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Understanding Utopia

This is sort of a follow up to my earlier post – Dissecting Dystopia – but you don’t need to have read that for this to make sense.

Ever since Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516 (that was before he was Lord Chancellor of England) the term Utopia has been used to describe an ever growing number of fictional settings which are portrayed as better than the world the author of each work lived in. It became a genre (although technically Plato wrote one first in his The Republic, which I found a more enjoyable read than Utopia, because I objected less to the politics, but that’s just personal opinion). However, in more recent years that slowly growing genre has been inundated with stories which are ever vaguer politically and philosophically. This means, as it happens, that as time has gone by people have started using a looser and looser definition of Utopia, despite the official definition being: any of; the imaginary island in Sir Thomas More’s work of political philosophy in guise of fiction by the same name, an ideal political state or place, or a system of socio-political perfection. That is, given the predominance of political philosophy involved in the descriptions, a far more specific meaning than many people have been using of late.

Lately it’s popular to use “utopia” to describe any in the future setting which is pretty okay – on the assumption that if it is not a “dystopia” it must be a utopia. Worse, most of those so-called dystopias aren’t even dystopias. It’s driving me nuts. So, let’s talk about utopias. Real (that is: fictional) utopias.

1) A utopia is a socio-political philosophy thinly disguised as a story: that means they are the author ranting about what they believe in. Have you ever heard of the word filibuster? Well, it’s not entirely accurate, but it kind of is. At least, one definition of it is (the obstructive legal tactics bit isn’t relevant here). Filibuster, as in an exceptionally long political speech, is a very good explanation for what a utopia really is – because a utopia is (essentially) an philosopher’s long, long, written rant about their socio-political beliefs and their ideal society, with a thin draping of plot (often tour-guide style) and characters (who are primarily there to lecture each other) to disguise it as fiction.

Now, obviously, since the days of More’s Utopia, the genre has diversified to be more akin to fiction with an overpowering socio-political ideology portrayed as ideal within it, rather than a thinly disguised treatise (Star Trek: The Original Series, and the first season of The Next Generation, is a good example of this – it was Gene Roddenberry’s idea of utopia and all the plot conflicts came from one of: technical issues, other societies, or space being weird, rather than the people of the United Federation of Planets). But, the thing that most people right now seem to be forgetting is, IT STILL IS A SOCIO-POLITICAL IDEOLOGY IN A FICTIONAL FORMAT.

This is the key to the genre of utopia which far too many people are forgetting at the moment. A utopia is not just a future-which-is-better setting or a future-which-isn’t-a-hellhole setting, which is the way it being used too often at the moment. For this reason some works which can make you want to gnaw your own arm off from boredom (if you want a good example of a filibuster in fiction, try reading Ayn Rand without gnawing your arm off in boredom and frustration) are utopian fiction, but other stories don’t qualify as utopian fiction because – no matter how perfect they may be – they have no socio-political philosophy to espouse. For example, although Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven deals with trying to create a utopia (in that the main character can change reality with his dreams and is constantly encouraged to make things better), the majority of the setting revolves around major problems and attempts to improve things creating different major problems and not showcasing a specific socio-political philosophy.

2) A Utopia must provide solutions to socio-political problems: merely removing problems is not sufficient. No solution is perfect – this why no utopian fiction is ever viewed as perfect by everyone who reads it (many, actually, are loathed by most who read it due to their differing socio-political philosophies). Nevertheless, to be a utopia a fiction must present a societal system which theoretically solves all problems. I repeat: solves; not just to remove them or claim they have been fixed without explanation – if there is no reasonable solution offered: it is not a utopia. Also, the word reasonable is important here, because otherwise people claim that “these people are just better because they agree with me”, “oh, these people don’t do that” and “it’s not important, it just is” are solutions. They are not. In order for a work to qualify as a socio-political philosophy portrayed through fiction it must include a socio-political philosophy and that, inevitably, means that the writer’s ideas on what’s wrong with this world and how to fix it. Metaphysics, epistemology and any other none-ethics and laws related philosophies need not be included. To give an example: many stories which are inaccurately described as utopian have societies where there is no poverty or famine but give no explanation as to how this has happened – sometimes “no money” is given as a possible reason, but the fact that this does not explain a lack of hunger or why anyone works at all is ignored. Conversely, in Star Trek – to use an example of something which was a utopia in its original form (Deep Space 9 takes it and makes it darker, Voyager is too far off being an adventure, and Enterprise is debatably part of the timeline and we do not talk about the reboot, all the things that made Trek Trek got thrown out the window to make it cheap space opera) – there is no “money” (although gold pressed Latinum is a thing) and people work for credits which are basically the same as money except that they aren’t needed to have enough to live (and therefore work is about gaining points for luxuries) and all of that, plus no hunger in the world, is made possible because they are a post-scarcity society where matter-manipulating devices (like transporters) and replicators have eliminated them. It’s not a perfect explanation for the perfection of the society, but it is a plausible explanation and thus it works. Just saying “that’s not a problem anymore/there” and not giving a reason is the same as saying “Hiro Hiroson is a good person and heroic” without actually showing your character ever being a good person or doing anything heroic. That is to say: it’s not mere “tell without show” it’s telling which contradicts what is shown and, worse, it annoys readers mightily. In other words: if you want to call it a utopia: it’s got to be about philosophy.

