I keep complaining that I’ve got serious dystopia fatigue. All the big popular properties right now—particularly in film—tend to be set in dystopias. I’m still intensely upset that Star Trek, which arguably had utopian elements in it, has been rebooted as more of a dystopia. You know. Assuming you could pull a coherent plot out of the hot mess that was the second movie I’m still totally pretending didn’t happen except for the bits with Simon Pegg.
It’s come up a couple of times recently, the question why there aren’t more utopias in writing these days. David Annandale linked to this article on Twitter a couple weeks ago. Andrea Phillips mentioned utopias and the intense difficulty of writing them on (I think) this week’s The Cultures podcast. Personally, I took a stab at trying to write a utopian shot story a couple years ago. It didn’t go well. Which is why I’m sort of shame-facedly admitting it on my blog rather than humblebragging about it.
The thing is, the more I think about it, the more it kind of pisses me off that we’re having such problems coming up with utopian fiction. I think part of the problem is the way we’re defining a utopia. If it’s a perfect society where everyone is absolutely perfectly happy and nothing ever goes wrong then… yeah. That would be a pretty tall order when it comes to trying to come up with a decent, gripping story. There’s a lot more dramatic tension you can easily harvest out of a complete hellhole where everyone is constantly fucking miserable.
I think dystopias are also really tempting because a lot of the suffering faced by real people right now, and a lot of the problems we have are based upon societal failings becoming less and less easy to ignore, thanks in part to social media. If what happened (and is still happening) in Ferguson doesn’t make you want to run out and start writing cautionary tales about the militarization of the police, you have not been paying enough attention.
Though the point also cannot be made strongly enough that if you turned down the hyperbole on dystopias just a little, you could point to that being the every day reality of a great many people in so-called “first world” countries. They just don’t tend to look like the people who write the YA novels and get sweet movie deals out of it.
Maybe that’s why dystopias have become the easy write and the easy(ish) sell at least until the market became glutted. It’s not hard to look around and imagine “this, but a million times worse.” Every dystopian book has its evil, mustache twirling, despotic leader, but the ultimate villain is the society itself. And the attraction of reading dystopian books is also pretty clear, because for the most part the message ends up being that yes, everything is total shit, but a few brave souls going through an admittedly rough heroic journey can still fix it.
It makes great escapist fiction for modern misery, because we’d all really like to believe, say, that climate change could be stopped by a single young person with perfect skin if they just get pushed hard enough. It’s a much nicer idea than the incredibly depressing reality. Society is the evil dragon, and a hero will rise to slay it, and then we can handwave off the question of what happens next because our hero’s personal journey is complete and presumably everything that follows is boring.
One would hope the boring bit that happens after is the utopia. But you never know, because no one ever writes one. And I’m starting to really think that’s a problem, because we’re writing over and over and over again about slaying the dragon of the broken and malicious social order, but not coming up with anything to fill the resulting vacuum.
And I think it’s very important that we try. I’m with Charles Stross on this one:
We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.
So now that I’ve bitched about why I think we’re here for 700 (sob) words, what do I want to do about it?
I think the first thing is, we need to stop saying that the utopias have to be perfect. At this point, I’d settle for a society that’s pretty darn good but still has some cracks in it. Like Starfleet in old-school Trek. Or even what we saw in Her, which was not explicitly a Utopia, but you get the distinct feeling that certain things just aren’t problems any more and at least everyone has enough to eat.
How about instead of imagining a society where everything is somehow perfect, we just imagine a society where everything is better. Where the society is not actively malicious and hurting its citizens? A society where everyone has enough to eat and somewhere to live and doesn’t have to be afraid of getting randomly shot by the police. How about that? At this point, those things sound quite Utopian to me.
I think perhaps because of the dystopia glut, we’ve gotten into this mindset that the society needs to be the story, when we’re writing social fiction. Because yes, The Hunger Games is about Katniss, but her antagonist is the fucked-up dystopia. In a utopian story, the utopia by definition is not and cannot be the antagonist. Hell, maybe it should even be the hero! But at the least it can be the backdrop for the story you do write.
But if the antagonist isn’t the society, where does the conflict come from?
Just a bit of brainstorming:
- There’s always the threat from outside. You shouldn’t assume that the utopia is global, right? Though this is one that would need some real caution and deep thought, because utopia deserves better than bullshit that boils down to they hate us for our freedom. Barf. Forever. But maybe the threat is economic. Maybe the threat is a nasty colonial power that wants your resources.
- Go for the threat from way outside and have an alien invasion? How is a utopian society—one that has presumably been at peace for a while—going to deal with suddenly needing a defense budget and soldiers? Or has your utopian society been at peace?
- Non-sentient exterior threats also exist. There will still be diseases. Utopia doesn’t mean they will be instantly cured, or even that the resources will exist for immediate, excellent research. What kind of sacrifices will people have to make in order to come up with the necessary resources?
- Environmental disasters will still happen. Global warming will probably still be a thing. Extraterrestrial objects might still wander into our orbital path. How will utopia deal with refugees? (Lots and lots and lots of refugees.)
- Does curing a lot of the malignancies in society mean that there will be no crime whatsoever? Will there still be thievery, or serial killers? I have no idea, really. But unless your utopia is also a perfect surveillance state (yet still a utopia), I’d argue there might still be room for a murder mystery. And crime might be even more shocking because presumably a lot of the criminal activity that isn’t motivated by pure sociopathy will have ended once people have enough to survive and thrive.
