The Circumstances of an Accident

by Henry on November 8, 2011

Chris’s post below reminds me that I’ve been meaning to disagree with this claim by Nick Carr.

Works of science fiction, particularly good ones, are almost always dystopian. It’s easy to understand why: There’s a lot of drama in Hell, but Heaven is, by definition, conflict-free. Happiness is nice to experience, but seen from the outside it’s pretty dull.
But there’s another reason why portrayals of utopia don’t work. We’ve all experienced the “uncanny valley” that makes it difficult to watch robotic or avatarial replicas of human beings without feeling creeped out. The uncanny valley also exists, I think, when it comes to viewing artistic renderings of a future paradise. Utopia is creepy – or at least it looks creepy. That’s probably because utopia requires its residents to behave like robots, never displaying or even feeling fear or anger or jealousy or bitterness or any of those other messy emotions that plague our fallen world.


While there are a lot of utopias that have these problems (including the original one), the general claim doesn’t really hold. The utopia genre is, as a general rule, a political genre – which is to say that it’s about the solution of political problems rather than personal ones. In, say, Ursula Le Guin’s Annares, Iain Banks’ Culture, or China Mieville’s Iron Council, people still have jealousy, feuds, fights, bad sex, no sex and all of the other sundry personal unhappinesses that humanity is prey to. The difference is that these are not baked into the political system – they are the result of individual interactions rather than social structures.

George Scialabba has a new book of essays, The Modern Predicament (Amazon (deprecated, but Powells doesn’t list it)), one of which argues eloquently against this mistake. Scialabba is taking on Michael Ignatieff (at the point when Ignatieff was a mediocre public intellectual rather than a mediocre politician).

Tragedy, Ignatieff replies, cannot be eliminated from history. He is surely right. But is he right that this is what utopians invariably seek and that the modern welfare state is the best we can hope for? In arriving at this conclusion, Ignatieff is particularly hard on, and uncharacteristically imperceptive about, Marx. While granting Marx’s fundamental criticism … he charges that Marx went on to prescribe a final “destination for the tragic spiral of human need” and thus succumbed to a “fantasy of deliverance from history.” “Marx,” he writes, “is largely silent about the natural and unalterable elements of our destiny, and it was upon this silence that his utopia was built.”
This is a misunderstanding. Like Freud, Marx sought only to deliver humankind from needless misery to inevitable unhappiness. Implicit … is a definition of utopia; not the elimination of tragedy but its universalization. When each person’s sufferings and failures – her fate – are individual, rather than circumstantial and accidental, as is so often the case in the “great scramble,” then no more can be required of politics. The democratization of tragedy is surely a modest enough conception of utopia. But it is a long way from the contemporary welfare state.

[I scarcely need to add that The Modern Predicament is shot through with many such passages, and is as wonderful as you might expect it to be]

{ 117 comments }

1

FS 11.08.11 at 5:59 pm

There’s a reason that The Dispossessed got subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” Anarres may be better than Urras, but it still has plenty of flaws. And I would argue they are a function of the social system (or the system’s interaction with human beings, at least), rather than mere crankiness on Shevek’s part.

2

Gareth Rees 11.08.11 at 6:00 pm

On the first point (the dullness of utopias as settings for fiction), Brian Stableford in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction concurs:

The necessity for works of fiction to be dramatic and the fact that workable plots require conflict inhibit the use of sf to display utopian schemes.

(Lots of grist for the mill in that SFE article.)

Iain M. Banks also agrees:

The vast, vast majority of the Culture’s day to day and indeed century to century business is totally, boringly peaceful; I concentrate on the violent, grisly bits because that’s where the most vivid stories are. If I was adept at and interested in writing novels about a set of intense, poetically-drawn characters having anguished, convoluted relationships with each other I could write a kind of Hamstead or campus novel in space, or at least on a Culture Orbital or something, but it’d be boring – for me and the people who’ve liked the novels I’ve written so far. More like soap opera than space opera.

3

Neville Morley 11.08.11 at 6:05 pm

I’m struggling to see Mieville’s imaginary world as utopian – maybe it’s just my subjective view of what a decent utopia should be – but entirely agree about the Culture, and the fact that half the time the drama involves the negotiations between complicated and frequently dissatisfied humans and the basically utopian society in which they find themselves. I’d also chuck in J.G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands collection, which he proposed as his idea of what the future would actually be like, engaging precisely with the Adorno & Horkheimer question of how people would live in the new world of leisure.

4

Rich Puchalsky 11.08.11 at 6:50 pm

I was going to bring up the Iain Banks quote about soap opera myself, because it illustrates exactly what’s problematic about the Culture. Banks is stuck finding a new “dark side of the Culture” every book, because otherwise, he can’t have the drama that he thinks he needs. The conflicts between ordinary people would would live in the Culture are classed as “boring” — in a very gendered way, note the contrast between soap opera and space opera presumed audiences — so therefore, the Culture itself must be boring for most people in it, who never do any of the things that happen in Banks’ books.

China Mieville’s books are problematic because of his belief that he can’t depict a post-revolutionary socialist society. (See his book event here for more on that — or an interview elsewhere, I forget where.) As a result, the revolution in _Iron Council_ can’t succeed. Nor can it fail, or Mieville would be implicitly predicting failure. So its fate is authorially foreordained. It’s a trick that can’t really be repeated too many times.

Ursula Le Guin’s Annares is troublesome just because it’s so boring. I’ve never read a book more likely to make people think “Hmm, I could imagine living in a backwater where nothing happens and people are free to starve after bad harvests — or I could imagine living in a vibrant though oligarchic society in which I could at least actively resist.”

None of this is necessary. It’s completely possible to write a readable utopia in which the major drivers of conflict are the inescapable problems of the human condition … but no one has wanted to do that, it seems. SF loves drama of a particular kind, and the SF subculture looks down on a book about “intense, poetically-drawn characters having anguished, convoluted relationships with each other ” as a book in which nothing happens.

5

Sam Clark 11.08.11 at 7:03 pm

‘It’s completely possible to write a readable utopia in which the major drivers of conflict are the inescapable problems of the human condition … but no one has wanted to do that, it seems.’

William Morris, News From Nowhere, has a pretty good go. But your general point is right, I think: the claim that utopias have to be boring reveals something about particular authors and readers, but not much about utopianism.

6

Henry 11.08.11 at 7:06 pm

Rich – this is not a utopian novel – but have you read Maureen McHugh’s _China Mountain Zhang._ It’s exactly about those little dramas, and very good too. On Mieville’s post-revolutionary problem – yes (but as I suggested in a blogpost a few months ago, _Embassytown_ tries to work this through by treating our own fallen condition as a revolutionary moment for those who were previously in a pre-Adamic state).

And what this says more generally, I think, is that Banks’ quote is not an argument that utopias are inherently boring, so much as boring for certain sfnal values – purely personal dramas are real, intense and interesting, even if they don’t capture the imagination of most sf writers. Certainly, the Culture isn’t supposed to be perfect. And I quite liked Anarres meself, even if it is all about the empty hands. I think that Shevek’s decision to return there suggests that it _is_ a kind of utopia, in the sense that while it needs continually remaking, it can be remade in a way that neither the oligarchical or the collectivist societies of Urras can be.

7

bigcitylib 11.08.11 at 7:22 pm

Rather agree with #4 re Banks. I’d also note that, as a Utopia, the Culture is foreordained to win out over its rivals. Not just win out, but kick ass rather handily. Having just read Surface Detail (after having read all of the other Culture books pretty much in sequence over the years), I can attest that this is becoming a bit tedious.

8

Henry 11.08.11 at 7:22 pm

And Gareth, I have been madly avoiding looking at the online SFE, which is obviously a massive, massive timesink (I think David Moles has tweeted about this, but I could be confusing him with someone else).

9

Steve LaBonne 11.08.11 at 7:23 pm

It’s completely possible to write a readable utopia in which the major drivers of conflict are the inescapable problems of the human condition

But is there really a point to doing that? How would the utopian setting enhance the treatment of these immemorial themes of fiction?

10

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.08.11 at 7:30 pm

Utopia is creepy – or at least it looks creepy.

…and for that reason it’s better to be portrayed, IMO, in some sort of avant-garde style. Radical formalism or something. There must be something relevant in the Soviet art scene of the early 1920s.

11

bob mcmanus 11.08.11 at 7:34 pm

and the SF subculture looks down on a book about “intense, poetically-drawn characters having anguished, convoluted relationships with each other ”

Because this is really the conservative’s position, and the foundational concept of science fiction is historical materialism, that societies and individuals are determined by historical or environmental factors unless disrupted by exogenous factors.

And I don’t think SF subculture looks down on human drama. We just choose to see As I Lay Dying and To Kill a Mockingbird as about the South.

Whether or not human nature is immutable, and if it is immutable, whether can we imagine a persistent social equilibrium that takes immutable human nature into account, is largely what SF is about. And much else of our culture.

And I see little human drama in RL that does not derive from sexism, poverty or acquisitiveness, racism and tribalism etc…and will not necessarily scale those things up to war and other social problems.