3) Most authors writing utopias know they aren’t really attainable. When Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia he used what is now a well known pun: -topia means “place” and the u came from ou (no). That much people tend to remember – that Utopia means “no place”. But More’s little pun was more than that, as the u could also be from eu (good) making (e)utopia, or “good place”. The thing most people don’t realise is that utopia is a blending of both meanings and that is extremely important to their definition: utopia essentially means “a good place which does not exist”. In other words, Sir Thomas – and those who originally followed in his inky footsteps – knew his vision of a perfect society was but a dream. This connects with point 3 quite well, because it is important to remember that thought experiments, like creating a utopia, still have to be sound of method even when they are impossible to perform in real life.

4) True utopia and dystopia are rare and that’s okay. All of this must make it sound like creating something which genuinely belongs in the utopian genre is much harder than it sounds – and that’s true. The same is true of dystopias; many things called that at the moment do not deserve the term. But here’s the thing: a work doesn’t have to be utopian or dystopian to be a lovely future setting or post-apocalyptic hellhole. Moreover, applying those words doesn’t miraculously change the quality of the work. And here’s another thing: most people get bored reading philosophical treatise disguised as fiction, and that’s okay. Most people read for plot and characters, so a work which primarily about setting – the gerdankenexperiment testing a theory in a controlled environment – is not going to be to most people’s tastes. What’s more, utopia and dystopia are authorial opinion crystallized into a sculpture of words, so when someone does write one; they are constricted by their own socio-political opinions and their own prejudices. This actually means that someone who worldbuilds a better (or worse) setting than their own reality but does not write either –topia is freer to design whatever they think is cool. Utopia isn’t cool. Dystopia isn’t cool. Most writers write cool things – or what they think are cool things. But utopia and dystopia are a thought experiment and a socio-political warning, respectively, and that means they are much rarer than all the cool stories stealing their names. Those stories should stop acting like pseudo-intellectualist pretenders and accept what they are.

 

Or, simply put: utopian fiction is about the writer expressing a socio-political philosophy, not just any old future setting which is better than now but still kind of sucks or is ridiculously and inexplicably perfect for no damn reason.

 
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Posted by on January 17, 2016 in On Writing

 

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Dissecting Dystopia

I was talking with some people (some very smart and lovely people, I should mention) about dystopias (a horrifying literary, or cinematic, setting, shown built on a socio-political commentary). It illuminated for me what had been bothering me about many other conversations I had partaken in, with other people, both on and off the net. I was struck by the disconnect that seemed to exist between the saying of the term – the discussing of the matter – and the actual comprehension of it. Or, in less convoluted terms, the term was defined and the definition accepted but the implications of it – the comprehension of what it meant – seemed to be lacking. People would agree that dystopia was a social commentary, which is the key to its definition, then seemed surprised by any socio-political issues or criticism involved in it. The idea that a dystopia was about pointing out a problem system or issue – being at once both a warning and an axe, of the author’s, to grind – became both a surprise and an indefinite floaty concept which was never truly grasped. The phrase socio-political commentary was used, but seeking to find any socio-political commentary within a work to judge if it were actually a dystopia or just a really unpleasant/apocalyptic setting never was considered. At one point, it was mentioned – as if this was some great revelation – of 1984 that it was “disturbing”.

YES.

THAT’S THE POINT.

Dystopia should disturb you. Dystopia should alarm you. Dystopia should set off all the warning bells in your head that cry that this isn’t right because that is the point the author is trying to make. Dystopian fiction is, or should be, when the author is metaphorically trying to reign in the society as it eagerly runs at what looks like a really good idea but which actually has a sheer drop off a cliff hidden just around the bend. Dystopia is scary. Dystopia is unspeakable horror made into a place. It is the inevitable failure of humanity inherent in the system.

