Imagining non-dystopian technological futures in popular media
March 28, 2021 7:38 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for examples of recent media (particular books and films) that highlight a promising future through technology. A recent post references non-fiction utopias - I am looking for something similar only I am interested in novels, movies and non-fiction that are hopeful about a future with technology. I am teaching a class related to technology and we have dystopia covered. I'd like to offer an antidote for those less interested in Black Mirror - and more interested in Inventing the Future.
posted by turtlefu to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a specific rec, but both solarpunk and Project Hieroglyph aim at imagining non-dystopian futures.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:55 PM on March 28, 2021

The upcoming book Flash Forward will have some of what you're looking for! It's based on a podcast that investigates the real-life possibilities and implications of various speculative scenarios—like, could this happen, and how, and what would it look like if it did. Sometimes the speculative outcomes are bad, but other times they're good! It's still in the preorder phase but is coming out next month.
posted by babelfish at 7:56 PM on March 28, 2021

This is a cheerful look at automation.
posted by shadygrove at 9:18 PM on March 28, 2021

Robot + Frank
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:27 PM on March 28, 2021

Star Trek in all its forms and Iain Bank's Culture novels are both set in post-scarcity utopias. Most of the interesting conflict in these stories comes from interaction with those outside the Federation / Culture.
posted by drdanger at 9:29 PM on March 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

Sourdough by Robin Sloan may fit the bill, it's about bread-making, microbiology, tech, it's very West Coast and a fun read - maybe it's yeastpunk.

By 'non-dystopian' can we take it that non-utopias are also on the table?

Some may disagree but Dark Mountain represents a (new|old) way of seeing, being and acting/actioning. It's somewhat oriented to artists, storytellers... (however you define those) to tell the stories for the future, preparing communities for a future where hope may be elusive. Not anti-tech but realistic about it and not wide-eyed
posted by unearthed at 9:37 PM on March 28, 2021

I liked Her with J. Phoenix. It's a dash twee, but there's a lot to glean in substance and tech.
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:39 PM on March 28, 2021

I recently read Cory Doctorow's Walkaway. It's dystopian, which is to be expected, but it's also extremely bitter and proposes solutions which are obviously impractical, specifically a superior type of person who is tailored to make that specific utopia viable, backed by technology which might someday exist.
It reminded me structurally of John Brunner's vastly superior The Shockwave Rider, which points out that (a favorite theme of mine) no matter how bad things get, we're never more than a short distance from them being fine, providing we can escape from the people who, through greed, inertia, or ego, will put every resource they have into opposing any improvement. It centers around the idea that mankind should be searching not for power but wisdom, and ultimately the hero finds someone wise, falls in love with her, and sweeps away at least some of the trash preventing people from being happy.
I'll add that it doesn't meet one of your requirements - it was written in the nineteen-sixties, and while it misses a few developments, it's surprisingly prescient in others. It's also optimistic and hopeful, and in my opinion serves as a good antidote to a lot of dystopian trash.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 10:24 PM on March 28, 2021 [4 favorites]

From context, I'm assuming that you meant fiction.

You know, They sucked his brains out!'s suggestion of '2001: A Space Odyssey' suggests to me that would be really interesting to compare and contrast scifi utopianism (and prevalence) over the decades. It was released in 1968. '2010' was published in 1982, '2061: Odyssey Three' in 1987 and was already starting to address the economic divide between the 0.000000001% and everyone else, and I can't remember much from '3001' (published 1997) aside from "Hurray, Hurray, the CCP!" (or maybe that was '2061'). *

Maybe even explore the breakpoint when science fiction flipped from American Exceptionalism/ Utopianism/ Optimism and into dystopia. I'm thinking the 1950s when the post-war American euphoria started sliding into the hangover stage.

(Englishman) Orwell's '1984' was published in 1949. Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451' in '53. MLK Jr. came to prominence in '55 (and assassinated/ murdered in '68). Harry Harrison's (very dystopian) 'Make Room! Make Room!" short story (later a novel, iirc) came a lot later in '66 and didn't become "the soylent green movie" until '73.

Liu Cixin's 'Remembrance of Earth's Past' posits humanity dealing with dystopianism, but through a lens of knowledge of extraterrestrial intelligence (paradigm shift), a real threat of ET int being able to affect us (human lifespan timeframe of external threat), and the exchange of knowledge with an ET int. More than a bit fantastical, though. ('Three Body Problem,' first of the trilogy published in was 2008, the last in 2010.)

State-sanctioned media from China, lately, seems optimistic despite acknowledging that shit's fucked. For example, 'The Wandering Earth' (2019) but that and those seem more fantastical.

Popularly, 'The Expanse' - in novels (2011-present) and streaming TV (2015-present) - describe a future where humans are trying to solve the problems via terraforming and extraterrestrial colonization - and how new developments can/ may obsolete painful mitigation measures (!!). And how the sad story of colonization stays the same. A.C. Clark (/ Gentry Lee) explores this a little in the 'Rama' sequels only with added guilt/ shame of ("regular" - y'know, non-white, non-"educated") humans being shitty in front of ETs.

