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The Convergence of Utopia and Science Fiction

A couple of weeks ago – amidst all of the craziness involved with packing, moving, and unpacking – I managed to take a weekend and go up to Readercon in Burlington, MA. I’d been to Readercon two (more accurately, one and a half) times before, and every time, I find the panels thought-provoking (and the conversations between panels, at the bar, and at the parties hilarious and often thought-provoking, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

Readercon This year’s Readercon featured a theme that’s been on my mind of late: utopia. There were three or four program items dedicated to the subject, and I managed to get to almost all of them. While the discussions were all very interesting, I felt that they had danced around two ancillary questions which form the heart of my interest in the subject: What are the drivers of utopian thought? And what makes utopian fiction effective?

Where Does Utopia Come From?

Utopian fiction has a long history, but it’s become increasingly thin-on-the-ground (or the bookshelves) of late. Why? This is the kind of question we can come at from many angles, but to really do an effective job answering it, I think we need to understand how utopian fiction comes about. And here, I’m going to speculate widely, generally, and with any luck reasonably.

Utopian thought (and the fiction which explores it) is a consequence of humanity’s tendency towards systemic thought.

Our minds are pattern-matching machines: From the moment of birth (and possibly even before) our brains are assembling a complex collection of cause/effect responses. If I drop my Cheerios on the floor, mommy gets upset. If I pull the dog’s tail, the dog runs away. When we assemble a bunch of those cause/effect responses – and when we chain them together and interrelate them – an incredibly complex system emerges.

We interact with the world around us – with physical objects, with individuals, with organizations, with groups, and even with ourselves – based upon expectations borne of that complicated system. While the individual action might be simple (turn up the thermostat so that the room becomes warmer), it is predicated upon a complex set of imputed underlying (and inter-related) systems. So what does this have to do with utopia?

Utopian thought comes from an awareness (however flawed) of the systems shaping society. It stems from a philosophical tradition in which one can comfortably place Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Engels, Marx, Rand, and just about any individual who has ever had a political opinion. Utopian thought is a systemic “what if game: If we adjust the systems that shape our society, how will our society change?

This may seem like a simplistic characterization of utopian thought, and to some extent, that’s a fair criticism. But despite its simplicity, it remains precise. And that precision is what makes it helpful for exploring utopian thought’s evolution through the centuries, its relationship to science fiction, and its structural portrayal within fiction.

Our Changing Understanding of Societal Systems

Utopian thought is always grounded in the philosophical zeitgeist of its time. As our understanding of the systems underlying our society changes, so too do the structures and systems depicted in our utopias.

Utopias – like science fiction – are as much commentaries on their present as they are prescriptions for the future.

When Plato described his Republic, or when More’s traveler came upon his island, they were writing in their time and for their time. Their “ideal” societies were built upon their understanding of the systems underlying their contemporary society. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News from Nowhere are both rooted in the social, economic, and cultural debates of the rapidly-industrializing 19th century. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed cannot easily be divorced from the political and economic debates of the mid-20th. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man and Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton are products of the culturally tumultuous 1960-70’s.

Utopian works rely on a philosophical context shared between reader and author. To remove a utopian work from the philosophical context of its time is to reduce it to quaint over-simplicity (an easy critique to offer when looking backwards) or abstruse incomprehensibility (a hypothesized critique when looking forwards – I suspect Plato might have had difficulty grokking Trouble on Triton, for example).

This relationship between utopian thought and the philosophy of its day is, I think, the reason why we have seen relatively little utopian fiction since the 1980s. Before the ’80s, political philosophy, economics, and even psychology were often founded on reductionist principles (i.e. if we can break each system down into its elemental components, we can understand how those systems function). The past thirty years, however, have witnessed the burgeoning popularity of anti-reductionist “systems thought”, “complexity theory”, and “holistic approaches”.

Berlin Wall Tumbles To over-simplify: before the 1980s, it was reasonable for any one philosopher to articulate a “complete” political, social, or economic philosophy. Yes, that articulated philosophy would be flawed and overly simplistic (see Plato, Rand, Heinlein, Yefremov, etc.). But the practical applications (and limitations) of such articulations could be observed in the wild: Soviet Communism in the Eastern bloc, Maoist Communism in China, American Capitalist Democracy in the United States, and mildly-Socialist democracy of varying strains across much of Europe. But then the world changed in the 1980s: Soviet Communism unraveled, and Western society realized that our reductionist models had missed something (or many things).