12

Theophylact 11.08.11 at 7:35 pm

Steve LaBonne @ #9:

That’s exactly what Kim Stanley Robinson did in Pacific Edge. Whether you think it worked (I do) is a matter of taste.

13

bob mcmanus 11.08.11 at 7:38 pm

major drivers of conflict are the inescapable problems of the human condition

Bzzzt. Begging the question, the question for Science Fiction since Shelley, Verne, and Wells.

14

Matt 11.08.11 at 7:43 pm

Is P.G. Wodehouse considered boring? There’s a marked lack of assassins, environmental collapse, alien invasions, bloodsport, and genocidal maniacs in his writing. Maybe Anna Karenina too is boring: I recall only one violent death and only one significant character who wasn’t comfortably well-off.

People who say they wouldn’t want to live in a world where people are generally content and uniformly prosperous (or even read about it) strike me the same way as people who say life would be too boring if we didn’t inevitably face old age and death whether we want it or not. It’s either a case of sour grapes or they are seriously lacking in imagination.

My vision of utopia may be hopelessly optimistic or shallow, but here it is: that we may all enjoy the easy life of a Bertie Wooster, insofar as that is possible without expecting other people to play maid, cook, or Jeeves, and that if we choose anything more strenuous it is out of enthusiasm, not necessity.

15

bianca steele 11.08.11 at 7:50 pm

16

bob mcmanus 11.08.11 at 7:53 pm

Maybe Anna Karenina too is boring

AK was written as biting, bitter social satire and criticism. It was entertaining to T’s contemporaries because they understood who and what he was stridently attacking and gently chiding.

While I was writing my comments above Tolstoy came to mind. Is “How Much Land Does a Man Need” a story about an inescapable tragic human condition or a historically determined social problem? I think we know the answer for Tolstoy.

17

Salient 11.08.11 at 7:54 pm

But is there really a point to doing that?

Sure, why not investigate what shape the conflict takes? I mean, you can characterize Utopias as settings in which institutionalized oppression of meditative thought is negligible and suffering from social engagement occurs entirely at the level of individuals; one might explore how, for example, a married couple with children would negotiate a splitting of the family unit, in the absence of forces at the institutional level that restrict and guide, or even prevent, that negotiation.

18

Steve LaBonne 11.08.11 at 8:09 pm

Salient- I can see that. But it strikes me (and apparently, from this discussion, strikes a lot of SF writers) as a pretty difficult thing to pull off- as also in other kinds of genre fiction, like historical fiction. It’s hard enough to write a really engaging “private life” novel set in the present without the extra degree of difficulty. But I’m sure it’s been done successfully a few times.

19

Tim Worstall 11.08.11 at 8:10 pm

I’m sure I’ve missed the point here but:

“Implicit … is a definition of utopia; not the elimination of tragedy but its universalization. When each person’s sufferings and failures – her fate – are individual, rather than circumstantial and accidental, as is so often the case in the “great scramble,” then no more can be required of politics. The democratization of tragedy is surely a modest enough conception of utopia.”

And:

“people still have jealousy, feuds, fights, bad sex, no sex and all of the other sundry personal unhappinesses that humanity is prey to.”

Is the argument actually that in that Maxist utopia if other people are having bad sex then I must also be doing so in order to democratise tragedy?

I mean, OK, I’m a middle aged married Englishman so it wouldn’t actually be very different from reality but it does seem harsh as a political ideal.

20

Matt 11.08.11 at 8:13 pm

AK was written as biting, bitter social satire and criticism. It was entertaining to T’s contemporaries because they understood who and what he was stridently attacking and gently chiding.

I was being sarcastic when I suggested it was boring. It holds up well even for me even as a reader enjoying a translation, with no experience of the book’s setting. There is still engaging drama, but it is drama of aristocratic problems where problems of housing, clothing, food, security, and a voice in the political process have receded into the background. If I think about science fiction, even the science fiction I enjoy, there’s usually a lot more explicit violence and inequality on display. Saying that anything else would be boring seems like a trivial and easily refuted answer: if people can write engaging stories about people who never worry about their physical or economic safety in other genres, why not in SF?

Maybe every aspiring SF author already read Bellamy’s Looking Backward, nearly fell asleep during the process, and vowed to never step within 20 feet of utopia in their own writing. I don’t see why speculative fiction about an unambiguously better society must have the same earnest lecturing quality to it, though.

21

Gareth Rees 11.08.11 at 8:17 pm

Carr’s second claim (“Utopia is creepy – or at least it looks creepy”) is true of some utopian fictions, but I think creepiness is not an inherent feature of the setting: the creepiness is there largely because the author put it there deliberately. Utopian science fiction is often concerned with dramatizing the question of whether we have to give up something valuable, or something fundamental to human nature, in order to achieve our utopian vision. The creepiness is there to make the reader think about this (supposed) trade-off.

A couple of examples: in The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke makes the city of Diaspar an unsettling place because the story is about the way this society has achieved perfection by abandoning the urge to explore the stars. In Return from the Stars, Stanisław Lem presents his utopian future Earth as a profoundly alienating place because the story is about the aspects of human nature that might have to be given up to make sociological progress.

22

J. Otto Pohl 11.08.11 at 8:32 pm

I have not read Banks. But, The Dispossessed and Iron Council are not about any realized utopias. Le Guin does a much better job of thinking out what a post revolution society would look like than Mieville. Nonetheless a lot of Annares seems to be drawn from what the USSR actually looked like in the 1970s. True, the political repression of dissidents is much less in Le Guin’s version. She does, however, include a lot of the day to day problems that did dominate the era of stagnation. These include lots of frustrating committees controlling decisions, shortages of material goods, a general isolation from more vibrant societies, and an adherence to an outdated revolutionary ideology that had little relevance in people’s actual day to day lives. Hence Annares has the same depressing and gray stagnation that the USSR had during the 1970s. A system based upon an ideology nobody believes anymore that continues to give a relatively poor material standard of living and stifle creativity is hardly a utopia. I think this is rather deliberate, Shevek appears to have been influenced by the dissident movement in the USSR at the time.

23

chris 11.08.11 at 8:46 pm

Is P.G. Wodehouse considered boring?

No, but he isn’t considered science fiction, either. SF readers expect the world to be involved in the story; a story that was completely disconnected from the setting would disappoint the reader’s expectations even if it was otherwise well executed.

how, for example, a married couple with children would negotiate a splitting of the family unit, in the absence of forces at the institutional level that restrict and guide, or even prevent, that negotiation

In the absence of forces at the institutional level, how many people would choose to define their interpersonal relationships in terms of “married couples”?

24

Rich Puchalsky 11.08.11 at 8:51 pm

“Rich – this is not a utopian novel – but have you read Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang. It’s exactly about those little dramas, and very good too. “

I’ve read it, but I have to disagree about the “very good” part. I thought it was fatally flawed by having a few too many narrative points of view. The individual chapters were often pretty good, but there was no particular reason to string them together. There’s a reason why when PKD did that kind of structure it topped out at 3-4 characters. (Also, if I remember rightly, there’s an awful punished-for-having-first-sex chapter that really didn’t seem to be showing much about the setting per se.)

“But is there really a point to doing that? How would the utopian setting enhance the treatment of these immemorial themes of fiction?”

If you’re talking about political SF, which Banks. Mieville, and Le Guin are all writing, then the point is to be able to write a utopia based on your ideals that people would actually want to live in. Not that the books are supposed to be propaganda — but if you, as a writer, can’t make something that keeps people’s interest without the requisite wars and murders, then I think that people are justified in thinking that maybe there’s something wrong with the politics.

25

Nicholas Weininger 11.08.11 at 8:55 pm

One reliable test of an honest and well-thought-out utopia is that those with different cultural/political values from the author can see it as a well-drawn dystopia, negatively contrasted with the more “realistic” societies depicted alongside.

So for instance Anarres seems to me clearly, and brilliantly, shown to be a much worse place than Urras; likewise the right-anarchist society in _The Stone Canal_ is far preferable to the left-anarchist Solar Union of _The Cassini Division_, and _The Gold Coast_ describes a far better (on balance!) California than _Pacific Edge_.

26

Yarrow 11.08.11 at 8:58 pm

Rich Puchalsky @ 4: Ursula Le Guin’s Annares is troublesome just because it’s so boring.

Hunh. I’ve been homesick for Annares ever since I read The Dispossessed as a teenager. Different tastes.

27

Hob 11.08.11 at 9:00 pm

J. Otto Pohl: I have a few problems with your reading of the book:
1. Le Guin also included an explicit analogue to the USSR on the non-anarchist planet, and it’s not like Anarres at all.
2. Anarres does not have “an adherence to an outdated revolutionary ideology [with] little relevance in people’s actual day to day lives.” It’s got stagnant and ossified aspects that (at least from Shevek’s POV) are due to paying lip service to the ideology without actually adhering to it… but it’s still strikingly different from our world in many positive ways that are totally due to their ideology.
3. The material shortages on Anarres have nothing to do with the revolution; they just live on a resource-poor world. That’s made very clear in the book.