- Or heck, what about less violent crimes, but things motivated by ego? What about corruption and fraud? (Particularly scientific fraud!) Will there still be charlatans? Remember, sometimes the worst medical charlatans are people who believe their own dangerous nonsense. Even if money is no longer in the pictures as main motivation, what about the lure of fame and praise? In a densely populated world, I can’t help but think there’d be a big draw to feeling special and respected and well-known. Because I don’t honestly think utopia is going to cure the desire to feel special.
- If your utopia is one with minimum basic income but money still exists, wealth can also still be a motivator for malfeasance. Why just live in your small, shitty, free apartment and eat normal food when you could get better digs and have meat that’s not grown in a vat! That stuff’s for plebes, man.
- Is the economic system still going to be nominally capitalist? Are companies going to suddenly stop trying to be dicks to their employees just because society is awesome? Hey libertarians, here is your opportunity to write me a convincing libertarian utopia that doesn’t involve saying fuck everyone else, let ’em crash.
- And in that vein, there’s always the threat to society from within. Not because someone is politically opposed to no one starving, say, but because maybe people still have a tendency to be vain, selfish, and cruel. Or at the least corruptible. Just skimming a little off the top won’t hurt anything, will it? So how is your utopia going to combat that creeping threat? Who will watch out for it, and who will watch the watchers?
- Are there sentient machines in your utopia? Genetically engineered, sentient non-humans? How does your utopia treat them? Or how does your utopia deal with other nations that aren’t utopia developing those things?
- Will your utopia still have religion? Will there still be political disagreements? A lot of utopias seem to posit that everyone will believe the same things, but is that really the only path to utopia? Is that even possible?
- And as a continuation of that, you see so many utopias where in many ways people have all become the same. (They even dress the same in Future Society Jumpsuits.) Can you make a utopia that’s entirely about accepting and celebrating differences? How will that even work? Will distinctive cultures survive and still be passed on between generations? Will old ways of doing things be preserved, yet still fit in to utopia?
- Will there still be prejudices? If your utopia is completely perfect, maybe not. But if you’re going for a society that has a minimum basic income, housing for all, and good education, would those things necessarily combine to root out the shitty human desire to be mean to others who aren’t in their in-group?
- What about the arts? What about music? What about parties? Are people still going to get drunk and end up in a field without their trousers? Oh god what if you drunk-called that appealing person of indeterminate gender from work and now they think you’re an idiot god why do you always listen to Jen, they have the worst ideas.
- What about roadtrips? What about discovering yourself? Wouldn’t it be great to get to go on a journey of self-discovery when you don’t have to simultaneously worry about the specter of crippling credit card debt?
- What about drugs? Will addictions still exist at all? Is everyone suddenly going to become super healthy? Is everyone going to suddenly agree on the best way to be healthy?
- What about disability? Is the utopia for all of the able-bodied people still going to be a utopia for anyone who isn’t? Is trying to avoid this issue by waving your hand to cure all genetic conditions and fixing or preventing all injuries not only cheating but also a bit evil? If disability is incredibly rare, what is it like to be the only person, say, with amazing robot legs in utopia? Even if in utopia people aren’t shitty about it, it’s still going to be a different experience, isn’t it?
- What about teenagers being teenagers and asserting their independence in the most frustrating way possible?
- How about population control? Will there have to be some kind of limiting factor on population? Can you manage that without creeping toward dystopia?
- I’m pretty sure people in utopia will still want to explore space. Or if they don’t want to, you’d better explain yourself.
- You’ve got to be kidding me if you think people aren’t going to still feel alienated or lonely or insignificant or like no one in the world understands them.
- Even if much of the above is invalidated because the culture is perfect, people are still going to be people. There will still be interpersonal conflicts, and romances, and just not knowing what the hell you want to be when you grow up. Are those stories worth telling? I would argue yes. Ultimately all of our stories are about people and their journey. Utopia isn’t stasis.
- Your suggestion here. Let’s keep brainstorming about conflicts in utopia in the comments! (And please, if I have screwed up anything horribly, feel free to chew it up there.)
The conclusion I’m coming to is that it’s not that conflict can’t exist in Utopia, it’s just that maybe we’re all too damn lazy as writers. Or lazy might be too mean. I think there is a certain mental groove we get caught in, when we’re getting exposed to the same kinds of stories over and over again across the media, it’s hard to convince ourselves that other kinds of stories can be interesting.
It kind of reminds me of the profound shift in thinking I experienced when I started writing original fiction. I wrote fanfic for years and years, and as is common, I wrote fanfic about the male characters in the various series I liked, because let’s be honest. For the most part there are more male characters, and they get the interesting backstories and development. So when I first started trying to write more original fiction, almost all of the characters I wrote were male, I think because that’s what I had been so exposed to. Sometime in my second year of writing mostly original fiction, I had this epiphany that holy shit, you can write interesting stories about women too. (And then a couple years later, I had a similar holy shit moment when I realized that not everything has to have a massively explodey, action-packed finale.)
So maybe we’re not writing Utopias because they’re hard, and we’re complacent, and we’ve bought into the poisonous idea that it’s not a story worth 90,000 words if no one gets shot. Maybe it’s time we all get the dystopia out of our system, take a deep breath and say okay, now that I’ve screwed up the world, how am I going to fix it? And not just fix it, make it better.
Challenge yourself as a writer. You don’t even have to write us a book about perfect utopia. I’d settle for you telling us how to get there.