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Archive for December, 2010

Words on a Fertile Shore: The Evolution of Science Fiction and Fantasy Language


While eating delicious (and incredibly over-filling) holiday meals this weekend, I found myself thinking about Google Labs’ new Ngram Viewer. In my day job I deal with statistics, semantics, ontologies, and computational linguistics all day long. Which makes the Ngram Viewer a really, really fun toy. It allows us to look at the frequency with which particular words and phrases were utilized across all books in the English language for the last 500 years.

Which is really cool.

So with such a tool at my finger tips, I thought I would have a little bit of a fun. What can the Ngram Viewer tell us about language in genre fiction? What can it tell us about the genres themselves? To attempt a semi-serious answer to this question, I got out my trusty copy of Brave New Words and flipped through it find some of the tasty neologisms that science fiction has given us over the years. And having written them down, I started banging away at the Ngram Viewer. Here’s what I found:

The Rise and Fall of Cyberpunk, The Fall and Limping Recovery of Space Opera, and the Gradual Climb of Alternate History

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

Science Fiction Sub-Genres, 1900 - 2008

So the late ’80s and early ’90s saw cyberpunk explode, rise to meteoric heights and then begin a gradual decline that still seems ongoing. Cyberpunk hasn’t seemed to eclipse any of the other major science fiction sub-genres, although it did seem to coincide with a gradual decline in space opera and future history. It’s also neat to see a visual representation of alternate history’s slow growth over the last 40 years.

Sword and Sorcery vs. Epic Fantasy, Paranormal Romance vs. Steampunk and Urban Fantasy

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Sub-genres, 1900 - 2008

Looking at fantasy, we can see the response to J.R.R. Tolkien‘s popularity. Looking at the 1970s and 1980s, we can see the impact of Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazny. Then the 1990s show us the rise of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R.R. Martin and the other kings of the Chihuahua-killer tomes. But what I think is most interesting is the relationship between steampunk, urban fantasy, and paranormal romance.

Steampunk has been getting a lot of buzz recently, leading some authors (most prominently Charles Stross and Cat Valente) to complain that it eclipses everything else going on. But this somewhat unscientific chart at least shows that while steampunk may generate buzz, that buzz is disproportional to the volume of published work. Of course, those complaints are recent and Google’s data only goes up to 2008. It’d be interesting to see if in 2009 and 2010 steampunk really did eclipse other sub-genres of fantasy and science fiction. Looking at the data through 2008, the trend looks pretty steady and in line with urban fantasy. The data actually suggests that paranormal romance is the sub-genre really breaking out. At least by 2008.

Some Fun Genre Tropes

And since I am – technically – on vacation this week, I want to go out vacation-ing in a few minutes, just three last fun charts. The charts above track some of the sub-genres, but what about some of the most-common science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes? Some fun:

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Space Travel Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Hard science fiction and space opera both have their share of tropes, including (typically) some means of traveling at or near the speed of light. Of course, technology changes all the time so how have those tropes changed over the years? For one thing, the generic (and typically ill-defined) “hyperdrive” seems to be eclipsing anything with real science behind it. The equally fuzzy “warp drive” looks to have peaked around the turn of the century, while scientific or pseudo-scientific also-rans like the ramjet and gravity drive seem to be holding steady. Probably the most noticeable (and interesting) phenomenon was the brief but intense plateau of solar sails, which came to be pretty common right around the mid-1980’s before settling back down into a slow upward trajectory in the late ’90s.

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Fantasy Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Out of the stereo-typical fantasy tropes, dragons seem to be holding pretty steadily, but what’s notable is the rise of “wizard” in the late 1990s. Do I detect Harry Potter‘s wand at work?

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

Horror Tropes, 1900 - 2008

And here we can clearly see the impact of Anne Rice and her Lestat as the progenitors of the vampire craze. Vampires are clearly the monster of last thirty years, and by 2008, they still have nothing to fear from either werewolves or zombies.