Basically your interpretation is a lot like the way Shevek sees his own world before he travels elsewhere. Once he gets a look at the alternatives, and develops a bit more self-confidence, he returns as a deeply committed revolutionary. Le Guin’s utopia is “ambiguous” in the sense that it still has problems and requires people to make an effort to keep it fresh, but I don’t understand how you can read that book and think she’s not 99.999% on the side of Anarres.

28

Salient 11.08.11 at 9:00 pm

TW, the end of Henry’s second paragraph clarifies–it’s exactly those types of things which don’t get addressed. (I think we would agree that ‘democratize’ is a little confusing, it sort of makes it sound like we’re spreading those kinds of suffering around, instead of just admitting there’s nothing coherent we can do about them.)

In the absence of forces at the institutional level, how many people would choose to define their interpersonal relationships in terms of “married couples”?

–touché! Good point, but the question might not be perfectly rhetorical — e.g. there might well be some ‘marriage is a sanctified union’ type folks who do. Or maybe not, raising the question, what kinds of people are inherently incompatible with (a particular construction of) Utopia? That might be a less demanding exercise than weaving private-life narrative into compelling sci-fi.

29

Steve LaBonne 11.08.11 at 9:00 pm

If you’re talking about political SF, which Banks. Mieville, and Le Guin are all writing, then the point is to be able to write a utopia based on your ideals that people would actually want to live in.

Well, this is more or less what I was saying. The point is still, as in all genre fiction, the exploration of the circumstances (which I have nothing against and I agree can be fascinating); as far as illuminating the human heart goes, there is very little value added by the genre element compared to mainstream fiction. Now, of course, a great writer in any genre can transcend such limits and do something that is of universal value well beyond his or her conscious intent; Oblomov, say, clearly was intended as social satire but the fact that we have to make (and may very well choose not to make) a conscious effort to recover that aspect of it does nothing to dim its luster. And not even contemporaries evaluated Oblomov and Stolts the way Goncharov seems to have intended. (I, as a non-SF fan, am interpreting some of the SF recommendations here as pointers to SF books that may transcend genre in that way, and am grateful for such pointers.)

30

lestin 11.08.11 at 9:00 pm

Le Guin notes in an interview somewhere (I know, that’s the worst kind of citation; forgive me, it’s a blog comment*) that her utopia is not The Dispossessed, but Always Coming Home. Thus it would be Sinshan, not Anarres, where she articulates her political vision.

*I believe it’s in Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin.

31

lestin 11.08.11 at 9:04 pm

Which only strengthens the original point of the post, of course.

32

Hob 11.08.11 at 9:05 pm

For a very odd and theoretically interesting (if not literarily interesting) example of a utopia without fear, anger, or jealousy, see Wells’s In the Days of the Comet. After a chemical event disables the anxiety feature on everyone’s brain, the narrator actually gets upset about not being able to feel jealousy when he thinks he should… except he’s not really able to get upset either, so he just whines a little until his girlfriend gives him a good talking to.

33

Pascal Leduc 11.08.11 at 9:16 pm

I often think that the reason we have dystopian stories is that they are easier to imagine. It’s not hard for someone born in the western world to imagine a life worse then his. But apparently the contrary is not true. I guess many writers simply cant imagine anything better then what we have now, we mustn’t forget the large number of libertarian writers for whom a life where people are free from consumption rationing is a dystopia in itself.

Alot of these stories with failed utopias also seem to fail for nonsensical reasons. I’m currently reading David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (space horatio hornblower) again, and the description of the failed utopia of Haven (space france) always comes out off to me.

Basically Haven is forced to constantly invade lesser worlds in order to pay for both its massive invasion fleets and the BSL, the basic living stipends (space welfare). Every citizen is entitled to this stipend instead of working and those who choose to live off of it are called proles. These proles live a life of abject squalor with food lines, crumbling tennements and rampant crime. People who are born into this life and somehow get a job (and off the BSL) are described as heroic individuals who took the worse the universe could deal and somehow managed to eek out a life.

Yet this same BSL increases faster then inflation and is a significant draw to working class people who can and will quit there jobs to live off the dole.

These two things cant exist in the same universe. If prole life is so miserable, why do people voluntarily chose to live in it and if it isint then these proles are consuming, and how do you fail to get full employment (among those who want to work) when you have a significant portion (the proles are the only voting block that matters) of your population who do nothing but use resources without making any?

oh well, maybe its just a phase thing, we’ve had the SF as a social commentary phase, then the dystopian space drama phase, not to forget that absurdist period. Maybe someday we will get these utopian soap opera stories.

34

L2P 11.08.11 at 9:25 pm

“If you’re talking about political SF, which Banks. Mieville, and Le Guin are all writing, then the point is to be able to write a utopia based on your ideals that people would actually want to live in. Not that the books are supposed to be propaganda—but if you, as a writer, can’t make something that keeps people’s interest without the requisite wars and murders, then I think that people are justified in thinking that maybe there’s something wrong with the politics.”

In SF, we call those “short stories” and “novelettes” and lots of brilliant stories get written every year sans wars and murders that focus solely on interpersonal relationships in various utopias and dystopias. There’s not a lot of bang for your buck in drawing out a 300+ page exploration of how different breaking up a long-term relationship is in a utopian, scarcity-free world hundreds of years in the future.

Wings of the Dove, for instance, awesomely looks at class, money, relationships, and avoids war and murder and all that great stuff. But transposing and contrasting that to a SF utopia doesn’t need a novel-length treatment, and 200 pages would probably be a waste; we don’t need to see all the duplicity to see that having an egalitarian society makes things a little cooler for everybody, and then showing how things are still difficult. You could write it, but it’s not necessary and probably wouldn’t draw out all of the issues that utopia creates.

YMM, of course, V.

35

J. Otto Pohl 11.08.11 at 9:51 pm

Well, most of the Dispossessed is told from Shevek’s point of view. A view that looks a lot like much of the Russian samizdat literature (non-Russians had different grievances). But, the fact that there are worse places does not make it utopia. There were worse places than the USSR in the 1970s as well. Hell, even more prosperous and less repressive socialist regimes like Yugoslavia still fell way short of utopia even if they were a lot better than China under Mao, Haiti, Zaire, and other alternatives. It is not at all unheard of for political dissidents in exile to return home due to homesickness. That does not make their home a utopia.

36

David Moles 11.08.11 at 9:54 pm

@Henry — Wasn’t me, but I’ve been avoiding the SFE myself for pretty much the same reason.

@Rich — If it’s the chapter I think you’re thinking of, you’re misremembering. The character in question wasn’t punished by the author for having sex, she was raped by her date through no fault of her own. Important distinction. Personally I thought that chapter had important and interesting things to say about the intersection of race, class and gender in the setting, but YMMV.

There’s nothing inherent in SF that makes it impossible or pointless to write stories of personal rather than historical tragedy. It’s just that what we mostly use SF for, and what most SF readers are looking for, is what used to be called “men’s adventure.”

37

Henry 11.08.11 at 10:06 pm

bq. It is not at all unheard of for political dissidents in exile to return home due to homesickness. That does not make their home a utopia.

But I don’t think that Shevek’s homesickness is what is at issue – his return (and his bringing along of the Hainish diplomat) is an obviously political decision.

I had thought of saying something about “Always Coming Home” but since it is about 20 years since I’ve read it, decided not to.

Pascal – I thought the Honor Harrington books were trash (although I did read through several of them during a boring and lonely Canadian winter, so go figure), but have always had some grudging admiration for Weber for having had the unmitigated brass to come up with a cockeyed physics specifically intended to make it possible to replicate Napoleonic battles in space.

38

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.08.11 at 10:12 pm

Otto, do you mean something like Kotlovan? I don’t think The Dispossessed is anything like Russian samizdat; there is no sarcasm, no cynicism, no absurdism in The Dispossessed. Not much humor either.

39

Rich Puchalsky 11.08.11 at 10:13 pm

“The character in question wasn’t punished by the author for having sex, she was raped by her date through no fault of her own. Important distinction. “

Um… in fiction, the author determines what happens, after all. The character goes on her first date, there’s nothing to suggest either culturally or personally that it’s particularly risky, she gets date raped. Yes, that happens to women in real life quite a bit, yes it was “through no fault of her own”, just like all date rape, no, I didn’t see any particular authorial point in punishing the character that way. If the author wanted to make a point about race, class, and gender, there are any number of ways of doing that. Not to turn this into the last thread on the topic, but settings do not require certain kinds of violence in order to illustrate those settings, this goes right back to “Why are women under threat all the time even when they’re powerful?” “Because it’s medieval.”

40

Rich Puchalsky 11.08.11 at 10:18 pm

Though maybe the distinction that you’re making is that she’s punished for having sexual desire — she is attracted to the guy she goes on a date with — rather than punished for having sex per se. To that extent, yes, I phrased what I meant poorly.

