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Scientific dreams, scientific nightmares

How does literature envision utopia?

Martin Griffiths 4 August 2011

Orwellian: it's all relative

Recent scientific controversies vividly display the fact that utopia is in the eye of the beholder

Utopia is described by The Oxford English Dictionary as an “imaginary perfect social and political system”. This concept of a Utopia or ideal state is possibly linked to religious ideas of Heaven or the Promised Land, or to folklore and mythical ideas like the Isles of the Blessed. But it can also be defined as a future-historical goal, to be achieved by the active efforts of human beings, not a transcendental goal reserved by a supernatural agency as a reward for those who follow a particularly virtuous path in life. Therefore Utopia in its common understanding is a perfect, unified system of humanity brought about by the endeavours of mankind working towards a peaceful solution of their problems.

Sir Thomas More in 1516 described his concept of paradise in the book that named this particular genre – Utopia. The word, a Greek-inspired name of More’s coining, means no place (ou-topos), and was possibly meant as a pun on the similar expression eu-topos, meaning good place. The Utopia about which More wrote was an imaginary country (no place) that was, nonetheless, an ideal country (good place).

Conversely, dystopia is the opposite of what man really wishes to achieve in the above respect, and involves nightmare glimpses into future society, pointing fearfully at the way the world is supposedly going in order to provide urgent propaganda for a change in direction. As hope for a better future grows, the fear of disappointment inevitably grows with it, and when any vision of a future utopia incorporates a manifesto for political, technological or scientific action or belief, opponents of that action or belief will inevitably attempt to show that its consequences are not utopian but horrible. Thus the ideas of utopia and dystopia are inevitably linked – one man’s utopia is just as equally another’s dystopia.

However, is a utopian society really attainable? And what does literature have to say about it?

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by Clute and Nicholls makes an interesting definition of Utopia. They state:

It can be argued that all utopias are science fiction in that they are exercises in hypothetical sociology and political science. Alternatively, it might be argued that only those utopias which embody some notion of scientific advancement qualify as SF.

Utopia is unattainable because it is a fiction, a realization that could be brought about by scientific or political application only on the pages of a futuristic book. The fact that they are tied to hypotheses, sociological change and political sciences argues against their eventual reality – all of these political, cultural and social changes have been tried by man – and we have yet to achieve utopia. Nevertheless, utopia remains a pleasing vision for which we still subconsciously yearn.

Clute and Nicholls also pinpoint a change in utopian thinking that is epitomized within science fiction especially and widely recognized today – utopias are a fantasy that one future day may bring. They add:

A significant shift in utopian thought took place when writers changed from talking about a better place (eutopia) to talking about a better time (euchronia), under the influence of notions of historical and social progress. When this happened, utopias ceased to be imaginary constructions with which contemporary society might be compared, and began to be speculative statements about real future possibilities. It seems sensible to regard this as the point at which utopian literature acquired a character conceptually similar to that of SF.

The scientific imagination and its possible hope of future social progress first became influential in utopian thinking in the 17th century: an awareness of the advancement of scientific knowledge and of the role that science might play in transforming society is very evident in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627; 1629) and Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1637). Bacon's claims for the utopian potential of technological advance are extravagant, and not borne out by experience since the industrial revolution. Technology alone is not enough to bring happiness and prosperity.

Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift and Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson embody a very different attitude, parodying the efforts of scientists and inventors and mocking their presumed unworldliness. On the other hand, the achievements of science in realizing a utopian future are portrayed by the French writer, Restif De La Bretonne, whose book La Decouverte Australe par un Homme Volant, ou le Dedale Francais ("The Southern Hemisphere Discovery by a Flying Man, or the French Daedalus") (1781) details a description of a utopian state based on the principles of natural philosophy and scientific advancement. It still remains to be seen if science can produce the longed for utopian visions of society or literature. Recent scientific controversies, such as genetically modified foods, the ethics of cloning and human embryo research, vividly display the fact that utopia is in the eye of the beholder; it remains a goal of the self rather than that of society.