It’s not about violent rebellions against open tyrants who abuse and starve the population – this can be present, but it’s not the point. That kind of horrible place to live is nothing special: humanity has been doing that on a wide scale to each other since we first learned to stand upright. What’s more, the very fact that a widespread rebellion can happen? That is a beacon of hope, that is the typical heroic fight against an Evil Overperson and there is nothing especially disturbing about that because every story we hear from the cradle tells us that Good Will Triumph. That’s not what dystopia is.

Dystopia isn’t comfortable. In dystopian fiction there is no reason that the brainwashing one of the heroes undergoes should be something they can recover, even with a struggle and scars, from – the love of a protagonist should not protect them in that setting. At the end of 1984, Winston LOVED Big Brother. There was no coming back from what Room 101 made a person. He wasn’t even leading a rebellion – he bought a journal, he thought for himself and he loved someone: and that was crime enough for The Party to annihilate everything that made him him and fill his empty shell with itself. It wasn’t just about fighting for equality or freedom from blatant oppression; it was fighting for basic humanity: freedom to think, the ability to love and feel and want; to disagree even if only the privacy of one’s head.

Dystopia isn’t about how the hero sees what’s wrong and defeats the enemy. Sure a dystopia might end on a hope spot – the protagonist escapes to outside the dystopian government’s reach or some people who intend to rebel haven’t been caught yet – but that’s all. The fucked up dystopian setting, even if the hero escapes or has hope, will continue because somewhere along the line humanity hit on an idea too dangerous and too evil and crossed the point of no return. When a “dystopian” setting has an open rebellion, when the people have not grown so used to thinking as the government has taught them that they are actually capable of fighting on mass: that’s the power of good triumphing and, coincidentally, crushing any point the author might have had about why issue X was something that should we should be wary of now. Now. Not in the future when that sort of government is in power and opposition – rebellion – has come too late. The moment the heroes can defeat it – the moment there are heroes instead of protagonists – you no longer have dystopia, but evil villain X and the standard hero plot of most action, fantasy and much sci-fi. There’s nothing wrong with that plot, but it is mutually exclusive with the dystopia. It is taking all those socio-political points – often very good, very important points – that the author has spent the story building up as something Important, which the READER should be thinking about and worried about in reality, and then patting the reader on the head as assuring them that they don’t actually have to be worried about it. That’s the exact opposite of what a dystopia’s author is trying to say.

Dystopias are about what an author fears could irreversibly damage or destroy humanity if those issues aren’t dealt with, aren’t stopped, here and now. In reality. By the readers, by making them wake up and take action, rather than just blindly digesting new prolefeed. It is about saying that it is not going to be okay if this should come to pass. Dystopia isn’t about how humanity gets screwed up after some major disaster, although it can be set after one, because that disaster – zombie outbreak, plague, natural disaster, nuclear war, et cetera – absolves the reader of fear and blame. The moment the author tells us that a story’s awful government came after some great catastrophe, even if it didn’t wipe out most of humanity, they are assuring the reader that it couldn’t happen here. But that’s exactly NOT what a dystopia is about. A dystopia is a warning. We, Brave New World and 1984 didn’t take the time to assure the reader that there was definitely a catastrophe between the reader’s government and this dystopian one rising to power. There might have been a disaster, but it might have just been a natural progression of the current government and the way it was heading. 1984, specifically, hints that The Party took over in a mere thirty years with no blatant war or catastrophe. It was just humanity blindly pursuing one course without stopping to think about what it would mean – like how right now we’ve all given away our privacy for free email accounts and ease of having things sync, but are too lazy and too complacent to make the changes needed to prevent further spying and further invasions of privacy (advertisers aren’t exactly benign right now) and those who do yell from the roof tops about the dangers are ignored because “it couldn’t happen here”. Dystopia is a warning that this shitty, irreversible situation could happen in the reader’s lifetime, where the reader lives, unless they wake up and do something, so the moment extreme or unlikely circumstances are required to create a world, it ceases to be truly dystopian. Dystopia should scare you. It should depress you. It should, if it’s done its job right and is not merely some other type of story with “Dystopia” applied because that’s the modern buzzword, make you want to do something so the world never turns out like that.

Dystopia isn’t merely a socio-political commentary. It’s a socio-political commentary standing between the reader and the ravine, desperately waving a stop sign and hoping society does not merely read but actually comprehends.

Ahem. Yeah, I named this blog as a place of rants for a reason. (And yes: I know I used 1984 more than We and Brave New World for my examples, but of the three it’s the best known. If kids were reading real dystopia when they’re young, maybe they would still have some fight in them when they grew up and would be able to comprehend instead of just parroting empty phrases.)

Rants means rants. This – and any that follow – are opinion pieces, pure and simple. You are free to disagree, just don’t feel that I am obliged to change my mind and agree with you.

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2015 in On Writing

 

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