American Culture

Utopias and other imaginary worlds

What makes a good Utopia? Are there minimum critical success factors that would allow the vagaries of human nature to be overcome? Does it mean a four day work week and personal jetpacks? A permanent rustic rural retreat, with all necessary services being provided by elves? A socialist workers’ paradise—ie, where no one expects to actually have to work? Is one even possible without robots to do all the gruntwork? Is there even a good definition of Utopia? Does it need to accord with John Rawls’ definition of a just society? Do we know what we’re talking about here anyway?

This is all prompted by the highly entertaining and interesting discussion this evening at the British Library, part of their discussion series that goes along with their Science Fiction exhibition. Tonight we had the redoubtable Iain M. Banks (and not, thankfully, Iain Banks, who writes different sorts of books entirely); Gregory Claeys, who has written extensively about the notion of utopias and whose Searching for Utopia has just been published; and Francis Spufford, general racounteur and author of three terrific and totally unrelated books: I May Be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination, The Child That Books Built, and Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin. And, most recently, Red Plenty, about utopianism in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, which seems relevant to the topic at hand. Banks is best known for his series of novels set in the future in the Culture, a vast society of shared cultures, races, beings that spans much of the known universe. And the thing about the Culture is that it’s an empire that pretends it’s not an empire. It’s sort of a voluntary empire, and which you’re part of the Culture because you want to be. Not everyone is in the Culture. So what separates the two? (One of my favorite Banks novels is his first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas, whose protagonist resists the Culture, and is regarded as heroic by the Culture for doing so. The other thing about the Culture is that it’s equally shared between animate beings and machines. And since everything manual is done by machines, often very smart machines (like the great ships, some of whom are some of the best characters in modern fiction), it is kind of a utopia.

So, the obvious question—is the Culture Banks’ vision of the closest we’ll ever get to Utopia? Well, no, actually to Claeys, who actually teaches the history of political thought at Royal Holloway, and has been looking at Utopias for years. Notice the capital U, to distinguish it from lower case utopias, which Spufford suggested should be regarded as a direction, not a destination. But to what? Well, Claeys suggested, after a thorough review of what Utopia was not (a literary tradition, a branch of theology, a state of mind, or a synonym for social improvement), he proffered that it’s a postulation about how to improve the social order. That “social” is important–utopias are always communal affairs. That question came up in the Q&A later on, in fact, when someone offered the notion of an individual utopia–this was flatly rejected by all three panelists. Moreover, it’s not just communal, but also egalitarian.

Claeys’s second fundamental criterion was that Utopias be plausible. He made a number of interesting points about this, including that when Thomas More wrote Utopia influenced by not only the European monastic tradition, but also by the fact that a number of reports about life in the New World were already affecting the European view of the world. More wrote Utopia not as an imaginary world, but as a world premised on what he thought was plausible about how the world worked. These concepts were not only imagined, they were discovered, according to Claeys.

There’s a third point, which came out following a question from Spufford, or a comment, really, in response to Claeys’s introduction–that Utopias are also transformative. They’re supposed to be improving–that’s the point. There’s a moral aspect to Utopias. (This may leave out the Culture, then.) Utopias represent what we have lost, before the corruption that took over, before the Fall, and it’s what we have to figure out how to get back to. I don’t know, I know Claeys said that Utopias aren’t theological, but he sounded awfully theological himself when he said this. Not that I don’t agree–I do.

So how does does Science Fiction fit into all of this, since we are really talking about two different genres here? Well, according to Claeys, everything changed at the end of the 19th century with Verne and Wells and the notion of a scientific understanding of how the world worked, a time when a scientific understanding came to underpin notions of progress, and notions of how to organize society. Plus, at this point you also had Evolution as a factor in this scientific approach as well, and suddenly you’re extending history by not just centuries, but millions of years. This changes things.

Banks then went off on a bit of a discourse on how he came to write the Culture novels. He wanted something a little more American than what British SF writers were putting out at the time he was growing up; this work was “dreary,” and he wanted something with a little more, well, pizazz (my words, not his). More to the point, he wanted something where the folks who ran everything were the good guys. A more interesting comment, which will make more sense to those familiar with the novels than not, was his puzzlement that in all these novels of the future, everything had moved on–except for economics. But what he was really interested in was reclaiming the moral high ground of space opera for the left. What Banks created, according to John Clute, was a “post-scarcity society,” where people still disagreed, but there was less to disagree about. Oh, and everyone could genetically modify themselves to boot. Spufford noted wryly that any culture that required its inhabitants to genetically modify themselves to remove bad instincts sounded pretty anti-Utopian, in fact.

Everyone was great, except Spufford spoke into his chest a bit too much. Claeys is this academic guy who looks and sounds like an academic guy. Banks sounds like a Scottish science fiction writer who also writes pretty dark “literary fiction” and a pretty good book on Scotch Whiskey, too. He was also quite funny. Spufford was a genial and inquiring host who moved things along nicely (except could never make his mind up on who to call on for questions). But in retrospect, it was Claeys who defined and carried the evening. Banks was great fun, and the discussion of how the Culture novels came to be was interesting–but, actually, not as interesting in some respects as actually thinking what goes into a proper Utopia.

Some of the questions were pretty good, and led to some further lively discussion. Communalism kept coming up, including in contrast to Ayn Rand, whom all thee dismissed as pointless in this context. Claeys gave a pretty impassioned defense of why we need some sort of notion of Utopia now, given the fact that we seem headed for a pretty wretched dystopia if climate change continues its inexorable trajectory. We need a utopia as an alternative to this future if we have any hope of avoiding it. Claeys (whom I keep referring to simply because he had more interesting things to say than either Spufford or Banks) also pointed out that a little perspective is always needed–for someone living at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in Europe, how we’re living now would pass for Utopia.

There were a couple of questions about the fact that utopias don’t seem to work. Claeys disagreed, sort of, pointing out that people generally have lived more communally than we do now. There was some exception taken to this by some in the audience, but he’s probably right. We are a communal species, we have evolved that way, and we’re likely to stay that way–at least until we start genetically modifying ourselves.

One final good question–where are the utopias now? Claeys thought the European Social Democracy model was as good as we’re likely to get. Denmark, for example. Spufford said that wasn’t the most exciting prospect he’s heard of. Banks then noted that it might be the best that we can get. You know, that’s not bad. A good compromise between Khruschev and Rand, as Claeys said. I’ve got to read this guy’s book.

5 replies »

  1. I keep waiting for one of these types of discussions to wind around to Bacon and “New Atlantis,” which may well have been the first SF and it was unquestionably a classic utopia.

  2. When I was young and, well, foolish, achieving Utopia mean adding to the world I lived in.

    Now that I’m old and not quite so foolish, transforming the world I know into something Utopian means subtraction:

    • Remove war to illuminate peace.

    • Remove noise to enhance signal.

    • Remove hate to unleash love.

    That would work for me. And maybe a Corvette. Yeah.

  3. I was expecting Bacon too, but a lot of the basic historical framework was glossed over in the interest of time. Claeys has it covered, though.

    Agreed on all points, Denny, except the Corvette. I’ll take a Morgan.

  4. “Tonight we had the redoubtable Iain M. Banks (and not, thankfully, Iain Banks, who writes different sorts of books entirely); ”

    I wasn’t aware they were different people.