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16 June 2011 @ 10:21 am
Using Utopia in your fiction  
 I woke up this morning and read the paper to find that protests are rocking Europe, and the first thing I thought was "it was obvious this was going to happen when they designed the current social economy".  Although I am pretty much apolitical, I tend to have a very negative reaction to excessive idealism.  

In my view, idealists are people who are extremely human, highly concerned with the condition of their fellow man and all around good people.  Sadly, they are not necessarily burdened with an excess capacity for critical thought or the ability to be objective.  They can't see how the ideal world they are dreaming of will come crashing down around everyone's ears and make things worse for everyone.  They know they are paving a road with their good intentions, they just can't quite see where the road is going.

That is why we have Science Fiction writers!

Few fields are quite as fertile for speculative fiction as Utopias. You see, most Utopias are an extreme of some sort. They either suppress individuality in the name of the common good, or they throw the common good completely out the window in order to allow the individual to flourish to his or her utmost. To most of the people living in these worlds, it will seem like a paradise… But there is always a troublemaker, one person who just can’t leave well enough alone, and who begins to pull on loose threads. The reader, of course, will usually – at least on an instinctual level – understand that the Utopia is actually a nightmare, but the character needs to discover it for himself.

Of course, when writing about this, it is necessary to choose the right social trend to take to its extreme. Totalitarianism (left wing or right wing, it doesn’t matter) has been done to death (probably best in 1984), as has benevolent socialism (Brave New World). Religion, cyberization, industrialization, consumerism – all 20th century ideas, and all overdone. And the world actually lived through a few of them, even the US (Prohibition, the Hays Code, Political Correctness, Anti-Darwinism, etc.), so they aren’t really much of a choice for someone looking to break new ground.

So what to choose? I think the truly successful Utopic story will make the writer very unpopular – at least in some circles – because the key is to identify things that people believe are positive, but whose extreme examples are a disaster waiting to happen. Things that have to be legislated or imposed by peer pressure because they truly go against human nature. And things whose evangelists believe are the only way that humanity will survive as a civilized species – despite the fact that they have to bully and pressure people into doing so (think of electric cars, available for the past fifteen years or so, and which consumers ignore in droves, because they suck). Things that make life worse for the very people they are trying to convince, in the name of a nebulous “common good”.

Here’s a small list that I’ve compiled off the top of my head – feel free to write stories about any of them and make yourselves unpopular!

- Environmentalism.
- Progressivism / modern socialism (yes, I know socialism was one of the 20th Century’s bugaboos, but as it evolves, so should the dystopic fiction about it).
- That strange combination of post-colonialism and feminism that seems to be driving political correctness these days (yes, they are ridiculous and an easy target, but for a writer with a deft touch, it could provide a fertile field for an entire career). This one has the added benefit that a lot of the research can be done right here in the genre community on LJ!.
- Morality (making a comeback? What will the new Hays Code look like?).
- Interconnectedness.
- Copyright-free information.
- Spirituality.
- Socially driven entertainment content (is it driving us towards a society where EVERYTHING will be optimized for the least common denominator? Will anything intellectually stimulating eventually become “elitist” and “discriminatory”?)

Many of these things have their proponents, and a lot of people have been swayed by the fact that they sound civilized, and nice. But most of them haven’t thought things all the way through.

I’ll be looking forward to reading what you come up with – and when the mob comes after you with pitchforks for examining and ultimately barbecuing their sacred cow, you will find me firmly in your corner, nominating you for a Hugo.

This is one of the reasons SF exists – so the unity of voice I’m seeing lately (championing all of the above as opposed to speculating openly about it), has me a bit worried.
msstacy13msstacy13 on June 16th, 2011 01:54 pm (UTC)
First, I've got to mention that the Hays Office
was a pre-emptive strike by the industry.
They'd witnessed prohibition,
and knew what the Federal Government could and would do
to any industry that failed to police itself.

The second thing I have to mention is
The Railroad Safety Appliance Act.
These devices had been available for decades,
but railroads didn't want to spend money on hardware
when it was cheaper to hire new workers
to replace those who were regularly killed or injured.

Now, in fairness, I have to compare/contrast
FM radio with UHF television.
In both cases, federal law required that these be included
in commercially produced receivers.
With FM radio, the idea worked.
With UHF televison, it really didn't.

Similarly, perhaps, one of the many things
my war-correspondent narrator is puzzling over
is the fact that the US got into WWII
and Vietnam by virtually identical methods.

Okay, I'm a believer in the saying,
"Ideals are stars. You can never reach them, but only guide your course by them."

I don't think it's idealism that turns utopia to dystopia
so much as a failure of pragmatism.
History is a series of reversals,
of swinging back and forth.
As each new idea reaches its failure point,
the course of events, as well as popular opinion,
turns the other way.
But it isn't really a pendulum hopelessly pivoting on a single point,
it's more like a ship sailing into the wind.
bondo_babondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC)
"so much as a failure of pragmatism."

