Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Optimistic pessimism, or utopian dystopias

Jerry Stratton, January 5, 2022

Meet George Jetson

It’s not surprising that a show like The Jetsons would have been overly-optimistic. It was meant to be.

Happy New Year! As we head into a new year, we are always inundated with predictions for the future. Among the most fascinating topics for me, however, is predictions for the future, from the past. And as we head further and further from both the books of my youth, each year brings a new milestone in either science fiction or science fact.

One of the most influential science fiction shows of my youth wasn’t Star Wars or reruns of Star Trek. It was reruns of The Jetsons on Saturday mornings,

The Jetsons debuted in 1962, a cartoon situation comedy meant to mirror the very successful Flintstones. The Jetsons was set in 2062. The main character, George Jetson, was 40 years old. In the fictional world of the futuristic Jetsons, George Jetson will be born this year.1

The Jetsons featured flying cars, cities in the sky, and domestic robots. It also featured home computers, video conferencing, and a vast interconnected knowledge store that could be queried at leisure. Not too bad for a cartoon that was based on a stone age family that itself was based on a fifties show about a Brooklyn bus driver and sewer worker and their families.

And who knows? They may still be right about the cars, cities, and robots. While we are, today, far closer to the year the Jetsons is set than we are to the year it debuted, we still have forty years to catch up to their technology.

That The Jetsons would be overly-optimistic about the world of the future isn’t surprising. While it wasn’t utopian, it was an optimistic show. What’s more amazing is how many pessimistic science fiction stories remain exceedingly optimistic about the rate of technological progress in the future.

Technology futurists such as Alvin Toffler were very pessimistic about their optimism. They recognized that technology would advance quickly and complained that all these newfangled ways of doing things would destroy us. Toffler even recommended government bureaucracies tasked with forbidding the advancement of technology unless a panel of experts approved it.

In the January 1979 Omni Magazine, there’s a fascinating review of Dr. J. Peter Vajk’s Doomsday Has Been Canceled which, from the description, is almost the anti-Omni book. His basic idea is that most of our problems are clearly going to be solved technologically; the world isn’t going to run out of power and we’re not going to deplete its resources.

The future is not something that is going to happen to us, but something we are creating day by day and hour by hour in the decisions we make about our quality of life… To seek the highest quality—in the design of a tool, in a work of art, in the way of life of a whole society—is what being human is all about, to him.

He was both right and wrong, in that doomsday did indeed end up being canceled but wrong in that he saw that outer space had infinite resources (correct) and we’d be using them soon (sadly, far too optimistic).

The two great dystopias of our time don’t get the effects of tyranny on technological progress wrong. In 1984, George Orwell recognized that the socialist future was one of technological regression. He mostly locked his Airstrip One into the technology available in the forties as he was writing the book. Even the society hasn’t changed much. I suspect that he was really writing about the governments and policies already in place, extrapolating merely their future size, and the dangers of conglomerating the world into massive, non-responsive governments such as Soviet Union or the European Union. One of the most famous examples of how dystopian his 1984 was is the chocolate ration. When he was writing 1984 in England, he lived under a chocolate ration!2 This ration almost destroyed England's chocolate industry. Arguably the reason England’s famous chocolate giants were lost to foreign acquisitions is because of their government’s misguided rationing policy.

While I’m not among those who rank Huxley above Orwell, Huxley’s vision of the future explicitly recognizes these problems. In Brave New World a hyper-conformist society has advances far beyond our own in genetics and mechanical engineering. But most, if not all, of that scientific progress predated his hyper-conformist society. It was these advances that made the society possible, and it’s unclear how much advancement has occurred in the several hundred years since then.

The Best of Robert Silverberg

Gerry Daly’s cover is a beautiful rendition of Silverberg’s “Nightwings”.

Huxley’s brave world even has its dictator implementing Toffler’s technological suppression.

Brave New World has been heavily influential, especially on filmmakers. From Running Man to Idiocracy to Gattaca, there is a lot of Huxley’s world in our big-screen futuristic dystopias. The youthfulness and sterility of Logan’s Run and so many seventies and eighties movies probably came straight from Brave New World. Even in books, the sloganeering of 1984, as different as it is, probably was inspired by Huxley’s hypnoaedic memes. And in many ways, our current futuristic dystopia resembles more of Brave New World than it does 1984.

“An intensive propaganda against [the family], accompanied by a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments; by the suppression of all books published before A.F. 150.”

Oddly, the most realistic of the dystopias tend to be written by committed socialists. Besides George Orwell, H.G. Wells tackled the socialist utopia in The Time Machine. In that book he recognized that socialism will result in a very stratified society literally at each other’s throats. The Time Machine is a story about a successful revolution of the proletariat. Wells’s vision is not an optimistic one, to say the least.

The shop, the advertisement, traffic, all that commerce which constitutes the body of our world, was gone. It was natural on that golden evening that I should jump at the idea of a social paradise. The difficulty of increasing population had been met, I guessed, and population had ceased to increase.

Of course, if you’re familiar with the book, you know the method by which population was kept in check!

Not surprisingly, Wells’s socialist future brought about serious technological regression as well.

The majority of science fiction authors, however, make the opposite error of most futurists. Their great dystopias often feature amazing scientific and technological advancements making lives better amidst all their misery. Remember the flying cars and the industrialization of deep space in the empty and bleak future of the movie Blade Runner? That “future” was over two years ago. The movie takes place in November, 2019.

I read The Worlds of Fritz Leiber last year. In Leiber’s short story “Friends and Enemies” there was a nuclear semi-apocalypse around 1994. People live in enclaves, hate the physicists who they believe caused the war, and yet continue to feed off of the output of Hollywood. Hollywood isn’t standing still in his fallen world. Movies are three dimensional, and the talkies have become the feelies.

Among the other technologies almost taken for granted in Leiber’s dying world are jet automobiles that were introduced in 1980. In the midst of pessimism, Leiber could not jettison all of his optimism about our technological progress.

Robert Silverberg’s “Hawksbill Station” (collected in The Best of Robert Silverberg) features a very grim world under an authoritarian government where even the Cambrian Period penal colony is torn by petty ideological disputes. But look at that another way: they have a penal colony in the Cambrian! Time travel in Silverberg’s dictatorship was possible by 2004, and space travel is so commonplace that people take lunar honeymoons in 2029.

It may be my innate pessimism, but I don’t think lunar honeymoons will be a thing within the next seven years. I find that these types of stories are pessimistic now not because of the pessimism on their surface that never came true, but because of the optimism they still retained that never came true. They had lived in a world of rapid progress for so long, it was difficult for them to imagine that progress slowing. Once we made it to the moon, the rest of the solar system would automatically fall into place. Once we conquered polio and the measles, cancer and the common cold would inevitably fall before us.

We may not have government agencies deliberately blocking technological progress. But we do have government agencies flooding our most important avenues of research with massive funds that turn around development. Instead of making money when a cure is found, that’s when the money train stops. Researchers avoid any avenues that don’t appeal to bureaucrats.

We still live in an age where mavericks can make a difference; it’s just that that’s not where the big money is any more.

That’s not where I meant to go when I started writing this. Happy New Year! Here’s hoping 2022 is more utopian than dystopian for you and yours.

  1. Well, George was 40 at an unspecified date in 2062, so technically he was born in 2022 or 2021. It’s easiest just to say 2022.

  2. It was technically a confectionary ration, but the confection that mattered most to people was chocolate.

  1. <- Time is not fungible
  2. Science fiction socialism ->