Science fiction and the population problem

Posted: August 7, 2014 in reading, watching
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

  1. Does anyone have any other examples of stories dealing with the population ‘problem’?

    Does Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan count? 😉

    A quote (to the best of my recollection) from that movie, referring to the Genesis device:

    When you consider the cosmic problems of population and food supply, the usefulness of this device becomes clear.

    And that movie came out over thirty years ago!

    • Once again, Star Trek proves surprisingly prescient.
      Also reminds me, I’ve been meaning to re-watch Wrath of Khan for ages – that might be this weekend’s viewing.

      • I agree; and I if I’m not mistaken, an episode from as early as 1968 dealt with a population problem: The Mark of Gideon –

        I hope you enjoy re-watching Wrath of Khan. I re-watched it a few weeks ago with my nephew and sister. They of course had to watch Space Seed first. 🙂

        I tend not to think about over-population much. My thoughts on it are probably similar to many other folks: natural disasters, diseases and wars will, sadly, keep the population down. At some point, at least a century from now, terraforming will be a reality, and we’ll be able to terraform the moon, and Mars. Possibly Venus, but we’ll need technology to convert the heat to energy, and other technology to deal with the other atmospheric “problems” on Venus.

        Another place I expect people will live is on extremely large space stations, which will be spread throughout the solar system, and will be equipped with defensive weaponry to deflect potentially dangerous space bodies. The space stations will simply orbit other planets and moons, but of course by then energy won’t be a problem, because we’ll have all that worked out. 🙂

        The big problem will be making sure technology cab compensate for the destruction of nature, and ensuring that any artificial oxygen, food, and light, etc is equivalent to what humans require, among other things. 😉

        • That’s definitely a future I can get behind – population becoming not a problem but an opportunity, a chance to spread out among the stars.

          • Thanks Andrew. And I didn’t even get into interstellar travel. With the level of tech I described, space stations in other solar systems won’t be a problem nor will finding easy-to-terraform planets.

            I don’t think hostile aliens will be a problem either. From what I know of you Earthlings, the more advanced you become, the less war-like. If that theory applies to alien races then there won’t be a need to invade your planet for resources.

            I think that covers everything. Good topic.

            I checked out your book page and noticed you’ve authored many publications. Any single one you’d recommend to someone such as myself who hasn’t read you yet?

            • I agree with you about more advanced technology leading to peace not war. It’s a discussion I’ve had with the occasional doorstep evangelist who tries to tell me that the world is going to hell – statistically, this is the safest time in human history to be alive.

              As for recommending my stories, I’m just going through the process of putting my first self-published collection up for sale on Amazon, and that contains nine of the previously published stories. So I’d recommend that you wait a day or two, and then rush out to buy the collection once I announce it! I’ll also be sending another story out for free to people on my mailing list, so if you sign up for that you can try one of my stories for nothing.

            • All right! Good luck to you…

  2. malwen says:

    There is a very memorable short story in an old issue of “Interzone” where the population is so dense that people live standing on top of other people.

  3. I like the idea of stories that find solutions, maybe depict the various responses to those positive solutions – might resemble The Waltons on steroids, or the tenements of Paris circa early 1800s ( like where the Tuleries are now ). Because of space- safety restraints, people congregated and lived in very tight quarters, things changed, improved, and the population expanded for a long time. Anyway, just thoughts, might lead to a story. Nice post, got me thinking!

    • A lot of the solutions proposed by political thinkers seem to focus on the theme you’ve touched on – using the space we have more efficiently, changing and improving the way that we live. It’s nice to think that the challenge might lead us to become better, isn’t it?

  4. Jon Taylor says:

    You put the main points of this video across in your final paragraphs, but the video is well worth watching for a more hopeful “possibilist” view of the future. It suggests that the real problem we need to tackle is not population growth directly, but poverty. I’m not really sure how that would make dramatic sci-fi, mind you.

    This talk is also good, and may have some more plot hooks, especially Bill Gate’s chilling equation and the concept of terrapower.

    • I love that Rosling video – his humanism and well-grounded optimism is inspiring. And I’m pretty sure there’s dramatic social sci-fi to be made out of tackling poverty, after all there’s a lot of conflicts about it.

      I’ll check out the Bill Gates video later – I’m home alone for the weekend, so will have plenty of time to explore new sources of inspiration.

  5. […] Victoria Randall. I discussed Victoria’s novel Get On Board Little Children in a post on science fiction and the population ‘problem’, but today we get to learn a bit more about Victoria and her […]

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