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Utopia is bad?


For decades now, sf writers have been writing stories that go like this:

  1. Pick some big change (to a person or the world) that looks on the surface like it would be really great.
  2. Show that in fact it would be really bad.

For example:

  • Person is immortal, discovers that immortality is boring (because after a few thousand years everything starts to seem repetitive) and sad (because all their loved ones keep dying).
  • Civilization reaches the point where nobody has to work; humanity stagnates, stops producing art or innovation.
  • In Heaven, things aren't as good as you might think.

And so on. I can understand the appeal of such stories; they were once reversals of common accepted wisdom. Exposing the flaws in some apparently ideal system (like showing us what the lives of the workers are like in a society that's a utopia for the upper classes) can add some complexity to a simplistic idea. And conflict is often an ingredient in good stories; and contrarianism, pushing against received wisdom and general assumptions, has often been a hallmark of certain kinds of sf (and other literature).

But by now, after decades of stories like these, the received wisdom seems to me to be that there's no such thing as utopia, that humanity needs to struggle to survive and not stagnate, that anything that looks too good to be true is, and so on. So instead of pointing out flaws in assumptions, such stories seem to me to simply repeat widely held (at least in sf) beliefs.

(When I say "decades," I'm really only talking about a particular instantiation of such stories, in a particular sfnal form. Arguably, stories about the downside of really cool technological advances are at least as old as the stories of Prometheus and other fire-bringers.)

As someone raised in sf culture, my immediate first thought (a few years back) when I noticed this trend was to be contrarian: I wanted to write a story in which the whole point was that immortality really is all it's cracked up to be. For example, there are too many good books published in any given year for me to have time to read them; if that continues to be true, then no matter how long I live, I'm never going to catch up, so I'm unlikely to get bored.

But eventually I realized that saying "no, utopia actually good" didn't make any better a story than saying "utopia bad!" And utopia-is-good stories tend to have even less interesting conflict than utopia-is-bad stories.

So really, if you're going to explore the goodness or badness of a perfect-sounding situation, I don't want the question of whether it's good or bad to be the point of the story. Make it part of the background, sure, but if the whole point of your story is to say either "immortality would suck" or "immortality would be totally cool," then I recommend taking a look at the last fifty-plus years of sf stories and reconsidering whether that should really be your whole point.

(I've been trying to figure out a way to mention Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" in this entry. It does the exploration-of-what-underlies-utopia thing extremely well, but because of the ending, there's a lot more to it than that. But that story, too, has already been written, by a master of the field; chances are slim that another story relying on the same idea is going to do much for me.) (And now I'm hoping that the responses to this post won't be all about Omelas, because this really is a minor side note to my main point.)

(Written in mid-February but unposted 'til now.)


Actually, the punk thing would be to take something apparently bad (infanticide, racism, ecological collapse, etc) and show how it makes things better.

So, um, yeah. Good luck with that. ;)


Hasn't Paolo already got that sewed up?

No, wait a minute, what am I saying -- in a Paolo story nothing makes things better. :)

:) Good points.

...I was thinking last night about some well-known work or type of work, and I thought "Oh! That's a working example of what Daniel was talking about!" But now I have no idea what it was. If it comes to mind again, I'll post.

Isn't the Kim Stanley Robinson Mars Trilogy and the follow book, The Martians, about a Utopia in the Making? At least KSR's version?

Nevermind that I don't agree with his view (on any issue, now that I think on it) but I believe a "Utopia is Good" story starts with a negative situation (multi-meta national corps colonize Mars to exploit it) only to have terrorist revolutionaries liberate the world for themselves and run it "wisely."

Wisely, of course, all being in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. In this case, being the author of the example I've cited and the readers who tend to fall for it.

Sometimes, I think those who write utopian material missed the wrong history lectures in college. I'm sure they had something better to do with their time.

S. F. Murphy
Northtown, Missouri

Why would your loved ones keep dying if you were immortal. Eventually you have someone who is also immortal and it would no longer be an issue.

Anonymous: In most of the stories I'm talking about, the protagonist is the only immortal.

Also, I don't think I would find it plausible if a character said, "Well, sure, my first three hundred loved ones died, but my new loved one is immortal, so that's okay!"

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