So, I’ve been thinking about a brief discussion that came up on Twitter the other day. I mean, all conversations on Twitter are brief, what with the inherent limitations of the form. Too limited for big topics, like:
Is it possible to write a utopia?
Is it possible to imagine a utopia?
The thing is, whenever you use the word utopia — I have seen this at convention panels before, too — everyone assumes that you mean a utopia where Everyone Is Forced To Be Happy. Then they get into how all the methods by which you might Force People To Be Happy are kind of not okay and how the society is actually repressive and . . . they are not talking about a utopia at all. They are talking about a dystopia, and they don’t seem able to tell they’ve changed the subject.
You know what you get when you do a google search for “utopia SF”? You get dystopias. I see Lowry’s THE GIVER is listed here, along with UGLIES by Westerfield. I mean . . . really? Why not just take the word “utopia” out of the dictionary if you are going to define it to equal “dystopia”?
Okay, so. Has anybody ever actually written a book set in a utopia? I suspect the answer is No.
Could a utopian setting be devised and could an interesting story be set in it? I suspect the answer is Yes.
1. A utopia is not about forcing people to be happy. Do I even need to say this? If so, why? Let’s all agree that the definition of a utopia excludes horrible repressive governmental systems that crush individual choice and autonomy. THOSE ARE DYSTOPIAS. Just stop with the utopia = dystopia thing.
2. There is always going to be conflict. Yes, in a utopia, too.
For one thing, people are never going to live the lives their parents’ want them to. They are going to insist on wanting to do their own thing. Poof, personal low-stakes conflict.
Besides, people are always going to have legitimate goals and aspirations that are mutually exclusive with the goals and aspirations of those close to them. In fact, people are always going to have legitimate goals and aspirations that are mutually exclusive with other goals and aspirations they also have. You can’t do everything. Even perfect material wealth doesn’t create more seconds in the day.
Besides, there is always potential for conflict from outside. This is science fiction, after all. Aliens! Poof, broad, high-stakes conflict.
3. Material wealth and a life of ease do not create happiness. I mean, sure, terrible, crushing poverty and a life of slavery prevent happiness (to a pretty large degree, anyway). But still. Isn’t it obvious by now that for happiness, what you really need is: a sense that you are a useful, productive person; a sense that you are supporting yourself and your family; a sense that you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. In a real utopia, you won’t just feel that way; it will all be true. Then on top of that, but by no means more important than the above: you need material abundance sufficient not to be afraid for yourself or your family.
I think any utopia will fail where it doesn’t take actual human nature into account. And people want to feel like they are in charge of their own lives. By and large, they hate to feel dependent and resent the need to accept charity, and REALLY resent being expected to feel grateful for charity. They hate to feel that they have no choices. They have to have actual accomplishments so that they can feel legitimately proud of themselves. They need to feel positively connected to other people. They need to see the people they love be happy. They also need to not feel bitter because other people are happy, which is something else. They want to have something to strive for, and they want to achieve the things they’re striving for, but not too easily.
Am I missing anything huge? I think that’s most of the essentials. Oh, they need to be in decent health.
People often think they want, or we are told that people think they want, a life of pure leisure. I think that’s clearly not true. Does anyone actually believe it? It seems obviously much more important to your happiness to feel productive and useful than to have empty days filled with nothing in particular, even if your material needs are being met. That’s why long-term unemployment is so psychologically destructive.
4. The hard part about writing a utopian society would be coming up with a way to have excellent material abundance plus good health, AND YET to set up society to allow people to feel like they are — no, to actually BE — productive, useful, and responsible for their own lives and happiness. Getting rid of clinical depression and other emotional disorders would be a necessary step to allow everyone to be capable of happiness, but in a real utopia, perfect universal permanent happiness would not exist. That is not possible without changing human nature, it is not even faintly desirable, and it is not part of the definition.
Has anybody actually written a utopia, that you know of? Or even come close? Iain Banks’ THE PLAYER OF GAMES might be something that attempts to do this — has anybody read it? I’ve just read a description. But even there, the protagonist is apparently bored and jaded — and the utopia has a horribly repressive neighboring empire filled with miserable people. What true utopia would tolerate a neighbor like that?
Anyway. I insist on reclaiming the concept of a utopia, as distinct from a dystopia.