By Justine Graykin
Reading a recent post on your blog, I got to thinking about dystopis, utopias, and how the various plots tend to arc. In the classic utopia, the reader is introduced to a perfected world, and the plot is an excuse to introduce the author’s ideas of how to achieve this perfection. Plato’s Republic did this without resorting to any fictional device, while Edward Bellamy has his protagonist awaken in a future America that has become a socialist paradise in Looking Backwards. This sort of straightforward propaganda has largely gone out of style. Not enough action, anguish, and suspense.
Then there is the Utopia That Isn’t, as in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. Although the world the reader is introduced to appears on the surface to be perfect, it is actually rife with flaws and dark secrets. It’s a bit like what Ayn Rand would do if she got hold of Looking Backwards (which she rather does in Atlas Shrugged). Utopia is actually dystopia in disguise.
Between the lines in the plots of these false utopias is the acknowledgement that different people have a different idea of what is good. Socialists feel that what is most important is that all individuals are taken care of and guaranteed an opportunity for happiness. Libertarians would emphasize the right of the individual to strive for personal success without obligation to his fellow man. These two philosophies crack heads when they try to organize an ideal society.
Dystopias often take the other guy’s notion of perfection and show how bloody awful it would be in practice. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is one version of the consequences of creating the Christian Nation so many fundamentalists seem to think would be the ideal America. It’s just another way of saying, “You’re wrong and here’s why.” The reader’s response would depend in part on their own beliefs. No doubt a fundamentalist would insist that Atwood has it all wrong, just as socialists think Ayn Rand is utter feculence.
The best crowd-pleasing dystopia is when you get some really bad guys, like aliens, soulless corporations, criminals, or unscrupulous politicians (but I repeat myself) and have them running things in a way that just about any sane human being would think is wrong. Suffering, injustice and misery are rampant, and when the heroic rebel comes along to put things to right, the audience is primed for applause. (I’d call this the Hollywood distopia.)
So you have the good is good, the good is actually bad, and the bad is just plain bad and must be overthrown to make way for something which we presume will be good, or at least better. There is one other type I’d suggest which I’ll call the Star Trek model. In it you have a utopia, which really is a utopia, perhaps not perfect but certainly an improvement on what we have now and something to look forward to. The utopia is tested by challenges to its philosophy, which it reconciles, or threats to its existence, which it must overcome. I confess I’m rather partial to this one, having grown up with it. In a way, it combines the first two types by trying to construct a workable ideal, yet acknowledging the difficulties in doing so, the opposing views, the human weaknesses, the harsh realities, and dealing with them.
The difference for me is that dystopias start dark and (usually) end with hope, but only hope’s possibilities. The Star Trek model starts in the light, with hope’s fulfillment, then battles the darkness with optimism as a constant companion. Somehow I find that more courageous. It’s safer to darkly prophesize about something that is wrong than it is to build and defend something that is right.
Justine Graykin is a writer and free-lance philosopher sustained by her deep, abiding faith in Science, Humanity (well, Science, anyway) and the belief that humor is the best anti-gravity device.