A similar argument could be made for the Takeshi Kovacs novels (2002) by Richard K. Morgan and the TV series (2008-2010). Hard parts skipped, jumps to "utopia for some."

In both of the two previous examples, we get Gibsonian; "The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed." Utopia for a few, dystopia for everyone else.

Which brings us to H.G. Well's 'The Time Machine.' (1895 - you know, Morlocks and Elois)

... and what Utopia and Dystopia means - and to whom. Late/ end-stage Capitalism is fucking WONDERFUL for the very few with the MONUMENTAL capital, but pretty damned dystrophic for everyone else.

Kim Stanley Robinson's novels aren't exactly utopia, but are non-(completely)fantasy possibilities of human civilization dealing with climate- and population- related existential problems. Or so I've been told, I couldn't get into them and should give them another chance.

A google search for [science fiction utopianism] brings up this link but of the titles I'm familiar with, it's either fantasy-based, skipped a lot of the "hard parts," or are actually horribly dystopian despite the utopian setting. I want to highlight 'Childhood's End' by Arthur C. Clarke (who also wrote 2001 with Kubrick - movie was written before/ concurrently with the book, and the 'Rama' novels).

Personally, I don't find any utopian fiction believable without 1) new nearly unlimited amount of harvestable energy with a way to deal with the waste heat, 2) massive planned and controlled depopulation of humans, and/ or 3) external intervention (likely making 1 and 2 plausible).

"It's the economy resources, stupid."

The problem with fiction is that it needs to be entertaining and that means conflict.

The 'Nantucket' series by S.M. Stirling comes to mind; a touristy/ 1900's-ey island in the 1990's and (basically) the Eagle are transported back in time and modern humans get a chance to make the Bronze Age Great Again (but bad/ greedy humans import modern assholery into the past).

But yeah, almost anything I can think of essentially skips past the "hard parts" of getting to utopia in the first place (and far far often than not, for entertainment purposes, utopia ain't what it promised).

Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' was recently made into a TV series that appears to be utopian, but ultimately isn't. While not re-envisioned recently, 'Logan's Run' has extremely similar Utopian-on-the-outside/ Dystopian-on-the-inside vibes. Same with 'The Island' - 2005 film and 1980 TV mini.
posted by porpoise at 1:04 AM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

To expand on the recommendation of Iain M Banks' Culture novels above, citizens of the Culture:
- Are functionally immortal as they can upload their mindstate to computer hardware to have it reinstalled into a human body if they physically die.
- Have a built-in drug gland that lets them get high (or immediately stop being high) or have any number of other pharmaceutical effects at will.
- Have such control over their bodies they can choose to swap physical genders or "pause" a pregnancy at will.
- Have their civilisation controlled by benevolent, super-intelligent AI that will essentially fulfil their every desire (and if not practical, can easily put you into a simulated reality where it is practical).
- Basically live lives of leisure with little to no limits on what they can do or where they can go.

Most of the interesting conflict in these stories comes from interaction with those outside the Federation / Culture.

And to expand on this: the conflicts that the Culture have are mostly because they have a sort of reverse-Prime Directive. They think it's their ethical imperative to intervene in the development of less-powerful civilisations (secretly or otherwise) to improve the state of their society. This doesn't always work.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:30 AM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Stealing Worlds by Karl Schroeder isn't exactly utopian, but it does have an optimistic vision of a near future that has some abstract commonalities with Walkaway. The author is a deep thinker with some very out-there ideas.

ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination has made it their project to promote optimistic visions of our future, and has published a lot of short fiction on their website.
posted by adamrice at 8:21 AM on March 29, 2021

The Orville? Like Star Trek, but less stuffy overall - explores all sort of interesting concepts.

Is Westworld dystopian? In the latest season, the vast bulk of humanity looks like it is living fairly well.
posted by rozcakj at 9:55 AM on March 29, 2021

Re: Star Trek, I would say definitely yes to TOS, TNG, the TOS movies, and the first two TNG movies. Anything produced after that is going to have varying degrees of gratuitous grimdark dystopia added because hip and cool or something.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:21 PM on March 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

In case it might be helpful as a search-term, one of the phrases I've heard about this genre is 'retro-futurism'.
posted by Wild_Eep at 12:23 PM on March 29, 2021

There is the 1975 novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, set in 1999 -- the future!
posted by JonJacky at 4:12 PM on March 29, 2021

Ditto Star Trek. Anything in Roddenberry's era would be bright and non-dystopian. It's after he died that his successors went for grimdark like DS9 (Cardassians and Dominion), Voyager (Jem-hadar, Kazon, etc.), Enterprise (Temporal Cold War), and the whole reboot movie universe (lost several major planets). Even the recent iterations like Discovery and Picard have severe disasters as part of its founding backstory.
posted by kschang at 12:40 AM on March 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

« Older Women's hair for dummies   |   Help me remember the title of an old movie Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.