Utopian Thoughts, Part 2
Earlier, I talked about utopian visions and how utopian writers (fiction or otherwise) tend to go wrong in their understanding and estimation of human nature. Now I’d like to talk about another area where utopian writers tend to go wrong — their focus.
Writing utopian ideas (fiction or otherwise) takes a bit of chutzpah on the part of the author. Since no utopian society has ever existed, the utopian author is saying, in effect, that THIS vision is finally getting right what all other authors and shapers of society have gotten wrong since the dawn of civilization. It’s worth taking a look at how an author arrives at such a vision. Knowing the inspiration for a given author’s vision reveals a lot about how that vision was created, and how it will be presented.
The Pet Peeve
Some utopian works are written on the basis of the author’s pet peeve. This can be literally anything that the author personally doesn’t like about society, from specific laws or institutions to specific ethic groups or demographic trends, dietary choices, loud neighbors and so forth.
The point of these utopian visions is not to completely rewrite society or envision a new world; rather, it is to imagine what life would be like in our current society with just this one pet peeve removed. The author’s fine with the status quo, so long as that one little piece gets removed.
Note: the dystopian take on this idea depicts how bad our society would be if that one little piece was actually removed from our society. This formula is a basic staple of science fiction and the gimmick of many Twilight Zone episodes. Take care not to step off the walkway; you might crush a butterfly.
The problem with this approach (if the utopian vision is to be taken seriously) is that the author rarely imagines the full scope of his tweak to society. Making an arbitrary change to society means changing everything connected to that change. All of the conditions that led to the creation and maintenance of the author’s pet peeve need to be addressed, as do the consequences of removing it, as well as what would replace it.
Utopian authors trying to write around their pet peeves rarely consider any of these things. They believe that wiggling their nose like Tabitha Stevens will simply get rid of the problem cleanly, and once it’s gone, everyone will finally realize how much nicer things are. Those pesky loud neighbors are gone!
Unfortunately, the real world is far too interconnected to work that way, so presenting this sort of vision in fiction will seem contrived, and implementing this sort of vision in the real world will inevitably meet with disaster.
Prohibition was supposed to solve society’s alcohol problem, but people never stopped drinking and all Prohibition really accomplished was giving organized crime the largest boost to its customer base it had ever seen.
For a more recent example of how far this type of thinking can go, look at the constant attempts made by activists and lawmakers to make abortion illegal in the US. The existence of abortion is their pet peeve, so they feel that if they could just get rid of it, everyone would be happier and more responsible. They handwave any discussion of the many societal conditions that lead women to seek an abortion in the first place, the significant danger to womens’ health caused by a necessity for underground abortions, the consequences of saddling women and families with children they have no capability or desire to raise, and the effect this has on society at large.
Utopian thoughts generated around a pet peeve are poorly thought out, shallow in implementation and rarely offer any insight into the betterment of society. About all that can be gleaned from them is the author’s distaste for some aspect of society.
The Pet Rock
Akin to the pet peeve, some utopian visions are based on the author’s pet rock. This is some aspect of existing society that the author feels is missing but should be added. Pet rock utopian visions are Status Quo +1, and like pet peeves, they’re a staple of science fiction — fine for entertainment, but usually a mess in the real world. They suffer from all of the same problems that plague pet peeve utopian visions — shortsightedness and the hand-waving of any preconditions for / consequences of the desired change in modern society..
Some utopian visions are greater in scope than pet rocks or peeves. Some utopian authors aren’t content with merely tweaking society and the world we live in; they want to clear the board and rebuild society from scratch. These are the Idealists, and they’re the dreamers who create whole worlds, while simultaneously destroying our world, and not usually for the better.
Idealist utopian visions in fiction can inspire change in the world in the way the Borges only imagined when he wrote Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. That the Star Trek franchise has recently gone back to its idealistic roots in Strange New Worlds some 50+ years after the show first aired is a testament to how robust and compelling these worlds can be. While this can be a wonderful thing, actually implementing idealist utopian visions in reality is more problematic.
The consequences of a fiction author’s blind spots merely result in some bad reviews and a few disgruntled readers. When idealist utopian ideas are implemented in reality, the author’s blind spots cause literal casualties. People die (sometimes by the millions), economies are decimated, the environment is destroyed for future generations and all those dystopian critiques which would normally be relegated to the library shelves become the evening news. Even in the best case scenarios, changing society takes a very long time (the author never lives to see the full results), and people often die or are uprooted by those changes.
Still, some of those changes eventually prove worthwhile. The ideal of a nation of equals governed by the rule of laws produced through rational public discourse of common people was ridiculous when it was proposed, but today it seems like a worthy goal to strive toward, no matter how long it takes us to finally get there and how many changes it takes for us to get it right.
Where Are An Author’s Biggest Blind Spots?
Authors inevitably get so wrapped up in their vision that they underestimate the complexity of human society. Rather than creating a utopian vision complex enough to properly represent all (or even most) aspects of human society, they present their utopian vision as the antidote for this complexity. “If we just did things THIS way, we’d all understand what was going on and life would be so much simpler!” It’s usually in these oversimplifications that you’ll find those dystopian characters lurking around.
Authors also overestimate how effective their arguments would be in convincing actual people to go along with their utopian vision. Idealistic utopian visions typically contain a great deal of expositional dialogue between the Naysayers, whose job it is to bring up the reader’s objections, and the True Believers, whose job it is to refute the reader’s objections to the vision. Naysayers rarely have nuanced positions and are easily swayed by rational argument, while Believers always have just the perfect example in mind to refute whatever argument the Naysayer proposes. Any residual attraction the Naysayer had to his earlier worldview is swiftly forgotten, of course. That humans don’t actually work this way is merely hand-waved as simple pessimism. This approach makes for flat characters on the page, and harsh opposition to the author’s ideals in real life.
Why I Study Utopian Works
For all their flaws (and perhaps because of them), utopian works offer deep insight into an author’s experience, hopes, dreams, values and ideals. As a writer, I find it fascinating to see how other authors perceive and describe the world, and the personal attachment of utopian/dystopian authors to their work makes their descriptions all the more visceral. By studying their worldviews, I learn more about my own worldview and the experiences, hopes, dreams, values and ideals that shaped it.