In this vein, utopian thought in science fiction within the latter part of the 20th century has to a large extent dissociated itself from the idea of progress; we commonly encounter it in connection with the idea of a historical retreat to a way of simpler life, as in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933), in the very elaborate Islandia (1942) by Austin Tappan Wright, Aldous Huxley's Island (1962), in Watermelon Sugar (1968) by Richard Brautigan , and in Ecotopia (1975) and its sequel by Ernest Callenbach. In a world of urbanization, a return to rural life is welcomed by many as the ultimate ideal, a personal retreat to utopia, even though the harsh realities of rural life may rapidly realize a more dystopian outlook.

In literature, it is increasingly difficult to find utopian fiction that is satisfying given the historical occurrences of the 20th century. Such images of utopia as Wells' Shape of Things To Come have not been borne out by experience. Indeed, dystopian images began to proliferate in the last decades of the 19th century and have carried over because social and political animosity against specific programmes introducing machinery and technology to reduce the workload of, or even replace, the worker, was the most important force provoking early dystopian visions. Traditional science fiction did not immediately engage in a contradictory argument for utopian optimism, instead, most utopian tales still held to the accepted form, generalizing a faith in the idea of progress, both social and technological. It would not be long before the genre picked up the emotional undertones of the time, leading to the appearance of dystopian images reflecting this emotional reaction against technological advance.

One of the greatest dystopias of modern literature on this theme is Huxley's Brave New World (1931), where humanity is produced in a technological fashion resembling a factory assembly line. The book outlines a technological and social utopia where all moral standards are relaxed and an attitude of narcissism prevails. Within this society Huxley detailed a promiscuous and vapid culture where everyone fills his time with games or leisure activities when not working for the common good and describes a society of spiritual emptiness lacking will and purpose, a society rejected by the antihero (Bernard Marx) and the hero (John the Savage) but necessary for the continuation of the happy and utopian status quo for the majority. That this society is seen as dystopian by legions of science fiction readers speaks volumes for their preferences and ideals of utopia.

The most famous dystopic vision of the future is of course George Orwell’s 1984, where the truthless, hideous and mind-numbing overlord of Big Brother ensures lack of personal freedom. Throughout this nightmare vision of society, the utopian subject is reduced to a few pleasures – privacy, food and freedom of expression, but Winston Smith and Julia fall foul of this anti-utopic world when they fail to understand that such privileges are only for the elite. In their world such cares are too expensive to maintain and their personal input too short-lived to make a difference. The shattering political power of Ingsoc is demonstrated to them not by its ability to hunt them down or torture Winston and Julia, but by the ability of O’Brien to actually turn off the haunting TV screen that watches their every movement.

The juxtaposition between utopia and dystopia as a point of personal preference and personal viewpoint is one of the motive forces behind both 1984 and Brave New World, which amply demonstrates that utopia is a truism of personal conviction or preference.

Harry S Truman, the 33rd President of the United States and the politician who authorized the destruction of two Japanese cities by the first use of atomic weapons, once said: “It is not my duty to establish moral or other Utopias; indeed, men are incapable of doing any such thing”.

This is a realistic assessment of mankind’s vision of utopia, political or social. Inevitably, whatever the intentions, one man's utopias lead to another’s dystopia. When we review history, we see that the constant struggle to realize this quest has ended in grief and bloodshed. Communism, Nazism, Pol Pot, Jimmy Jones and Jonestown, David Koresh and Waco and many other situations attest to the personal convictions and utopian views of some leaders, but the price paid for their utopia is too high and leads to dystopian dysfunction as reality bleeds into their framework. Utopia cannot be bought or thrust upon society by individuals because they each conceive of utopia in different ways. Society is a collection of individuals with a common code, which are expressed as laws, mores or morals, but none of these productions of humanity has brought lasting peace or happiness for all – no utopia.

We are creatures imprisoned by our own desires and wants. Utopia or Dystopia is personal to each one of us, and unless we are cloned from a single individual with a single consciousness we will never achieve utopia due to our disparities as a society. Utopia remains a dream that will never fade from human consciousness; it will linger as something tenuous, elusive and always beyond approach or comprehension.