Friday, December 8, 2006

A Personal Perspective on ISAAC ASIMOV'S UTOPIAS and others

Part One

Being a science fiction writer by trade, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my favourite utopian story is not science fiction at all, but the movie Local Hero (1983), in which a rootless Houston oil executive falls in love with a small Scottish seaside town that he’s been instructed to buy. While he becomes increasingly reluctant to do his bit to turn the town into a refinery and destroy its beauty, the townspeople envy his life as much as he envies theirs, and are eager to close the deal… and as much as I love the movie, I wouldn’t choose to live in the town, either (for one thing, it has no library). Unlike too many science fiction utopias, Local Hero acknowledges that paradise is personal; one size does not fit all. While science fiction writers have often succeeded in imagining worlds that are better in some ways than the present - more comfortable, more exciting, more just, and so on - I suspect that no-one will ever envision one that will be widely accepted as ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’, a true utopia.

As an example of this difficulty; in 1999, I received a cheque from the publishers of Asimov’s Science Fiction with a rather cryptic note that this was payment for a story of mine that they wished to reprint in the anthology Isaac Asimov’s Utopias. One detail not mentioned was the title of the story. I was, of course, pleased to receive the cheque, but I was still curious. There were two stories I’d had published in Asimov’s which I thought might qualify as taking place in Utopian settings, and I wondered which they might have chosen… so I e-mailed the editors to ask. They couldn’t remember the title, but they were sure it belonged in the anthology.

Utopia, it seemed, was in the eye of the editor.

Later that year, editor Gardner Dozois invited me, and four of the other authors with works in the anthology - Brian Stableford, Tom Purdom, Kage Baker, and David Marusek - to join in an on-line chat titled “Find Utopia”. In it, he offered the following explanation of his choice of some of the stories:

One thing I realized when putting this UTOPIA anthology together, is that there are very few stories that are about good-functioning Utopias. That's because a well-functioning Utopia is BORING. Where's your plotline?

MOST Utopian SF stories, and most of them in the book, are about Utopias where something has gone WRONG, or they've come up against some major problem. OR from the perspective of somebody in the society for whom the Utopia ISN'T a Utopia.

The story of mine the editors chose was ‘Transit’, set in a future where humanity has settled many planets with the help of a more technologically advanced alien race, where material comfort is assured by robotic factories, and where ‘monosex’ humans - males and females as we know them - are outnumbered by human hermaphrodites such as the narrator. It was an interesting choice, because I had not set out to create a utopian society in this story, which is essentially a teen romance between a hermaphrodite and a young Muslim woman, both of whom must contend with their respective fathers’ xenophobia. If I had intended to create a truly utopian society, such prejudices would be extinct and the Romeo and Juliet-inspired plot would have had to go… and as a writer, I’ll give precedence to plot over setting any time. As Tom Purdom remarked in the chat: SF is supposed to offer stories, not just ideas about the future… I think in SF we still think of the future as a time when things can be better. But better. Not ideal. Not perfect.”

True to this formula, the other stories in Asimov’s Utopias describe worlds that are in some ways better than the present, but do not seem to aspire to perfection: all are stories, with conflict and at least the possibility of unhappiness. Though the book’s blurb states that “science fiction writers present their own provocative visions of what an ideal world is really like”, the individual stories belie this. Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Mountain Ways’ “reveals the price you must pay when you give up on all you are supposed to believe in.” Bruce Sterling’s ‘Bicycle Repairman’ concerns a “struggle to remain independent in a dangerous and uncertain future”. The protagonist in Brian Stableford’s ‘Out of Touch’ does little but complain; David Marusek’s ‘Getting to Know You’ is set in a crowded subterranean hospice for the dying; Kage Baker’s ‘Smart Alec’ must contend with a world which is safe but where “nobody gets to have any fun”.

(To be continued)

No comments: