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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Just Kidding. We’re Doomed After All.

In science fiction there has always been a profound tension between utopia and dystopia. 

This tension pre-dates Hugo Gernsback’s invention of the term “science fiction” by a considerable margin. If you were to go plodding back through the wastelands of 19th Century popular literature, you would find a lot of examples of utopian science fiction, and most of it would be just plain awful. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, William Dean Howells’s A Traveler from Altruria, William Norris’s News from Nowhere, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race: all of them were very popular and sold very well in their day, and all are almost unreadable now, except as a source of ironic humor. 

Why? What’s the problem with Utopia?

Ignoring the imbecilic grasp of economics and naive view of human relations usually expressed in utopian novels, the fundamental issue seems to be that utopian societies are boring. If everyone is happy, well-adjusted, and comfortably well-off, where’s the conflict? Where’s the tension? Where’s the story

We take it as given that war is more interesting than peace; conflict more interesting than congruence; change more interesting than stasis. On a human scale this is why we have “crime” stories and not “law-abiding nice people” stories; “people with terribly messed-up romantic lives” novels instead of “happily married monogamous couples” stories. On a macro societal scale this is why utopia so often veers into dystopia. We don’t trust utopias—or more accurately, the people who are people peddling their utopian vision. We like our utopias with dirty secrets, seamy underbellies, a healthy dose of oppression and a little rust and rot somewhere. We seem to yearn for something to struggle against.

Maybe it is just simple boredom. A lot of people do seem to feel the need to shake things up when they find themselves getting too comfortable, just to stay interested in their own lives.

But why does science fiction so often seem to require not merely the level of violence common to heroic fantasy, but the near-complete destruction of civilization and near-annihilation of mankind? Is it merely a matter of taking something that’s already fascinating—war—and turning the volume up to eleven? 

Or is it a failure of the writer’s imagination? Is it just plain too much work to imagine what things might be like if our civilization continues to progress for another 500 years, and therefore easier to envision a world in which some drastic historical discontinuity has occurred and we’ve been bombed back to stone knives, bear skins, tribal rituals and rap music? 

Could this recurring destruction-and-rebirth theme be evidence of some deeply latent misanthropic streak; some profound dissatisfaction with the world as it is today, which expresses itself as a wish to imagine that we can reset history to some earlier checkpoint and run it again—only this time, we’d do it right, because people like us would be in charge? Is the truth of the matter that hard-core SF fans have a lot more in common with the hard-core eco-Luddites than we'd really care to admit?

Or is it simply a matter of having read The Swiss Family Robinson at an impressionable age?

Your thoughts and comments? 

—Bruce Bethke


Mark Keigley said...

I read Swiss Family Robinson at an impressionable age and it and Star Man's Son are two of the reasons why I even write and read science fiction and fantasy. I remember what it felt like to spend moments in those utopian/dystopian worlds; the wonder, and the tragedy at times. I read and, yes, write stories in an attempt to recapture that same wonder I felt. Only rarely, do I write something that makes me just stop and rest in that special world I created for a season...or get comments from readers like, "I didn't want this story to end!" I believe someone you know said something like that about "Ishmael's Hope". That's the kind of stuff I LIVE for as a writer.

Big Bob said...

I believe it's mostly due to the "If I were in charge..." syndrome. The dishonest writers create a utopia because they think they know all the answers. The honest writers explore what might go right or wrong because they are willing to admit they don't know all the answers but decide to spend the time to explore the possibilities.

That's my $0.02 anyway. Take it for what it's worth these days.

GuyStewart said...

I think some of it is a latent "god complex" present in most of us; mix that with the desire to tinker, and you've got an endless stream of dystopian societies -- some of which have passed their SELL BY date (aka 1984, WAR OF THE WORLDS, SPACE 1999, "Space Seed", and countless other stories predicting doom, gloom, and societal collapse.

Realistic "good futures", no matter HOW well everyone gets along, how well-fed we are, and how the vast majority of beings have good intentions -- CONFLICT won't vanish. So long as "yes" and "no" exist in a language (if I'm not mistaken they even exist in computer programming language) there will be conflict. It's just that utopias will deal with DIFFERENT issues and meet them in DIFFERENT ways than war, execution, banishment, and murder. I think it behooves us to create utopias and then show them meeting CHALLENGES creatively. As well, if you believe in the idea of a fallen Humanity (and unFallen other societies, as CS Lewis did), then utopia would be inherently impossible for any intelligences who had fallen from grace...

Just my twenty-five cents worth.


Pete Wood said...

I dunno. Seems to me that it comes down to the writing. Good writing will carry a dystopian or a utopian plot. The problem is that bad writing often reduces the two concepts to utopian drones or dystopian savages. With no in between.
I mentioned this yesterday, but Star Trek TOS is pretty much a utopia. And it's not boring.
By the way, speaking of boring, Looking Backwards is one of the most boring books I have ever read. Stilted and remarkably uninteresting.
I think Ursula LeGuin writes some pretty compelling utopian stuff.

Invictus said...

I think that in some cases, it might be because of an overwhelming desire for simplicity coupled with a recognition that we tend to repeat ourselves, historically speaking. Dystopias, especially those where things have really gone to shit, tend to focus the mind on one or two specific issues (namely, survival) rather than the whirling hodgepodge of concerns that make up modern life. It's easier to get to that survival-focused stage in writing if you completely crash civilization; at least, that's how it seems to me in looking at a lot of dystopic fiction.

And utopia is boring. The idea was like that before the word was even coined. Ever read The Divine Comedy? The interest level drops sharply once Dante gets out of Hell, only to disappear completely once you get to Paradiso. Dante knew where all the interesting parts were; I'm sure that's why he front-loaded the "fun" stuff.