading Science Fiction. His best-known novels are The Immortals, The Dreamers, The Listeners, Kampus, and The Joy Makers. (Kampus, by the way, is a dystopian tale about college.) So, who would be better to ask about the history of dystopian science fiction?
Jim, how would you define dystopia and/or dystopian science fiction?
The dystopia is the reverse side of the utopia—the bad place instead of “the good place that is no place.” Science fiction always has been of two minds about the future—either science is going to make the world a better place, or the universe—or humanity’s perversity—is going to make the future worse. In the case of humanity’s role we can do something now that will prevent the bad place from happening or something that will help the good place from happening. So science fiction has its cautioning aspect. The utopia holds out the prospect of the wonderful world we could have if we do things right; the dystopia warns us about the bad place we will have if we do things wrong, or don’t do things right.
When did it first become popular in science fiction?
The utopia was more popular before World War I. The idea of “progress”—the gradual but steady improvement in humanity’s condition--prevailed (look up the concept of “progress”), and the benefits of science and technology (look up the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Enlightenment) and the spread of democracy and the rising middle class and the gradual reduction in poverty seemed to suggest that eventually all humanity’s problems would be solved. Then the savagery and destruction of two World Wars changed people’s minds and supported the notion that science and technology merely increased the destructive powers available to us and released the evil that, according to traditional beliefs, resides within each human. Writers began abandoning utopias and producing dystopias. Up to that time, most dystopias were created by natural phenomena, liked human plagues or volcanic eruptions of poison gas.
Why do dystopic visions appeal to us—as readers and storytellers?
As storytellers, dystopias offer better material than utopias. In Edward Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD, for instance, nothing happens but a lot of interesting talk and the possibility that this utopian future of the year 2,000 might be only a dream. The prospect was so appealing that it produced a worldwide movement centered around Bellamy Societies, but stories in which evil must be fought makes for far better stories and gives the author an opportunity to attack trends the author deplores. For the readers, that is true as well, and there is the additional value of seeing evils fought and maybe thwarted and to enjoy the portrayal of trends that the reader dislikes as well.
Does the type of dystopia we envision vary from generation to generation?
I’m sure it does. What is evil for one generation is often acceptable, or, at least, not offensive to another. And evils themselves tend to lose their threat or to be outmoded by events. It is often true, as well, that the generation of writers tends to disapprove of tendencies in the younger generation and portray how they will lead to bad ends. One can imagine, for instance, a dystopia in which people no longer come into contact with each other because they have become addicted to digital communication. Or the reverse, a future in which the use of digital communication makes the whole world brothers. A dystopia or a utopia.
Why do you think dystopia is gaining in popularity among young adult readers today?
We’re in one of those periods when events seem to moving beyond our control—the economy, terrorism, politics. Passions have been raised. Moderation seems out of date, or, at least, out of reach. In times like these, conditions getting worse seems far more likely, and a voice that says “this too will pass” or “we’ll solve our problems in this way or that” seems out of touch with reality.
What are some dystopian classics—book or film—that you think our readers would like?
My favorite dystopias came out of the late 1960s and 1970s, typified by four John Brunner novels: STAND ON ZANIBAR (overpopulation), THE SHEEP LOOK UP (pollution), THE JAGGED ORBIT (racism), and THE SHOCKWAVE RIDER (computer viruses—worms, Brunner called them). I wrote my own dystopia about this time—KAMPUS—about the world the student rebels of the 1960s might have made if they’d been successful. Readers might be interested in William Gibson’s NEUROMANCER, about a world of the near future controlled by international corporations and massive computers achieving sentience.
Thanks, Jim, for taking the time to talk to us today.
BTW, If you're interested in learning to write or teach science fiction, check out some of the classes, workshops, and scholarships the Center for the Study of Science Fiction offers.
Now, I have a question(s) for you guys. What are some of your favorite dystopian books? If you're into the classics--check out the Dystopian Literature list on Wikipedia--how has our collective vision of "the bad place" changed over the years?