What will the future be like? Our inability to answer this question with certainty has never stopped us from wondering and guessing, both about our personal futures and the future of the world. During the past century, the speculations about the latter have grown more numerous, diverse and elaborate than ever. Stories set in some projected time after our own have created such powerful images of the future that they shape our culture in the present, for better or worse. Although no expert on futuristic stories, I find the ideas underlying them intriguing and sometimes troubling. What do our imaginings do for us—or to us—now?
The earlier images tended to be bright and hopeful. The most obvious example is probably Star Trek, which began in 1966, along with Star Trek: Next Generation and other spin-off series. In this sci-fi setting, scientific advances have not only created tremendous technological improvements, but have made Earth a utopia, free of war, poverty, and any other major affliction.
I was especially struck by this theme in the Next Generation episode “The Neutral Zone,” in which the Enterprise’s crew rescues three 20th-century people, frozen in suspended animation, with resulting culture clash. Explaining her three patients’ culture to her fellow crew members, Dr. Crusher describes, with wondering pity, how terrified men used to be of death, implying to the audience that fear of death has become unheard-of. Later, as the bewildered trio wonder if life still holds any challenge, Captain Picard answers that the only challenge remaining is the happy one of improving oneself.
Besides being fun to think about, such an optimistic vision has some inspiring quality. Some find uplift in reflecting that we have much to hope for, dream of, and strive toward, and in imagining how much we can improve human life. This is not a wrong feeling: it is important to work for improvements in the world; and if we are to work for something, we must have hope of achieving it.
However, a total optimism, which can conceive of all great evils being eliminated, has very limited applicability to the real world. In fairness, the utopia of Star Trek is mostly theoretical, since the show is set far away from Earth. It does also have its limits, as physical evils are eliminated but some kinds of moral and social evil remain in evidence; individual characters on the Enterprise do clearly have problems and faults. Even the most hopeful stories seem aware that this world is never quite perfect.
In any case, the principle remains: dreaming of improvements is good, but can only go so far. Scientific developments can undoubtedly do wonders for us, but as long as pride, selfishness, greed, etc., remain in human hearts—in other words, as long as men are fallen—the world will remain a “valley of tears.” Sin leads us to unleash destruction on ourselves and each other. Perfection in human life will be achieved only when human nature is perfected. If we seek to make the world perfect in our own way, we are only deceiving ourselves.
In fact, some serious historical attempts to create utopia by human means have resulted in disaster. The Nazis, for instance, thought they could perfect mankind through eugenics, and Karl Marx through political and economic upheaval. The outcomes of such attempts looked more like what we now call dystopia: the opposite vision of the future, expressed in horrific tales about the world gone wrong. Literary examples include George Orwell’s 1984, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver; cinematic examples include the Planet of the Apes films and George Miller’s Mad Max series.
These stories present worlds dominated by crushing tyranny, where the powerful few wantonly abuse the unfortunate, or worlds of rampant violence where might makes right. Respect for personal dignity is out of the question. In The Hunger Games, the masses struggle in poverty while an elite enjoys excessive wealth, and young people are forced to fight and kill each other for audiences’ entertainment. The dictators of 1984 and The Giver have suffocating control over their subjects’ very thoughts and dispose with human life as they deem convenient. The “planet of the apes” is our own Earth descending into chaos, as the few lingering humans clash with intelligent apes; while Mad Max’s world is dominated by lawless forces which inflict all sorts of depersonalizing abuse, especially on women. I apologize for subjecting you to this paragraph; I only want to make sure my meaning is clear.
These stories, difficult as they are to read or watch, may have merit for those who can handle them: they can remind us of the evils we must fight and the good we must defend; they can warn us of what may happen if we do nothing.
Indeed, audiences today seem to find these dystopian futures more compelling than the brighter visions of a generation or two ago. This may partially account for the ongoing classic status of 1984 and the smash success of The Hunger Games. The past century has seen plenty of dictatorship, from the Soviets to the present-day Islamic State. Even here, in the “land of the free,” we must continually resist government encroachments on our freedom. Disrespect for human dignity is hardly a far-fetched idea, or even one confined to rougher parts of the world; our own culture has dispatched unwanted babies and the sick and elderly as lightly as does the community of The Giver. The seemingly never-ending reports of violence and destruction around the world have made “the collapse of civilization,” or some equivalent thereof, practically a household phrase. At least, I hear it quite a bit in my house, and in just about every other house I enter.
