Thursday 29 November 2018

The thoughtless utopia

There are more ways for the world to go wrong than ways for things to go right.

At least, that’s what a careful review of science fiction indicates. It seems it is usually easier for science fiction authors to create a compelling and believable dystopia than it is for them to offer a utopia that rings true. One supposes that if there were an easily imagined path to utopia, we’d all be on it by now.

But these facts don’t mean that when writing stories about utopian societies, creators should be absolved of at least providing some bare-bones explanations of what societal structures have led to the perfection of their imagined nation.

This speculation about social structures doesn’t need to be convincing — Heinlein’s utopian world of Beyond This Horizon suggests that a socialist command economy, gun rights, and eugenics are the secret recipe. Hardly believable off the printed page, but he at least put in some thought about how his world would work.

All I know is that I didn't vote for
Jaresh-Ino to be president of the UFP.
(Image via MemoryBeta) 
What is bothersome is the intellectually lazy utopian imagination, the offering of a science fiction paradise in which there is no thought about how that utopia was achieved.

The United Federation of Planets, as depicted in Star Trek's Original Series and Next Generation is an exemplar lazy utopia. Sure, some handwaving is offered around humanity ‘evolving’ beyond a need for money, but little concrete evidence is offered about how this utopia actually works.

How are the competing needs of different citizen species balanced? How are minority rights ensured? How do they balance the right to privacy with the need for security? These are the types of questions that all free societies must struggle with, and yet in hundreds of hours of Star Trek stories that have been filmed, no solid answers are offered.

Of course, the nebulous nature of the United Federation of Planets offered authors and fans plenty of opportunity to impose their own ideas and ideals onto this world — sometimes to excellent effect. For example, economic historian Manu Saadia uses Star Trek as a jumping off point to explore socialist ideas about a post-scarcity economy in his book Trekonomics.

Another example of a poorly crafted utopia is Wakanda, the high-technology kingdom that is home to Black Panther. How Wakanda became a utopia while neighbouring countries did not is never fully explored.

It is suggested that the presence of a miraculous resource — the metal vibraneum — may be the root cause of the nation’s perfection. But in the real world, resource riches rarely lead to anything like
Supreme executive power derives from
a mandate from the masses, not from
some farcical aquatic ceremony.
(Image via MarvelCinematicUniverseWiki)

If the natural resource of vibraneum had been paired with a democratic governance system, or an alternative inclusive governance model, it would have been easier to buy into the idea of Wakanda, but the country is ruled by an absolute monarch. This would make it one of only seven absolute monarchies on Earth, and none of the others are human rights leaders. To put it bluntly, absolute monarchy and utopia are utterly incompatible.

It is interesting to note that current Black Panther writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has begun to address these questions of governance in Wakanda. One hopes that this new more democratic version of Wakanda may make it to the movie screen one day.

We would argue that Coates’ work on the book is a recognition that a believable utopia would not be based on resources, wealth or technology, but on equitable distribution and respect for the rights of those who live in the utopia.

In short, utopia is in large part a matter of societal institutions and cultural practices.
The libertarian utopia
of The Unincorporated
is compelling (if
unconvincing) in part
because the authors
had the courage to
be political.
(Image via

Proposing alternative — utopian — societal institutions and customs will always risk alienating a good portion of your audience. Social institutions are inherently about the distribution of power in a society, and therefore the imagining of different social institutions is political, and political arguments will always offend someone.

For the broadest audience to remain unoffended by an imagined utopia, the author — or studio — needs to be as vague as possible. Perhaps that’s why so many high-budget productions — like Star Trek and the movie Black Panther — depict banal utopias that offers vagaries and magic to explain the perfection of their societies.

Utopia is more difficult an construction than dystopia, both artistically and in the real world. No author will ever write a utopia that is convincing to everyone, but those who try should try to offer ideas, and should be upfront about their politics.


  1. Asimov once wrote that all speculative stories were either "What if . . ." "If only . . ." or "If this goes on . . ." stories, where the middle one was for utopia stories. "If only we had a replicator, all our social problems would go away." "If only we had enough vibranium, everyone would live in peace and harmony--even with an absolute monarch who thinks he's a big cat."

    It doesn't seem to work for dystopias; the ones in print seem to all be "if this goes on" stories.

    Anyway, I think there's a distinction between a story that happens to be set in a utopia (e.g. Star Trek and Black Panther) vs. a story that's about a utopia. That said, I'm hard-pressed to think of an example of a recent story that's about a utopia.

    1. I'd suggest Jo Walton's "Thessaly" series and Ada Palmer's "Terra Ignota" series as recent novels grappling with, at least, *attempts* at utopia.