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The Convergence of Utopia and Science Fiction

Utopia, OH

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.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Me, Chris, I’m interested that, like a yin-yang symbol, every Dystopia seems to have the seeds of Utopia (however brief and transitory) within it. And vice versa.

    The ones who walk away from Omelas seems to be the explicit working out of this idea, IMO.

    July 31, 2013
    • Absolutely! Every actual dystopia (excluding those post-apocalyptic environments which are commercially labeled dystopian without actually having any true dystopian elements) is predicated on examining the failures of a utopian approach. Le Guin actually does an amazing job of that, whether in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, The Dispossessed, Always Coming Home or (to a lesser degree) The Eye of the Heron.

      In a real sense, dystopias are a counter-argument in the utopian conversation: They show us the cracks in utopia’s foundation, and in some cases stress those cracks to the point where the utopia undergoes moral collapse (in the reader’s perception).

      August 1, 2013
  2. Every Utopia is a Dystopia since something must be traded or sacrificed to achieve it, a grand bargain if you will that leads to a static realm. But the seeds of that grand bargain also lead to the utopias demise. Then again, utopias, by their very definition can not exists, and so forever will remain in the “what-if” realm of speculative fiction.

    July 31, 2013
    • Heh – there’s a fascinating philosophical discussion that can be had about the definition of utopia, its relationship to the human condition, and its possible existence, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish. 😉

      You raise a great point about the trade-offs inherent to any utopian approach. Exploring that grand bargain (in particular, stressing it – see Paul’s comment up above) is where a great many utopian works get their narrative tension and thematic power.

      But I’m less convinced that the grand utopian bargain leads to stasis. Stasis is a danger for any utopian concept, but if we look at contemporary utopian visions (e.g. Banks’ Culture, or to a lesser degree Kazuo Ishiguro’s society in Never Let Me Go) an awareness of stasis risk and some means of mitigating it can be baked into the model.

      Part of what we seem to have acknowledged in the last thirty years is that older static models are unrealistic. Of course, that means that to pull off an explicitly utopian work these days one has to demonstrate how the utopian model avoids stasis, which is much easier said than done. 🙂 On the other hand, by avoiding stasis in the model, it seems like generating narrative conflict and tension would be easier.

      August 1, 2013
      • Is it too on the nose to wonder if science fiction often solves this problem of stasis by saying that culture is the answer? Perhaps inherent in the conversation of science fiction is the notion that the conversation itself is an answer to issues that are core to the project of science fiction.

        August 1, 2013
  3. Fantastic insight on changing aesthetics of utopia. It makes a lot of sense to me.

    I wonder if the failure of the grand systems of political thought has meant that utopian thinking has looked more towards technology as a bringer about of utopian conditions. Technology, after all, is a way around the complex systems — it’s a short cut**. Whether it’s the creation of goods, energy, travel or communications, technology shifts the balance of power and/or solves the problem of limited resources (a problem that political, economic and social systems have seemed to failed quite spectacularly to be able to deal with in the past century). Technology leads to some sort of abundance and/or some sort of freeing from previous constraints. Of course, we also understand that it can be used against us and that, perhaps, it also dehumanizes us (we’ve known that since 1984 and Brave New World [and Lord of the Rings and the Arts and Crafts movement, etc.). And yet it still holds a certain allure, I think, even if that is purely aesthetic (and I think this holds true to a certain extent for fantasy too, esp. in the form of steampunk or high fantasy with complicated magic systems).

    This anxiety around technology (which is both ubiquitous and, for most people, opaque) may also, perhaps, be why the post-apocalyptic (and thus low-tech) worlds are popular right now.

    **and it also can be a short cut in the world building of the text itself. You don’t have to show all the schematics in fiction — you just have to make it a plausible metaphor so that it can become the engine driving whatever it is you’re trying to do.

    August 1, 2013
  4. Not until now I got an opportunity to read this amazing post, and now I thank the chance that brought me here.

    I completely agree that the concepts of utopia and SF are both based on the same “what-if” game and that their convergence today has much to do with the change in reader tastes. Authors have to use the instruments of SF genre to provide more action, more drama, more emotion and lively characters into their story in order to get it read and their philosophical ideas perceived. However, I doubt whether SF is the only genre that can provide fitting instruments for this purpose.

    “Can we have a utopia which isn’t science fictional?” I’m afraid I have a positive answer to this question. Imagine a fantasy, feudal world with two struggling sides: one is people whose life is centered around religion, tradition and abiding a strict moral code, and the other is people who develop technology and magic (which in their world is almost the same), favor individualism and competition and free thinking – all values of the present-day society, and that makes them look immoral in the eyes of the other side. A protagonist from our world gets transported (by magic) into this one, rises to a great lord and begins to build his own kingdom of justice, taking the best from both competing sides. And succeeds in it. It looks like the author’s intention was to deconstruct our present-day society – not completely, just to the point back in history where our technological development began to prevail ultimately over that of morals and ethics – and show a better way ahead it could have taken. Can this book be considered a utopia? I think it can, if soon it’s based on “what-if” assumption and shows a believable society which the reader would love to live in. But what about the setting which is definitely not science fictional?

    The article and comments also made me think of the margin between utopian and dystopian books. The Brave New World is generally accepted to be a dystopia while Men Like Gods – just the opposite, but a considerable number of works seems to be falling somewhere between. Can there be any universal criteria to distinguish one from another? Or that’s purely a matter of cultural/individual perception – what feels utopian for some readers, may feel dystopian for others? I’d love to hear what you think about it.

    February 21, 2014

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