41

Tangurena 11.08.11 at 11:04 pm

Works of science fiction, particularly good ones, are almost always dystopian.

This is so totally wrong. As a counterexample, I present Lois McMaster Bujold’sMiles Vorkosigan series.

Utopia is creepy – or at least it looks creepy. That’s probably because utopia requires its residents to behave like robots, never displaying or even feeling fear or anger or jealousy or bitterness or any of those other messy emotions that plague our fallen world.

I’m going to offend folks by claiming that the root of all SF is the question “what does it mean to be human”. What is a person without emotions? You get Vulcans and robots. What is a person who is extra violent? There are your Klingons. What if there weren’t men and women? There are your Gethen.

As for Embassytown, I didn’t really like it. The premise of “the hosts” and their language was interesting, but the politics and behavior of many of the humans pissed me off to where I gave up on the book halfway through. If I were Avice, I would have pushed her husband out the airlock long ago.

42

mor 11.08.11 at 11:24 pm

Happy futures are all alike….

43

actio 11.08.11 at 11:48 pm

Scialabba quote: “… a definition of utopia; not the elimination of tragedy but its universalization. When each person’s sufferings and failures – her fate – are individual, rather than circumstantial and accidental, as is so often the case in the “great scramble,” then no more can be required of politics.”

= luck-egalitarianism!

44

ScentOfViolets 11.08.11 at 11:51 pm

None of this is necessary. It’s completely possible to write a readable utopia in which the major drivers of conflict are the inescapable problems of the human condition … but no one has wanted to do that, it seems. SF loves drama of a particular kind, and the SF subculture looks down on a book about “intense, poetically-drawn characters having anguished, convoluted relationships with each other ” as a book in which nothing happens.

Huh? Surely you jest? And since everyone seems to have an opinion about the Dispossessed, may I ask how it came about that no one here happens to have read what back in the day was considered the companion novel, Delaney’s Triton?

Which, iirc, bore the subtitle An Ambiguous Heterotopia :-)

45

James Reffell 11.08.11 at 11:51 pm

Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia is relevant here. Written partially in response to The Dispossessed, it posits a possible Utopia (among many options) and, as a main character, someone who is just not equipped to deal with it, but tries.

It’s been a while since I read it. It’s pretty brutal in parts.

46

James Reffell 11.08.11 at 11:51 pm

@43 jinx!

47

Nick Caldwell 11.09.11 at 12:13 am

Tangurena, do you mean the Vorkosigan series isn’t dystopic? Or that it isn’t good? (I’m very fond of the series but I think there’s a dystopian thread throughout. None of the societies depicted, not even Beta Colony, are exactly ideal places to live).

48

chris 11.09.11 at 12:16 am

This is so totally wrong. As a counterexample, I present Lois McMaster Bujold’sMiles Vorkosigan series.

Well, of course that isn’t *a* dystopia, because the whole setting isn’t one society. But it does contain several dystopias (Cetaganda and Jackson’s Whole in particular).

I’m going to offend folks by claiming that the root of all SF is the question “what does it mean to be human”.

That question is insufficiently general. There are lots of intelligent, self-aware beings in SF that aren’t human (even if your definition of human is broad enough to include, say, genetically engineered organisms based on humans).

49

David Moles 11.09.11 at 12:19 am

@Rich You seem to be arguing that any time a character is raped in fiction it constitutes an authorial indictment of the character’s behavior. I haven’t seen any evidence that you’re that shallow a reader up till now, so clearly I’m not understanding what you’re saying. What are you saying?

50

Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) 11.09.11 at 12:26 am

I think the perfect counter-example to the idea that SF can’t handle Utopia is Damon Knight’s short story The Country of the Kind. While there may be some who’d argue that the world of that story is really a dystopia, I think it’s hard to make that case about a human society that’s managed to reduce violence between humans almost to zero, and reduce economic inequality so that the bottom tier doesn’t want for necessities. On the other hand, the protagonist and narrator, who is himself a violent criminal (and isn’t allowed to act out his violence anymore), thinks it’s a terrible place to live, and that by preventing violence his civilization has sacrificed many important attributes, including creativity. Of course, he would think that.

51

JamesP 11.09.11 at 12:53 am

Nick@46, I don’t think any of the Vorkosigan settings are dystopic, they’re just flawed in interesting ways. The closest to a dystopia is Jackson’s Hole. Beta Colony is a significantly nicer place to live than modern Earth in most ways. Barrayar is noticeably improving. Even Athos, which would be a dystopia in a lot of author’s tellings, is a pleasant, peaceful place where people seem to live fulfilling lives.

52

Brett Bellmore 11.09.11 at 1:12 am

“but I think there’s a dystopian thread throughout. None of the societies depicted, not even Beta Colony, are exactly ideal places to live).”

There is no such thing as an ideal place to live for everybody. The best we can hope for is ideal places to live for this sort of person, and that sort of person… and freedom to move between them. Apparently none of the societies depicted are your ideal society.

IMO, utopias tend to be creepy for exactly this reason. They’re supposed to be places that are ideal for everybody, but people on some level understand that there can’t be any such place, and that if a place seems to be such a place, something very wrong is going on. The people are just pretending to be happy because they’re afraid, or are mind controlled, or aren’t really people, or something.

As for the idea that good SF has to be dystopian, surely there’s room between utopia and dystopia, and worthwhile stories to be told in that space.

53

bob mcmanus 11.09.11 at 1:13 am

Long 1980 interview with Samuel R Delany

Subjects:Triton, Dispossessed, utopias, W H Auden’s taxonomy (Arcadia etc) with four additions by SRD, much more

For instance (it is long), SRD:

“Brave New World/New Jerusalem interplay, what basically sets SF apart from utopian thinking is a fundamental fictive approach.

By and large, utopian thinking starts with a general political idea, in the service of some large and overarching notion such as “freedom,” “happiness,” or “equality”; the writer of a utopia then works down and in, to determine what the texture of life might be for the individual in a world run according to such ideas. But what practice often reveals is that, when we start from full scale politics, the resultant life texture ends up as far away from the ideal as it can possibly get.

By and large today, in SF, you start with the texture of life around some character. Nor is that texture necessarily conceived of as “the good life.” Rather, you say, what would be an interesting life texture. If you have to have bad things, what bad things might you be able to stand? You look at the specific texture of the character’s everyday world—not the greater political structure his or her bit of life is enmeshed in. Then, in the course of the fictive interrogation of the material that makes up the rest of the book or story, you move—fundamentally—up and out…towards the political.”

54

shah8 11.09.11 at 1:32 am

Two things:
1) There are plenty of science fiction novels that depicts utopia, to the side (I consider Charles Stross Glasshouse to be an example), or one that would work if it were allowed to by an external force (Karl Shroeder Lady of Mazes).

2) There seems to be far more Utopias in Japanese fiction. Many more romances, like Crest of the Stars, and more philosophical novels like The Stories of Ibis.

guess we need to talk about Americans who *don’t* want to write about Utopia, dang…

55

shah8 11.09.11 at 1:35 am

Hmm…

Further, I think we should have some firmer idea of what a utopia is. I mostly think of it as a post-scarcity society without artificial restraints. Restraints on the protagonist could happen for any number of reason. If people are defining Utopia as a place where they get to do whatever the hell they want, and saying that’s lala land, I’m going to think it’s a subtle straw man…

56

Hob 11.09.11 at 1:36 am

Nicholas @25: Leaving aside the question of how you could think the society in The Gold Coast is good for anyone (I half suspect you’re just trolling with that one), that’s a pretty bizarre metric for literary merit you’re proposing. It sounds a lot like judging the quality of a chocolate cake by asking “How much would someone who hates chocolate hate this cake?” All of human experience is not perfectly symmetrically arranged on two sides of a political divide, and you can’t just create an ideological mirror image of a piece of fiction and expect it to behave the same.

57

Hob 11.09.11 at 1:42 am

ScentOfViolets @43: It’s a wonderful book. Why do you presume no one’s read it? I imagine the most likely reason that people here have been bringing up The Dispossessed and not Trouble on Triton is that the former actually has “utopia” in the subtitle and takes a fairly direct approach to the idea of a society built on a revolutionary ideal, whereas Delany chose a different description and wrote a very different kind of book. Triton is largely a character piece, seen from the point of view of a politically uninterested character; there’s very little description of how its world works.

58

Kaveh 11.09.11 at 2:19 am

Bret @50 They’re supposed to be places that are ideal for everybody, but people on some level understand that there can’t be any such place, and that if a place seems to be such a place, something very wrong is going on.

Of course no utopia could be the perfect place for everybody, but we can probably identify a few trade-offs that we would be willing to impose on our would-be utopians. Violence is an easy one–utopia is probably a lousy place for a person who craves high-stakes violent competition. You can’t be Conan the Barbarian in utopia.

Maybe the creepy/uncanny feeling is there because we realize utopia is too good for us. We would be at best highly mediocre people when among utopians, misfits whose maladaptations we can’t just pass off as really being society’s fault. Maybe the big lesson we have to learn from utopias is that there are certain sacrifices we all ought to make.