The Future is Now: Is Hatsune Miku William Gibson’s Idoru made real?


There’s a new top-selling vocalist in the J-Pop genre: Hatsune Miku’s voice has been featured on gold-selling albums with Japanese bands like Supercell and Livetune (all links are to web sites in Japanese). Her singing has graced anime credits, and she has her own video game out from SEGA, and perhaps most impressively she’s performed live before crowds of 25,000 screaming fans. Of course, compared to the likes of Lady Gaga or Hannah Montana that’s not terribly impressive. But there’s a big difference between those standard pop-stars and Hatsune Miku: Hatsune Miku is not alive. She’s software. Think about that for a second: software, singing “live” to thousands of (real life) screaming fans. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the video:

Designed by Crypton Future Media, Hatsune Miku is the most popular of a type of software called vocaloids. These are programs designed to work with Yamaha’s vocaloid (vocal + android) software to synthesize human song. However, Hatsune Miku is more than the lines of code and signals that make up her synthesized voice. Her basic “look” was designed by the illustrator known as Kei, and features visual sensibilities familiar to fans of anime and manga. With this visual design and a distinctive (synthetic, mind you) singing voice capable of expressing complex emotions, Japan’s vibrant dojinshi music sub-culture soon developed the MikuMikuDance software to design 3D dance animations and music videos. The result is a complex community of lyricists, composers, illustrators, and choreographers/animators who collaborate and compete to create songs using their shared “instrument”.

The Consensus Mythology of Hatsune Miku

I freely admit, it is difficult for me to understand much of the nuance of this sub-culture as I (alas) don’t speak Japanese. However, from what I’ve been able to gleam from several hours of Internet research, Hatsune Miku is the logical meeting point of many Japanese sub-cultures. Her visual roots lie in manga and anime, but her initial genesis lies in the dojin music community. From there, Miku has spawned manga, anime, prose, itasha, and figures.

In the dojin music community, Miku is seen as an instrument first, not a character. And rightly, songwriters like Ryo (Supercell) are the true artists, since Miku sings what they write. Songwriters have utter control over every aspect of her performance: when she sings a note, she will always sing it the way the songwriter wanted (emotion included!). In this, she is no different than a keyboard or a guitar. The community collaborates through video and file sharing services, posting their work and soliciting feedback from other creators and fans. When Japanese media discusses Hatsune Miku artists, the focus is always on the songwriter: rarely the instrument.

But outside of the dojin music community, this “instrument” begins to resemble more popular manga, anime, and aidoru trends. With the plethora of (popular) dojin manga and fan-fiction, creators and fans build a consensus mythology around the character. Her history, her personality, all is built through the multi-faceted strands of her fan-base. Like many aidoru, she has publicized (and authorized by Crypton Future Media) measurements, the content of her songs is (in theory) limited by the license the creators agree to when using the software, etc. While it started with songs and videos, the Hatsune Miku community now creates stories, manga, and video games (Sega Hatsune Miku: Project Diva for PSP) that make use of this shared character.

Is Hatsune Miku William Gibson’s Rei Toei?

Fourteen years ago – long before the vocaloid technology was even close to possible – William Gibson wrote Idoru, the second novel in his Bridge trilogy. Set in an early 21st century Tokyo, Idoru examines a variety of cyberpunk themes, most particularly the relationship between artificial life and humanity which he explores through an artificially intelligent pop-idol construct named Rei Toei (after the Toei Company, one of Japan’s leading film and music studios).

In Gibson’s cyberpunk vision, Rei Toei is a self-actualizing adaptive composite intelligence. The point is that there are as many versions of Rei Toei as there are fans. Each fan builds a personalized album, songs, videos, performances, photographs, etc. of Rei based upon his or her particular preferences. When Rei performs in public, her style represents an averaging of the individual preferences across each fan in the audience, effectively becoming a consensus character. In a very real sense, Rei Toei represents the ur-idol: an “artist” with a perfect collection of traits that allow her to appeal to every single person in general, and to appeal to each fan in specific.

