When you think of science fiction as a genre, what comes to mind? Is it a story of a serene, free, perfect world? Or is it a harsh, grim, imperfect one? It’s probably the latter — since dark, imperfect futures, known as dystopias, seem to dominate the science fiction (sci-fi) scene. One need only look at the relative popularity and success of recent sci-fi dystopian films such as Dune and Matrix Resurrections in 2021, as well as older ones like The Hunger Games and Blade Runner 2049 from the 2010s, to see a tendency in science fiction towards dystopia. In fact, all these examples, save for Matrix Resurrections, are based on books. However, just because dystopias are the common, mainstream science fiction narratives, they do not necessarily characterize the whole genre, especially when it comes to literature.
Science fiction as a genre has existed for the greater part of two centuries, and during this time has gone through many variations. It is generally agreed that science fiction became recognizable in the nineteenth century, with keystone works, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), that dreamed about the possibilities of their era’s new technologies. This trend expanded into a multitude of works in the twentieth century, when most of the famous dystopian works like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) were published. However, there have also been speculative works about scientific topics, like space travel, that date back to the eighteenth, seventeenth, and even the second centuries! These works include Voltaire’s Micromégas (1752) and Lucien’s Trips to the Moon (2nd century CE). Today, we understand science fiction to be any fictional work that explores the impact of science and technology, existing or imagined, on the characters and society in the story.
Looking at the aforementioned works as part of science fiction as a whole, dystopian sci-fi is far from predominant. In fact, there is a huge variety even within these few examples: Lucien’s Trips to the Moon was not primarily concerned with space travel, but rather with criticizing his contemporary writers’ habit of exaggerating history — using trips to space to parody the grandiose nature of those works. Also critical of society, Voltaire’s Micromégas uses extraterrestrial life to question the importance of perspective and the nature of knowledge. Other science fiction is also rooted in reality, featuring worlds like ours and extrapolating the possibilities of science. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein falls into this category, as it is set in a world identical to ours yet proposes a use for science to reanimate the dead. These non-dystopian trends extend to contemporary works too, such as Iain Banks’ The Culture series (1987–2012), Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011) and Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek franchise (1966–present).
So, if science fiction is such a diverse genre, what gives off the impression that science fiction is always dystopian, and why? Looking at twentieth century science fiction may provide some answers. The twentieth century is known for producing numerous dystopian works, from Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale to other famous works like 1984, We, Logan’s Run, The Chrysalids and Fahrenheit 451. This abundance of dystopian works, many of which we still read and study today, may have shaped our perception of science fiction as grim. It is not hard to imagine that because we are primarily exposed to science fiction through famous dystopian works — both in literature and in film adaptation — we get a warped perception of the genre.
Even with the understanding that science fiction is not inherently dystopian, why do the two concepts often synergize? Since science fiction is intrinsically about science and technology’s ever-changing relationship to ourselves and society, it can explore both the bright, optimistic side and the dark, foreboding side of this relationship. It is also reactionary, as these works reflect the fears and anxieties of the author’s time, and subsequently, implore the reader to think about their consequences. Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, admitted this about her own works by explaining, “I am not a prophet…Prophecies are really about now. In science fiction it’s always about now.” This statement is true of all of the previously mentioned works too — 1984, published in post-war 1949, warns about totalitarianism, while Fahrenheit 451, published during the Cold War in 1953, warns about censorship. Each story reflects its time period. Perhaps the prominence of dystopian science-fiction in contemporary media is just a reflection of our anxieties over our own ever-changing society.
Despite popular perceptions, science fiction is a vast and diverse genre that explores the possibilities of what our present could become. Although it is often paired with dystopian settings, dystopia does not define science fiction, as it is only one way science fiction can be used to express ideas.