Sunday, January 27, 2013

Population Dystopia in Fiction

Especially in science fiction, from time to time we see fictional characters coping with a population dystopia--- a demographic trend which causes widespread problems for the human race--- or for any other race you happen to be writing about.

Population dystopias come in two major types: the population bomb of overly high population growth and a demographic winter of falling birthrates, an aging population, and population shrinkage.

In near-future fiction, using either of these themes is sure to provoke extreme emotional reaction in people who have strong opinions on either of these demographic theories. In stories set in the far future or in fantasy world settings, you can hope that these reactions will be toned down.

The Population Bomb: I remember reading a copy of 'The Population Bomb' by Paul Ehrlich. His chilling prediction that high population growth would lead to famine in America and Europe by the end of the 1970s would have been even more compelling had I not been reading it in the late 1980s.

Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room is a science fictional treatment of the population bomb theme with the usual overcrowding/food shortage theme. This book was make into the movie Soylent Green, which added commercialized cannibalism into the mix. I still remember Charlton Heston running around screaming about soylent green being made of people. In the book, of course, it was made of soy--- or perhaps soy and lentils, or some hybrid of the soybean and the lentil.

Orson Scott Card's book Ender's Game (a Hugo and Nebula award winner) has the population bomb as a minor theme. In Ender's world, governments forbid families to have more than two children. Excess children from non-complying families are not permitted in the schools (which all seem to be government schools). Ender's parents gave up their non-complying religious faiths--- Catholic and Mormon--- in order to get an education, but when the government asked them to have a third child because their first two were almost-but-not-quite what the government needed in a future military leader, they feel quite awkward about it.

Demographic Winter: This theme is not as widely used, though it can be found in a number of fantasy series featuring elves. The elven race is quite frequently seen as experiencing a demographic winter of falling birth rates.

For example, in Mercedes Lackey's elves-and-race-cars series, the elves are seen as cherishing and protecting abused children, often kidnapping such children from their violently abusive parents. The motive is given that elves cherish children because they have so few of their own. The common demographic winter concern of masses of elderly people needing care and few young people to give it is not shown--- the elves may all be over one hundred, but they seem like young people or at worst, middle aged. But it is obvious that the elves' adoption of abused children is a custom that would provide them with a substitute labor force to help them care for elderly elves when it got to the point there were not enough young elves for the job.

If you have read The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood you may have thought it a simple work of new-feminist polemic or of anti-Christianist bigotry. And those are indeed the reasons why the work is taught in schools as literature. But the book also contains a demographic winter theme.  The absurd walking stereotypes of a liberal's view of 'fundamentalists' (evangelical Christians) are experiencing a demographic winter caused by widespread infertility. The feminist heroine, as an enemy of the Gilead state who is a woman of proven fertility, is placed in a home as a 'handmaid'--- a household servant who is expected to bear a child to the household's master. I must applaud Miss Atwood for taking the trouble to create an actual motivation like this for her absurd Christian caricatures. A lesser writer wouldn't have troubled to think of a reason for them to do this evil other than 'that's how evil those Christians are'.  While I personally think Miss Atwood might have taken the trouble to actually meet and talk to a conservative Christian in person before writing this book in order to ground the Gilead characters in some faint semblance of reality, she did at least do enough of her homework in world building and in creating her main character to enable me to find the book not only readable but re-readable, in spite of the bigotry in it directed at my own faith.

Have you ever thought of using a population dystopia theme in your fiction? Was it a major theme of the work, or only a side issue? Did you make it close to the population concerns people have about the real world, or did you try to make it quite fictional and distinct from people's view of real-world population issues?

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