The parallels to Hatsune Miku are obvious. Like Rei, Hatsune Miku is a composite character: with the plethora of dojin songs, videos, and manga fans can gravitate to and select the content that specifically appeals to them. Don’t like a particular style? There are plenty more to choose from. In this sense, Hatsune Miku’s fans can consume their own concept of Hatsune Miku, selecting for a mythology and set of characteristics that appeals to them. No two Hatsune Miku fans will have the same preferences, but both can be equally pleased with what they get. In terms of predicting technology capabilities and the fan-base’s reaction, Gibson nailed it.

However, the differences between the two characters deal directly with some of Gibson’s (and cyberpunk’s) primary themes. Gibson painted Rei Toei as being strictly overseen by her owners. While her style and persona may be adjusted to the tastes of individual fans, it is the mega-corporation who enforces constraints on her choices. They provide her with the songs to perform and determine the types of behavior she can get into. Very purposefully, Gibson took the classic aidoru model of circumscribed managers, handlers, and controllers and applied it to an AI character. While the details of her public persona may be crowd-sourced and the personal consumption of her products personalized, the shared foundation for Rei Toei is prescribed by developer edict. In response, much of Gibson’s book focuses on Rei’s attempts to break free from the constraints imposed on her by the mega-corporation. Hatsune Miku, by contrast, is already free.

Every aspect of Miku’s “behavior” is determined by the distributed community of her creators. There is no single overseer who cashes in on her performances. Even Crypton Future Media – Miku’s ostensible “creators” and the owners of her code – do not try to limit the ways in which Miku can be expressed. As a result, Miku’s performances and behavior become just as crowd-sourced as her fan experiences become personalized. In dojinshi world of music, anime, manga and fan-fic there are no practical limits as to what Hatsune Miku can do.

Yet despite this freedom, Rei Toei is adaptive and self-actualizing, meaning that she represents an actual artificial intelligence that responds to human interaction, can converse freely, and can make independent decisions. She has become an emergent intelligence, capable of (seemingly) independent thought and action. Hatsune Miku – at least today – does not have any such properties. Modern technology has so far been unable to create emergent intelligence and as a result, Hatsune Miku is patently unable to choose her own destiny. Every choice is made for her by an individual and distinct creator.

The Ethics of Consensus Character Emergence

Is Hatsune Miku any more free than Rei Toei? On the one hand, Rei Toei is a perfectly adaptive self-actualizing AI. She is partially constrained by outside forces (her owners/creators), but she retains freedom of choice in certain limited arenas. Gibson’s book suggests that this represents slavery, despite Rei Toei’s artificial nature. Hatsune Miku, however, is perfectly constrained. She is not adaptive, not self-actualizing, and so is technologically unable to make any choices for herself. As a result, her creators maintain complete and utter control over her.

At first blush, this might seem like more oppressive slavery than what Rei Toei is subjected to, however I think the reality a little more complex. As anyone can create anything using the Hatsune Miku character, her range of effective choices is far broader than Rei Toei’s. She can do anything, so long as someone tells her what to do. This is at once more liberating and constraining, as it places the onus on the fans to determine who their consensus character will become. Many creators have a vested interest in the Hatsune Miku character, whether they are songwriters, music labels, authors, or publishers. The well-funded, well-organized creators have a far larger megaphone than the individual dojin working on their home computers. Will they hijack the Hatsune Miku character? Will they enforce their vision on her mythology? On the one hand, this may help popularize the Hatsune Miku character by making her more accessible to everyone. On the other, it will constrain the emerging consensus. Which would be better for art involving the character? What would be better for the fans?

I don’t have any answers, but I think we’ve entered a fascinating future where questions like this become practical concerns. When William Gibson wrote Idoru it was pure science fiction, set in a relatively near future, but involving technology so far beyond 486 processors and 32 MB of RAM that it was scarcely imaginable. But today, that science fiction has become very real. As a result, the questions that Gibson raised in 1996 have become much more relevant. How we answer them will affect the relationships between art, technology, and society. I don’t know if Gibson is aware of Hatsune Miku’s existence, but I hope he is. And I’d love to know what he thinks.

