As a society, we seem to be much more interested in dystopian fiction than in utopian fiction. What’s up with that?
While Philip K Dick has a niche audience as a novelist, his novels and stories have been made into multiple feature films (including Blade Runner from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Hardly anyone seems to know the work of Richard K Morgan, yet Altered Carbon has become a TV series.
Ursula K LeGuin has won virtually every award in the speculative fiction realm, but have you seen the film versions of The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness? You haven’t, because they don’t exist.
Why do we like dystopian fiction? Is it easier to see how we could slide into that world than into utopia? Do we feel superior because we’re not (yet) as bad as that world? Do we find it easier to root for the rebel fighting a dystopian world than to celebrate a world that works? Does dystopia feel more real, more possible to us? Less fantasy? Do all of these questions take on a different meaning in Donald Trump’s world?
These questions are prompted by my reading of Looking Backward, the 1888 novel by Edward Bellamy. In this novel the protagonist falls into a deep sleep in 1887, only to awaken to a wholly-unfamiliar Boston of the year 2000. His guides to the new world tell him, ” …buying and selling is essentially antisocial in all its tendencies. It is an education on self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.” (Bellamy, 1888)
Before we go any further, thanks are due to Martha Kennedy for introducing me to Bellamy’s book. Martha writes of her dogs, her garden, painting, and “The Big Empty” of Western Colorado where she lives.
Bellamy imagines what could have happened in the US as a response to the age of robber barons. America could have recognized the slide into monopoly capitalism and seen that, if ownership of the means of production is going to be centralized, it could be used for the good of society instead of the good of the few in the owning class. Instead we chose to worship the owning class and imagine that we could each (not all) be part of that class if we work hard enough and have the breaks go our way. We make “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” into a goal rather than recognize the origin of the term – that, no matter how hard you pull on your bootstraps, you only pull your boots on, you don’t lift yourself up. It was written as a metaphor for an impossible task.
Why is it that, when we see people behaving badly, we excuse it by saying “that’s human nature”, but we don’t say the same when we see people behaving well? Is it because, in this culture, we have been inculcated with the idea of “original sin”? We are taught that evil is our nature and we must struggle (unsuccessfully) to overcome it. What is the purpose of that doctrine? While we trace it to the Old Testament, it was cemented into church doctrine by the Council of Trent (1545-63). I won’t pretend to be a Catholic theologian, but it appears that the doctrine of original sin has the central purpose of coercing obeisance to authority, with a secondary purpose of stifling any attempt to better the world, as our guilt makes us undeserving of a better world and our rewards, if any, are to come in some afterlife. Monopoly capitalism is thus a completely rational and perhaps inevitable response.
We make selfishness into our nature and cooperation into an aberration. We structure our society to reward selfishness and denigrate cooperation. In 1971, the Youth International Party held its New Nation Conference in Madison WI, with the premise “Build a new society in the shell of the old”. Dorothy Day’s 1969 paper “Reiterates the need to build a new society in the shell of the old, using ‘neither capitalist, nor communist, nor totalitarian means, but accomplished through non-violence.’ (DDLW #895).*” The idea was that we would build a cooperative commonwealth, people would see the benefits, cooperatives and other community-centric organizations would grow, and capitalism would wither away. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Fifty years later, only a few of those co-ops remain.
Bellamy looks at what we call “menial labor” thusly: “Do you mean that you permitted people to do things for you which you despised them for doing, or that you accepted services from them which you would have been unwilling to render them?” “I should as soon expect our waiter today to look down on me because I served him as a doctor, as think of looking down on him because he serves me as a waiter.”
As for economic competition in the “old world”: “To deliberately enter a field of business and destroy the enterprises of those who occupied it previously, in order to plant one’s own enterprise on their ruins, was an achievement which never failed to command popular admiration.” Sounds absurd when viewed that way, eh?
In discussing this future society, Bellamy uses mostly male pronouns, though his protagonist lives among a family including a couple and their adult daughter. For 142 pages I waited to see if male pronouns were a convenience, or if the writer looked at this new world from an entirely male viewpoint. He finally addresses, however briefly, the role of women in this ideal society. Yes, they are in the workforce; but it appears to be a “separate but equal” workforce.
Bellamy’s book is a treatise on this new society. His protagonist reads a modern novel and says, ” The information Dr. Leete had imparted was indeed extensive as to facts, but they had affected my mind as so many separate impressions…[the novel] put them together for me in a picture.” And there we have the chief weakness of this novel. We don’t so much see the functioning of this new society as read an essay extolling its virtues. This is where LeGuin and others shine. We see a different world through the eyes of one living in it; we see its ambiguities and how it resolves conflict (or fails to do so), rather than just imagining it from a treatise, or pretending conflict never arises.
A list only of books I have read and can remember right now. For example, I have not read Lost Horizon by James Hilton, nor Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. An interesting side note: Wikipedia’s list of dystopian literature is arranged by decade, while its list of utopian literature is arranged by century.
The Dispossessed (An Ambiguous Utopia) Ursula K LeGuin – What if anarchists posed a risk to the ruling class in a struggle that no one was winning, so the ruling class offered to help the anarchists set up their own world off of earth (or an authoritarian world kinda like earth)? What would that look like a few generations removed?
The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K LeGuin – What if people were not gendered and were asexual except when we came into heat, at which time we might take on either sex? LeGuin looks at a world in which any human could potentially bear children. (And it happens to be on a planet where the tropical regions are like our arctic, and the polar regions are colder yet.)
Always Coming Home Ursula K LeGuin – How might we structure society in a post-apocalyptic world? LeGuin writes a novel, an anthropological treatise, and records the music and poetry of this fictional society. (Her parents were actual anthropologists.)
Island Aldous Huxley -What if someone landed on an isolated utopian island with the intent to co-opt/exploit it, and things didn’t go as he planned? Also looks at the use of plants to expand consciousness. In some ways, the anti-Brave New World.
Sylviron Joel David Welty – A scholar of co-operatives imagines a co-operative commonwealth.
Looking Backward Edward Bellamy – What if we had no commerce and no money? What portion of our laws are devoted to private ownership of property? What laws would we still need?
Woman on the Edge of Time Marge Piercy – What are mental illness and mental wellness? What might a future society look like if they defined and treated those differently?
Some of these I read a long time ago so take my synopses with a grain of salt. Feel free to add to this list in the comments. I’m always looking for a good read.