Of course, no one wants to believe that our future is dystopian. Nor should we resign ourselves to such a conclusion. Despairing of good causes would guarantee further victories of evil and betray our duty to Christ. Mere blithe optimism, however, is no longer a sufficient response to these grim parables. The cold public and critical reception of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, an explicit attempt to counter the dystopias with a happier vision, suggests that we cannot overcome our age’s great fears simply by deciding to be cheerful and count on ourselves—certainly not when these attitudes are glibly founded and expressed.
As my father lamented in his review of the film, “Tomorrowland argues that the future is as dark or as bright as we choose to make it; that artists, scientists and dreamers can save the world; that the dystopian post-apocalyptic nightmares dominating popular culture are killing us, and are no more inevitable or realistic than the Space-Age techno-optimism of Disney’s Tomorrowland and EPCOT, Roddenberry-era Star Trek and even The Jetsons. I’m all in favor of these ideas, but if Bird of all people can’t make them more compelling, there’s no reason George Miller should ever retire Mad Max.”
Thus, imagination in our time finds itself in a dilemma. We live in turbulent, fearful times; no age lacks turbulence and fear, but ours seems especially beset with them. Apparently we no longer find simple optimism convincing, but if we tell ourselves only stories of mounting horrors and degeneration, we risk filling our minds with ugliness and our hearts with fear or despair. Is there a third way—a middle ground where we can have cautious hope?
Indeed there is. Perhaps its best expression in modern times came, long before Gene Roddenberry or George Miller, from J. R. R. Tolkien. Having observed many of the twentieth century’s grim developments, including the World Wars, Tolkien was under no illusions about mankind’s dark, self-destructive potential; but his philosophy allowed for no despair.
A famous quote from his letters sums up his stance: “I do not expect history to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” Because we are fallen creatures in a broken world, we must expect to see havoc and grief plaguing the world on a large scale, in the future as well as the past and present. This does not, however, mean that we should resign ourselves to them, nor that we have no hints of hope. We have, of course, Christ’s assurance that Hell will not prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18) and that “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). We do also receive, in our own lives, various signs or glimpses of why we hope.
Fiction can provide us with these too, as Tolkien indicates—and creates an admirable example himself. Of course, his fiction is not futuristic; but it is nonetheless applicable to our forward-looking thought. For all the sorrows, losses and dangers of his Middle-earth, a benevolence is glimpsed above and beyond them, and we have cause to believe that it will have the last word. The Lord of the Rings is full of laments, as Elves and Ents disappear, glories of old civilizations fade, and what remains “stands on the edge of a knife” as the elven-queen Galadriel says, ready to fall to ruin—a world tormented like our own. On the other hand, what resolves the story itself is more than a happy ending: it’s more like a miraculous stroke of grace, seeming hardly possible, yet set up by hundreds of small twists throughout the plot. Such a resolution suggests that this world, though wounded, is not abandoned nor hopeless.
Tolkien explains the function of such a near-miracle, or “eucatastrophe,” in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”: “It is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”
This kind of story, then, may be an antidote to the dilemma described above. It is frank about the “sorrow and failure” that we confront, but it also denies “universal final defeat” such as a steady diet of dystopias might lead us to expect. We have much to suffer and fight, but not in vain. There is a “Joy beyond the walls of the world” which we have glimpsed, however briefly, and to which we look.
Space constraints won’t allow for a lengthy literary-critical argument. If you disagree with everything I’ve said about The Lord of the Rings, fine. Isn’t it still possible, though, to have a story displaying those qualities? In this fearful time, can’t we meet our need for hope with stories that honestly acknowledge suffering and evil, but still believe in grace and hint at final victory? That seems to be the best solution for our culture. My point is not primarily about the above examples per se, but about ways of thinking that I believe they exemplify.
In any case, know yourself and choose what’s right for you. If the optimistic visions inspire you to pursue improvements in the world, well and good; if you find their cheerfulness too shallow or facile, never mind them. If the dystopias move you to fight evil and defend good by any means possible, well and good; if they tempt you to discouragement, steer clear of them. Whatever your inclination, we are obligated to grow God’s kingdom on earth, in whatever ways are at our disposal; and we must not ever cease hoping, striving, or trusting in Him.
I leave you with the words of St. John Paul II: “I plead with you—never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”