Anyone who goes to the movies or reads any science fiction is probably familiar with at least one dark dystopian story. Whether or not your selection includes The Hunger Games, I Am Legend, or Wool is besides the point. You’ve probably been exposed to the genre, which means you’re at least partially familiar with the state of modern sci-fi.
I say “modern” because the truth is that science fiction hasn’t always been this depressing. Seventy years ago you’d be hard pressed to find anything as dark or engrossing as Ender’s Game, Dune, or Old Man’s War. That’s not to say that those types of books didn’t exist, but they were extremely rare. Many science fiction stories chose to focus on the science rather than the fiction, putting aside the characterizations and story elements in favor of a single idea. War of the Worlds (1989) focused entirely on an invasion from Mars, but it didn’t even bother to name its characters, including its narrator. We never know anyone’s backstory, who they are, or anything truly significant about them. If the Tom Cruise adaptation had actually been faithful to the original book, Cruise would’ve only appeared for a handful of scenes. But that’s how it was back then–science fiction was a different kind of beast.
In other words, the science and the idea were the real characters, not Joe Whatshisname, who was really only there to give exposition like a walking wikipedia article and press the imaginary buttons on the big “what if” machine. Those aren’t necessarily bad things to do, but they don’t exactly make for accessible character literature. The Time Machine was great, but when your protagonist doesn’t even have a name, it can be a little difficult for modern audiences to relate to him.
Science fiction has changed, but only because it started trying to balance both the characters and the “big idea”. To understand this change, you have to remember where our society was and where it is today. Ever since the bombs fell on Japan, most people have come to appreciate the potential horrors of technology. When scientific discovery can lead to an entire metropolitan city getting wiped off the face of the Earth in a single heartbeat, suddenly everyone’s optimism goes down the drain. Don’t even get me started on the perpetual state of fear and anxiety that arose because of the Cold War. Throughout the last several decades, our culture has become obsessed with the apocalypse. Every other day there’s some religious figure telling us the end is near. Our global media has allowed us to hear and know about every little skirmish taking place on the other side of the globe, in regions we previously would never have heard about. We look on with utter fascination, absorbing it all. It’s only natural for our culture’s literature to reflect this newfound obsession. We just can’t help ourselves.
This isn’t exactly new. People have been predicting the end of the world for thousands of years. The difference is that now we actually have a reason to talk about it, because we have the means with which to make it happen. Look at what famed dark satirist and science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut said back in 1970:
“I thought scientists were going to find out exactly how everything worked, and then make it work better. I fully expected that by the time I was twenty-one, some scientist, maybe my brother, would have taken a color photograph of God Almighty — and sold it to Popular Mechanics magazine.
Scientific truth was going to make us so happy and comfortable. What actually happened when I was twenty-one was that we dropped scientific truth on Hiroshima.”
Why is it like this? Why would we rather hear about the world blowing up than about a utopia where people are so happy they piss glitter? It all boils down to how we feel in the moment. Science fiction is a reflection of today, not tomorrow. It’s about how our culture is right now and how the person writing that story views it. If the world looks like it sucks and everything’s gone to shit, you aren’t going to see as many happy stories of Captain Spaceheart running through the cosmos saving space princesses and battling space monkeys. These people are writing stories about the future, but that future is only an extension of today, and if today isn’t turning out so well, then neither will tomorrow.