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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.

An Unscheduled Rant: The Death of Science Fiction and Unrepentant Ignorance of YA SF

While I do tend to blather on about my thoughts about speculative fiction, I don’t normally post off my weekly schedule or post rants. In what is perhaps a bit of a departure from my norm, today I’m going to do both. What set off this rant is a couple of thought-provoking posts, the first from Jason Sanford over at SF Signal and the second a thoughtful response over at Nerd Redefined.

Sanford’s post started the simmer of my rant. He poses a good, thoughtful question: why are there so few readers of science fiction while so many consumers of science fiction in other media? That is an interesting question, relevant to storytelling across all media, and to our society’s aspirations and future. And – perhaps unsurprisingly – the answers suggested by both Sanford’s post and the comments in response lay the blame squarely at the feet of YA science fiction:

However, in today’s marketplace there are relatively few current SF novels aimed at young readers (with the exception of dystopian novels, like The Ember series by Jeanne Duprau and The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, and movie tie-in novels related to Star Wars and Star Trek).

This is one of those “facts” that I see SF fandom trot out time and time again. And this fact is wrong. Let me be clear: it is factually incorrect. It evidences a basic ignorance of what is being produced within the YA community, which – BTW – is actually a vibrant community often completely separate and unaware of the SF fandom/writer community. For those who want evidence, at the end of this post I’ve got a brief list of some YA SF novels published in the last couple of years.

I also took the time to go through the last seven e-mails I’ve received from Publisher’s Marketplace listing deals that were announced in the past week. Bear in mind that not all deals are announced in Publishers Marketplace, and that a one week sample isn’t statistically sound (if I wanted to be methodologically reliable I’d need to go through at least one or – better yet – two years worth of deal announcements). But even this cursory glance at titles/deals announced in the US and the UK is telling. Here’s how the numbers break out:

DATE YA SF YA Fantasy Middle-grade SF Middle-grade Fantasy
March 8, 2012 3 1
March 7, 2012 1
March 6, 2012 1
March 4, 2012 2 5
March 1, 2012 1 1 1 1
February 29, 2012
February 28, 2012 2 1
TOTAL: 9 6 1 4
as % of Non-adult SF/F 45% 30% 5% 20%
as % of Age Group 60% 40% 20% 80%

Now, there are a lot of methodological caveats to be made here, not least:

  • I am doing a categorization based on the little snippet of information included with the deal announcements.
  • My categorization of titles is neither anonymized nor corroborated to exclude personal bias.
  • I selected the last seven e-mails from PM that I had in my inbox. Thus the time period is not random, nor is it broad enough to draw far reaching conclusions.

But these methodological caveats, coupled with the list of titles below, should at the least be suggestive that perhaps there is more YA/MG science fiction being published than the traditional SF community is cognizant of.

Now, I’m not a YA or MG (middle-grade) author. Not writing for those age groups, I don’t have a horse in that race. But because The Professor edits YA/MG for a living, I do tend to read a lot of it. And hear about a lot more than I read. And so when I’m confronted with authoritative statements being made that evidence little awareness of the facts, it tends to get me riled.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of Jason Sanford’s post. His post was thoughtful, respectful, and intelligently constructed. Instead, what I wish to indict is the fact that in almost every discussion of YA SF I have come across – whether at cons or online – those invited to the table are almost always SF authors with little exposure to the contemporary world of YA literature. Their arguments all too often are based upon ignorant assumptions.

Let me bust out some – potentially heretical – knowledge here:

Heinlein juveniles are utterly and completely irrelevant in today’s YA marketplace.

I know, I know. We all grew up reading them. And we all love them. But readers below the age of twenty thirty who’ve ever heard of them are few and far between. Tomorrow’s science fiction readers are not interested in whiz bang technology, or in “accessible” science fiction. They want good storytelling, tight prose, and most importantly, engaging characterization. In casual conversations with some of The Professor’s colleagues (who all edit YA and MG for a living, I should add) I once asked if they’d ever heard of Heinlein’s juveniles. The only one who had (and who groaned at my question) was The Professor. Now, some of us might say “Aha!” and point to that as the problem. But it isn’t. Because these same editors publish tons of science fiction. They just don’t call it that: they call it YA or middle-grade.