Since the ‘80s, in every field of social science (including economics, history, sociology, psychology, etc.) we have come to embrace the idea of complex and irreducible systems. This has progressed in line with the increasing specialization of our education systems. For example, the average (educated!) person on the street is unlikely to be able to explain how money supply or the quantity theory of money works. And even amongst economists there is much debate about how various systems affect and shape the money supply, and how that money supply in turn affects and shapes society at large.

I’ve heard time and again folks say that the world has gotten more complex. That’s not true: The world has always been this complicated. But our awareness of the world’s complexity has increased substantially in the last century. As a result, we have shifted from a society which believed it could explain the world to a society which now recognizes its own inability to do so. As a result, our what-if scenarios (reliant as they are upon a shared understanding between reader and author) have grown more tentative.

That makes the creative challenge of producing effective utopian fiction harder. The audience comes to the text already predisposed to reject our utopia.

The Relationship between Utopia and Science Fiction

Several paragraphs ago, I offered a reasonably concise description of utopian thought, characterizing it as a systemic “what-if” scenario. If such a what-if game sounds suspiciously like a working definition of science fiction, well, there’s a good reason for that: Every work of utopian writing can be considered a work of science fiction. And the obverse likewise holds: Every work of science fiction can be considered a work of utopian thought.

I can imagine the complaints now: How can works like E.E. “Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Paulo Baciagalupi’s The Windup Girl, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games be credibly called utopian? They have very little in common, it might seem, to works like H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

But those differences are superficial at best: beneath the stories’ plot, underneath their characterization, and independent of their narrative structure lies an underlying question (what if) which is central to the vast majority (though not all) of science fiction. The differences? Those are differences in expression, differences in technique, differences in the method by which the author’s conjectures are explored. From a philosophical perspective, those are differences in aesthetic.

The Changing Aesthetics of Utopia

When I look at the evolution of utopian fiction, I see a path of convergence. By today’s aesthetic standards, the “classics” of utopian fiction can be considered dull at best, and didactic at worst. A “perfect society devoid of conflict makes plotting difficult. A society which assumes the uniformity of the human condition either a priori or as a consequence of society’s perfection makes characterization tough. By the aesthetic standards of the 19th century, the philosophical question of “what if” alone may have been enough to support a novel-length work.

By our aesthetic standards today? We demand more: tension; conflict; drama. We want pathos in addition to our logos. Utopian fiction’s gradual evolution throughout the twentieth century has marked the gradual shift to more emotive expressions: compare the conflict in H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia to that of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and then that to the conflict in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. One could plot a timeline of explicitly utopian fiction based upon the reader’s emotional proximity to the characters, and those character’s explicit articulation of philosophical conjecture.

The commercial and aesthetic requirement that fiction must feature conflict and drama stands in tension with that fiction’s ability to examine social, economic, or political philosophy. The closer our gaze is focused on the characters, the more oblique becomes the presentation of philosophical conjecture.

Where the philosophical conjecture is viewed head-on, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, we are left with a dystopian work (or in Le Guin’s case, a heavily ambiguous one). The conflict stems from the philosophy, and the “perfect” world is shown to the reader to be so flawed as to fail in its stated goal. This is, of course, a valid and powerful technique in both utopian thought and in science fiction. “It will fail” is a reasonable response to the question of “what if”.

However, in works where the utopian philosophy is presented obliquely – implied through what goes unstated or otherwise baked into the world-building – we can still identify fascinating utopian themes. Whether that’s in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, or Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy we can identify strains of utopian conjecture and examination. They are explored – typically – between the lines, sometimes closer to the story’s surface and other times buried a little more deeply. It works, however, because it is baked into the story’s underlying world-building using the techniques of the science fiction genre.

Utopian Fiction Looking Forward

Contemporary utopian fiction has fully converged with science fiction, to the point where separating the two has become all but impossible. One can make the argument that this discussion is tautological navel-gazing, or as relevant to contemporary writing as asking how many angels can dance on the period at the end of this sentence. I disagree.

Like any branch of either philosophy or writing, utopian fiction is subject to the pressures of its society. In this case, under aesthetic pressure, utopian fiction has had to embrace narrative conflict. This has happened in parallel with society’s rejection of reductionist socioeconomic philosophies, and this societal acknowledgment of nuance has forced a further narrowing of the narrative’s focus to individuals within a hypothetical society. The surrounding society may be idealized, or have utopian elements, yet the lives of the individuals living within it may still be conflicted. Today’s science fiction and utopian thought have both rejected narratives of simplicity.

