The Reversal Game: Finding Dystopian Sci-Fi Futures in the Present-Day World

Here’s a social dynamic you can use to create the “corrupted paradise” structure in dystopian worldbuilding for science fiction stories.

This is hard sci-fi — meaning that this dynamic will result in a future world that plausibly extrapolates from present-day reality.

Ongoing controversy surrounds admissions to Harvard University. A group of Asian-Americans — demographically “recent immigrants from mainland China who are highly educated” — are fighting against affirmative action in the Harvard admissions process.

From the beginning, the idea sounds strange: members of a minority group are fighting to reverse policies designed to fight discrimination against minorities? The dynamics themselves, however, are more widespread. As usual, racism is only an intermediate step.

The protestors who want to destroy affirmative action at Harvard have co-opted civil rights-era slogans — “judge people by their character, not the colour of their skin.” Sounds a lot like rhetorical games used in racist slogans like “all lives matter”, doesn’t it? Yes, it’s the same game.

Fighting Against Ourselves

Plot twist: highly-educated, recent Chinese-American immigrants are, in the short-term, pushing a perspective that, until now, has served the interests of wealthy white Americans. Dismantlement of affirmative action harms all non-white Americans. So why support its destruction?

The dystopian game in play can be called “reversal”. In the reversal game, a concept designed for one purpose (civil rights, in this case) is propagandised to embody its opposite (oppression). Real outcome: the rich get richer. Everyone else dehumanises each other and destroys their own rights.

In the Harvard case, recent Chinese-American immigrants are aware that Harvard has used discriminatory policies, and are fighting against them. The nuance is that the earlier policies favoured white students. Affirmative action has the same goal: rectifying discrimination.

The impetus behind (preferences for legacies and athletes) was what scholars now refer to as “negative action,” the preferential treatment of white over Asian-American applicants, rather than affirmative action, the consideration of race in admissions to boost underrepresented minorities and foster diversity. As Poon wrote in the book Contemporary Asian America, “The experience with negative action in the 1981s contributed to a collective memory for Asian Americans and wariness of possible anti-Asian quotas.”

The phrase “recent Chinese-American immigrants” is used here as a distinction to emphasise diminished comprehension of historical context, creating susceptibility to racist doublespeak. Similarly, “all lives matter” sounds fine for those who are unaware of its cultural background as a dogwhistle for racism.

In the Harvard admission case, reversal leads members of one minority to prey on members of other minorities. The final outcome is the destruction of policies designed to fight against income- and race-based discrimination. The rich get richer. The doors close for everyone else.

Crazy-Rich Everybody

Where else do we see the reversal game?

Super-wealthy individuals and groups create a doctrine that preaches a particular gospel of financial deregulation and anti-taxation. Politicians are universally corrupt liars who can’t be trusted. Mainstream media are “biased enemies of the people”.

More reversal games: Immigrants steal jobs from hard-working citizens. White Americans are an oppressed minority. Masculinity is under attack by “the matriarchy”. Education and healthcare must be privatised since the “invisible guiding hand of the market” is the only fair determinant of real value.

Racism is a proxy upholding corrupt institutions. As more people feel socioeconomic insecurity, they push down (bigotry) instead of up (at the super-rich). Now consider what “Crazy Rich Asians” stands for, in this dystopian context. Crazy Rich [Everybody]. That’s the game.

The (Illegal) Aliens Are Coming! We Need a Spaceship to Mars!

Dystopian outcomes of reversal games: institutionalised racism as well as gender- and income discrimination lead elite universities to remain open only to those who are wealthy or game the system. Deregulation creates a boom-and-bust superstar economy of extractive investors and real-estate vultures.

Corporate tax exemption drains society of infrastructure funding and social services. This results in neglect of infrastructure (roadways, the power grid, industrial control systems), unaffordable healthcare, inadequate education, and “do-it-yourself” disaster relief in a time of climate change. Schools in low-income neighborhoods become a zero-tolerance doorstep to corporate-run prisons.

Hypercapitalist religious dogma leads to public obsession: imitate reality-show consumer lifestyles of “A-list” celebrities. Hire “alpha” billionaire CEOs for president instead of personally running for office, participating in representative democracy (i.e. voting), or exercising critical thought in “political” art.

Immigrants are demonised to the point that thousands of Spanish-speaking Americans are left to die after natural disasters because they are not “pure” enough, despite being full-bloodied citizens.

The term “illegal alien” becomes synonymous with “subhuman entity to be thrown away.” Their families are torn apart indefinitely; children are psychologically and physically abused in detainment centers. Some are lost in the system and simply disappear, while others may be adopted in a scenario that only separates them further from their real parents.

Every twenty-four hours, a new raft of clickbait headlines wash the memory of their lives away, enabled by surveillance capitalism via “free” social media run by billionaires whose only truth is the destruction of privacy.

Mainstream media is replaced by sensationalism and extremist quasi-state propaganda, clothed in familiar cliches: racism, misogyny, homophobia, religious hatred, xenophobia.

