Science fiction and the population problem

It is a truth near-universally acknowledged that human population is growing so fast it’s going to doom us. The UN estimates that by 2075 there will be 9.2 billion people living on planet earth. Bearing in mind that for most of human history we could be counted in the millions, and not always big millions, this is a pretty scary figure.

Fortunately, science fiction is here to help us reflect upon our responses, and it’s telling some interesting stories along the way.

Lets talk about population

I’ve recently encountered three stories that approach the problem of over-population and our response to it in different ways.

Victoria Randall was kind enough to send me a copy of her book Get On Board Little Children. It’s a book that asks how a government might respond to control the ever-growing population, with restrictions on family sizes and a growth in abortions. It also asks how a family, unable to afford a licence to reproduce, might respond to this, leading to a modern version of the old underground railroad.

Get On Board Little Children

While the story of Get On Board Little Children didn’t grip me as much as I would have liked, it showed some fascinating responses to both the over-crowding problem and to the restrictions used to tackle it. From people becoming more attached to their pets, through families raising children in hiding, to secret networks smuggling pregnant women out of the US, it highlighted the fact that our responses are not monolithic, that people will deal with this issue in different ways.

Channel 4’s drama series Utopia shows a very different response. In this, a shadowy group unleashes a conspiracy to brutally cut the human population and so allow the remainder to survive. The human response is seen in people resisting the conspiracy, going on the run and desperately fighting back.


American show The 100 also tackles the problem of human over-crowding, though without addressing our current situation head on. The plot is driven by the remains of humanity being stuck in a space station that can no longer support them. The space station itself can be seen as standing in for an over-crowded Earth, the different responses of the characters reflecting ways we can react, whether it’s plans for a harsh Utopia-style population cull or a doctor’s desperate attempts to prove that another solution is possible outside the space station.

Don't trust that guy - He was on Lost!
Don’t trust that guy – he was on Lost!

All of these stories portray bleak situations and bleak reactions. It’s hardly surprising – the idea that we’re screwing so hard we might wipe ourselves out is a terrifying one, and the idea of giving up on the chance to have children is one many people are uncomfortable thinking about. It goes against our every biological imperative, not to mention human psychology. This is dark stuff because it touches on some very deep fears.

Ms Tunnel, meet Mr Light

Despite this, all three shows have a hopeful element to them. They show resistance – to oppression, to manipulation, to mass killings, to the possibility of humanity being snuffed out. Whether it’s Sophie in Get On Board Little Children going on the run for the sake of her unborn baby, or Abby on The 100 frantically trying to prove that Earth is inhabitable, they show the strength of the human spirit.

This is what the bleakest science fiction often does well – saying that we can stare into the darkness and yet still find hope.

What about the other futures?

What none of these stories address is the possibility that we might get it right. There’s plenty of science fiction where this is a non-issue, because it’s not what that story is about. But where are the futures where we tackle this issue and find a good answer? Or where we’ve come optimistically out the other side and are dealing with the complexities of a packed but stable world? I like my stories dark, but I do like a bit of variety as well.

Of course all of this may be missing the point. Those UN population figures also predict that population will eventually level out. Falling infant mortality, while contributing to population growth in the short term, actually ends it in the long term. In countries where children usually survive people have less of them and the population levels out. If we can cope with that 9 billion peak then we may come through this without enforcing reproduction licences or jettisoning dissidents into space.

Still, what these stories show is the power of science fiction to help us explore the problems facing us, to address them in different ways, and to come out the other side hopeful.

Does anyone have any other examples of stories dealing with the population ‘problem’? I’d be interested to know what else there is out there.

Darkness between the frames – the return of Utopia

I love good television, but for the first decade of the 21st century it felt like all the best stuff came from the US. Recently that’s changed. Obviously there are the Scandi-dramas much beloved by Guardian readers, TV critics and, well, me. But Channel 4 and its subsidiaries have also upped their game with shows like Misfits and Top Boy. Among the highlights was last year’s conspiracy drama Utopia, which returned to our screens this week, and did so in spectacular style.

Nightmarishly thoughtful

Utopia is a dark, twisted drama with a speculative thread, about a conspiracy to unleash terrible things on the world for the sake of a supposed greater good. I wouldn’t exactly call it noire – it’s too British for that – but it’s clearly influenced by long traditions of crime, conspiracy and horror films. The story works far better if you come to it fresh, but if you want to get an idea of what’s happening Between Screens has a summary and discussion of season two episode one.


This is a smart drama, one that intertwines real modern concerns about population growth with pop culture, conspiracy thriller, re-imagined recent history and a distrust of authority that runs deep in certain parts of the British psyche. This first episode of season two is like watching a moral question explored on screen. How do we deal with the problem of an ever-growing human population? Is there a crisis coming, and if so how do we handle it? And a wider question around this, visible in the characters’ personal relationships – where is the line drawn when you say you are acting ‘for their own good’? From the raising of children to the treatment of politics and population, this last question comes up again and again.

This is a drama that is meant to unsettle, and it does its job.

Beautifully dark

The first series made heavy use of a comic book in its plot. This one starts with an episode framed in old-fashioned 4:3 ratio. The whole thing has an intensity that’s cranked up by devices borrowed from across cinema stylings – you can read more on that from the show’s director here, and see some examples here.

These are devices that create both an absorbing intensity of atmosphere and a sense of distance from the story. As you’re watching, the familiarity of these cultural artefacts draws you in, drags you along. But there was a moment when they first hit, and in reflecting on them afterwards, when they reminded me of the unreality of the show.

Which is probably a good thing. As a certain tabloid seems to have forgotten in its hypocritical fussings over a plot point borrowed from real life, this is fiction. It reflects reality, but it never claims to be real.

Making the effort

Utopia is a show that takes great effort both from creators and viewers. I’m terrible at remembering plot points, and jumping back in after a year left me entertained but confused. I may well need to go back and re-watch the first series before continuing, which will be another six hours very well spent.

This show gives you a lot to think about, and to get the most out of it you have to do that thinking, to connect the pieces together, almost to become part of the conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that is the heart of the show as you look for patterns that may or may not be there.

It’s well worth the effort.

Who else out there is watching Utopia? What do you think of season two so far?