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Posts tagged ‘Ursula K. Le Guin’

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.

Post-scarcity and Realistic Utopia: Where’s the fight?

One of the WIPs I’m working on right now is a far future SF novel inspired largely by Le Guin’s classic The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. As I’ve observed before, utopian novels are hard to pull off because an ostensibly perfect society removes – in most major ways – meaningful (read: existential) conflict. But I think I might have been wrong about that.

Fictional utopia and dystopia are tools through which we negotiate our society’s ethics. They are, in a very real sense, a debate about the values our society holds. Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, or James Morrow’s City of Truth all ask us what price we are willing to pay for a perfect/harmonious society. In all utopian/dystopian stories, conflict occurs at the levels of logos and pathos, and traditionally, there are two structures through which that conflict gets expressed: the Outsider, and the Dissident.

The Outsider: Conflict in Utopia

A utopia is ostensibly a perfect environment, and that perfection tends to make society somewhat static. Lacking conflict, debate, the society becomes relatively unchanging. In some utopian environments, like Iain M. Banks’ Culture or John C. Wright’s Golden Oecumene, “constant change” may be the most static characteristic. But lacking internal debate, most authors positing a utopia turn to the borders of that perfect state to find conflict.

Older utopias, like Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Skinner’s Walden Two, tend to adopt the structure of a travelogue/fish-out-of-water story, and they typically prioritize logos over pathos in their conflicts. What little conflict they generate is produced by putting the utopian society’s values into conflict with an Outsider: typically a guest who comes to visit the perfect society, and thus disturbs – to some extent – that society’s equilibrium. More modern utopias, like Banks’ Culture novels, also rely on the Outsider to produce conflict. However, these stories focus on where the utopia’s remit ends, and where it comes into contact with different value systems. As such, it presents the utopia as being in constant conflict, to a greater or lesser extent, with the world outside its borders.

The Dissident: Conflict in Dystopias

Dystopias are generally characterized by their lack of defined borders. Look at any of the great dystopian novels, like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Zamyatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Morrow’s City of Truth or even Collins’ The Hunger Games. The ostensibly perfect society is all-encompassing. Borders in Orwell are political and expedient, as opposed to ideological. Elsewhere, the totalitarian state controls the entire planet save for some few wild places that lack any structure through which the One State can be opposed. The classic dystopian narrative arc takes a character inside the dystopia, and translates them into an Outsider. These stories derive their tension from the fact that there is no Outside. Which is why their conflict stems from the creation of a Dissident.

The Dissident plays a more violent version of the Outsider’s role. His or her purpose is to oppose the dystopia’s value system, to express the nature of that opposition and to either withstand or fall beneath the system’s crushing totalitarian jackboot. And it is precisely that totalitarian, militaristic dimension which sets a dystopia apart from a utopia.

Characteristics of Dystopian and Utopian Environments

A utopia is generally a society which operates harmoniously, effectively, and perhaps most important, equitably. Historically, utopian fiction has been heavily influenced by the 18th and 19th century anarchist and socialist movements. But the basic premise underpinning all utopias is that within their borders, they function effectively and smoothly. Because utopian fiction tends to put value on its utopian precepts, it is typically a given that the society is internally cohesive. There is no dissidence, and nobody falls through the society’s cracks. Utopias are defined by the fact that, in their fictional universes, they work.

Dystopias, however, do not. They present the superficial appearance of effective operation. But that veneer hides the stick that the regime uses to enforce its values. Without the totalitarian police/military force, it would be impossible to concretely express the Dissident’s conflict with their society. When faced with internal opposition to its values, a dystopian regime cracks down, and does so violently, and it is from this conflict that we get a fun, action-packed narrative.

And yet, in thinking about it in light of the United States’ current economic troubles, I think we’re at a point in our societal development where a new type of utopian fiction can be proposed, and one which opens a third source of potential conflict: the Post-scarcity/Realistic Utopia, which can derive its conflict from the Marginalized.