59

Kaveh 11.09.11 at 2:23 am

(On the other hand, even if utopia is way too good for us, we could get by there being Bertie Wooster, and that wouldn’t be so bad.)

60

Watson Ladd 11.09.11 at 2:47 am

The Vor series is neither utopian nor dystopian. Sure, Barrayar is a medieval world slowly modernizing. Its 1914 Russia. Beta is the Scandinavian welfare state. Jackson’s Hole is Jackson’s Hole cum Vegas through the lens of Gonzo: anything can be bought for a price.

What about Asimov’s political fiction? Neither First nor Second Foundations are utopias, even if both are part of a master plan. Its an examination of how human nature and politics combine to create badness, even in seemingly liberal societies. As such we might think of it as conservative, even though the existence of such societies hastens the end to a terrible Dark Age.

61

Rich Puchalsky 11.09.11 at 2:55 am

“This is so totally wrong. As a counterexample, I present Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series.”

It’s a very good series. However… a lot of what I imagine that you think of as its non-dystopian quality is that the world of Barrayar starts out as a nasty militarist culture and gets better from there, starting to approach “normality” (where “normal” is defined as in general something that a contemporary middle-class person would be comfortable with). The Barrayar of the first book in the series is a dystopia, pretty much, but it’s allowed to change for the better, achieving not utopian status but progress.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that you’re that shallow a reader up till now, so clearly I’m not understanding what you’re saying. What are you saying?”

I’ve decided I’m sending the thread too far off, so I’ll be very brief; I didn’t mean “punishment” in the sense that the author thinks the character is modeling bad behavior, but in this case, the character takes a normal, human risk and it goes very badly for them. In life, most people no longer say that when bad things happen to someone an angry god is punishing them, but for characters in fiction, the author is a Demiurge who does just that — displacing authorial failure to write the scene in a better way onto the character.

62

Barry 11.09.11 at 2:57 am

Tim: “Is the argument actually that in that Maxist utopia if other people are having bad sex then I must also be doing so in order to democratise tragedy?”

No, the argument is that the bad things happen more due to individual human failings than to cultural forces.

63

Barry 11.09.11 at 2:59 am

Chris @47 – “But it does contain several dystopias (Cetaganda and Jackson’s Whole in particular).”

We really don’t see that much of Cetaganda. We really don’t know how the 99% live.
There are some unpleasant hints (the use of the telepath to inerrogate ‘dissidents’).

64

Rich Puchalsky 11.09.11 at 3:06 am

“No, the argument is that the bad things happen more due to individual human failings than to cultural forces.”

Actually, I think that the argument is that being in a utopia doesn’t cause people to become inhuman robots who can never have negative emotions. If you really believe that utopia == inhuman stultification or boredom or flattening, then you’re most of the way towards rejecting the left. Why bother to struggle for a better future if it’s only going to turn you into a robot?

This isn’t just an SF thing. See e.g. John Holbo, _Dead Right_. What passes for the more thoughtful conservative has, for a long time, said that bad things need to happen for people to live full lives, so trying to stop them from happening globally is wrong.

65

icastico 11.09.11 at 5:28 am

Nice to see Delany enter the discussion.
His “To Read The Dispossessed” from the Jewel Hinged Jaw should be a starting point for this discussion. It seems.

The purpose of most examinations of utopia, of course, is to focus our attention on the disconnect between our desires and reality, as far as I can tell.

http://books.google.com/books?id=7JQBknc-R7UC&lpg=PA105&dq=isbn%3A081956883X&pg=PA105#v=onepage&q&f=false

66

Sebastian H 11.09.11 at 5:36 am

Is the Shire presented as a utopia?

67

mclaren 11.09.11 at 7:38 am

China Mountain Zhang indeed offers an excellent quasi-utopian science fiction novel, and a good counterexample.

I would cite two other counterexamples: John Varley’s 1970s novelettes, collected in the 3 story collections Picnic on Nearside, The Barbie Murders, and Blue Champagne; and Bruce Sterling’s absolutely superb 1996 novel Holy Fire.

68

John Mashey 11.09.11 at 8:01 am

Well, if one is doing LeGuin “utopias,” how about:
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, whose entire text can be found here, just a few pages long, read that first. and see how you feel.

Of course, she had something to say about utopias in The Lathe of Heaven, as well.

69

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.09.11 at 8:18 am

Brett, There is no such thing as an ideal place to live for everybody.

There can be, with enough indoctrination. That’s why almost any utopia in literature is also usually a terrible distopia for some non-conformist weirdo. In literature, you need a conflict. But it still can be a utopia for 99.9% of its inhabitants. Or, perhaps, even for all 100% of them.

70

Mandos 11.09.11 at 9:16 am

Salient- I can see that. But it strikes me (and apparently, from this discussion, strikes a lot of SF writers) as a pretty difficult thing to pull off- as also in other kinds of genre fiction, like historical fiction. It’s hard enough to write a really engaging “private life” novel set in the present without the extra degree of difficulty. But I’m sure it’s been done successfully a few times.

I suppose because she’s not as big a name she hasn’t really been mentioned, but Joan Slonczewski’s Brain Plague I think strikes a good balance between “personal novel” and {u,dys}topian SF. In this book, the Utopia Question is, in fact, being answered inside human bodies. Interpersonal relationships, romance are simultaneously meetings between civilizations…

71

Latro 11.09.11 at 9:22 am

Of those mentioned, Anarres is not an “utopia”, The Culture is but the novels dont focus on it too much, going to the physical and ethical borders where things are not so utopian, and Iron Council… I cant find anything utopian about it anywhere.

Ah, just because they form an anarchocommunist commune that “works”? Works as in “survive”?

72

Sam Clark 11.09.11 at 9:45 am

Brett Bellmore said:

There is no such thing as an ideal place to live for everybody. The best we can hope for is ideal places to live for this sort of person, and that sort of person… and freedom to move between them.

That is a utopia. It’s the utopia described by Robert Nozick or Chandran Kukathas (in works of political philosophy rather than novels): desires, taken as given and uncriticisable, plus uncoerced choice about how and where to attempt to satisfy them. A lot of other utopias reject that ideal, on the grounds that (1) desires are rationally criticisable; and/or (2) absence of coercion isn’t the whole of freedom; and/or (3) freedom isn’t the only valuable thing in human life.

73

ajay 11.09.11 at 9:47 am

Is the Shire presented as a utopia?

Pretty much; but it only works because it’s not inhabited by humans. Hobbits don’t really care about wealth and power. Bilbo goes away on his adventure, comes back with an unimaginable amount of wealth, and the only change in his living circumstances is that he hires someone to come in and do his garden for him once a week. Human influence destroys the Shire.
Tolkien and Banks came to the same conclusion about utopias; it’s just that Banks decided a utopia could only work if it was run by inhumanly superintelligent AIs inhabiting million-tonne starships, and Tolkien decided that the key was small amiable people with hairy feet.

74

Harald Korneliussen 11.09.11 at 10:49 am

lestin:

Thus it would be Sinshan, not Anarres, where she articulates her political vision.

Maybe today, but judging from early vs. late Earthsea books, Le Guin isn’t above changing her vision, and if necessary retconjure away parts of the old vision that don’t fit any longer.

75

Barry 11.09.11 at 12:47 pm

Rich Puchalsky 11.09.11 at 3:06 am
” This isn’t just an SF thing. See e.g. John Holbo, Dead Right. What passes for the more thoughtful conservative has, for a long time, said that bad things need to happen for people to live full lives, so trying to stop them from happening globally is wrong.”

John did cover the contradiction between a right-wing dream society being good for people in the conventional sense, and in the ‘build character’ sense.

(I note that this is more for the 99% than the 1%; the right harnesses the resentment and sadism of a large chunk of people to screw them over)

76

chris 11.09.11 at 12:56 pm

We really don’t see that much of Cetaganda. We really don’t know how the 99% live. There are some unpleasant hints (the use of the telepath to inerrogate ‘dissidents’).

There’s an entire book set on Cetaganda. Specifically, the one titled _Cetaganda_. The fact that it’s ruled by genetically engineered aristocrats who maintain their power through the threat of biological warfare would be enough for some people, but apparently you want more.

At least one middle-class (if that’s the right term; he’s materially well off but not part of the ruling class, which you cannot enter unless you were decanted into it) Cetagandan is seen in some detail and what we see doesn’t look so great (although he ends up finding work that he apparently finds fulfilling, so if he hadn’t got caught up in political intrigue it might not be so bad). But if you accept the rule that if it’s a dystopia for one person it’s a dystopia, full stop (see also mention of Omelas @69), how would you like to be a ba? (And if you argue that if you actually were a ba, you’d probably be content with it because they’re engineered and/or indoctrinated to be so… well, that pretty much proves the point.)

