Friday, December 29, 2006

A Personal Perspective on ISAAC ASIMOV'S UTOPIAS and others

Part Three

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien threatens Smith with Room 101, “the worst thing in the world” (p.228), which, as he admits, “varies from individual.” Creating situations that are generally accepted as unpleasant or even horrific situations is easy enough for most writers, but even Dante might have hesitated at the idea of creating a one-size-fits-all ‘worst thing in the world’. Similarly, the harder a writer tries to describe a society in which he or she would be happiest, his or her personal best thing in the world, the greater the risk of creating a ‘utopia’ from which many people would find boring or unpleasant: personally, I’d much rather live in Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World than Rand’s Galt’s Gulch.

Not that Galt would be likely to raise the forcefield that protects his pocket Utopia and let me in. A rather worrying feature of many fictional utopias is that they rely on excluding or even eradicating disruptive elements, including new ideas. Plato’s Republic, which ruled that artists would be unnecessary once the perfect society had been achieved, is probably the earliest of these. In both of the George Turner stories above, the guardians of the earthly utopias prohibit space travellers from returning to Earth. In ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, Libary tells the crew of the Starfarer:

“you are conditioned against serenity. You would only be an eruptive force in a world seeking a middle way. You would debate our beliefs, corrupt our young men by offering toys they do not need, tempt the foolish by offering domination over space and time - and in a few years destroy what has taken six centuries to build.” (Turner 1997; p.216)

When the contact officer, Nugan, asks for a “small piece of land, isolated, where we could live on our own terms” (p.215) in which they can settle, Libary replies,

“You will live sequestered? Without travelling for curiosity’s sake, without plundering resources for your machines, without prying into our world and arguing with it?… Set your colony on a hill, and we will surround it with bushfires, a weapon your armoury is not equipped to counter.” (pp.215-217).

Like Huxley’s Brave New World, where ninety percent of the population is mentally subnormal, or Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, where men from outside Women’s Country have to be kept ignorant of the women’s eugenics program (an ignorance enforced, when necessary, with summary execution), Turner’s Utopia is founded on the majority having an unquestioning faith in the system and only a very small minority, akin to Huxley’s Mustapha Mond, knowing the truth. Heinlein’s Luna, while more tolerant of outsiders (the protagonist even intercedes to prevent the lynching of a tourist, settling for fining him for ‘not having common sense to learn local customs’, p. 121), is secretly a cybercratic dictatorship with only a façade of democracy, in which the computer who ‘counts’ the votes is also the winning candidate. (It may be argued that this is not very different from elections in some countries in our own world, but few people would describe those as utopian.)

Does this matter? If everyone is happy, would it matter if they are also ignorant, or even stupid? Huxley certainly thought so when he wrote Brave New World; why else would the Savage “claim the right to be unhappy”? The creators of Star Trek also thought so, when they had Captain Kirk destroy communities where people were happier than he was, in ‘This Side of Paradise’ and ‘The Apple’. And most science fiction readers and academics would certainly think so: after all, how could a society be perfect without good libraries and intelligent conversation with informed people? We could never possibly be happy there, and therefore -

And there’s the rub. The problem with most science fiction utopias is that writers try to design worlds in which they would be perfectly happy, which is making an unreasonable demand on the future. And the fault does not lie in the future, but in ourselves. As Alfred Bester said in ‘Hobson’s Choice’:

Through the vistas of the years every age but our own seems glamorous and golden. We yearn for the yesterdays and tomorrows, never realising that we are faced with Hobson’s Choice… that today, bitter or sweet, anxious or calm, is the only day for us. (p.144)

Or as Gully Foyle, the protagonist of Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!, asks “Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world?” (p. 242).

Perhaps fortunately, that power is rarely if ever given to science fiction writers. The future will make its decisions: all science fiction writers can hope to do is to suggest to our descendents some possible roads they can choose between. They may choose none of them - or, in time and in different communities, they may try many or even all. They have time. And worlds enough.

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