It’s often been observed that the nineteenth century was the age of utopianism, from the politics of Owen and Marx to novels like News From Nowhere, Herland and Erewhon. Equally, it’s often observed that the twentieth century was the age of dystopianism, from the politics of Stalin and Hitler to novels like Brave New World, 1984 and We. What then would the present age be recalled for?
Apocalyptic fiction of a religious bent has apparently been popular in the United States, but it has secular counterparts aplenty from The Clash of Civilisations to novels like Snowcrash or Oryx and Crake. Although some modern novels like The Handmaid’s Tale could still be labelled dystopian, we no longer seem to believe in the possibility of society being decisively shaped, for good or ill. Although science continues to make advances, we no long seem to see them as controllable forces. Accordingly, I’ve been thinking about what possibilities fiction might consider in this category;
Climate change. Certainly the possibility to have gripped the popular imagination to the greatest extent; sea levels rise endangering countries like the Netherlands and any other low-lying coastal regions. The shift of the gulf stream leaves Britain with the same climate as Alaska, and countries like Portugal and Tunisia find themselves swamped by refugees from Britain and Scandinavia. Drought affects other regions, such as China, and war erupts over water.
The Rise of fundamentalisms. Perhaps the most obvious possibility, as this is already evident in many respects. The collapse of traditions in the face of economic pressures and globalisation produce backlashes, both in the Muslim Middle-East and in Christian America. The ensuing violence leads to the further decay of concepts of liberty and privacy in favour of surveillance.
Economic inequality. The trend towards sacrificing social cohesion and equality for economic growth currently shows every sign of continuing, the likely result being increased crime and social unrest, counterparted with the rise gated communities and private security forces.
Changing economic patterns. In historical terms, the two largest economies were India and China. With these two countries increasingly able to draw on the same skills and resources as Western nations but at lower costs, a shift in ‘economic gravity’ from America and Europe back to India and China, with the economies of the former countries undergoing a partial collapse.
Dwindling oil supplies. As oil supplies either dwindle or fail to increase in line with burgeoning demand, the costs of transportation, energy generation and the production of plastics become increasingly impratical. The forces that have driven economic growth for the last century begin to falter, with few viable alternatives waiting in the wings. Access to remaining oil supplies increasingly defines government’s military and foreign policies.
Genetic modification and eugenics. The ability to engineer forms of life is matched with the likelihood of the genetic changes becoming naturalised, opening up new prospects for ecosystems to be unbalanced, similar to the introduction of the cane toad into Australia. Genetic modification of people begins to further entrench social inequalities. On a related note, there is the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases suggests the possibility of new pandemics, while rising sea levels and global warming would also give additional impetuses to diseases like malaria.
Artificial lifeforms. Computing technologies become sufficiently advanced for the creation of sentient lifeforms that are entirely artificial. Since such technologies are used for functional reasons, issues of the rights of artificial lifeforms begin to emerge, creating the possibility for conflict.
Update: One idea that I hadn’t considered in my introductory paragraph was whether or not utopian and dystopian fiction would survive themselves. These genres are in many respects products of rationalism, a belief in man’s ability to order the world. Morris and Gilman held such views in the same manner that Marx and Owen did. Much of dystopian fiction rests upon the assumption that man is a blank slate that can be rewritten by totalitarian forces, just as the Sovet Union sought to create a form of new man that was not bound by tradition and history. By contrast, the present age is one where science has been increasingly questioned and fundamentalisms appear resurgent.