Utopian ideas hidden inside Dystopian sf

Via Boing Boing, Josh Glenn has a column for Boston Globe called The Examined Life which appears on Sundays in the Ideas section, and asks the question Can the antidote to today’s neoliberal triumphalism be found in the pages of far-out science fiction?, in Back to utopia.

I’m not sure if he really answers the question. It does makes for a interesting history, although focusing only on american writing. In doing so, it fails to highlight the meaningful differences between more pessimistic american scifi (“things are falling apart”) and the more optimistic british scifi since the 80’s as described in “The New Optimists” and this Ken Macleod interview, where he also says :

I find the ideas of utopia and dystopia rather suspect – things aren’t like that. There are no real utopias, or dystopias, in my work, just strains working in both directions. But I have had fun with the utopian tradition – in The Cassini Division, I use the old utopian trope of someone being given a tour, only Suze is showing Elena the non cooperative, less utopian bit of her society

“Divergent Utopian ideas in American and British writing” would make a fine topic. (Or Canadian/Australian/New Zealand, or non English langue cultures)

Why did utopian writing become scarcer in america? The column talks about the disappearance of the political utopian writing in post-McCarthyism Cold War america, but leaves out the post vietnam death of technological utopias. Star Trek is clearly a pre vietnam technological utopia.

So what did that leave? ”negative” utopianism, james bond like high tech villainy, or disaster scenarios (crashes, smashes and mashes). And american scifi, as well as other more mainstream writers like Margaret Atwood, Michael Crichton, and even Tom Clancy, remains largely stuck in that mode.

Or was it , also, readers becoming more sophisticated (or more cynical), making utopian settings as embarrassingly childlike, or propaganda and preaching (see any of the almost unreadable ). Was it the nature of Utopias to be very bland, if only because of the lack of conflict? Conflict makes good drama, but if it’s an “ideal state” how could there be conflict?

To paraphrase : Utopias are all alike; every Dystopian is unhappy in its own way.

However, it can be done. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge is one of the few readable utopian novels (more utopian-lite? not perfect just a little better), and one of his most enjoyable in general. In his “Mars” books, and everything after, he does tend to sideline into heavy technical lecture mode, and as does Neal Stephenson in his more recent writing (although his “The Diamond Age” is the best of his writing). But that is largely due to the unfamiliar setting.

And beyond the better story structure that is inherent in conflict, a Dystopian has the possibility of changing a mind in a sneaky way: uphold X as the “WAY”, then show what is a consequence of X take to the nth degree, where X is your favorite thing.

“Utopian ideas hidden in satires ” might be another interesting topic, but again Americans generally don’t do satire, and the only exception “The Simpsons” is just too easy. Maybe “neoliberal triumphalism” is the last refuge of american satire?

Update: Via SF Signal, we have Robert Collins’s Top 10 dystopian novels at The Guardian.

“Fictional dystopias are almost always cautionary tales – warnings of where our political, cultural and social surroundings are taking us. The novels here all share common motifs: designer drugs, mass entertainment, brutality, technology, the suppression of the individual by an all-powerful state – classic preoccupations of dystopian fiction. These novels picture the worst because, as Swift demonstrated in his original cautionary tale, Gulliver’s Travels, re-inventing the present is sometimes the only way to see how bad things already are.”

1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; 2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; 3. Crash by JG Ballard; 4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; 5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding; 6. In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster (new to me); 7. Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson (ditto); 8. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle (it was abook?); 9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K Dick; 10. Idoru by William Gibson (or any of his “Sprawl” series)


Randy McDonald has kind words.

Dec 16th Update : Via SF Signal : Tidbits Part LI, we have essay on A political history of science fiction from Eric S. Raymond (yes that ESR! providing future material to the Everybody loves Eric Raymond web comic), a – surprisingly – decent read of mostly American SF :

At bottom, the central assumption of SF is that applied science is our best hope of transcending the major tragedies and minor irritants to which we are all heir.

January 2007 update : The Wikipedia entry on recently linked to this article as # 28 in it’s list of Notes. Humbling, as long as it lasts.