Yes. I agree. The problem is that idealists, by the very definition of the world, are not pragmatists. It makes for great fictional possibilities!

Of course there are success stories, too - I actually should do a sister post to this one urging writers to explore instances in which legislation came too late, where idealists were ignored with dire consequences. That would have diluted this one, but as a stand-alone post, it has definite potential.
(no subject) - msstacy13 on June 16th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC) (Expand)
barry_king: pic#111075564barry_king on June 16th, 2011 01:57 pm (UTC)
You might be interested in Bruce Sterling's piece in F&SF 11/12-2010 ("The Exterminator's Want Ad"). The setting was a carbon-offset totalitarianism with a strong KR-like punitive justice system.
bondo_babondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 03:29 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the recommendation! I think it's something I'd definitely enjoy... Now I just have to see where I can get my hands on that one while I'm in the US in a couple of weeks...
Terri-Lynne DeFinobogwitch64 on June 16th, 2011 02:22 pm (UTC)
I know I'm a broken record, suggesting this book, but The Giver (Lowry) is THE BEST example of Utopia EVER!
bondo_babondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 03:23 pm (UTC)
Noted, and thanks! I love intelligent treatment of Utopian worlds, so I'll be looking out for it.
(no subject) - wendigomountain on June 17th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bogwitch64 on June 17th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
peadarogpeadarog on June 16th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)
We've just recently been living through the extremes of unregulated free market capitalism. Hilarious consequences ensued and continue to ensue.

Extremes always end in disaster.
msstacy13msstacy13 on June 16th, 2011 04:01 pm (UTC)
And those disasters usually lead to new extremes and greater disasters.
(no subject) - peadarog on June 16th, 2011 04:05 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - msstacy13 on June 16th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - msstacy13 on June 16th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - msstacy13 on June 16th, 2011 05:32 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 05:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
bondo_babondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 06:09 pm (UTC)
Great point - I actually do mean environmentalism, but one can never know when brain fade will occur. I'll change that now! Thank you!

And the story idea is brilliant. Whole lot of things can go really, really worng in that scenario... And it will be brilliantly controversial!
tracy_d74tracy_d74 on June 16th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)
Before I begin, I want to say that I definitely lean toward an idealistic view, but I have a BIG helping of realism too. Now, I do believe that idealist, in the pure sense, are on the extreme. However, they get people to see beyond what's outside their front door. We need that nudge. They do prompt change. The resulting change is good or bad based on your perspective.

Now, enough about that. You do need to read The Giver. And I would add to that Divergent by Veronica Roth. It is a new YA. She has factions based on extreme views: Peace, Socialism, Knowledge, ...oh, there are two more. Anyway, you can see how any one POV is a BAD idea. Which we already know. But it is fascinating to watch the characters battle them.
bondo_babondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 06:54 pm (UTC)
Giver keeps getting recommended - I SO need to read it! And Divergent sounds fascinating...

Idealism with a dose of realism would probably make for boring literature. The thing about idealists is that the initial idealists are often very intelligent and grounded in reality, but the followers... not so much. It will probably be the followers creating the disaster that science fiction writers end up writing about.
(no subject) - tracy_d74 on June 16th, 2011 07:08 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bondo_ba on June 16th, 2011 07:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
geostatuegeostatue on June 17th, 2011 04:20 am (UTC)
I read your post and thought it was a little ironic. One could argue that the idealist's origin is in reading fiction. Utopia is a fiction book. Plato's Republic is a fiction story. Therefore fiction is the reason there are idealists in the world!
Joking aside, how about libertarianism? Has that been overdone?
bondo_babondo_ba on June 17th, 2011 11:38 am (UTC)
Re: Irony
Not that I know of, although¨*The Dispossessed* has some of the elements in it. It might be considered too much of a neasy target by some - but I personally think it would be well worth exploring.

And yes, many idealists get their inspiration from fiction... which is a bit ironic, as often the reason for writing the stuff is cautionary.
Clint Harriswendigomountain on June 17th, 2011 03:26 pm (UTC)
I have heard very little of Europe's problems lately. Right now, America is being haunted by its own problems: "Weiner-gate." ::eye roll::
bondo_babondo_ba on June 17th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC)
LOL, yeah. Maybe a utopic world we can explore would be one where politicians are left alone to do whatever they like without being hounded by the media! I think there's a story in there somewhere...
geostatue: pic#111232362geostatue on May 5th, 2013 09:45 pm (UTC)
Two examples I would like to highlight. State of Fear, by Michael Crichton, is a story about environmental idealists trying to accelerate policy change for global warming by manufacturing environmental disasters. The second is Serenity, where a drug to create a utopia made everyone die from not caring and a few go berserk.
bondo_ba: Mebondo_ba on May 6th, 2013 07:04 pm (UTC)
I saw the movie made from Serenity a few years ago. Must look up the book. Noted on the Chrichton - and thsnks for taking the time to recommend!