The Realistic Utopia

Post-scarcity science fiction has been around for awhile, and lots of people have talked and written about it before. Much of the philosophical debates around post-scarcity society stem from anarcho-capitalist philosophy, which I’m going to leave to one side. Instead, I’d like to make the case that in essence, the developed world is today already a post-scarcity society. We produce more food than our population could ever consume. Consumer goods are available at a lower economic cost than ever before in the history of our species. We have access to healthcare that would boggle the finest minds of our great-grandparents’ generation. If there is a problem with our post-scarcity society, it is that the benefits of that post-scarcity are not evenly distributed.

Unlike the anarcho-communist utopias dreamed of yesterday, our society today still retains a division between the haves and have nots. And as a species, we have never been able to scale an equal distribution of societal benefit (whether we’re talking economic wealth, military power, healthcare, standard of living, etc.). As a result, the debates of today – as exemplified by the Occupy Movement – are less about ensuring economic equality, and more about negotiating how our society interacts with individuals or groups who otherwise fall through the current system’s cracks. The folks protesting in the Occupy movement are, to a great extent, either the Marginalized or the voice of the Marginalized in what by most measures can be considered a near-Utopian society.

If the past hundred years have taught us anything, it is that it is naive to believe that society will ever eliminate crime, or completely eliminate poverty, etc. These are ills that will always plague human society, and any utopia that tries to dream them away fails my plausibility test. Yet the mere existence of these societal ills is less important than how we as a society respond to them. And this, I believe, is fertile ground for utopian SF to explore. By focusing less on the economics of the utopian society, and by turning a lens on the values of that society through its marginalized constituents, we can gain greater insight into the human condition, and at the same time develop conflicts through which to tell compelling stories.

While it isn’t a perfect example, I believe that Samuel Delany’s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, his response to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, presages this future. His Bron Helstrom is ostensibly an Outsider, coming to the heterotopia of Triton from much more conservative Martian culture. In his new home, he is marginalized through his own value system, which is inimical to that of his new home. Yes, Delany also uses an Outsider structure in this novel, pitting his Triton against Earth in a devastating interplanetary war. And yet, it is Bron Helstrom’s narrative and personal experience of trying to adjust to his new – ostensibly Utopian – home that takes focus. Triton is not a perfect example of the kind of realistic utopia that I’m talking about here, but the focus on a marginalized individual who falls through the cracks of a supposedly perfect society is exactly what I believe utopian science fiction needs.

And I think it is exactly the kind of philosophical discussion that our society needs as well.

REVIEW: Second Sight by Cheryl Klein

Second Sight by Cheryl Klein Title: Second Sight
Author: Cheryl Klein
Pub Date: March 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A strong reference compilation on writing from an experienced children's book editor.

Several years ago, The Professor (my fiancée) introduced me to children’s book editor Cheryl Klein’s blog, where I discovered several years’ worth of thoughtful, analytical, and insightful talks she has given on the craft of writing and its intersection with the craft of editing. Having found her thoughts interesting, I was excited to learn that Klein is now releasing a self-published, crowd-funded (via Kickstarter) book on writing entitled Second Sight. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a review copy not too long ago, and found it be challenging, insightful, and professional in all the right ways. This is a book for people seriously interested in writing as both a craft and a career: people looking for touchy-feely encouragement or platitudes on the “writing life” need not apply.

From my perspective, this is high praise. What I look for in books on writing is a serious discussion of the techniques used to construct effective, powerful, and publishable fiction. Whenever I read a new book on writing, I am always comparing it to the books on my “Writing on Writing Shelf,” which is primarily stocked with classics like E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Ayn Rand’s (very different) The Art of Fiction, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Klein’s Second Sight is like these excellent books in many ways.

Second Sight demands a modicum of pre-existing knowledge. Someone still struggling to grasp the basics of writing (figuring out what a plot is, understanding the difference between point of view and voice, etc.) will likely find this book intimidating. An intermediate writer (as I like to consider myself) – who has been working at the craft for several years, who has a finished (though not yet published) novel or two under their belt, and who is looking for helpful ways to think about technique – will derive a lot of value from this book.

Like Forster, Gardner, and Rand, Klein flits effortlessly between the high-concept philosophy of writing (the nature of fiction, the nature of art) and the gritty reality of constructing a working novel (building point, character, plot, and voice). It is clear in reading this book that Klein has thought long and hard about what constitutes good writing, and what criteria to apply when judging the written word. However, unlike E.M. Forster, or John Gardner, (and certainly unlike Ayn Rand) Second Sight is far less didactic.