The mechanism that enables utopian thought (what-if style conjecture) is the same that enables science fiction’s world-building. If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it stands to reason that it is – in fact – a duck. Can we have science fiction that isn’t utopian? Or can we have a utopia which isn’t science fictional? Given the above, I am hard-pressed to think of examples.

Philosophical travelogues with thin characterization and prescriptive didacticism are passé by today’s standards. But the deep and philosophically relevant questions that utopian fiction has traditionally explored can still be examined. But this creates a two-fold challenge: On the one hand, we must consider the complex systems underlying our fictional societies and the relationships therein, while at the same time considering how those systems will affect individuals within those societies on emotional, functional, and even spiritual levels.

Where those systems fail, it is far easier to shift the story into dystopia, to derive narrative tension from those failures.

A far more difficult trick is to show those systems as functional, while still featuring emotionally resonant narrative tension.

End of the Blogging Vacation & Design Changes Coming

So about two months ago, I mentioned that I was going to be taking a bit of a vacation from blogging here. Well, what was originally going to last about a month has turned into two. To be fair, during that long vacation I wrote some of the most discussed entries in the history of this blog, but nevertheless, I have been taking it easy here while dealing with a ton of real-life stuff. In the offline world, we sold our house and moved about 20 minutes closer to New York City, so it’s been a rather busy month.

But now that we’re all settled into our new abode, now that the books are unpacked (still unorganized, but at least they’re not in boxes any longer), I’m going to be back here on my regular weekly schedule. Also, don’t be surprised (or too concerned) if the look of this blog changes a little in the coming days and weeks, since there are bunch of design tweaks I’ve been meaning to get to. If I break something in my design experiments, rest assured I’ll be around to fix it shortly!

Forthcoming design changes notwithstanding, as of this Tuesday (July 30th) I’ll be back to posting an essay every Tuesday as per usual. I hope you’ll join me!

A Healthy Dose of Professionalism

So for much of the last two weeks I’ve been kept offline by travel (yay 4th Street Fantasy!) and offline life doings. Now that life is starting to settle back down, I’ve entered catch-up mode. When I left for Minnesota, much of the discussion was focused on the controversy surrounding SFWA’s Bulletin, N.K. Jemisin’s GoH speech, and Theodore Beale/Vox Day’s racist response to it. I wrote about these issues here and here. While I was away, the SF/F corner of the internet has been quite busy (for a good timeline, I recommend S.L. Huang’s post here).

Since the last update (on July 3rd) to S.L. Huang’s timeline, several notable events have happened which give me hope for the science fiction & fantasy community:

  • Convention Harassment Policy Pledge. Former SFWA president John Scalzi posts a public description of his newly-adopted convention attendance policy, wherein he categorically states that should a convention not have a harassment policy or fail to communicate such policy clearly to its members, he will not attend that convention in any capacity (e.g. as a Guest of Honor, panelist, fan/member, etc.).
  • Scalzi’s Policy Gains Co-signatories. Many other writers, fans, publishers, and editors (as of this writing, over 550 and counting) across a myriad of genders and backgrounds co-sign Scalzi’s Harassment Policy pledge.
  • SFWA Bulletin Task Force Announces Next Steps. SFWA’s Bulletin Task Force (established in response to the SFWA Bulletin controversy) announces that all Bulletin contributors have been paid for their contracted work despite the Bulletin’s publication being suspended. SFWA’s statement furthermore reiterates and clarifies plans for a survey to be delivered to members to get a better sense of what the organization’s membership expects of The Bulletin.
  • SFWA Proceeds with Vox Day/Theodore Beale Matter. Following complaints about SFWA-member Vox Day (aka Theodore Beale)’s racist attacks on fellow SFWA-member N.K. Jemisin and his abuse of SFWA promotional tools to disseminate same, many SFWA members have begun calling for Day’s expulsion from the organization. SFWA has responded by following its organizational procedures and compiling a confidential investigative report and sharing it with Vox Day for his response. Vox Day chose to publish the e-mail correspondence in question (note: again, FWIW, I choose not link to Vox Day’s blog here, but a quick Google search will find it), though not the contents of the investigative report itself.

Why do these four events give me hope? Because they are all markers of an increasingly professional response to the cultural drama unfolding in the SF/F community.

Harassment Policy Pledge as an Articulation of Standards

Scalzi’s harassment policy pledge is a statement of professional standards. It articulates a clear set of expectations that all conventions can and should be held to. One can quibble as to whether or not his standards go far enough or fall short, yet they remain a reasonable set of standards nevertheless. And while they are his personal standards, the fact that so many people active and involved and passionate about the genre agree with them lends credence to the belief that those who disagree are a small and dwindling minority in the community.

