Dystopian fiction has waxed and waned and fractured into subgenres over the past few years—but where is all the contemporary utopian fiction? Author Sayde Scarlett discusses.
I’ve always been fascinated by what the future holds. As a young girl, I loved all things tech and computers. I was naturally drawn to science fiction as a genre because of my fascination with future technology. I never really thought about why so many depictions of the future in art were dystopian, however, until a historian friend of mine was asked: “What period of time would you most like to live in?” and he replied: “The future.”
He then proceeded to explain that there is no indication or evidence that our children and grandchildren will inherit a far worse planet. Peace and prosperity have steadily spread throughout the world and the personal violence we experience in our everyday lives has exponentially decreased. In the developed world, the ordinary man now lives with comforts the kings of old could only dream of.
Yet, literature set in the future is overwhelmingly dystopian. On starting my novel, Clouds and Earth, I looked for examples of contemporary utopian fiction and I could find very little. The noticeable exception being the excellent ‘Scythe’ series by Neal Shusterman, who creates a flawless world and then adds a tantalising drop of poison. I think it’s worth examining why so many authors, artists, poets and film and TV makers are all drawn to dystopia.
Perhaps it’s because dystopian literature appeals to our anxieties and a perception that the world is always getting worse. Everyday we are bombarded with news stories and alarmist warnings about the climate or terrorism. Literature gives us a medium through which we can imagine what a world where the worst affects of climate change have run their course.
As a starting point for my own novel, I took the phenomenon of terrorism attacks, a (thankfully) very rare occurrence, and asked what would the world be like and how would people react if terrorism wasn’t rare? What if a terrorist attack happened everyday? It was an almost ghoulish process.
Dystopian literature can also act as a warning or a commentary on the follies of contemporary daily life. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series was explicitly an allegory of Ancient Rome. But it’s not Ancient Rome Collins satirizes. She uses her fictional world of Panem to highlight how reality TV had taken the place of the gladiatorial games. It’s not Ancient Rome we’re examining; it’s us. We still consume other people’s discomfort and pain for our own pleasure. The world may have changed but human beings have stayed the same.
Or maybe the reasons are more mundane? What could the stakes and conflict in a perfect, flawless world possibly be? If a utopian world is by its definition devoid of strife and struggle, it may just be the case that dystopian worlds offer a richer seam for artists to explore stories about humanity. After all, a world that doesn’t need saving has no use of a hero.
SAYDE SCARLETT was born and raised in Dubai, UAE, but relocated to the United Kingdom to read Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. After university, Sayde worked in the performing arts sector alongside being a political and antiwar activist. Sayde moved back to the Middle East in 2015 and now works as a financial crime investigator. The Peace Outside trilogy is Sayde’s debut work, and you can find out more at www.sayde-scarlett.com.