We’re on the road to nowhere

30 Oct

It’s time we revived the delicate art of failing well, says Chris Farnell.

Jaden Smith in After Earth (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2013)

Is Writing a Utopia Even Possible?

It seems recently that every look to the future is a bleak one. A quick look at the films released this year set in the future will prove the point: Oblivion (post-apocalyptic), After Earth (post-apocalyptic), Pacific Rim (post apocalyptic), Elysium (dystopian), The Host (dystopian), The Purge (dystopian). Of the four TV series currently being made that are set in the future, four of them are set after an apocalypse (while one that’s set partially in the future features a corporate-run dystopia). People have written here before that they’re suffering from apocalypse fatigue.

But what is the alternative? This was one of the problems being discussed at the Nine Worlds Geekfest in August this year. Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow, Jaine Fenn and Tricia Sullivan, overseen by Arthur C Clarke Award director Tom Hunter, debated the question “Is our Future Utopian or Dystopian?” and one of the first questions to arise was, how exactly do you write a utopia?

“There’s a failure to imagine a positive future,” pointed out Sullivan. “As a writer it’s harder to build things up than blow things up. Finding an element of hope really does mean disabling all my instincts as a science fiction writer.”

If you’re looking to create a world that’s on the opposite end of the spectrum from grimdark universes you’re going to run into obstacles.

Where’s the conflict?

The first and most obvious objection to writing a utopia is “but wouldn’t that be boring?” In the same way that people tend to think Batman is more interesting than Superman, we’re naturally drawn to stories of worlds and people that are screwed up. To a certain extent this makes sense: stories thrive on conflict, and it’s easier to find conflict in a crapsack world than it is in a Garden of Eden.

There are ways around this, of course. Star Trek‘s Federation is a utopia, but the stories revolve around characters who leave that utopia to go and explore the dangers of the universe around them. An example the panel kept returning to was Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, where the Culture itself is described as a utopia, but the protagonists are more often than not misfits who don’t suit that “perfect world”.

But Cory Doctorow argued that a utopia was far from a society where nothing went wrong. The test of a utopia was what happened when things did go wrong. He described Utopia as “a society that fails well”. While a dystopia is a society where people respond to crisis by turning on each other and silencing those who disagree with them, a utopia is somewhere where people cooperate. He even went so far as to call Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic short story “On the Beach” a utopia, saying “Instead of living the dystopia, they made it the nicest place they could.”

Is a utopia really a utopia?

In the original Utopia, imagined by Thomas More, every household had two slaves, either criminals or foreigners – which raises the question of whether it was really a utopia at all. For a utopia to exist, everyone within it must have a similar enough idea of the world to think that it is a utopia.

Jaine Fenn: “Now we have leisure and the time to think about things we have become more pessimistic. I can’t see a utopia happening unless it’s imposed.”

Societies with a sheen of utopia that hide an ugly truth are a common enough trope. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or the entirely equal world of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” are typical examples. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, everyone is happy, healthy and contented in all ways, but are dependent upon the continuous, unending and total misery of a single starving child kept hidden in a basement – and every single adult knows it.

Agent Smith in The Matrix reckons we simply won’t trust any utopia presented to us, that “as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” But why should this persnicketiness consign us to an absolute dystopia? Maybe Cory Doctorow is right about a society that fails well. Tricia Sullivan thinks so: “I really feel that, somehow, we must think beyond everything going to hell in a handcart.”

Fifty years ago we imagined being astronauts. Now we imagine being the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. With some very real apocalyptic threats on the horizon, shouldn’t we be aiming for something better?


Also on the blog:

Sumit Paul-Choudhury visits Elysium.

Video: Forced Entertainment take on futurology.

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