77

Rich Puchalsky 11.09.11 at 1:34 pm

People are getting confused about the Vorkosigan series because of its genre blend. It’s at least partially a romance-genre series as well as SF. (That is a good thing, not a bad thing.) A whole lot of the appeal of the series comes from the vicarious enjoyment of aristocratic power for “good”. Consider the events of _Komarr_. Without trying to be too spoily, the novel features a widow being given a pension that she ordinarily wouldn’t get — but she gets it because the main character says so — and a sad boy being told what he needs to know to process his experience by the Emperor himself.

Of course the Emperor isn’t personally talking to every boy who has suffered a loss, and every widow who wasn’t lucky enough to have one of the ten empowered aristocrats nearby didn’t get a pension. In fact, living in the Barrayaran empire is probably really horrible for most people. But we see it from the viewpoint of a character with the power and inclination to right very local wrongs. Miles doesn’t think once about making sure that everyone gets support if their family income drops because of a tragedy, he’s happy to use his personal power to fix the one case in front of him, and so are most readers I guess.

The same with _Cetaganda_. Who would think of this place as a dystopia? It all works, right? — including the unsatisfied guy who as chris writes about ends up getting an upper-class job. But of course everyone can’t get such a job. Everyone sympathetic who we see in the series either dies tragically or gets personally fulfilled, because the main character is pretty much as powerful as it’s possible to be and has good intentions and skills. All the dystopia (after the first couple of books) happens somewhere to one side.

That’s not some tremendous flaw in the books. It’s a genre thing. People don’t question why in romance novels dashing bandits carry women off, marry them, and have lifelong, loving relationships — well, actually I guess they do — but it’s part of the genre. Readers should be conscious of why so many people mysteriously like the Vorkosigan books, but that doesn’t make them bad per se.

78

Rich Puchalsky 11.09.11 at 1:35 pm

Oops, “sad boy being told by the Emperor” happens in the next book. But you get the idea.

79

Western Dave 11.09.11 at 3:17 pm

I second the idea that utopianism and individual discontent is explored best in SF through short stories. The one that jumps to mind for me the most is Orson Scott Card’s Unaccompanied Sonata, in which a clearly utopian world has to deal with a creative genius who is “corrupted.” I know OSC isn’t popular around here, but it is a great story and worth checking out. To a lesser extent, Speaker for the Dead deals with the same issues (although in Speaker for the Dead it’s more like there are utopian societies, with each planet free to create it’s own utopian culture – and therein lies the tension).

80

Rich Puchalsky 11.09.11 at 3:24 pm

Utopianism, in the sense that I’m interested in it, is exactly not the topic for an SF short story. SF short stories are about ideas, and hardly ever have real characters. The whole point of having an SF utopian novel that isn’t all about wars/murders/etc. is to have some space to write about normal people’s lives.

81

Joe 11.09.11 at 3:31 pm

“The utopia genre is, as a general rule, a political genre – which is to say that it’s about the solution of political problems rather than personal ones. “

The trouble with this is that it assumes a liberal-individualist ontology (and attendant private/personal sphere), in which tragedy goes on. Utopias tend to be a bit illiberal, meddling politically in the personal, perhaps in order to prevent it from imbalancing or otherwise damaging the public/political sphere. More’s and Marx’s utopias both do this. The former does so by banning or marginalizing everything from atheism to personal taste in clothing. The latter pretty much gerrymanders the personal out of existence in order to get a coherent socio-economic sphere going.

The point isn’t that there somehow has to be a classically liberal private sphere–clearly there doesn’t. Rather, the point is that ignoring whatever personal or private stuff exists is what gets us a utopian world view. Thus, lots of utopias are, on a broadly liberal reading, distopias. They’re places that attain a perfect public sphere, but do so at the expense of the private. Marx, of course, really does intend only to get the political right. But by intending this as single-mindedly as he does he denigrates the personal so completely that private tragedy is replaced by political imposition.

Thus, the price of a ‘merely’ tragic private sphere is the undermining of the private as such. The tradeoff might be perfectly reasonable, if you’re a staunch enough Marxist. But a tradeoff is what it is.

82

Kaveh 11.09.11 at 3:34 pm

Sam Clark @73 “There is no such thing as an ideal place to live for everybody. The best we can hope for is ideal places to live for this sort of person, and that sort of person… and freedom to move between them. “

That is a utopia.

To make my earlier point more forcefully, is it really conceivable that living in utopia(s), even individually-tailored utopias, wouldn’t change people? And any utopian vision ought to account for that. So while I can see a utopia accommodating a lot of diversity, a kind of “anything goes” utopia sounds to me like it would be a major cop-out. All of which I think is an anxiety underlying many/most forms of conservativism, as I think Rich @65 and John Holbo’s Dead Right (haven’t read it) are also implying.

I wonder if anyone knows of writers who have explored the “utopia is too good for me” angle? Surely someone must have done this.

83

AcademicLurker 11.09.11 at 3:45 pm

Since I’m reading Banks’ latest Culture novel right now, it seems to me that it’s worth keeping the distinction between utopia and “post scarcity” in mind.

Most utopias still take some sort of limitations on physical resources for granted, and then set about deciding how to distribute these resources in the least unjust way. Positing a world in which the limitations are done away with entirely raises different issues.

Also, I’m not sure how powerful a critique “it can’t be utopia for everyone” is without being a bit more clear about who doesn’t fit in and why. Someone who can only feel happy and fulfilled when he’s torturing and immiserating people by the thousands will of course find a society in which he’s not allowed to do that inhospitable. But really, if that’s the best “gotcha” that you have…

84

MPAVictoria 11.09.11 at 3:49 pm

“My vision of utopia may be hopelessly optimistic or shallow, but here it is: that we may all enjoy the easy life of a Bertie Wooster, insofar as that is possible without expecting other people to play maid, cook, or Jeeves, and that if we choose anything more strenuous it is out of enthusiasm, not necessity.”

I could sign on to that.

85

MPAVictoria 11.09.11 at 3:53 pm

“Pascal – I thought the Honor Harrington books were trash (although I did read through several of them during a boring and lonely Canadian winter, so go figure), but have always had some grudging admiration for Weber for having had the unmitigated brass to come up with a cockeyed physics specifically intended to make it possible to replicate Napoleonic battles in space.”

Trash may be a bit harsh. If you like military science fiction they get the job done. The prose isn’t entirely awful and the pacing, at least in the earlier books, moves fast enough that you can ignore a lot of the problems in the books. Trust me the Honor series is far above average for military science fiction. Kind of like being the worlds tallest dwarf I guess.

86

AcademicLurker 11.09.11 at 3:55 pm

“My vision of utopia may be hopelessly optimistic or shallow, but here it is: that we may all enjoy the easy life of a Bertie Wooster, insofar as that is possible without expecting other people to play maid, cook, or Jeeves, and that if we choose anything more strenuous it is out of enthusiasm, not necessity.”

I could sign on to that.

Clearly Banks should write some Wooster & Jeeves in the Culture short stories.

87

bob mcmanus 11.09.11 at 4:07 pm

I wonder if anyone knows of writers who have explored the “utopia is too good for me” angle? Surely someone must have done this.

Aldous Huxley.

88

mds 11.09.11 at 4:29 pm

Clearly Banks should write some Wooster & Jeeves in the Culture short stories.

Wait, you mean that’s not what Diziet Sma and Skaffen-Amtiskaw are for?

89

Pascal Leduc 11.09.11 at 4:45 pm

MPAVictoria @ 86, I have a John Ringo Military Sci fi “novel” right next to me which was gifted to me a few Christmas ago. It sits there unread and everyday that I dont read it is in itself a minor victory against the evils of bad writing.

As for Honor Harrington, its greatest failing is that as the series became more popular the editors took their hands off and as such the books balloon out of control with useless faffing about and complaints about the democratization of the education system. I got as far as Echoes of Honor before I gave up.

90

Nicholas Weininger 11.09.11 at 4:52 pm

Hob: the point is that bad or dishonest utopias tend to preach to one or another choir (from my own choir, L. Neil Smith is an example of an offender here); those not in the choir will find them not dystopian but just ridiculously unrealistic and dependent on too much authorial deck-stacking. An honest utopian writer will lay out clearly the huge tradeoffs required for their utopia to be sustained and explore in detail how realistic human characters deal with those tradeoffs; so those not sharing the values behind the utopian vision will tend to respect, even admire, the realism and take the other side of the tradeoff.

And no, I wasn’t trolling re: Gold Coast; its society has a lot of problems, big ones, but it is *alive* in a way that Pacific Edge is not, and in a way that I think is more important to human flourishing than the egalitarian and ecological values Pacific Edge pushes.

+1 to John Mashey’s recommendation of “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas.” That story remains, not only a brilliant meditation on utopias, but one of the most powerful cases I know of for the moral impermissibility of interpersonal utility comparisons.

91

ajay 11.09.11 at 5:05 pm

Clearly Banks should write some Wooster & Jeeves in the Culture short stories.

The dark secret in the past of Special Circumstances mercenary Cheradenine Spode is revealed at the climax of Iain Banks’ latest Culture novel, Eulalie of Weapons.