A Holiday Gift Guide for the Genre-inclined


If you’re like me, then you probably haven’t started your holiday shopping yet. If that’s the case, then let me borrow from Douglas Adams and offer some advice: DON’T PANIC! (I hope those letters are friendly on your display). Regardless of what holiday you’re celebrating, buying stuff for loved ones into science fiction, fantasy, and horror can often be difficult. So this week, I want to offer a little holiday gift guide to help you shop for those folks in your life who love genre:

For the Zombie-lover


American Zombie
We’ve seen what happens when the re-animated dead hunger. We’ve seen blood, and guts, and above all braaaaaiiins. But have we ever considered the zombies’ perspective? Have we ever wondered what it’s like to be part of that maligned, feared underclass in American society? American Zombie is a fun and creative documentary that follows the lives and dreams of several zombies living (un-living?) in Los Angeles. Fun, intelligent satire on our fascination with the walking dead.

The Do-it-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
The zombie lover in your life probably thinks about the coming apocalypse pretty frequently. They might have escape routes, fortification schematics, weapons caches, the whole nine yards. If that’s the case, or even if not, this book makes a very practical addition to your loved one’s library. With easy to follow guidance, it is sure to keep your loved ones safe. After all, at 10″ by 7.4″ and 160 pages, it could do some damage in a pinch.

The Zen of Zombie: Better Living Through the Undead
This self-help book is a perfect distillation of the zombie ethos. With a practical twelve-step guide to zombiefication, and lessons to learn about adaptability and being your own boss, this book can make your loved ones more satisfied with their life and happier in the work.

Gerber 22-41576 Gator Machete with Sheath
Movies and books aside, the gift that keeps on giving might be a good idea. Your zombie-phile loved ones will definitely appreciate a sturdy, 15″ double-edged (straight on one edge, and saw-toothed on the other) machete perfect for slicing and dicing anything out to eat some brains. Also makes a great companion gift to The Do-it-Yourself Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

For the Epic Fantasy Fan


Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen)
If they haven’t read Steven Erikson, this is a gift guaranteed to blow the mind of any epic fantasy fan: a 10-book, doorstopper-sized epic fantasy series that actually finishes! Unlike most epic fantasy series that go beyond three (let alone six) books, Erikson and his publishers have consistently delivered books more-or-less on-time. The last book in the series (number 10) is currently set to be released on March 1, 2011 and Amazon is already taking pre-orders for it. With great writing, well-textured world-building, and fun characters Erikson’s Malazan books of the fallen are probably the best epic fantasy written in the last twenty years.

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Alright, I admit it: I myself am not that big a fan of WoW. However, I know that lots of people (and lots of epic fantasy fans especially) are. So if the epic fantasy fan in your life enjoys WoW, or MMORPGs, or RPGs then they’re likely to enjoy the new world-changing experience of Cataclysm.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel
The essential guide book for anyone setting out on a fantasy adventure. Written by Dianna Wynne-Jones, who has taken many an intrepid tourist on a fantasy vacation, this book offers practical advice for navigating the wilds of fantasyland, the etiquette of interacting with the locals, and helpful guidance on what to bring, what to wear, and how to get about. Be sure to get an edition that is Dark Lord Approved!

For Vampire Fans who Hate Glitter


I Am Legend
Okay, I know I talk about this book a lot on this blog. But it really is one of the best vampire novels ever written. Dark, frightening, and leaves you faint and reeling at the end. Isn’t that what a good vampire should do?

American Vampire Vol. 1
With stories written by Stephen King and Scott Snyder and illustration by Rafael Albuquereque, American Vampire offers some grisly blood-sucking fun set in the Wild West and 1920’s Hollywood. An entertaining read, with restrained illustration capable of exploding into bloody viscera where and when needed, this graphic novel will be appreciated by those of us who enjoy evolving vampire myths.