Reading Le Guin’s, Forster’s, or Gardner’s works on writing, I am often reminded of looking at a skyscraper. In Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, he takes 192 pages to walk us through the six pillars on which all novels rest. Each chapter builds on those that precede it to concisely outline the author’s vision of The Novel, like one floor resting atop another. This kind of writing on writing provides immense value, but it is by its very nature broad: it speaks in generalities from a hundred stories above the ground, glossing over many challenging aspects of writing. But if reading Forster is like looking at a finished skyscraper, reading Klein is like looking over an architect’s shoulder.

When I finish classic books on writing, I am often left with a feeling of “Whoa,” as my perception of The Novel has changed. Reading Klein cover to cover doesn’t produce that response. Instead, each chapter of Klein’s book leaves me with a smaller sense of “Neat!” that shifts my thinking on a particular facet of the craft. I wouldn’t be able to swallow a book like this in one or two sittings. In the two or three months that I’ve had my review copy, I’ve found that I would read a chapter or two, put it aside, and then return to it repeatedly when running into tough spots in my own writing. And that is its primary value: as a helpful tool for the dedicated writer struggling with the minutia of craft.

The primary meat of this book is framed by practicalities. It opens with a series of brief philosophical musings on the nature of good writing, and then dives right into the process of finding a publisher. That fact alone should tell you that this isn’t a book for someone who has never written anything. However, those early chapters are beautiful for their simple, straightforward discussion of the publishing process. The annotated query letters (one “from hell” and one which “gets it right”) are excellent, providing real-world lessons that can be applied by anyone intending to pitch editors or agents.

The middle of the book consists of independent chapters on various aspects of writing. The subjects range from a working definition of young adult literature, to techniques for constructing picture books, to the relationship between plot and emotion. There are commonalities across all of these sections, but they are not structured – and should not be read – as laying out a dialectical argument. Instead, they are insightful musings on varied aspects of writing, which may be relevant to some readers some of the time…but not to everyone, and not always.

It is only as she approaches the end of the “meaty” section that Klein veers into a Forster-esque mode of outlining a “theory of the novel.” Captured in a sixty-four page quartet of chapters (with their own introduction), Klein discusses what she considers the pillars on which a novel rests: point, character, plot, and voice. While these chapters are insightful and valuable, they represent the book’s one structural weakness: up to this point, the chapters all provided valuable insight without relying on the other chapters. Diving into the quartet on page 186, with its concomitant shift in structure and tone, struck me as inconsistent with the rest of the book’s structure. Without a doubt, the quartet deserves a place in this book, and I understand the difficulty Klein likely had in figuring out how to get it to fit. However, I suspect it could have benefited from either an alternative placement (perhaps earlier in the book, amidst the more “philosophical” chapters), or a better lead-in. But despite the inconsistency in structure and approach, the quartet – and the other independent chapters – still provide great value.

The last third of the book returns us to the brutal reality of revising a finished work. Her chapter on twenty-five revision techniques is immensely practical, the type of bare bones heavy lifting that every author should do, but that nobody likes to think or talk about. This section is immediately applicable to anyone who has finished a written work (of any length), and is now embarking on the revision process. The concrete advice given here clearly stems from years of editing books as a career. No shortcuts are given, no platitudes are offered: writing is hard work, and Klein lays out a series of techniques to produce higher quality work.

Second Sight is unlike most of my writing library. In general, that library consists of books that either try to lay out an all-encompassing theoretical framework (Forster, Gardner, Rand), analyze critical genre theory (Mendelsohn, Clute, Suvin), or exhaustively detail a particular facet of writing (Card, Kress, Propp). Some of the books in my library are well worn: the books I return to frequently as I think about my own writing. Since getting my review copy of Second Sight, it has never left my desk. It doesn’t answer the question of “What is The Novel?” but it does answer the question “What goes into an effective novel?” And for someone working on writing new works while revising what they have already written, I suspect this is the most important question.

NOTE: As I mention above, Second Sight is a self-published book, and can be ordered from Cheryl Klein’s web site at: Also, be sure to check out her great blog.

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