92

MPAVictoria 11.09.11 at 5:06 pm

“MPAVictoria @ 86, I have a John Ringo Military Sci fi “novel” right next to me which was gifted to me a few Christmas ago. It sits there unread and everyday that I dont read it is in itself a minor victory against the evils of bad writing.”

John Ringo is the worst.

I agree with you on about Weber. The earlier books are much less bloated and hence more enjoyable.

93

shah8 11.09.11 at 5:16 pm

A couple more thoughts:

1) American culture simply doesn’t have a broad cultural interest in Utopian settings, especially in novels. We tend to stick most of that straight into science fiction, and there isn’t a blending of genres like what you see in romance and paranormal procedurals. We think about Utopia to think about Utopia, for the most part and we rarely *norm* a Utopia (whatever the philosophical underpinnings on “why it’s Utopia”). Novels like Permutation City are a bit rare in a sense…

2) American visual arts does depict Utopias often, as in the Jetsons or Star Trek. However, the vast majority to my mind seems to be composed of *gotcha* Utopias, especially from right wing views. Gattaca, Logan’s Run, Minority Report, these are good examples of the genre, I think.

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Sam Clark 11.09.11 at 5:32 pm

Kaveh – Perhaps we’re using ‘utopia’ in different senses? I mean ‘a text describing an ideal’. I took Brett Bellmore’s claim to be that utopias are necessarily oppressive, because they can’t suit each person’s pre-existing, uncriticisable desires, and was replying to that. I don’t claim, and I don’t think BB would claim, that the ideal he describes would have no effect on people. I just claim (1) that it is a a utopia, and a familiar one; and (2) that his argument against utopias therefore doesn’t work.

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Seth Gordon 11.09.11 at 6:56 pm

If you want to write an SF novel set in some hypothetical “Society U” in which a man is jealous of his wife, it’s generally considered Not On to take a story that would work just fine in a mainstream novel and just swap in background details of Society U. The features that make Society U peculiar (from an early-21st-century reader’s point of view) should have some effect on the plot and the characters. If the effect is to resolve the conflict more quickly than you would see in a mainstream novel, then you don’t have (as much as) the engine of conflict driving the story forward. If the effect is to intensify the conflict, or at least take it in an odd direction, then Society U may be a better world than real life for 99.999% of the world’s population, but it looks non-utopian to the protagonist.

Poul Anderson’s short story “Day Million”, and LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, take the first approach, and give the reader a rich setting in exchange for a weaker plot. The Dispossessed takes the second approach.

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Kaveh 11.09.11 at 8:05 pm

@95 What I meant to imply in my response was that if a utopia (text) portrays the utopia (place) as “everyone gets their own personal utopia”, then that’s a cop-out, and even logically inconsistent, because it suffers from the very basic “set of all sets” problem (it can’t include people who hate utopias, so not EVERYBODY can be happy there). So in that sense Brett is right–even if you could say that such a utopia (text) is at least trying to be a utopia, the fact is that it’s not trying very hard.

On the other hand, I think dismissing the idea of utopia (either the idea that one could exist, or that it could be portrayed here and now) on these grounds is lazy, because even if you expand the trivial category of {people who hate utopias} into something more plausible, like {people who crave high-stakes violent competition} and {people with very abusive, sadistic personalities}, then I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that those people really just don’t belong, and the stipulation that they don’t belong doesn’t make our utopia an actually-a-dystopia, or a gotcha utopia. Maybe this is what Brett was getting at by saying utopias (places) are often conceived of as a place that’s perfect for everyone, and we naturally rebel at that notion.

I think the adult/liberal takeaway from all this should be that yes, I probably wouldn’t enjoy (liberal) utopia very much, because it’s probably going to be a MUCH gentler place (or something) than what I’m used to, but that doesn’t mean that the utopians (people living in the place) are all trivial people and lightweights, and that it’s therefor not worth trying to approach utopia. All those gotcha utopias of pop scifi movies are very childish.

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Brett Bellmore 11.09.11 at 11:13 pm

“Miles doesn’t think once about making sure that everyone gets support if their family income drops because of a tragedy, he’s happy to use his personal power to fix the one case in front of him, and so are most readers I guess.”

I think that’s not quite true, if you’ve read In The Mountains of Mourning. Rather, Miles sees himself as part of a society which is too poor to “make sure that everyone gets support if their family income drops because of a tragedy”. And himself as part of an elite raised by the sacrifice of the vast majority, duty bound to do something about it, but very resource limited by circumstances.

But his help for the widow and her son was fairly unambiguously courtship, not welfare. ;)

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Frank Ashe 11.09.11 at 11:53 pm

I am resisting the urge to go to my bookshelf so that I can contribute to this debate with more ammunition.

Delaney’s Neveryon series does a nice riff on the idea of utopian/dystopian society. He tries to be too clever by half, but he writes well. The world described in Stars in his Pocket Likes Grains of Sand is another potential utopia. [I refuse to walk to my library to check this world’s name – I’ve got work to do!] The universe in that book is definitely not utopian, as we can’t understand (intentionally by Delaney) the motives of some of the aliens. Which raises an interesting point – can a subset of a dystopian universe be a utopia?

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John Mashey 11.10.11 at 4:46 am

For one more dystopia (/hope for utopia at end) book, read John Brunner’s 1975 book <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shockwave_RiderThe Shockwave Rider. Some ideas are quite prescient, given when it was written, i.e., before the Internet, Facebook, etc. At that point, not many people even had a terminal in their office.

I read it and laughed at the worms with infinitely-replicating tails in the net …
and within a few weeks, got scared to death when I saw one, the famous Ken Thompson hack, see Reflections on Trusting Trust section. I think our group was the only one to find this. Trapdoor security holes were key elements in Vernor Vinge’s “Deepness n the Sky”.

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chris 11.10.11 at 5:10 am

But his help for the widow and her son was fairly unambiguously courtship, not welfare.

…except that Rich got his widows mixed up (there are two in the same book). Miles’s order to pay the pension that wouldn’t normally be payable was for Madame Radovas, whose husband was killed in the possibly-an-accident in space that Miles came to the planet to investigate. (Officially, Dr. Radovas had resigned shortly before his death, which is why the bureaucrat was going to deny the pension.) In light of the events of the rest of the book, I doubt she ends up collecting it after all.

In fact, living in the Barrayaran empire is probably really horrible for most people.

Raina Csurik, in particular. I don’t think the reader is all *that* sheltered from the horribleness of some parts of Barrayar. Isn’t Mark attacked by a street gang within his first 24 hours on-planet? Taura doesn’t exactly have a great time there either. And then there’s Princess Kareen — just to show that the lives of aristocrats can suck too, just in different ways.

But we see it from the viewpoint of a character with the power and inclination to right very local wrongs.

…when he can (see above). I don’t think the idea that we’re seeing some kind of idealized Barrayar really holds up — you have to overlook a LOT to get that kind of view.

On the other hand, I don’t think Barrayar is a dystopia, exactly — there are a lot of problems with it, certainly, but that’s true of most societies and you don’t call them all dystopias, do you? Ekaterin and Nikki’s dependence on Tien and vulnerability to the consequences of his bad decisions (to put it mildly) are no worse than they would be in pretty much every patriarchy ever. Street violence, bigotry and even civil war are common features of quite a few societies. Of course those things disqualify your society from consideration as a utopia, but they don’t exactly mark it as a dystopia either. There’s a lot of middle ground, and a lot of dramatic things happen in societies that occupy that middle ground.

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Rich Puchalsky 11.10.11 at 5:51 am

I didn’t get the widows mixed up; I also was thinking of Madame Radovas for the pension bit. It’s the ideal case of what I’m describing, because in the book everyone dwells on the way that Miles can evade than the normal processes of bureaucracy — there is no place on the form for an Imperial Order, but that doesn’t stop him. In fact he half-jokingly suggests that they make a new form with a special place by do-goodery orders if one of the 11 or so people on three planets who can give them happens to walk by.

I agree that Barrayar isn’t a dystopia, really — although the first book comes really, really close, given the portrayed degree of sexual sadism of the upper class — but my claim wasn’t that we were seeing an idealized version of it either. (An idealized version of a fantasy setting? Well, I know what you mean.) Barrayar’s problems are there so that Miles can demonstrate his personal power to get through them either on his own behalf or for other people. It’s one of the staple tics of the series, like having Miles be medically injured in some new way in every book to humanize him and keep him from looking like the incredibly entitled person that he is (and, again, for romance-genre value).

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a.y.mous 11.10.11 at 10:14 am

Theological and religious mythologies apart, in printed form, in English, at least, has this question not been answered half a century ago? Or are we looking at continual productions of new and better Utopias, in which case, might as well stop this bait and switch and just use plain old Societies.

Utopia – BNW – Huxley did intend it as Utopia, by his own admission
Dystopia – BNW-RV – http://www.huxley.net/bnw-revisited/
Utopia – Island – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Island_(novel)

So, yes. A single Utopia can exist for all and sundry, after all.

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chris 11.10.11 at 1:31 pm

I didn’t get the widows mixed up

Okay, it must have been Brett, then. Because I don’t think there’s any serious argument that Miles was courting Madame Radovas.