Shadow of the Vampire
John Malkovich and Willem Defoe star as F.W. Murnau and Max Schrek (of silent movie fame) respectively in this fictionalized account of the filming of Nosferatu. Of course, in this version, Max Schrek in fact is a monstrous vampire, who preys on the cast and crew of the movie.

For the Steampunk Aficionado


Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded
A second steampunk anthology edited by the inestimable Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, this book collects twenty three short stories, two essays, and one roundtable interview that delves into the vagaries of steampunk literature. The fiction makes this anthology worth it, with some really great stories from authors like Jeffrey Ford and Tanith Lee.

Test Tube Spice Rack
Credit where credit is due, I actually found this concept on the STEAMED! blog. This is a great gift for any mad scientist who likes to experiment in the kitchen. The only advice I would have is to make sure your test tubes are properly labeled. It is – alas – all too easy to mistake strychnine for salt, after all.

Airship Aerodynamics: Technical Manual
While this military manual dates from 1941, your loved ones are sure to appreciate the detailed specs on flying and maintaining airships found in this treatise. Sure it’s dry and full of engineering and pilot jargon, but if your loved ones want to pilot an airship, shouldn’t they do it right?

For the Robot or Alien Lover


How to Build a Robot Army: Tips on Defending Planet Earth Against Alien Invaders, Ninjas, and Zombies
A very practical guide to building and utilizing a robot army for dealing with the myriad dangers lurking just around the corner, including (but not limited to) ninjas, aliens, Godzilla, and great white sharks. Written by Daniel Wilson, who holds a doctorate in robotics (no fooling!), the book is firmly grounded in science. With its sections on using robots against the zombie hordes, this might make a great cross-over gift for the zombie-lover in your life as well!

Mars Attacks!
This wonderfully sweet, heart-warming family movie directed by Tim Burton and starring the always even-keeled Jack Nicholson will reach out and touch the heart of any alien aficionado. Also, the sweet dulcet tones of Slim Whitman are sure to appeal to any science fiction music lovers!

Bottled Water
It should go without saying that you want to keep your loved ones safe from aliens. And if the cat on a hot skillet yowling of Slim Whitman is too much for you, thankfully M. Night Shyamalan shows us an alternative alien-bashing weapon: good old-fashioned H2O. A couple drops of this stuff, and those aliens will go the way of the Wicked Witch of the West! Of course, why hydrophobic aliens capable of interstellar travel would come to a planet 70% covered with the stuff, only Shyamalan could possibly tell us (I can picture the aliens’ reasoning now: what a world, what a world…).

What are some other gifts out there for those of us who love science fiction, fantasy, and horror? I’m certain there are tons of other ideas out there, and I’d love to hear some of them (whether serious or not).

Where Do We Go from Here? Utopia in Contemporary Science Fiction


Over the weekend, science fiction author Charles Stross posted a call for more utopian speculation in contemporary science fiction. I was weaned on Huxley, Wells, Skinner, and Orwell, and so Charles’ call got me thinking: why has the utopian sub-genre fizzled out of style in the last fifty or so years? Why has the search for a good place (eutopia) ended up going no place (utopia)? (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). I think the decline of utopian fiction is linked to the lack of a cogent utopian response to dystopian critique. What makes the dystopian critique so effective? How are the best dystopias constructed?

The Structures of Utopia and Dystopia

How to Make Perfection Entertaining

The vast majority of utopian fiction was written during the end of the industrial revolution (1880 – 1950), riding on the popularization of socialist philosophy in western Europe. Dystopias rose in parallel, although in far greater number due to their greater entertainment value. The brutal fact is that dystopias sell better than utopias because perfection makes it very hard for an author to introduce conflict.

