On September 14, the Spanish Ministry of Social Rights and Agenda 2030 led by Ione Belarra, Secretary General of left-wing party Podemos, launched the campaign #BastaDeDistopías [#StopDystopias] to encourage the debate around the current general discouragement, especially among the young. The main piece is a 1-minute video in which various characters are seen in what are assumed to be dystopian narratives freeing themselves from grime and apathy to smile again. The text accompanying the video is “Whenever we think about the world of the future, we imagine a worse world, right? A toxic world, an unbreathable, brutal and uninhabitable atmosphere, an unequal, unjust, repressive and cruel society, a stark technology, a dark future for the next generations. But nothing is written. Everything depends on us, and what we are able to imagine is what we are capable of doing”.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which partly lends its name to the Ministry, was approved by the UN in 2015, as a plan for the short-range future with 17 sustainable development goals (or SDGs) that can be called utopian but that should be pure common sense, since they include eradicating poverty and guaranteeing equal rights and a good quality of life for all. Perhaps you have noticed that Spanish President Pedro Sánchez wears a colorful circular pin with the 17 colors of the SDGs. The agenda, however, has not aroused any popular enthusiasm and it is quite possible that the Ministry headed by Belarra will rather help to undermine it because of the little political credit that Podemos currently enjoys. As it is often the case with these rather vague agendas, the Government’s effort to follow the UN mandate is seen as a mere excuse to throw around empty slogans and, as they say, milk the institutional teat. The campaign against dystopia has therefore been the object in the social networks of mockery and hatred, and of criticisms in the media about its cost and irrelevance. The main complaint is that an institution that is part of the dystopia we live in can only ask citizens to embrace utopia in an exercise of total hypocrisy.
I subscribe the complaint, but also the content of the ad and the campaign, which is necessary whoever it comes from. The students we have received this year at the university were four years old when the 2008 crisis broke out and have known nothing but an uncertain future, articulated by an economic crisis deepened by evident climate change, the pandemic caused by Covid-19, and the warmongering madness of Vladimir Putin. They are a generation that has been receiving an avalanche of dystopian texts, started much earlier in the 80s, in novels, cinema, series and video games. There may be a promise of regeneration in some of these texts (think of The Hunger Games) but it is as a whole an extremely depressing narrative, and so ubiquitous that everyone understands what the Ministry’s campaign refers to. Feelings such as happiness or joy sound very hollow today, and when they are expressed they are often associated to the falsehood of the heavily doctored images posted in social networks. And I don’t just mean by young people. The world is going to hell and room for maneuver seems slim. That the inefficient UN believes that the 2030 Agenda will work is nothing but a joke in view of its inability to stop Putin right now, and avoid the environmental and humanitarian catastrophe that his invasion of Ukraine is already costing.
Since the Ministry’s campaign alludes if only tangentially to dystopia within science fiction, it would have been appropriate for Belarra to open consultations with authors, fans, and scholars of the genre, who surely would have been happy to collaborate. In fact, the concern about the predominance of dystopia has already generated some interesting proposals, such as the Decalogue of the Movimiento Pragma promoted in 2018 by the Fundación Asimov. This decalogue has some frankly questionable points, such as “5. Avoid political, ideological or identity dogmas in the proposals for change”, which indicate how far it is from the left-wing policies of feminist Minister Belarra, but at least it shows a similar concern for the need to regenerate the narratives that dominate us. We are stuck, basically, in a model created in the United States at the height of the Cold War, between 1982 and 1986, when it seemed perfectly possible that civilization would end with a nuclear holocaust, and we haven’t moved away from that dystopia in forty years. That Putin threatens nuclear war is a sign that in international politics we are still in the Cold War, but all narrative dystopia works in favor of that political stagnation.
The Fundación Asimov mentions movements within sf such as solarpunk, ecopunk and hopepunk, which must be paid attention to despite the fact that the suffix ‘punk’ always points towards dystopian cyberpunk. In his review of the anthology Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-speculation (2017), edited by Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland, Rhys Williams explains that this genre “prioritizes hope and resilience in the face of the climate crisis” and sees solutions “in recognition, and in encouraging the potential of each individual”. In solarpunk, solar energy is not only renewable, but above all “open to dialogue, loving, full of joy in relating”. Cat Sparks, co-editor with Liz Grzyb of the anthology Ecopunk! (2017) explains in an interview that ecopunk is part of the science fiction about climate change that includes solarpunk, but while this genre “focuses specifically on the solutions offered by solar energy and its transformations, as the name suggests, ecopunk leaves the door open to other sustainable technological solutions and transformations”, beyond using the sun’s energy. As for hopepunk, the term comes from fantasy author Alexandra Rowland who in 2017 offered the label on Tumblr with the intention of countering the weight of grimdark, a subgenre of speculative fiction “particularly dystopian, amoral, and violent”, Wikipedia reports, inspired by the Warhammer 40,000 slogan “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war”. Also according to Wikipedia, the greatest recognition received by hopepunk has been the awarding in 2019 of the Nebula and the Hugo to the novel The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette-Kowal.
It might seem that all these genres of science fiction have little to do with the ministerial campaign and the daily concerns of ordinary Spanish citizens but the truth is that the stories we consume are an index of our sorrows and hopes. This week the most watched audiovisual products in Spain have been the HBO series House of the Dragon (although Amazon’s The Rings of Power is very close) and the Netflix mini-series Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, about the Milwaukee serial killer. That half the country is watching two stories of absolute darkness in their violence, misogyny and homophobia instead of reading solarpunk, ecopunk or hopepunk says a lot about our mood but also about what Minister Belarra does not comment: it is not ordinary citizens who have cemented this dystopian climate but the corporations that offer us news and entertainment and that, for their own interests, want us scared and docile. The objective of the campaign #BastaDeUtopías, therefore, should be those corporations that put fear in our bodies and that should change their tone right now. I do not mean that what is happening in Ukraine and in the other 24 wars active today on the planet can or should be hidden (remember the definition of grimdark) but that the flood of catastrophic news and narratives should be replaced with a stronger stream of hopeful and positive news and narratives.
I therefore suggest to the Minister that she takes a step further, forms a council of citizens capable of contributing positive ideas in a new progressive way (including the people who write and love science fiction) and that she devotes her own efforts to imagining what utopia consists of. Taking each of the 17 sustainable development goals a positive story could be written to start turning around so much cyberpunk and so much grimdark, with more than just a slogan and a flashy but empty campaign. I am aware that, whatever is done by this or any other government, the call to embrace utopia will be met with mockery, disdain, anger and even pain. As good Spaniards, we will chatter on without reflecting beyond the dislike our rulers inspire. Decades of cynicism and despair have left us in the hands of dystopia, and it is now very difficult to imagine from the left a real egalitarian world. From the (far) right this is quite easy, in contrast: the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss has ruined her country in just three weeks of mandate, favoring the rich with large tax cuts so that they remain installed in their utopia while the rest of the population sinks into the misery that the many dystopias have been announcing for years. The hopepunk of Belarra’s ministerial left-wing message may be laughable but the alternative, you see, is a generalized right-wing grimdark. Be warned.