I know a lot of amateur scholars, including myself (ask me about New York City circa 1911 sometime). Many of them concentrate a fair amount of their scholarly impulses on science fiction, and that includes my friend Douglas. He’s taken advantage of the fact that U.C. Berkeley has a collection of the papers of A.E. van Vogt, for example. He also tells me of a movie review of Metropolis written by H. G. Wells.
Wells was highly critical of the movie, on science fiction and futurist terms. Specifically, Wells noted that the economics of Metropolis was simply non-functional. In the city, there is a small, wealthy class that owns everything, while there is a much larger class (literally an underclass, because they live in the city’s depths) of workers who produce all the goods. Nonsense, says Wells. This makes no sense. The number of workers, plus modern manufacturing, would produce vastly more goods than the small wealthy class can consume. Who buys the rest of it?
There are a couple of points worth noting here. One is that the society in Metropolis is very similar to Wells’ own book When the Sleeper Wakes, written 25 years before Metropolis. The second is that Wells belonged to the Bloomsbury Group, a collection of artists, writers, and other intellectuals, that included John Maynard Keynes. I suspect that Keynes once made the same economic critique to Wells, about Sleeper. Wells then passed it on.
It’s a relevant point, and quite true. Yet the image of the elite in the clouds while the toilers work in darkness nevertheless is the one that sticks in the mind. It’s way too easy to make the leap to Freudian symbolism here, even down to the parsing the phrases “bowels of the city” or “out of sight, out of mind.”
Can one even find a dystopian future story that doesn’t contain the extremes in wealth and power trope? Harrison Bergeron by Vonnegut comes to mind, since it, at least on the surface, was about forcing everyone to the same level. But scratch the surface and there’s the Handicapper General wielding power over everyone. Maybe that Twilight Zone where everyone has plastic surgery to look the same manages it.
For that matter, the highly unequal version of society isn’t confined to obviously dystopian works. Often it seems like the standard view of what’s to come, as if no one can really come up with a credible alternative.
If science fiction is a reflection of everyone’s hopes and fears about the future (and that’s surely one feature of our genre), what does it say that everyone has in the back of their mind a view of an undemocratic, faux feudal society, with the masses falling prey to a few predatory rulers? And if this vision of the future is the default, it certainly makes sense for people to engage in class warfare as a sort of full contact musical chairs, with the expectation that the winners and their progeny will have the rest of time to enjoy the spoils of the Social Darwinian State.