Predictions from a few decades ago painted a rosy picture of an exciting life all of us would someday enjoy.
It was to be a world with nuclear-powered self-driving cars, homes with computerized appliances, robot butlers, three-dimensional television, short work weeks and cheap, convenient space travel, allowing us to zip across the galaxy.
Those dreams have long been forgotten.
While we have innovative appliances and while self-driving cars are being developed, today’s world isn’t nearly as wondrous as what was once imagined.
Much of yesterday’s science fiction turned out to be nothing more than fiction. And many stories from the pulp magazines of the golden age of science fiction are forgotten.
But some visions of tomorrow are still studied.
These are not dreams of a glorious tomorrow. Rather, they are dystopian nightmares.
Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World, tells the story of a future society, defined by conformity.
George Orwell’s 1949 masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, is about a totalitarian government, demanding conformity and controlling the information they receive. Dissenters are tortured.
Ray Bradbury describes a world of book burning and surveillance in his 1951 novel, Fahrenheit 451.
And Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, presents a chilling vision of the worst elements of the Religious Right and the anti-abortion movement in a totalitarian theocracy.
One could add We, a 1921 novel by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, and It Can’t Happen Here, a 1935 novel by American writer Sinclair Lewis.
Some believe the bleak stories are not just predictions of worlds to come. They show elements of our reality, here and now.
What sets these dystopian novels apart from so many other tales of tomorrow is how little they rely on science to tell their stories.
Brave New World has the most science-related elements, including genetic engineering, artificial wombs and drugs to keep citizens happy. But the story is about the society more than the scientific advancements.
Nineteen Eighty-Four has elaborate monitoring in place, but that is the only futuristic element in the novel.
Fahrenheit 451 has surveillance technology, interactive television and some robotics, but the story isn’t about the technology. It’s about a society where books are burned.
Atwood had no science fiction elements in The Handmaid’s Tale. None.
I first read Atwood’s novel shortly after it was published and at the time, I thought it was an absurd, unbelievable story.
Today, it doesn’t seem at all far-fetched.
The Religious Right in the United States is a much more powerful force today than it was in the mid-1980s and its blend of religion and politics is no longer seen as a fringe movement.
Other dystopian novels no longer seem like impossible scenarios.
The all-encompassing surveillance described in Nineteen Eighty-Four is much more believable today than in the late 1940s when the book was written.
Book banning, described in Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, remains a threat as there are challenges to many books each year.
We don’t live in any of these dystopian nightmares as they are presented, and I don’t see any of them coming true in the foreseeable future. Not completely.
The future isn’t what we had imagined. Still, the warnings from these novels should be heeded.
But now, after contemplating the bleak futures in these novels, I need a break.
Does anyone have a light science fiction story to recommend? I’d like a pleasant tale of a happy family with a robot butler, watching three-dimensional television while they travel to a distant planet for a vacation.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.