Starting with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, every piece of utopian fiction has been written like a travelogue. The reader follows a protagonist who comes from our imperfect society, and who enters (one way or another) the perfect society. Given this set up, it becomes almost impossible to introduce tension. Why would the visitor ever want to leave? What would the hero need to fight against? Conflict is out-moded in a utopia, and this makes storytelling very difficult.

The vast majority of utopian fiction appeals to logos first and pathos second, and it wasn’t until Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delaney that those priorities were revsered. In the 1960s and ’70s, authors like Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia), and Samuel R. Delany (Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia) introduced real conflict into their utopian plots. Each did this by throwing the utopia or its representatives (Heinlein’s anarcho-libertarian Luna, Le Guin’s collectivist Shevek/Anarres, Delany’s sex/gender heterotopia Triton) into armed conflict with a non-utopian society (Earth, Urras, and Earth respectively).

As Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany made clear, the entertainment value of contemporary utopian fiction relies upon the relationship between the utopia and a different (possibly opposed) society. More recently, Iain M. Banks has done this to good effect in his Culture novels, where his protagonists tend to be Special Circumstances operatives (spies) interacting with non-utopian planets/societies/situations. While retaining some aspects of the travelogue, these books take a page out of Victor Hugo’s work and embody the utopian ideal into a principle character. Similarly, they then take the opposing viewpoint and embody that value system into a different character and let the two collide.

Le Guin effectively reversed the utopian travelogue structure: her hero Shevek is the collectivist utopian, but the world he visits (Urras) is the anti-thesis of his collectivist home planet. By making her visitor the utopian, she was able to explore more clearly the strengths and flaws of her collectivist/anarchist society and the opposed individualist/capitalist society. Delany does something similar by sending a visitor (Brom) whose values are inimical to those of the utopia he visits. This sets the stage for a gripping and powerful conflict between him and those he has relationships with, which is mirrored by the interplanetary conflict with Earth.

For those looking to write entertaining utopian fiction that has a hope of competing against dystopias, the lessons are deceptively simple:

  1. Personify your value systems.
  2. Play with perspective, by shifting which character is either narrating the story or the viewpoint character.
  3. Focus on individual relationships, instead of on the philosophical ones.

Viva la Revolucion!

Dystopias, by contrast, are stories of revolution. An ostensibly perfect society is shown to be deeply flawed, hypocritical, unjust. Our hero – usually a died-in-the-wool believer at the story’s opening – realizes his perfect society is a lie and either brings the system down or escapes to a liberated area outside of the proscribed area. The conflict practically writes itself: the situation is dire (our hero is usually alone against oppressive odds), and the stakes are high (death, or worse: conversion).

Structurally, dystopias tend to be logical extrapolations of a central conceit, a conceit that tends to be tied to the philosophical, sociological, and economic concerns of the time:

  • Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 classic We takes the early 20th century’s industrialization, Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, and constructs a totalitarian world state where individuals are referred to only by number and any burgeoning individuality is earnestly squashed.
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the principles of assembly-line manufacturing are now applied to individuals, whose roles in life are rigidly determined based on their genetic engineering.
  • George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, directly inspired by Zamyatin’s work and extrapolating the concept of a society founded on the Panopticon.
  • Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which depicts censorship taken to a logical extreme.
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron (published in Welcome to the Monkey House: Stories), which shows a state in which everyone is forced to be average in all aspects of their being.
  • Jack Vance’s Alastor trilogy, where each book explores a different society built around a particular social concept (respectively gambling, fuedalism, collectivism).
  • John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, which take show plausible consequences of Malthusian overpopulation and ecological collapse.
  • Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which takes 1980’s Thatcherite politics and postulates a future based upon them.
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which shows a society built on religious fundamentalism and male chauvinism.
  • James Morrow’s City of Truth, which posits a society founded upon (always) telling the truth.
  • Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which builds a society around providing the masses with “bread and circuses” (gladiatorial conflict) to keep them in line.

