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Science Fiction & Fantasy







Another Word:
Dystopias Are Not Enough

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Janet Kagan’s Nebula-nominated, Hugo award-winning novelette “The Nutcracker Coup.” Published in Asimov’s in 1992, it’s the story of Marianne, a human functionary of the galactic government who unwittingly sparks a revolution on the planet Rejoicing, which is populated by charming, porcupine-like aliens suffering under the heavy-booted rule of a cruel oligarch. Marianne doesn’t mean to change the course of history. She just wants to self-medicate her homesickness by introducing the Rejoicers to Christmas traditions.

In ancient Europe, Marianne explains to her new alien friends, nutcrackers were carved into caricatures of despised despots as a subtle form of political protest. The Rejoicers, with their rodent teeth, are clever woodworkers and they adopt the custom with a vengeance. Unwittingly, Marianne introduces the concept of political satire and human rights, a coup is sparked, and the Rejoicers enjoy a bloodless political revolution.

It’s a delightful tale, a terrific Christmas story, and a lovely reminder of science fiction’s power to imagine a path to better worlds. Though I read it more than twenty-five years ago, the story has stuck with me. The reason why I’ve been thinking about it so much lately is probably obvious. Like many people, I’ve been badly shaken by recent political events, and contemplating clever, cute answers to complex political problems is comforting.

It doesn’t do much good, though. If clever, cute mockery were any use at all in keeping extremists at bay, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert would have made the current political climate impossible. So, I’m going to put away that particular comforting fantasy and think about something less comfortable.

I’m going to think about dystopias.

Dystopias have always been popular, but right now they’re extremely fashionable—especially in YA fiction—and for good reason. Dystopias are fascinating. Most of us find it incredibly satisfying to watch a writer open up Pandora’s box, throw a few well-chosen characters inside, and then bolt that lid down tight. In a dystopia, conflict is easy; it’s built right into the system. If you can imagine a dystopia, you’ve got a story. And it’s fun for both the writer and the reader. We gobble dystopias like popcorn. Crunchy dystopia goodness.

Apocalypse stories are delicious, too. Though dystopias and apocalypse stories are often interchangeable, I’d argue they’re different sub-genres. In apocalypse stories, all humans are in the same sinking boat. That’s not true in dystopias.

A dystopia isn’t equally horrible at all levels of the social order. They’re segregated by class. One character’s dystopia might be another character’s paradise; it all depends on who benefits from the dystopian conditions. I’ll offer a real-world example: For the past five hundred years, indigenous peoples worldwide have lived in a dystopia unperceived and unacknowledged by the overarching social order. Their lands have been invaded by foreign settlers, their cultures decimated by disease and displacement, their religions and languages outlawed, their children stolen. Even now, indigenous people have to fight to protect the land they have left. That’s a dystopia. When indigenous SF writers like Stephen Graham Jones (The Bird is Gone) and Alexis Wright (The Swan Book) create dystopias, they’re drawing on first-hand experience.

We’ve enjoyed a long love affair with dystopias. They’ve been created by everyone from Wells, Orwell, Vonnegut, and Bradbury, to Atwood, Butler, Elgin, and Tepper, to José Saramago, P.D. James, and Kazuo Ishiguro. Since thousands of writers and millions of readers have examined countless dystopias, we should have mapped out clear ways of dealing with the horrors they illustrate. After applying the power of our science fictional imaginations to three centuries of dystopias, we ought to know how to survive them—even fix them. Shouldn’t we?

This isn’t a rhetorical question. It’s a cry from the heart. We’re teetering on the edge of what many of us perceive to be a dystopian abyss. But—no problem—SF writers and readers are incredibly smart and well-informed. We’re dystopia experts. We should know how to deal with real-world dystopias.

But unfortunately, we don’t. That’s not what dystopias are for.

Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 as a cautionary tale. He said he hoped that by illustrating that particular dystopia, he could prevent it. If dystopias are cautionary tales, their efficacy in preventing the horrors they describe has yet to be proven. In fact, since the dystopia we seem to be plunging toward is eerily similar to the one Jack Womack describes in his brilliant, harrowing novel Random Acts of Senseless Violence, it could be argued that dystopias have no practical use at all. Maybe they’re just misery porn.

