Questions for your Utopia

In the June edition of Doctor Who Magazine (available in May in UK, I assume because overseas sales or something?), there is an interview with Frank Cottrell-Boyce, the writer of episode “Smile” (the one with the emojibots and Vardy nanobots).

In it he discusses one of the themes he set out to tackle (to be honest, I don’t think he did that well on it in the story, but it’s still a great episode): the subject of Utopia.

“I’m not just bored with Dystopia, I think there’s a question that Dystopian fiction may have normalised some of our modern politicians. Now, we’re living in Dystopia and are we living in Dystopia because we imagined it too much?

“Anyway,” he continues, “we’ve imagined what bad is for a long time, so should we start imagining what good is?”

Is that a problem with Utopian ideals – there will always be somebody like Ralf Little’s Steadfast stirring up passions to take back paradise from the robots that built it in the first place?

“Utopia is somebody else’s idea,” Frank considers, “Somebody else designed it and you just have to live within it. So it’s their Utopia, but it might not be your Utopia. Utopia has to defend itself, it’s my Utopia, so you can’t have it!”

These are some fascinating questions to think about with regards to writing and fiction.

  • Why do Utopias appear more rarely than Dystopias?
  • What roles might Utopias play in fiction?
  • How can we design a Utopia? What are the problems that have to be worked out in the worldbuilding process?

Why are Utopias rare?

This is relatively easy to answer.

The essence of all stories is conflict, whether that is internal, against nature or circumstance, or against other people. In order to hold the reader’s interest, your protagonist must have a need and face some obstacle to answering that need.

The essence of a Utopia is to remove the obstacles to meeting the population’s needs. Threats and conflicts tend to be removed and are imagined to have no place in the Utopian world ideals.

So it is very hard to set a compelling story in a genuine Utopia. Instead, the story must focus on the “fly in the ointment” that makes it less than perfect, or construct the Utopia as a Curate’s Egg, where the good is rendered worthless by the bad and under the surface, the Utopia is revealed to be Dystopian.

Another challenge is that Utopias tend to be seen as stable, self-preserving, and in that sense conservative. Stories rely on change. While it is possible to have a “reset” at the end of each episode where everything goes “back to normal” in episodic fashion, but these stories tend to be less satisfying.

Finally, Utopias are hard to create. To write a Dystopia, all one has to do is pick a problem with the current society and exaggerate it to grotesque form or scale, and see what comes out of that. To write a Utopia, you need to find sustainable ways of resolving all the problems – which means seeing what they might be.

What roles can Utopias play?

While it’s hard to set a story in a Utopia, a Utopia can easily be a beginning or an end for the story. If the story’s conflict comes from the disruption of a Utopia then the conflict and threat to the protagonist(s) is clear. The threat can come from outside or inside, but if it comes from the inside it is probably a pseudo-Utopia in that there was a fly in the ointment or some Dystopian tendencies already there.

In order to create a compelling challenge, the Utopia cannot merely operate as before but its internal operations must start to break down so that the Utopian nature is disrupted. My instinct would be to have it break down completely so that once the external threat is removed, rebuilding must take place and perhaps the old Utopia will need to be replaced.

Alternatively, the Utopia can be the conclusion. Here, the story would for the most part be set in a Dystopia, but the protagonist(s) succeed not only in bringing down the Dystopian rule, but also overcome the challenges to instating the new, better, Utopian system that they fought for throughout. An example, to which I’ll return in the next section, is Robert A. Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100, in which a theocratic autocracy is overthrown by a rebellion motivated to restore democratic ideals and whose goal is to “maximise individual liberty”, the antithesis of what went before.

The “Utopia under threat” storyline can work out in a different way: as described above, a Utopia tends to be seen as resisting change. But what if some circumstance arises that requires the rules and structures governing the society to change in order to survive?

The conflict occurs between those who feel their way of life under threat and urgently wish to change radically so they can defend it, against those who see the changes as doing more to destroy the way of life and resist them.

A version of that storyline plays out periodically in the political Left, and in the Labour Party in the UK particularly. The turmoil over Tony Blair’s “modernisation” is an example; and the conflict between the Right and the Left over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (a conflict that was presaged by the tension between anti-austerity Left and austerity-Right under Ed Miliband) can be seen in the same way, although in those storylines there is no Utopia but rather a fight over whether it can be achieved.

All of these allow an author to imagine a “best of all worlds”, or at least, a better world than ours, in which perceived problems have been solved. The challenge is either to imagine it then destroyed or disrupted, or else to imagine how it might come about.

