So last weekend I was inspired by an interview in Doctor Who Magazine to write a bit about the questions that I think about as a sci-fi/fantasy minded writer and fictional world-builder, when it comes to the question of creating Utopian settings for stories.
One of my favourite bloggers, Jemima @ Sometimes It’s Only A Cigar, saw my piece and spun her own ideas off from it, talking about how ideas of Utopia and Dystopia affect political discourse and (sometimes violent) actions. A lot of them seem to come back to the quote from that magazine interview:
“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!”
By naming the ideal, imaginary world of intelligent BDSM dystopia we are saying that we recognise that what might be perfect for us would be hell for others. Although I struggle to see who would not wish to be tied into stocks in the Bigg Market, I am not so arrogant as to assume my fantasies are universal.
It struck me that my considerations focussed on “a world that works for everyone”, and a broad social Utopia that is designed to function well and with positive outcomes; but Jemima’s discussion started from a more personal, individual, basis, talking about a world that would be perfection for those who designed it, but that others, with different ways of being and different desires might not fare as well in such a world as they imagine.
To me, when I think of a Utopia I immediately imagine a “best fit” solution to make all those involved comfortably off and satisfying whatever needs they may have (including excitement, adventure, kinky sex, whatever it is you need to feel alive…). But to a lot of people, they think not of day-to-day satisfaction and fulfilment but of the ultimate pleasure existence – and that, necessarily, is going to conflict with others’ self-interest and ultimate pleasure. Or, they think of the smoothest possible existence for themselves.
The two main political parties in the UK, the Conservatives and Labour, in some ways can be seen as representing these two different views. The Tory promise has consistently been that you (or a large enough proportion of you) can have your perfect, smooth, world – through more choice, fewer restrictions on your money and where you spend it, and a bigger, safer wall (figuratively) around your lifestyle, to keep out that which causes you disgust.
This has proven popular but has also repeatedly proven to be a lie. More and more people find that their personal Utopia has been plunged into chaos and Dystopia by Tory policy in order to make room for someone else to more closely achieve theirs.
The Labour Party (even when it was rebranded as “New Labour”) has always taken the collective view of the world they would try to build. Interestingly, the new Clause IV is a much more Utopian style statement than the old Clause IV was (which dealt with class struggle and control of created wealth): it describes a world intended to work “well enough” for as many as possible, “in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”.
The promise here is that no one gets perfection but everyone gets something “good enough”. To those who actually do get their smooth, perfect, Utopian existence under the Tories, this seems like a threat and a loss; to many others it feels like giving up on their ultimate dream pleasure existence and “settling”, which they don’t want to do. But if you are used to perfection, even the slightest imperfection seems like Dystopia, and that is why so many of the most powerful figures are so determined to paint a Jeremy Corbyn government as a horrific Dystopian outcome.
True Dystopia, though, is already experienced by too many people today. As Jemima points out with some examples:
There are genuine things to fear, the treatment of disabled people is already dystopian in the UK, the proposed tory regulation of the internet straight from 1984. We are already criminalised for consensual thoughts and desires, and it is only going to get worse. Moves like the rape clause also show that far from having to create nightmare scenarios we are living within the nightmare.
Dystopia is “I don’t know how I’m going to get through the next week” or “I don’t know if I’m going to be kicked to death/arrested and imprisoned/unable to access basic services, because of who I am or what I believe”. It is not “I have slightly less of my income over 3 times the national average, than I used to”.
As Jemima put it: “We cannot build a perfect world because in doing so we cling to the extreme belief of destroying imperfections, but maybe we can build a better, imperfect one.”
In my earlier piece, I referenced the agent in Serenity, talking about Utopias that are built on violence (Jemima’s blogging partner Carter discusses this concept as well, in a broader piece). Jemima’s remark that, “I am not talking about a belief system, but the internal belief, that the world is so bad that only violence can change it,” reminded me again of that character, a person so convinced that all imperfections must be expunged in violence, and that his own violence must also be expunged at some point. The agent was willing to commit atrocities because he believed that any measure was reasonable to bring about the world he believed would be a Utopia.
I’m reminded of the adage in Gillian Cross’s “The Demon Headmaster”: “The man who can keep order can rule the world, but the man who can bear disorder is truly free.” The title character is obsessed with order, and uses mind control techniques to enforce it, adhering only to the first part of the saying. In this he is like many an ideologue who would build a Utopia, and damn the consequences (and anyone who finds it dystopian). And inevitably there will be imperfections tha ultimately bring the ordered existence crashing down.
“The one who can bear disorder is truly free.” Compare again, Jemima’s closing thought: “We cannot build a perfect world … but maybe we can build a better, imperfect one.” In order for a Utopia to actually exist, it must accommodate everyone who lives in it but in order to do that, everyone must be able to “bear disorder” and be comfortable (maybe even happy) with the minor imperfections that remain.
Utopia starts in the mind, as a dream of a better world. And in the end it is only ever completed in the mind, with a willingness to live happily in the moment.
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To close, I’ll just share a couple of amusing youtube videos about dystopias in video games: