Future Tense

Only Science Fiction Can Save Us!

What sci-fi gets wrong about income inequality.

Luke Pasqualino and John Hurt in Snowpiercer

Courtesy of Radius/Weinstein Company

This piece is part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University. On Thursday, Oct. 2, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on science fiction and public policy, inspired by the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future. For more information on the event and to RSVP, visit the New America website; for more on the Hieroglyph project, visit the website of ASU’s Project Hieroglyph.

I wanted to love Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. I really did.

All indications were that Bong’s science-fiction epic would be a visually stunning parable about out-of-control economic inequality fused to a kick-ass action movie. That’s just the kind of science fiction we need for our post-Occupy moment. Unfortunately, though the film is indeed visually ingenious, its final act both figuratively and literally goes off the rails. Even worse, the movie fails in more or less the same way as every other recent work of popular science fiction concerned with income inequality.

All of these movies and books—from The Hunger Games to Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy to Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story—are good at alerting us to the problematic nature of inequality, but terrible at envisioning solutions to what is likely to become the defining problem of the 21st century. Snowpiercer is a textbook example.

Bong’s movie imagines a near future in which a disastrous attempt to reverse global warming via geoengineering has frozen the planet, seemingly extinguishing all life. Only a handful of humans survive within a great train, powered by a perpetual motion engine, which endlessly circles the world.

Bong’s allegory neatly maps socio-economic class onto different compartments of the train. The miserable masses stuck in the back have had their possessions expropriated by the front and subsist on gelatinous (but protein-rich!) bars. The few wealthy front-dwellers enjoy tremendous luxuries but must brutally suppress the tail’s periodic rebellions. “The train is the world,” one character helpfully tells us near the end of the film. The allegory is, let us admit, unsubtle. And the tail’s oppressed denizens do what you might expect: They grab their clubs and, led by Curtis Everett (played by Chris Evans), try to seize the engine.

Here, Bong’s locomotive metaphor breaks down. The movie’s revolution unfolds in a flat, literal-minded, linear way. The main problems to be solved are those we find in any smartly choreographed action movie: How do our heroes get to the next car? How do they kill this or that ax-wielding bad guy? Will the polar bear eat a pair of characters, or will the characters eat the polar bear?

Snowpiercer offers what I think is meant to be a happy conclusion. Yet it’s hard to find much consolation in the film. For the tail’s revolution to succeed, it must destroy the world. That is, (spoiler alert) our revolutionary heroes must destroy the train. All attempts at collective human action—whether it’s reversing global warming or overthrowing the front 1 percent—necessarily result in apocalyptic destruction. The movie perfectly exemplifies the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson’s observation that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

The details differ, but a lot of popular dystopian science fiction replays a version of this cynical bait-and-switch. Like Snowpiercer, these stories of unchecked economic inequality aren’t finally sure if they want to be taken literally or figuratively. More often than not, they split the difference. We come for the evocative allegory, but stay for the gory action and expensive CGI explosions. (I’m looking at you, Elysium.) As imagined worlds, such stories are more or less incoherent. As allegories, they’re muddled, to be kind.

This is the sort of cynical nihilism that the science-fiction anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future was designed to counteract. Neal Stephenson spearheaded this collection after a public conversation with Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University. Stephenson lamented “a general failure of our society to get big things done.” Crow responded by suggesting, “Maybe it’s all your fault. Maybe it’s the science fiction writers that should help us dream better dreams.” Hieroglyph arose from Crow’s provocation. The anthology, which contains more than a dozen stories, is designed to help us “dream better dreams” about the future. (Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and ASU; Crow and Stephenson’s conversation took place after they spoke at a Future Tense event in 2011.)

When I first heard about the project, my cynical heart responded skeptically. After all, much of the Golden Age science fiction Stephenson fondly remembers was written in an era when, for all its substantial problems, the U.S. enjoyed a greater degree of democratic consensus. Today, Congress can barely pass a budget, let alone agree on collective investments. Don’t our doomsayers therefore have good reason for pessimism? They have great reason for pessimism. But pessimism is not the same as cynicism. Dystopian movies like Snowpiercer risk doing more to inspire quietism than necessary action. Our science fiction can do better.

To be clear, I don’t think all science fiction should be politically programmatic. Nor do I want to glibly dismiss the rich tradition of dystopias that envision the consequences of unchecked economic disparity. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, for instance, imagines a world in which inequality causes an evolutionary divergence within the human species, between the subterranean underclass who become the Morlocks and the luxury-enjoying sheeple who become the Eloi. Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s satire, The Space Merchants, conceives of an overpopulated Earth in which U.S. senators represent not states but corporations. “He spoke of the trouble with the Senator from Du Pont Chemicals with his forty-five votes, and of an easy triumph over the Senator from Nash-Kelvinator with his six,” they write.

None of these classics cares too much about presenting plausible pathways for political change. You might argue that it’s unfair to ask our popular dystopias to do much more than entertain us or, at best, vaguely inspire us to avoid the apocalypse. If you want policy proposals, go read Thomas Piketty. (Of course, Piketty’s proposal for a global wealth tax has struck many commentators as science fictional in its aspirations, a sort of socio-economic Apollo program. Someone should write a science-fiction story about that.)

All of this is true enough. Yet there’s another tradition that takes more seriously the job of extrapolating the future, the tradition of hard science fiction, a sort of science fiction that labors to get its world-building details right. Such works don’t casually introduce perpetual motion machines into their stories. And these stories need not only be concerned with technology and gadgets. They can also be politically committed.

Lizzie Borden’s classic 1983 film Born in Flames, for example, is a politically audacious work of science fiction that imagines debate among different radical feminist radio stations in a post-revolutionary United States. Kim Stanley Robinson, likewise, shows future struggles to enact political change in his Mars trilogy, his Science in the Capital series, and most recently 2312. Some of Cory Doctorow’s fiction, such as Little Brother, For the Win, and Pirate Cinema, imagines characters fighting against dystopian political and economic systems. (Doctorow also has a story in Hieroglyph.)

These examples of noncynical political science fiction are, on the one hand, clear-eyed in their assessment of the grave problems we face and, on the other hand, extravagant in their ambition to help us dream better dreams. These works are not always wholly artistically successful, but nevertheless we need more like them. Of course, such fictions, however inventive, will only rarely create literally usable solutions to our problems. But a process-oriented hard science fiction, one more extrapolative than allegorical, might inspire us to exercise our own world-building habits of mind. They might serve as rigorous gymnasia for the political imagination.

If economic inequality is becoming the major political battleground of the 21st century, we’ll need a 21st-century science fiction—a socio-economically sophisticated science fiction—capable of helping us imagine how we might plausibly get from where we are to where we want to go.