I have a story idea in mind that conforms largely to the “Create the utopia” arc, but that the methods of its creation are anathema to the ideal, so that those responsible become seen as criminals. (The agent in Serenity is an example of this concept: “There’s no place for me there – I’m a monster!” And in general Serenity discusses a “Dystopian underbelly” worldview.)

My final remark on the role of Utopias is to mention Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, which in many ways seems to resemble a communist ideal of a post-capitalist economy. It is as close to a Utopia as one can imagine, but the writers find many ways of putting the society to the test, with external threats and internal emotional conflicts that sometimes test the ideals and principles that keep it Utopian. By placing the stories largely on the fringes of the Federation, and in its military/conflict/problem-solving body (Starfleet), there’s plenty of scope to challenge the protagonists.

How can we build a Utopia?

As mentioned above, the worldbuilding for a Utopia is much harder than for a Dystopia, simply because you have to solve everything. To be truly Utopian, the people’s needs must be met and their conflicts easily resolved within the system.

This brings up possibly the biggest problem, and the essential tension that pushes Utopias away from the ideal and into “Dystopian underbelly” territory.

In the passage I quoted at the start, the DWM interview with Cottrell-Boyce touched on it:

Is that a problem with Utopian ideals – there will always be somebody like Ralf Little’s Steadfast stirring up passions to take back paradise from the robots that built it in the first place?

“Utopia is somebody else’s idea,” Frank considers, “Somebody else designed it and you just have to live within it. So it’s their Utopia, but it might not be your Utopia. Utopia has to defend itself, it’s my Utopia, so you can’t have it!”

The question is, “How do you deal with the dissenters?” People who for whatever reason don’t fit in with the version of Utopia that you’ve laid out. Those who find it stultifying, deadening or disengaging – or who feel excluded or marginalised within it? Those who for whatever reason do not or cannot play by the rules that maintain the Utopia?

People being what they are, and as varied as they are, there are almost certainly going to be people who disagree with how things are done and the question of how the society deals with that often is where the ideals become, shall we say, less than ideal!

Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100 is unusual in that he both describes the set-up of the Utopia, and then in the second part looks at the society 50 years or so later. He looks at it through the lens of how it deals with a dissenter, and in so doing discusses concisely some of the key problems not only of designing a Utopia, but also of modern progressive and social justice campaigning.

In two speeches – by David McKinnon (found guilty for punching someone for an insulting remark), and the Senior Judge – Heinlein addresses several points. I’ll quote the points and counterpoints together to make it easier to discuss them in context, rather than quote the whole passage as a single block.

McKinnon: You talk about your precious “Covenant” as if it were something holy. I don’t agree to it and I don’t accept it. You act as if it had been sent down from heaven in a burst of light. My grandfathers fought in the Second Revolution – but they fought to abolish superstition – not to let sheep-minded fools set up new ones.

Judge: The Covenant is not a superstition, but a simple temporal contract entered into by those same revolutionaries for pragmatic reasons. They wished to insure the maximum possible liberty for every person.

You yourself have enjoyed that liberty. No possible act, nor mode of conduct, was forbidden to you, as long as your action did not damage another. Even an act specifically prohibited by law could not be held against you, unless the state was able to prove that your particular act damaged, or caused evident danger of damage, to a particular individual.

We shall leave for the moment the practical problems of Heinlein’s mode of utopian libertarianism and why it’s not an ideal that can be implemented today (as some people who bleat about free speech would have us do). Leave aside also that it is an incomplete version of Asimov’s 1st Law of Robotics: “A robot must not harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm.” (Asimov discussed the problem of omitting the second part in “Little Lost Robot”, though not where applied to rules of human behaviour). Heinlein’s Covenant offers no requirement to protect people from harm, only to not cause harm (and to protect socity from those who would cause harm).

The Judge outlines the Covenant as “a temporal contract entered into”, while McKinnon states that he doesn’t agree to it. This is the point raised by Cottrell-Boyce: “Utopia is somebody else’s idea. Somebody else designed it and you just have to live within it. So it’s their Utopia, but it might not be your Utopia.”

People being people, there will always be some who object to the way things are, or who don’t fit neatly into the society as outlined. As in Heinlein’s story, a common solution is ejection from society – banishment, “shunning”, being “sent to Coventry” in Revolt in 2100 (where Coventry is essentially a reservation). But that means there must be an anti-Utopia to which the dissenters are sent, a place of punishment in all but name, though in Revolt the nature of that punishment is effectively created by the people previously sent there.