Anyway, the fact that some people in the system can decide when the rules are getting in the way and need to be suspended is a feature of the system. We have a few features like that in our own system (pardons, for example), just not to the same extent. Certainly, it seems like it could be abused, but in this case, I dunno. Miles acted in characteristic recklessness, not knowing the full story, but is the outcome really that bad?

ISTM that Miles is a great example of the saying that to whom much is given, from them much will be demanded (which is how the Vor in general are supposed to work, although they don’t always). And possibly also the one from Spider-Man about great responsibility. I’m kind of looking forward to what kind of demands will be made on [spoiler] Miles.

I agree that Barrayar isn’t a dystopia, really—although the first book comes really, really close, given the portrayed degree of sexual sadism of the upper class

I don’t think it’s meant to be implied that Serg and Ges are typical of the upper class. “Put all the bad eggs in one basket and then drop the basket” only works if bad eggs are a small enough proportion of all the eggs that you’ll have a society left afterwards. But to come back to the thread topic, it’s a plot line that would be really hard to write in a utopia. If you have enough bad eggs to even consider such an act, then you don’t live in a utopia.

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Josh G. 11.10.11 at 4:22 pm

AcademicLurker @ 84: “Most utopias still take some sort of limitations on physical resources for granted, and then set about deciding how to distribute these resources in the least unjust way.”

I don’t think any society still plagued with scarcity could be reasonably described as utopian, unless you define the term down to mean “any society better than those currently in existence today.” A utopia – that is, a truly ideal society – would need to include: (1) full material abundance, (2) immortality, and (3) freedom, broadly defined.

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Rich Puchalsky 11.10.11 at 4:50 pm

“Miles acted in characteristic recklessness, not knowing the full story, but is the outcome really that bad?”

It’s not (for me) a question of whether the outcome is presumed to be good or bad within the novel, but of how the event functions in the novel. The series as a whole has a lot of personal do-gooding, which the reader is offered to identify with, without much overt consideration of whether the personal do-gooding of one of the most powerful people on three planets really means anything on any larger scale, or indeed whether it conceals aspects of the system that are made even worse by what good Miles does. But that’s just another way of saying that it’s not a political novel.

I’ll try to phrase this another way. Up above I wrote about dashing bandits carrying women off. There are some genres in which this would be really horrible stuff, and one — a genre primarily read by women — in which it is so standard to the genre that rejecting it at the level of an individual work seems wrong. In _Komarr_ and sequels, although the author has cleverly arranged events so that Miles doesn’t bear what we’d consider to be responsibility, he functions as that dashing bandit. (Spoilers… I guess.) He comes to an unhappily married woman’s house, and by the end her husband is gone and she’s sleeping with him, carried off to a world of wealth and power and so on. I think that’s it’s just a category error to look at this setting as “utopia” or “dystopia”.

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Salient 11.10.11 at 5:13 pm

A utopia – that is, a truly ideal society

Ok, but isn’t that just defining words like ‘perfect’ and ‘ideal’ and ‘utopia’ in terms so strong they can never be used in conversation, except to pithily say that nothing can possibly be perfect/ideal/utopian? A legit enough thing to do, sure, but also kind of a creativity killer. I’m glad LeGuin and Huxley and others didn’t take that definition; coherently distinguishing the possible perfects from the impossibly perfect is the earliest task a theorist of social justice (e.g. a utopia-constructing novelist) needs to face.

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Eleanor 11.10.11 at 7:00 pm

The violence in a lot of SF comes (I think) from its pulp origins. A lot of SF readers and writers still expect ray guns and space ship fights. (I’m talking about American SF here.)

It makes more sense to talk about better societies than utopias. A lot of SF is about societies that are better than our current world. Or worse. The point is examine the ways in which societies can be better or worse and to talk about the possibility of change. Give people a look at what a society that is less sexist and racist and classist might be like.

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Brett Bellmore 11.11.11 at 1:32 am

“Okay, it must have been Brett, then. Because I don’t think there’s any serious argument that Miles was courting Madame Radovas.”

Quite possible; When I had to move from Michigan back in 2008, there wasn’t room on the moving van for my SF collection, I had to sell all several thousand volumes to a used book dealer for a few cents on the dollar. (Kept the hardcovers, though!) So I don’t have it to refer to anymore.

I really wept over the complete Doc Savage collection. And the Grimes Rimworld novels. Heck, who am I fooling, I even shed a tear for the drek like “Ol Doc Methuselah.”

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Eleanor 11.11.11 at 3:36 pm

You sold your SF collection? Couldn’t you have rented a bigger van?

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Brett Bellmore 11.11.11 at 5:06 pm

I was just about out of money and time then, and had to save what money I had for keeping up the COBRA, as my wife was pregnant, and the new job didn’t start for a couple of months.

I console myself that some kids who probably weren’t alive when those classics were written got a chance to read them affordably.

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corymbia11 11.11.11 at 10:15 pm

I love coming to this blog; there is much to enjoy, particularly when an interesting topic like this is going through its bloggerly paces. To that end Crooked Timber is, possibly, a utopia (if we accept some of the definitions laid out upstream); but nottheUtopia I happily, and regularly, come to visit.

I came upon this realisation in a sad way; perfection ain’t so easily obtained, even in Arcadia CT ™.

I read Shah8’s commentary (@94) about “American” culture with rising alarm and some disbelief. “Permutation City” kicks the pricks? “Gattaca” is a gotcha Utopia? But…but…surely neither have much to do with an American view of anything, do they? I am confused, as only a rustic can be. Surely, an Australian and a New Zealander were the respective authors of these so-called expressions of “American Culture”? In short, they didn’t come out of a sensibility that might be considered “American Culture”, surely.

(And Andrew Niccol and Peter Weir, antipodeans both, gave us a representation of an American utopia, in the “Truman Show”). The antipodean involvement in ideas about utopia is of course, obvious. Australia is the “Lucky Country” and New Zealand (“Godzone”), being the setting for Butler’s novel of a (sort of) utopia, “Erewhon”, was only second to Chile in creating a neo-liberal “utopia” in the 1980s.

“Gattaca”, taken from some New Zealander’s perspectives, is more of a cautionary tale about the utopian ideas of right-wing ideology than a gotcha-Utopia (which, if I’m honest, I really don’t understand as a concept. What is a gotcha-U exactly? If it ain’t a utopia it ain’t one, surely).

And possibly the best working-out that I’ve read of what utopia (or heaven) might mean for each of us, is Theodore Zeldin’s “Happiness”. Now that, to my mind, is a very interesting piece of speculative fiction.

Now, back to strolling in Arcadia CT ™…

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Tehanu 11.12.11 at 4:02 am

I don’t think Barrayar is a dystopia, even though I don’t think I’d want to live there myself. It’s not a totally repressive dictatorship where people are afraid of all authority, or an anarchic, lawless place where no one is safe; it’s a society with a lot of flaws that seems to be full of interesting and nice people — and I don’t mean just the attractive aristocrats, like Miles and Gregor and Ivan, who dominate the story lines; I mean people like Lem and Harra Csurik, Kareen Koudelka, Tsipis, Armsman Pym … people whom I’d like to meet. Utopias and dystopias, strictly speaking, are imaginary societies held up as models or goals. None of the planets or societies in Bujold’s work are that. They come across as real places with both bad and good aspects, and while not everyone in them is happy, how is that different from real life?

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Eleanor 11.13.11 at 4:09 pm

If you consider that James Hansen may be right and Earth may end up with the same surface temp as Venus, SF that has the planet habitable in the future may be utopian or at least very optimistic. Or consider Jame Lovelock who has said that the human population will be down to one billion at the end of this century… Writing a future that does not have a major die off is optimistic. Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is pretty cheerful, all in all, since I don’t see humanity as going into space in a serious way. Certainly nothing as epic as the terraforming of Mars.

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Alex 11.13.11 at 4:31 pm

I was just about out of money and time then, and had to save what money I had for keeping up the COBRA, as my wife was pregnant, and the new job didn’t start for a couple of months.

That’s rough. Fortunately you’d avoided paying slightly more tax in the good times by vigorously campaigning against national healthcare, and therefore had enough liq

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Alex 11.13.11 at 4:33 pm

Ah, the rule that when you’re saying something because you’re angry, you’re very likely to make an embarrassing typo, has finally caught up with me…

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Austin Loomis 11.14.11 at 6:11 pm

@MPA Victoria #93: John Ringo is not the worst, actually. That would be Tom Kratman, who cheerfully admits that his main auctorial priority is the pissing-off of liberals, with everything else a distant second.

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Brett Bellmore 11.15.11 at 12:25 pm

Alex, I’m gladly willing to sacrifice universal health care in return for the rule of law. We could have both, of course, but that would require actually amending the Constitution, rather than suborning some judges into pretending that it means something different from what it says. An option which seems inadmissible, perhaps due to the fear the states wouldn’t ratify such an amendment.

As for that rule you cite, yup, it’s bitten me more than once.

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