All of the examples listed above hinge upon a central character who comes to doubt the society they are a part of. Whether it is Bradbury’s Montag, or Morrow’s Jack Sperry, the protagonist is a product of the dystopian society who comes to vehemently oppose it. This opposition lends even early dystopias powerful conflict, rising tension, and thematic tension. Even the earlier dystopias established the pattern of embodying opposing principles in their characters. For every Winston Smith, we have an O’Brien (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). For every Bernard Marx and John the Savage, we have a Mustapha Mond (Huxley’s Brave New World). This gives the opposing philosophies a face, makes them personable and – in the case of Mustapha Mond, at least – deceptively sympathetic.

If utopian fiction has traditionally appealed to logos, and then pathos, then dystopian fiction has traditionally reversed that order. As a result, the success or failure of dystopian fiction lies in its world-building. The memorable dystopian works tend to have fully-realized characters, and conflict-prone plots that put their heroes in desperate situations philosophically and physically.

The Dystopian Critique of Utopia

If Charles Stross is looking for more utopian fiction, then he should be looking for more utopias that apply lessons from their dystopian cousins. By relying upon more three-dimensional characters, dystopian fiction better illustrates how flawed humans may react to situations and choices. “Human nature” is often cited as a criticism of utopian philosophy, and only the works of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delaney have tried to respond to that criticism. Heinlein’s utopia takes the cynical, ultra-libertarian view of individualism and applies it. Le Guin readily admits to the flaws in her utopia, and posits that society as an aspirational work-in-progress reliant upon the ethos of its inhabitants. Delaney shows that any utopia is indelibly based upon a shared value system, and elements which “don’t fit in” may or may not have a place within that society…even if by ostensible definition, it is an all-encompassing, all-permitting society.

These are not the techniques of H.G. Wells or earlier utopian authors. They are instead the techniques of dystopian fiction, applied to utopian concepts. And if we are to look for modern-day utopian fiction, we should try to write more books that attempt the same. Thinly-veiled imperative lectures (à la Wells or Morris) would not sell today, and though well-written utopian travelogues (like Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age) may win awards and earn respect, they are extremely difficult to get right. I also suspect there is limited demand for them.

If we want to see contemporary utopian fiction, one option is to take a page out of Iain M. Banks’ playbook: establish the utopia in the far-distant future, so far removed as to make it effectively fait accomplit, then use Le Guin’s tactic of taking a dyed-in-the-wool utopian and putting them in conflict/interaction with opposing viewpoints. It’s a technique that works for the most-recent utopias, whether Iain M. Banks’ Culture or the Star Trek Federation. While this technique makes for compelling reading, but the fact that there are few “new” types of utopia limits the potential thematic impact.

Another option is to do as John C. Wright does in his Golden Age trilogy. There, the author takes a page out of the dystopian playbook: he uses a dyed-in-the-wool utopian character to uncover the flaws in his own utopia. Whereas in a truly dystopian work, that hero would then go on to either destroy or escape his society, Wright’s hero instead tries to save his society despite its flaws. Structurally, this is probably the most interesting utopian fiction I have seen in many years. While the utopia itself is of the nearly-ubiquitous individualist/anarchist mold, the technique by which Wright explores his themes is quite refreshing.

A third – and perhaps most challenging – option is to actually come up with some fresh utopian philosophies. In many ways, utopian philosophy has become almost synonymous with either libertarian anarchy or collectivist anarchy, and I question whether there is much more to be said on either subject. Instead, perhaps we should come up with some new models for looking at society, for structuring our relationships. If we do that, then we should apply the structural lessons of dystopian fiction to make the characters compelling, the plots full of conflict, and fundamentally resonant.

One possibility which I see is for utopian fiction that actually precedes the utopia itself. Utopia is – by definition – a static place. But the process of building a utopia, whatever its value system, surely is not. Why not utopian fiction that is directly aspirational? The reality of watching a utopia be built might be like the making of law and sausages: best left unwatched. But if we’re dealing with fiction, then I’m sure we can squeeze some entertainment and thematic resonance out of the struggle for a better world. After all, once that struggle is won, we’ll have no more conflict to write about.

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