The Only Good Utopia Is A Dead Utopia

Hey, Bloggers. Anyone up for a long boring babble about nothing in particular? Some spoilers ahead.

A few years ago I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Orange County Trilogy…which in case you’re unfamiliar with it is three novels about Orange County, each as it would be in a different type of “utopian” near future. The final volume, Pacific Edge, is probably both the least satisfying, and the least convincing: depicting a Green future full of co-ops and civic virtue, it seems more like Mars than California, and despite its protagonist’s wriggling around somewhat in the confines of utopia’s straitjacket, it doesn’t sizzle quite as much as the volume immediately preceding it, The Gold Coast, which depicts a near-future technological “utopia” much like our own world if you just keep tracing out the lines to where they seem to be leading circa 1988 or something. No worries about trying to see the conflicts as satisfying here: it’s recognizably our own world, just with a little extra SF flava.

And then finally, there’s the first volume: The Wild Shore.

This one’s my favourite, probably because if you return to it after reading the trilogy out to its conclusion, you’re left with a strange thought in mind: that the closest thing we’ll likely ever have to a functioning social utopia may be an ad hoc subsistence-level quasi-communism that probably doesn’t top out at fifty members — if they can really even be called “members” — where everybody’s working so hard just to lay in food for the winter that social organizations are basically completely accidental, even if they’re sometimes fortunate. Utopia as the state of being bombed back to the Stone Age; but you always know that’s what’s happened to you, and that’s what makes the situation messed-up enough to be called a utopia in the first place, even if it’s got sneer quotes around it. Just as The Gold Coast very cleverly presents the view that, hey, when viewed in any type of decent historical perspective this world is a utopian one — I mean just look at all our cool stuff! — but nevertheless, Et In Arcadia Ego, you know? Well, but the “Arcadia” part of that is as important as the “Ego”, as important even as the overwhelming “Et In”, and so don’t let me get too hasty with the sneer quotes anyway…!

Because they may be all we have…

Sorry, getting tangled…

So what was I saying? Oh, yes: just as The Gold Coast lays down causes of disaffection specific to living in what anyone throughout human history would have little difficulty identifying as a utopia, so too The Wild Shore also lays down its specific anxieties, by flat-out showing us that any Eden’s chiefly a state of mind — that is, it’s a reality based on what’s relative to it — and that therefore (just as in The Gold Coast for that matter, only the values are flipped around) what you’ve lost is quite as important as what you’ve gained, when it comes to knowing the worth of what you have. In our own lives we all know about, what shall I call it, the climb from grace…we’re accustomed to calling it a fall, but it isn’t a fall: Rousseau may actually have had that one right, no matter what else he was wrong about. “Man is born free”? Um, maybe not, Johnny boy — but it seems sensible to me to claim every generation moves up to alienation, instead of dropping down on it. I mean, just look around you: Rousseau’s conjectural history may be as factually full of shit as anything else the Enlightenment Men ever came up with (cough cough, private vices make public virtues), but so far as it says we weren’t given our modern anxieties by natural social gravitation, but instead forged those chains for ourselves on purpose, it at least flirts with the realistic. Which is more than a lot of other theories depending from that time can say.

But then, if our world’s about the climb…

Then what would a real fall look like?

And, what could we learn, by imagining it?

Of course it’s not a new thought by any means. My own first encounter with it was in the venerable Earth Abides, but that’s only because I was born when and where I was, and not at some other time or place. Science fiction loves the Fall, so much so that it probably has many more interesting things to say about it than any given religion that claims the idea as touchstone…but then it isn’t like there’s anything outre about mixing speculative literature with religious questions anyway, is there? I mean it simply happens all the time; mostly automatic, I should judge. Very, very common stuff: conjectural history in reverse. Rousseau as SF author. Sure, absolutely.

Why not?

Hey, after all no one writes a post-Apocalypse story by accident!

So maybe Robinson’s right: maybe the only good utopia’s a dead one, at that.