This genre is “science fiction.” If you want to create hard sci-fi stories that begin with our real world, the reversal game is one place to start.

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What Did Ursula K. Le Guin Really Think About Dystopian Science Fiction?

Disdain seemed to overtake the voice of Ursula K. Le Guin in the passage quoted below about her life and work. The article by Zoe Carpenter suggests that Le Guin was disenchanted, or perhaps even bored, by the mere idea of dystopia.

For someone preoccupied with humanity’s ability to destroy itself and the rest of the natural world, Le Guin is notably disinterested in dystopias. Frankly, they bore her. “I think they’re just ground out,” she told me. “They’re just the latest way to write sci-fi novels. Don’t readers ever get tired of being told that the world is coming to a nasty, ugly end and only a very few people will survive, by luck and by violence?” Nor does Le Guin think much of the kind of shallow moralism used to justify invasions and torture. She has written through plenty of dark territory, but with an eye fixed on the constant stars of kindness and bravery.

Ursula Le Guin Has Stopped Writing Fiction—but We Need Her More Than Ever

This take on dystopia seems to completely miss the purpose of that story world. Is it possible Le Guin thought so little of dystopian stories as to dismiss the entire subgenre completely?

Dystopia isn’t necessarily a “fad” or “shallow moralism.” Some writers will jump on nearly any shiny new literary bandwagon, but Le Guin isn’t likely to have stereotyped an entire subgenre of science fiction just because she couldn’t imagine new stories to be told using that approach.

Based on the quote alone, Le Guin says that dystopia itself is “ground out” and “just the latest way to write sci-fi novels.” Dystopia is as old as science fiction itself, and is an integral part of the genre. Trends and fads don’t render an entire subgenre obsolete.

The quotation overgeneralises in a puzzling way. Anyone can write whatever they want, but it’s strange that Le Guin seemed to dismiss dystopias completely in the quoted passage. If she had focused specifically on superficial ways of writing dystopian fiction, the quote would have made more sense.

Dystopia, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is

1 : an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives

2 literature : anti-utopia · writing a dystopia

—dystopian \-pē-ən\ adjective

The definition of dystopian is not “and it all comes to a nasty, ugly end, and only a few people will survive, by luck and violence.” Dystopia is a state of society and/or the physical world, not an event in the story itself (‘a nasty, ugly end’). That’s what’s odd about the Le Guin quote. It doesn’t make sense.

Given that Le Guin was one of the most well-regarded figures in science fiction and fantasy, it’s not likely that she spoke carelessly. So what did Ursula K. Le Guin actually mean?

Two quotations might clarify her perspective. For Le Guin, the oppositions that create dystopia (and utopia) are gendered. Yang is male, and yin is female.

Le Guin’s approach is informed by Taoism, where opposing forces are interdependent.

She elaborates in No Time to Spare: “Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.” For Le Guin, there’s an overabundance of yang in American culture—one that’s reflected in its science fiction. She says, “Many contemporary dystopias provide such a great opportunity to wallow in gratuitous cruelty and mindless violence. Yin is for losers.” So much, then, for the philosophical cautionary tale.

Ursula K. Le Guin, the sci-fi giant, takes on dystopia and social injustice

In this passage, Le Guin doesn’t dismiss dystopia itself. Her rejection is of an opportunistic use of cruelty and violence. The excess of yang (male) destructive “penetration” energy overwhelms and drowns out the “receptive” yin (female) energy.

That’s a decent start, but does Le Guin offer any thoughts for how to escape the endless cycle of dystopian yang in science fiction — and perhaps in society itself?

Definitive elaboration on the question naturally comes the celebrated author’s unabridged thinking, expounded upon in the completed essay as published in a 2017 collection, NO TIME TO SPARE: Thinking About What Matters, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

The essay is titled, “We keep writing dystopias instead of envisioning a better world—maybe what we need is balance“. Le Guin continues with the Taoist metaphor of yin and yang, ending on a perhaps-hopeful note (emphasis added):

Through psychological and political control, these dystopias have achieved a nondynamic stasis that allows no change. The balance is immovable: one side up, the other down. Everything is yang forever.

Where is the yin dystopia? Is it perhaps in post-holocaust stories and horror fiction with its shambling herds of zombies, the increasingly popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control — chaos and old night?

Yang perceives yin only as negative, inferior, bad, and yang has always been given the last word. But there is no last word.

At present we seem only to write dystopias. Perhaps in order to be able to write a utopia we need to think yinly. I tried to write one in Always Coming Home. Did I succeed?

Is a yin utopia a contradiction in terms, since all the familiar utopias rely on control to make them work, and yin does not control? Yet it is a great power. How does it work?

I can only guess. My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.

Ursula K. Le Guin wasn’t just “bored” by dystopia. She wanted sci-fi creators to use it as a radical agent for change. Although Le Guin is no longer among us, her energetic words can continue to reveal new alternatives, undiscovered elsewheres that science fiction might describe in hopes that society might follow, before it’s too late.