Fear it or embrace it?
Utopian societies, to me, are like a ship in a bottle — except it’s a city, instead of a ship, that resides in a bottle. And not just any city, but a perfect city: a utopia where every person lives happily in a perfectly arranged society. No discomfort. No unhappiness. No unpleasantness. Just perfection. Why the bottle imagery? I believe it is because I view a utopia as a separation of the natural world, hence the bottle. Around the utopian society, shielding it from what is the natural world of problems, consequences, disaster, shortcomings, etc. is a glass barrier that allows its inhabitants a clear view of the outside, but keeps them secure and safe, inside, away from it all. When presented with this bottled utopia idea, there is a question that needs to be asked: should such a utopian society be feared or embraced? It is a question that the narrators of Gibson’s short story “The Gernsback Continuum” and Fagen’s poem “I.G.Y” may be able to provide an answer to. Of course, each text provides its own individual and differing answer.
In his short story, “The Gernsback Continuum,” Gibson introduces us to a narrator who goes throughout the entire story nameless. The narrator is a photographer assigned to photograph futuristic architecture from the 1930s. It is during his assignment that the narrator stumbles upon the notion of a continuum — an alternative reality. While he is surrounded by architecture hinting at what could have been, the narrator begins to envision it while at the same time losing his grip and seeing alternate bits of his timeline that do not exist. Later on, after a fairly long drive, the narrator stops for the night where he falls asleep in his own “familiar continuum” (Gibson 6). Perhaps an indication of the narrator’s moving away from earlier notions of different realities existing.
The narrator wakes to the sound of voices and looks back to see a gleaming city behind him. The narrator vividly describes the city as, “spire stood on spire in gleaming ziggurat steps that climbed to a central golden temple tower ringed with crazy radiator flanges of the Mongo gas stations [….] Roads of crystal soared between the spires, crossed and recrossed by smooth silver shapes like beads of running mercury” (Gibons 7). Given this description, the city the narrator is seeing can only be described as a utopian paradise. The city, however, is not the only thing the narrator sees. Upon waking up, the narrator heard voices. Voices that belonged to a male and female couple whom the narrator admits being suddenly “frightened, frightened in an entirely different way” (Gibson 7) by the couple’s presence. What has frightened the narrator is reminder of the “sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda” (Gibson 8) that both the city and the couple exude. Rather than stick around, the narrator drives away leaving the couple and the city they live in far behind him. According to the narrator’s closing statement, the world could be worse, “it could be perfect” (Gibson 9), which strongly hints towards the narrator’s belief that a utopian society is not something to be embraced but to be feared. It is something to be frightened of.
However, the speaker in Fagen’s poem “I.G.Y” appears to have a different opinion. A utopian society is not something to be feared, but should be embraced because a utopia equates to “what a beautiful world this will be” (line 11). A utopian society will fashion the world into the perfect place where people will “play in the city / Powered by the sun / Perfect weather for a streamlined world / There’ll be spandex jackets one for everyone” (lines 18–21). It will be a place where not only earth’s occupants have harnessed the sun’s power, but the weather will be perfect for everyone as well.
The poem’s speaker mentions a machine that is just and makes “big decisions / Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision / We’ll be clean when their work is done / We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young” (lines 28–31), a suggestion that in this utopian society a machine will exist that will be capable of making fair decisions. Not only that, it will be programmed by compassionate and visionary men possibly passing on such traits to their creation.
According to the poem’s speaker, a utopian society would be perfect as there will be perfect weather and machines able to pass just decisions onto society. That is to say within this speaker’s mindset, unlike the narrator’s from “The Gernsback Continuum,” is that a utopian society is something to be embraced rather than feared. Where the narrator fears the idea of a utopia, where things are perfect but frightening because of the possibility things are not at all what they seem, the poem’s speaker sees utopia as a solution where global harmony can be obtained. Should utopian society, locked within a glass bottle, be something to fear or embrace? The answer varies from person to person, more than likely based upon their own desires and fears.