As we continue living with Covid and watch the war in Ukraine unfold, much of the world looks like a cyberpunk dystopia. Corporate greed runs rampant, visceral inequalities have come to the surface, and we have less and less trust in government institutions as we see how little of the people’s will is exercised, even in democracies. We’ve seen the rebellion this narrative sparks, too. Anonymous hacked Russian television, Tik Tok teens derailed Trump’s rally, and BTS fans flooded police surveillance apps during the Black Lives Matter protests. Even the neon aesthetic of cyberpunk might be prescient if UV technology is used to kill Covid and other viruses.
Science fiction has real-world power. What’s written on pages and depicted on screens can become a reality. It’s not just that science fiction tells stories of the future; it actively informs the future we bring about, even if that source material is a dystopia. Tech entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have created technologies that impact our day-today lives, some of which are eroding our mental health and destroying our planet in the process.
When our dominant visions of the future are dystopias, it’s hard to think past them and imagine something different for ourselves.
We might tell ourselves that we should strive for utopias but those are problematic too. Stories such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas or Upload highlight that utopias are often dystopias masquerading as perfect worlds, hiding an ugly truth beneath bright and shiny facades. Utopias are sunny but sinister, if not in the outcome, then in the journey it took to get there.
BREAKING THE BINARY
We get trapped in thinking about utopias and dystopias as a binary rather than two ends of a spectrum. Both extremes present static images of the future that capture a distinct point in time. When we reframe them as a spectrum, we open up new possibilities for stories that lie in between. This not only allows for more nuanced and blended visions, but we also can imagine what it means to move from one end of the spectrum to the other. We can tell stories that depict change.
We need stories of change now more than ever.
We are now on track for a 2.4°C warming and, as the environment degrades, it will trigger a series of cascading effects that will have catastrophic implications for an already strained world. We’re a minute to midnight and stories are a powerful weapon in combating real-world struggles. When moral lessons are embedded in stories, they can bypass the brain’s fight and flight response. Rather than reject the lesson, we lean into it.
Meaningful change requires a full spectrum of stories. Stories that inspire. Stories that are honest. Change is hard work and that work begins when the hero returns home after defeating the enemy.
It’s not easy to repair, restore, and rebuild a world, and yet we so rarely tell stories about those hardships. We need to go beyond the binary of utopias and dystopias, towards more nuanced images of the future that tackle the transitions required to get from one state to another. If we do that, we’ll unlock all kinds of new stories that the world needs now more than ever.
The word polytopia means “many places.” Unlike dystopias and utopias — which begin or end on the precipice of change — polytopias show the change from one state to another. They are stories that depict many people, many places, at many times. They demonstrate the incremental steps required to shift a system and how those systems interact with people along the way. Polytopias aim to capture the complexity and nuances of change itself.
While the term polytopia is new (though, I first wrote about this in 2017), there are existing examples. Consider, for example:
George Orwell’s Animal Farm shows an idyllic, sustainable state descending into a dystopia.
The television show Years and Years is an excellent example of a polytopia that plays out over five years. It tells the individual and collective stories of one family that shapes the world and is shaped by it as time marches forward.
While there are other examples of deteriorating worlds, there are far fewer examples of what it takes to build desirable worlds. One story that might benefit us is a prequel to Star Trek. How the Federation came about — how we resolve disease, poverty, inequality, and other real-world problems — would not be an easy story to craft but doing so is a worthwhile endeavor.
Showing change might influence and inspire us to do and be better. It might be the moral lesson we need. And though change is hard, there is a formula for it. We overcome our resistance to change when our dissatisfaction is high, when we have a vision for the future, and know the first steps to achieve our new vision. Polytopias give us visions and the steps there. Looking at the state of our world, it’s safe to say dissatisfaction is running high.
HOW TO CREATE POLYTOPIAS
One way to start creating new polytopias (fictional and otherwise) is with worldbuilding models that include transitions. The Incremental version of the Seven Foundations worldbuilding model may be useful.
Worldbuilders can choose a point in time in the future and the transition points between them. Designing transitions allows us to evolve the world (the container for our stories) while maintaining its coherence within time and through time. You can read more about how to do this here.
FROM FICTION TO REALITY
In Ray Bradbury’s Toynbee Convector, a time traveler returns from the future and shows humanity that a better world is not only possible, it is inevitable. He never actually visited the future. He made the whole thing up. The so-called time traveler believed that if he showed humanity a brighter future, then we would all rush towards it, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. With polytopias, we can use the power of storytelling to carve a path to the change we want to see. Once we can see the paths forward, it’ll be easier to rush towards a better world.
*NOTE: This article was originally published on Leah Zaidi’s Medium page on April 26, 2022.
Leah Zaidi (she/her) is an awardwinning strategic foresight practitioner and worldbuilding expert, with more than 15 years of corporate experience, based in Toronto. She has worked with prestigious organizations such as the United Nations, Stanford University, and various Fortune 100 companies. Her articles and research papers have more than 75K+ reads, and her reports have been downloaded by 1000+ organizations. She has an MDes in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCAD University. To learn more about Zaidi and her work, visit Multiverse Design.