I’m not dissing fictional dystopias. Really, I’m not. The dystopian urge is natural. I’m just saying we’re really good at imagining disasters, but not always very interested in imagining solutions.

And this is why I’ve been thinking of “The Nutcracker Coup.” It’s a great story, and in it, Janet Kagan does what dystopian writers don’t. She imagines a way out.

And right now, that’s what we need.

What does it take to imagine a way out? We already have the tools at our fingertips. Science fiction trains us to extrapolate effects from socio-political indicators. It’s our stock in trade. Give us a few base settings and we can imagine entire worlds—entire universes—with fully-fledged populations, complex economies, and rich social contexts. As writers, we’ve been training for years to solve problems with our imaginations, and as readers, we’ve been training all our lives to examine those solutions, pick apart the best bits, and hold them to the light for scrutiny.

So, imagination is a given. We’ve always had that down pat. What else do we need?

We need hope.

The very tools that allow us to imagine solutions to problems also lead us to imagine the most conflict-filled plots, brimming with tragedy, drama, and decimation. We don’t guide our characters through a realm of light toward brighter light. We take them through the dark passages, and if they’re very lucky, we let them survive to fight another day.

When we’re faced with an array of dramatic real-world socio-political events—events that would have seemed far-fetched just a few years ago—we can easily construct a detailed path to the worst-case scenario: through dystopia straight to apocalypse. It’s natural. Our imaginations are taut, toned, and powerful.

But worst-case scenario thinking is deeply disheartening and at worst, paralyzing. Right now, we cannot give in to paralysis. We need action. But there is no action without hope, and optimism seems to be in short supply. Also: hope and optimism are delicate. They’re vulnerable to mockery, and cynicism can destroy them utterly.

Some of this problem is generational. Cynicism is a lot more sustainable for those who carry the scars from a long lifetime of lost battles. But for younger people, cynicism is psychological suicide. This doesn’t mean it’s acceptable for older people to be cynical. Anyone who’s not on their deathbed still has a future ahead, and cynicism will not serve that future. But these habits of thought are hard to fight. Have you ever tried to talk a cynic into being optimistic? It’s impossible. Cynicism is a bottomless well.

But we absolutely must not be cynical right now—none of us. Young and old, we must fight against it. If we give into cynicism, we betray the future.

So, no more dystopias. What we need is near- and mid-future stories that show an array of trajectories out of the gloomy toilet bowl we’re spiraling.

I’m not advocating Pollyanna escapism. I’m talking about smart, creative, informed, highly diverse, and—yes—optimistic, hopeful visions of our future as it could be. Nobody is better qualified to envision those future worlds than SF writers, and nobody is better at evaluating them than SF readers.

Luckily, we don’t have to start from scratch. Optimistic SF has always existed. Sarah Pinsker has been gathering recommendations and posted a reading list on her blog. It’s a great place to start. What we desperately need right now are clear lines connecting our present to futures worth aiming for. Futures where nobody lives in a dystopia. Where vibrant economies exist within the constraints of sustainability. Where developing nations don’t have to pay for the excesses of the developed world. Where humans aren’t destroying ecosystems with our rapacious hunger for energy.

Futures where we can reach for the stars without leaving a scorched Earth behind us.

At first glance this is a difficult task—even Sisyphean. But these fictional paths to better worlds don’t have to be have to be perfect, or correct, or achievable. They just have to be inspiring. They have to support the idea that doom and gloom is not the only human trajectory. That we are not inevitably on the highway to hell or ultimately sliding down the slope of dystopia toward the cliff of apocalypse. It’ll be hard. It’ll test the limits of our SF skills. But nothing worth doing is easy. And best of all, it’ll be fun.

The range of possible futures is limited only by our imagination. It’s our duty to give the world futures worth looking forward to.

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ISSUE 124, January 2017

Best Science Fiction of the Year

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michael bland


Kelly Robson's short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld,, Asimov's Science Fiction, and multiple year's best anthologies. Her book "Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach" will be published this March from Publishing. In 2017, she was a finalist for the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her novella "Waters of Versailles" won the 2016 Aurora Award and was a finalist for both the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives in Toronto with her wife, fellow SF writer A.M. Dellamonica.


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