But let’s look at it some more, and see what we find. Of course in a way about ninety percent of SF stories are technically “post-apocalyptic”, what with all the Great Disasters and massive social/technological upheavals of the past that lurk in the margins — stories of settlers living on other planets are post-apocalyptic too, as are stories of people travelling between cosmopolitan Jack Vance worlds loaded with footnotes and aliens. Folks like William Gibson write (as Sean W. has recently reminded me) stories where what’s really changed or passed away is barely apprehended by the reader, let alone the characters, and I suppose at the other extreme folks like Ursula LeGuin write stories where the tenor of Robinson’s Pacific Edge isn’t achieved by grassroots political organizing towards an idea of “future”, but by immensities of time operating on human culture to produce a new and more bottomless past, that replaces futurity entirely. Even such a mainstream success as Nevil Shute gets into this general swing of things in his tales of the mad bad twentieth century — and as always, whenever you have a traveller who arrives near the Omega Point (or as we often see, a traveller who carries Omega Points with him wherever he goes), there you have a past and a future which are both lost to sight, a close horizon of the present that in “proper” modern literature is similarly always felt, even if it’s hardly ever turned into something that can actually be looked at as it is in SF. Utopia, we might almost say, is such an unnatural state that you can only really find it in the eyes of hurricanes or on the lips of black holes — special places where the feedback loops of possibility and consequence are drawn extraordinarily tight, so much so in fact that characters are likely to bring Omega all over again whenever they stir within that artificial simplicity, and snap the symmetry of things by acting as clinamen to the uninterrupted symmetry of particle-fall…

Or then again maybe that was a bit flowery, and maybe I’m wrong anyway: because what is the message of a “fall” utopia? As always, when it comes to concretizing the metaphor, J.G. Ballard is way out in front of the pack — in “The Ultimate City” we are (I think) meant to see that utopia is a creature of aesthetic, and that the thing called “aesthetic” is always produced by a context of history, will you nill you: in other words, that the bad old beforedays are gone is what makes them a place where the utopian urge can be sited and played out, and achieve a vibrancy that the “after” world’s utopian urges never can. Because the non-simple loops of consequence and possibility are still there, of course: they may be too dead to create the present directly anymore, but they still supply it with aesthetic-producing past, and so make utopia’s reflective aesthetic possible. In The Wild Shore, the United States is cordoned off from the rest of the world, which still goes on about its modern, technological business — not knowing what else to do. But because it’s still alive, that’s not where the utopian urge is sited; history in the rest of the world hasn’t come to an end as history within America has, and so doesn’t get to have a do-over. Out past the continental shelf are submarines like flaming swords, guarding a limitless Eden full of particle rain…but nothing else, and so that’s their problem. The story only proceeds in the land where it’s possible to wish for perfection, or transfiguration — not in the land where these things are rendered impossible by a paucity (or should that be “over-richness”?) of eventuating feedback. When he moves on sequentially to The Gold Coast, Robinson details for us exactly why the that past-present-future continuum is so limited in scope when it comes to such expressive ideals, in (again) a way we all know very well — it’s not news that in an “open” world such as our own the limitlessness of horizon is itself a barrier to self-understanding: as we can’t help but be aware, it takes tremendous amounts of both work and luck to locate an arena in which the individual can have a specific value to himself, can paint his inner self on the walls of the outside world despite them being so damned tall.

Of course this is the world we’ve made, so it’s the one we’ve got — and it would be silly and graceless of us to want to cure our alienation by simply obliterating the work of our hands. Wouldn’t it? In the real world, by definition, we don’t get to have utopia — having climbed up to alienation, all we can then do is climb up again, to try to get over the top of it. Though occasionally we might secretly wish for aliens to come down and blast us into the state of being other people — of having always been other people — nevertheless in this world we cannot go down, not even if it’s to Pacific Edge.

But in fiction: yup, we can play around with that kind of thing. Mostly just for a little while, of course — although part of what makes Ursula LeGuin’s brilliance such an essentially frustrating one (for example) is that for her that “little while” can be extended all the way to the conceptual vanishing point, only actually ceasing once you close the book — for her, a “fall” utopia is really a spring utopia, a spring without a summer — which is an impossible state no matter how elegantly-drawn, but that we can imagine it at all gives us a utopian safety-valve, for imagining ourselves world-painters. And maybe that imagination is simplistic; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fruitful simplicity to explore, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any surprises inside it. Hard not to think back to the Sixties, little re-tribalization cults building geodesic domes out in the desert for the cost of eight bucks of pipe and a two dollar socket wrench…in my part of the world, people turned all Richard Brautigan, haring off into the wilds of the coastline to make a new start with their sexy friends, and find a new context in the history and geography that was “out there” already. Lost? We’re not lost…hey, this is Captain America calling…

Of course in Europe at this time, they saw “revolution” as a different kind of fish: a different kind of culture politics.