I am saddened that as a community we still need such clear and plain-spoken standards. I am disappointed that such standards are not simply a “given” in our cultural makeup. But I am proud that as a community we can articulate these expectations and that so much of the community supports them. I see this as a sign of burgeoning professionalism in the community.

SFWA’s Steps on the Bulletin

I sympathize with SFWA’s new Board. They probably had a rough first week. However, SFWA’s behavior speaks well of the Board’s attitude towards professionalism. The Board treated its business partners (the writers who had been contracted to write for the Bulletin) honorably and correctly, as befits a professional outfit. As an organization that represents writers, it would have been an egregious act of bad faith to have stiffed its own constituents. Thankfully, SFWA took the high road and did exactly what it should have. I applaud the Board for its professionalism.

I have more mixed opinions on the announced Bulletin survey. On the one hand, seeking to get insight from SFWA constituents is a professional response to the high emotions and rhetoric surrounding the recent controversies. Regardless of the task force’s ultimate decision(s), such a survey will simultaneously help give SFWA’s leadership insight into the current mindset of the membership and will give that membership a chance for its voice/views to be heard. This is good. This is professional. This is as it should be.

However, having spent my professional career in the world of market research, I am less confident that a survey of dissatisfied customers (i.e. Bulletin readers/SFWA members) is a good way to design a better product going forward. It is notoriously difficult for a survey respondent to offer meaningful recommendations to a researcher, particularly in a quantitative tool. Yes, it can be done, and yes, a survey can be well-designed to elicit more practical / meaningful data. But it is not easy, and the quality of data that SFWA gets from its survey will be directly dependent on both the questionnaire that SFWA designs and the response rate that SFWA achieves. It leads to me wonder whether SFWA will be designing the questionnaire or conducting the research in-house or contracting it out to a professional?

Still, that is ultimately the technical challenge of executing on the published plan. As it stands, SFWA’s Bulletin Task Force has been proceeding exactly as it should in responding to the controversies surrounding the Bulletin. The Task Force’s response has been measured, responsible, and professional. Which is exactly as it should be.

A Comparison of Two Approaches: SFWA and Vox Day

SFWA’s proceedings on the Vox Day matter are equally telling. From an outsider’s perspective, the e-mails which Vox Day chose to publish (which I currently assume are accurate) are procedural, bureaucratic, and precise. They are unambiguous and procedurally even-handed. They are downright boring. Which is again exactly as it should be in a professional organization’s professional conduct.

Some may complain that SFWA should move faster or should make its proceedings in regards to Vox Day public, but I strongly disagree. Due process – even in a private organization which defines for itself what such due process is – matters. Responsibly and completely investigating the complaints against Vox Day/Theodore Beale and giving him time to respond is exactly what the organization should do. And this cannot – and should not – happen overnight.

The confidentiality of these proceedings is a somewhat more debatable choice. I can see arguments both for making the proceedings public (to give constituents insight into the proceedings/decision-making process) and for keeping them confidential (to protect everyone: those who complain, those who have been accused, those who defend the accused, and the organization itself). As it stands, SFWA’s Board has chosen to keep the proceedings confidential. I am not certain I agree with that choice, but I can respect it as reasonable, responsible, and (again) professional.

Vox Day has chosen to only partially respect the confidentiality of SFWA’s proceedings, attempting to use that very confidentiality as a stalking horse to appear victimized. This is an unprofessional attempt to shift the proceedings into an inappropriate forum: it is not the internet’s job to adjudicate this matter. That is the right and responsibility of SFWA’s Board.

As I said in my last post on this subject, I won’t opine on whether Vox Day should remain a member of SFWA or not. I’m not (yet) a member, so my voice in this regards should be meaningless. In this process, it is SFWA’s Board (and ultimately SFWA’s membership) which sets the rules. That’s just the way professional governance works. By publicly flouting the rules, Vox Day is sending a clear message to SFWA’s Board and its membership: He does not respect SFWA’s right to govern itself, nor does he respect the professional approach SFWA’s Board has adopted.

But in all of this, what makes me smile is the fact that SFWA – and SFWA’s freshly-minted Board – is approaching all of this with a reasonable, responsible, and professional approach. Which is exactly what I would want from a professional organization. And all of this gives me increased hope that – slowly, very slowly – the tempest I first wrote about a month ago is beginning to ebb.

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