And this is the problem, which Nerd Redefined touched on. The traditional SF community and the YA community are completely and utterly ignorant of each others’ existence. It’s like a middle school dance. In one corner, we’ve got the SF folks who are all lamenting the fact that there’s no science fiction being written for kids. And across the gym we’ve got the YA writers who are happily writing science fiction while blissfully wondering who’s whinging in the other corner.

Here’s how I see it: today’s young audience is devouring speculative fiction. Whether it’s science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, they’re eating it up in video games, in movies, in sequential art, and — yes — in books, too. But for today’s audience, the borders between genre have become porous. A teenager doesn’t give a damn whether something is science fiction or fantasy. They want a good story, and they go to their store’s YA section to find it, which itself you’ll note is rarely subdivided into “YA SF” and “YA Fantasy”. We have a vibrant, active community of YA authors who are writing SF for young readers…only they think of themselves as YA writers first and SF writers second (if at all).

SF fandom likes to make sweeping (lamenting or condemning) statements about YA science fiction: there’s very little of it, it doesn’t sell, it’s all dystopian. These kinds of generalizations remind me of the same ignorant statements often made about SF: scantily-clad greens skinned women, nothing more than “escapist” fantasy, etc. I suggest that our compatriots writing for YA audiences deserve just as much respect as those of us toiling in the SF mines.

If we’re going to make broad generalizations, I’d like to see the hard data backing those claims up. There’s precious little data that I’ve seen on YA SF publishing, or on YA SF sales. And as for the “all dystopian” brush-off, even a cursory familiarity with the YA marketplace would suggest that the “dystopian trend” is just that: a momentary trend in a genre where trend cycles are three to four times faster than in adult genres. I think these are fascinating issues to discuss, and I’m delighted whenever anyone wants to discuss them, but they require us to converse based upon a familiarity with both the YA world and the SF world.

I suggest that anybody who in 2012 suggests that SF readership is declining because there’s no equivalent for Heinlein juveniles is stuck in the 1950’s. Consider that Heinlein’s juveniles were published from 1947 – 1958. During that same time period, young adults were consuming Leave It to Beaver, Captain Video and his Video Rangers, Dragnet, The Adventures of Superman, Gunsmoke and a host of other television programs which by the standards of today’s YA media are “quaint” at best. Do we really expect kids to like the same kind of books? Try getting a fourteen year old to sit through an episode of Gunsmoke. While I still enjoy Heinlein’s juveniles, and while I think a YA reader can, they are simply no longer relevant.

Which is why I think the SF community’s concern with “accessibility” is missing the mark. First, because there is a lot of SF being published for kids today (it’s just not on the radar of most adult SF fans). And second, because it prescribes a solution (the Heinlein juvenile equivalent!) to a non-problem (no SF for kids!).

If we want kids and teenagers to read science fiction, we need to put the story and characters first and the science second. Because what kids care about today is the story, and not the science. Science is transparent to kids: they live in a world where digital information surrounds them. They can play an immersive three-dimensional multi-actor game before they ever go to school. The hard science that it takes to make these playthings work is uninteresting: it is taken for granted, just as is the air we breathe. But the characters and stories that unfold in that reality, that’s a different matter.

So here’s my appeal to science fiction fandom: accept the fact that Heinlein juveniles are a product of the 1950’s, and consign them to the nostalgia for yesterday. Before you start making authoritative statements on “the state of YA science fiction”, at least take the time to familiarize yourself with what’s happening in that arena. Take a stroll through your local bookstore’s YA section. Hold your nose at some of the cover art: remember, unless you’re a hormone-crazed teen, odds are you’re not its target audience. Crack some of the spines and read some of what you find. Not all of it will be good; in fact, some will be pretty lousy. But I guarantee you that you will be surprised at what you find.

To help, here’s a quick list of YA and MG science fiction books. These are the ones I was able to spot just taking a quick spin around our home library: I’m sure there are tons more out there. Pick ’em up, there’s good reading there…even if it isn’t much like a Heinlein juvenile. And if anyone wants to chime in with their thoughts or with other suggestions, please do so!


  • For books in a series, I’m only listing the first book.
  • I’m going by the publishers’ recommended ages to categorize books as MG/YA.
  • I haven’t read all of these books, and so can’t really “recommend” every one of them. But I have read many of them.

Middle Grade: aged 8 – 12 Young Adult: aged 12 – 18

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