Monday, May 12, 2008

Asimov, State, and Utopia

I’d like to start by apologizing for the title of this post. I just had to somehow cram the Nozick reference in, no matter the cost.

A while back, Alex Zalben, writing at SciFi Scanner, posted the following:

Find me a sci-fi movie where there is a Utopia, and I will point out the worm in the apple. Every single time we are presented with a Utopian society on film, there is also a corrupt diplomat that's running the show, or it's a dream world, or it's built on a city of good-hearted underground dwellers... You know what I'm saying because you've all seen such movies before.

So I'm going to make a broad statement and say: There is no such thing as Utopia in science fiction.

Zalben goes on to cite some examples from both film and books. He suggests that the lack of conflict inherent to a utopia makes drama effectively impossible.

You can include an actual utopia and still have conflict, either by having it threatened by outside forces, or by having characters from the utopian society venturing outside of it for some reason. In television, Star Trek: The Next Generation would be an example of both approaches, for instance. The portrayal of the Federation got “dirtied up” a bit by Deep Space Nine, and perhaps even a few of the later Next Generation episodes, but it was pretty explicitly utopian early on- all the talk about how humanity has evolved beyond this or that. Venturing into written science fiction, John C. Wright’s “Golden Age” trilogy is an example of the “outside threat” method, while several of Iain M. Banks’ Culture books use the latter method.

Zalben started out by talking about movies, though, and it’s possible that this method is poorly suited to feature films. It requires a lot of world-building, and that takes time: you need time to establish the utopia, and you need time to set up the non-utopian outside, and then you need time for the actual conflict, and if you want to actually explore the idea of the utopia in detail and still have a good conflict you end up with a movie that’s six hours long. The lack of actual utopias in cinema may be more a limitation of the medium than anything else.

It also depends on how strict your definition of “Utopia” is. If it requires absolute perfection and goodness, than conflict within the utopia is impossible. If it merely means a society that is vastly better than ours, you can still have internal conflict. There can still be bad people with bad intentions, they’re just not the ones running the show.

You can also have a utopian society where the conflict is not in the form of some sinister evil, but between good guys. For instance, much of the conflict in John C. Wright’s “Golden Age” Trilogy is not between heroes and villains, but between humane and well-intentioned people who disagree about cultural values and the future direction of their social evolution. An interesting wrinkle is that Wright’s utopia is libertarian, and both the protagonist and most of the antagonists firmly accept libertarian principles of justice, resulting in a conflict for the fate of their society where most of the combatants would never dream of using force, violence, or state coercion against each other. (Though some of the players don’t play quite so nicely…)

One problem is that if you actually portray the utopia in any detail, axe-grinding is all but impossible to avoid, which risks alienating potential readers. This can be overcome- I love Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, even though the Culture itself has a great deal of leftist wish fulfillment built into it- but it does have risks. If a society is portrayed as ideal or nearly so, everything makes a potential statement. Does religion still exist? What kind of government do they have, if any? How do they deal with criminals? (If they don’t have any, that too betrays certain assumptions.) What things are illegal, taboo, or disapproved of? How does the utopia remain in existence? Do they have a market economy and private ownership? What are their attitudes and practices regarding sex? Do they have marriage?

People differ on both what kind of society is desirable in theory (Most of the societies conceived by 19th century utopians would be horrifying to me even if they worked as advertised) and on how societies work, and which ones are possible, in practice. Most portrayals of the future express ideological assumptions, whether or not they are explicit or even intentional, but utopia pushes the issue front and center by proclaiming what it portrays to be ideal. If you don’t think it’s ideal, or think it’s outright bad, than 1. you may enjoy the story less, and 2. you may like the author less, as a person. Different people have different limits in this regard. If John C. Wright had a radical political change of heart and decided to write about noble Communists colonizing the moon, building a perfect society there through the power of scientific socialism and mass terror, and then going to war against the plutocrats of Earth and heroically killing the entire reactionary population through man-made famine, my love of Wright’s previous work probably wouldn’t be enough to make me buy it.

One possible final problem is that so much science fiction is about change. Often the fictional changes took place between now and whenever the story happens, but quite often science fiction portrays societies in flux and transition. Most visions of utopia, on the other hand, are static- if you’ve attained the best possible society, change is degeneration. That can work fine for a story- a tale of a collapsing utopia could be very interesting- but that’s not really utopian fiction in the usual sense of the term. It’s ironic- science fiction is in one sense the only form of fiction that works for portraying a utopia, since no perfect societies exist circa 2008, and yet the idea of utopia clashes with one of science fiction’s principal themes and strong points.

I’d be curious to hear about you thoughts, or your favorite and least favorite utopian stories.

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Pipedreamer said...

Hands down, my favorite Utopian story has to be Lois Lowry's The Giver.

As to whether or not it supports your theory... well, you'll have to judge for yourself. It's told from the point of view of a boy who wants to escape from what seems to be a futuristic utopia.

It's very dramatic when you read it as a child, but I have to admit that when you read it as an adult, the main character's motivations seem much less dramatic.

The difficulty with envisioning a Utopian society seems to be that, for everyone to be happy, everyone in the society must agree on what constitutes happiness, and such universal agreement requires homogenization on a scale for which oppression of someone is practically requisite. You could almost say that Utopia has its conflict built right in.

nemofound said...

John, ordinarily I do not support "blogger" blogs (not in ANY way your fault; sadly, the free service gets what it pays for - "people" who paying services would never allow in) -- but I wanted to say BEST BLOG TITLE ever. Really. A super blog - and it's great to read such thoughtful comments.

nemofound said...

Oh Good Lord. "Humphree" - I'm Amy Sterling Casil. Sorry 'bout that!

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Really good post. I'm liking your blog a lot. I'll add you to my blogroll :)

I like writing posts about the nature of science fiction and fantasy, but I tend to do it much more casually and less in depth than you :D


Spherical Time said...

There is no such thing as utopia, period. Isn't that the point?

I've actually got two short stories bubbling around about these ideas so I've been thinking about them a lot, but one of the main problems with the idea of utopia is that there is no one universal utopia that any two people can agree on. Talking about heaven as an abstract concept only works if you don't actually talk about the specifics of the concept.

So Zalben can't point at a sci-fi movie with a perfect utopia. Well, I'd ask him to point me at any book or story or movie in or outside the speculative fiction genre that contains a perfect world.

Somehow, I'll bet that he has trouble coming up with something.

Spherical Time said...

Oh, right. Obviously the premise of a utopia/dystopia duality stretches almost all the way back to the original book, written in 1516:

Utopia by More.