The monochrome cover of Dark Horizons is very dark, and its subtitle is Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, but the agenda of editors Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan in this collection of essays is as much about utopia as dystopia. Moreover, there’s a recurring understanding, as I have long believed, that the utopian impulse needs to be concerned more with processes of change than with template visions for a better world.
From the real-life totalitarian ‘utopias’ of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union emerged an anti-utopian animus, which may have had a compassionate humanist motivation in such classic texts as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, but has since the 1980s been coopted by conservative, capitalist interests that seek to rule out of court any possibility of utopian progress. In science fiction we find this reflected by the displacement of utopian thought experiments by the rise of cyberpunk and other dystopian visions of the future extrapolated from the alarming trends of our time.
A pivotal discrimination by the contributors to Dark Horizons is between dystopias that are by default anti-utopian, in that the dark future always already exists as a conflict-laden setting for exciting amoral storylines, and ‘critical dystopias’ in which a utopian impulse is embedded as some kind of vector of resistance and the protagonist’s desire for change is left unresolved at the end to allow us the possibility of hope. It’s noticeable that many of the exemplar texts of this latter form are by women, for example Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling, Marge Piercy’s Body of Glass, and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis.
That the fake capitalist utopia of the free market is not the end of history is even more evident today than it was in 2003 when Dark Horizons was published. Several of the contributors to this book – who include such luminary critics as Darko Suvin and Phillip E. Wegner – suggest we may be entering a time when the creative possibilities of the critical dystopia are exhausted and there will be new impetus towards the writing of ‘critical utopias’ in which the pathways of positive change may be explored. I hope they’re right. The novels of Kim Stanley Robinson are rightly noted as the vanguard of such a development.