One way or another, your Utopia will need a way to handle those who reject the current order, either by wishing to see it changed or who simply choose to break the rules that keep it functioning.

MacKinnon: You’ve planned your whole world so carefully that you’ve planned the fun and zest right out of it. Nobody is ever hungry, nobody ever gets hurt. Your ships can’t crack up and your crops can’t fail.

If one of you safe little people should have an unpleasant emotion – perish the thought! – you’d trot right over to the nearest psychodynamics clinic and get your soft little minds readjusted.

Why do you bother to live anyhow? I would think that anyone of you would welcome an end to your silly, futile lives just from sheer boredom.

Judge: You complain that our way of living is dull and unromantic, and imply that we have deprived you of excitement to which you feel entitled. You are free to hold and express your aesthetic opinion of our way of living, but you must not expect us to live to suit your tastes. You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish – there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon, and death in the jungles of Venus – but you re not free to expose us to the violence of your nature.

The alert reader will notice how the Judge’s remarks about where to find excitement reflect the role of Starfleet in Star Trek’s Federation that I remarked on earlier. Indeed, the final section of Heinlein’s novel deals with some of the dissenters who opt for this sort of military-style service.

But the bigger question, the one that an author engaged in worldbuilding a Utopia needs to address, is how to make it seem like a world worth living in. A famous writer (my memory says George Orwell, but I could be wrong) once said that no Utopia anyone had written sounded like a place he’d want to live in. How do you avoid making a world in which all “fun and zest” has been erased along with the negative emotions?

A question left unaddressed by the Judge (and not directly raised by MacKinnon) is where those with extra-Utopian (for want of a better term) emotions or desires find fellow spirits, people who share and appreciate the same things. The idea that everyone will share the same desires, or that there will be simple clusters of desires so that the laboratories or Starfleet, or whatever, will be sufficient, seems shortsighted. Companionship seems not to be addressed in Heinlein’s world (perhaps a consequence of the individualism underpinning the principles of the society?)

The other thing that a Utopia needs is a system for making policy and responding to the circumstances that life throws at the society. Someone must run the economy (although in some versions, this is done for us by computers or robots, or other overseers, who ensure the economy provides every need). Someone must allocate resources for research, policing, education, healthcare and so on. Someone must make whatever real-time emergency decrees are necessary. Again, all of this might be handled from computers.

In Star Trek’s Federation, there are democratically elected leaders and there are military commanders in Starfleet whose job is to handle these questions. When the Federation is threatened by outside forces (e.g. the Dominion in Deep Space 9) these are the bodies that have to decide how to meet that threat (and in one DS9 story, come into conflict, with the possibility of a military coup bringing down the Utopian society from inside).

* * *

Utopias are hard to design. A lot of the time, people trying to do so look at the world and say that certain things and behaviours will have no place there, either by banishment or because they believe that the structures of their Utopia will simply mean they never arise. Sex workers, BDSMers and trans folk will all be familiar with being told by a certain branch of feminism that they will be eradicated in the Feminist Utopia that replaces patriarchal Capitalism.

People of colour have also often noted that there is a pasty-white skin palette in a lot of future societies, some of which are supposedly Utopian (in Ursula LeQuin’s Lathe of Heaven, an attempt to create a racism-free Utopia produces instead a society with only one race – although this is an intentional parody and explained because the person who is tasked with creating it is from a world so conflict-ridden that imagining people living in peace proves beyond him).

So as a writer, as well as thinking about all the practical issues of how the society is going to function, what its role in the story is, and what keeps people living in it, you also have to think carefully about how it deals with the awkward people and who is excluded either directly or by omission. For example, when I read Heinlein’s story, as a BDSMer I felt excluded because by the objective measures demanded by his society, a cane welt (for instance) seems sure to be regarded as “damage”; some of the darker emotions that form the basis for so many aspects of play would be the sort that people would view as a threat or have “readjusted” away. And yet, What It Is That We Do, we do because it feels to us the opposite of damaging.

I have one more point to add. Cottrell-Boyce questions whether by imagining Dystopia, we brought it about. My feeling is, we write them as warnings because we see them coming and want people to see it coming too, and stop it. What that means is that people didn’t heed the warnings until too late.

Which is why we now need stories of overturning Dystopia and achieving something better.

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About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
This entry was posted in Politics, Writing about writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Questions for your Utopia

  1. Pingback: Searching for Utopia | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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