But here…

Well, maybe that’s a topic for another time. But anyway, utopia: you know, weirdly, it almost could have happened here, and that’s the key thing about it. If you squint hard enough, you can see that the creation of a massive new past was indeed what was going on out there in the desert with the hippies and the domes, up on the coast with the squatters and the boats, or for that matter in RAB’s beloved World’s Fair, or even in the dwindling echoes of Habitat that I grew up with in the early Seventies here on the beach in Vancouver. And naturally this was all in the wake of Apocalypse, too — in the wake of colossal social/technological change barely apprehensible by the characters who were living through it. A World War and a GI Bill and some oil, that’s really all it took…a few years later you get Woodstock, and then a few years after that you get perestroika.

And then you get all this.

But in a way it could still happen, you see, could happen now in a way previously impossible, because of how it didn’t happen then because it couldn’t be done: because it’s dead now, if you take my point. A dead new past, is just another post-apocalyptic world that provides the context that feeds aesthetic: the essential deadness of past failed utopias, that in science fiction signals the opportunity to re-site those urges to perfection in the same spot again, and thus get oneself a post-Fall do-over, signals an opportunity in the real world too: the opportunity to examine how what could be imagined as “future” in the past of our imagination has fallen out of contact with what can be imagined as “future” now, in our imaginative present. Thus the Orange County Trilogy is a failed relic of ideal now too, as the record of an imagined future whose potential branching now lies behind us some little way off in the past — though it was a good guess, I still think — but that isn’t to say it’s now lost all its value to us.

Because maybe, now it has even more value?

Max Weber said that it takes about forty years for an elite idea to filter down into the popular consciousness — and maybe he had the numbers wrong, or maybe he had them right but then they changed, but consider this: we tend to think of history as a series of blips, a series of incidents bounded by a string of causes that diminish, like echoes, the further in time they get from the incidents that define their meaning. And why we think this way I don’t know, but we probably shouldn’t: anyway Weber didn’t, and in his amusing little notion of the cook-down time of ideas, no matter what we think about it in the abstract, there may be a good lesson for us. All that dead apocalyptic past we collected in the postwar era, is none of it working on us today? Probably all of it is: the hippies in the desert were just early-adopters, you see. They didn’t own their Movement, they just belonged to it. And if we believed the tale of diminishing incident causes we might say that doesn’t matter, but apply a little Weber to the problem: Silent Spring came out when?

On The Road came out when?

Dangerous Visions came out when?

The Second Sex came out when?

It’s entirely possible that all these people did not really know what they were doing in a historical context: they may have been trying to inaugurate an aesthetic, but aesthetic lives in the context of its own self-defining past as much as in the contradistinguishing past of what came before it…and without that interplay it can only be imagined as one day existing, if what’s inaugurated turns out to have some sticking-power. But you can’t have it, at the beginning! Because you have to wait and see how it turns out, first. Early adopters are rather banned from sifting practicality from ideal anyway, since the goal is to break practice with ideal — but that really just means to change practice, and usually in order for practice to be changed, ideal has first to die a miserable failure. And you can’t blame anyone for not wanting to think about those particular hard knocks too carefully…however in books it can be thought of, because books serve (as people do not) as the record of what the thing that failed was, before it actually went belly-up. Thus, the Orange County Trilogy means more today than it did on publication, precisely because its three utopias have passed out of the scope of what can be proposed as notional “future” to the contemporary imagination — having lost their predictive thrill, they’ve gained a descriptive utility to replace it with: not capable of being trees anymore, they’ve instead become soil. Which means what they stood for hasn’t died, but rather renewed its potential to come alive: because after all you can’t plant trees in trees. You can’t drink out of raindrops.

You can only drink out of streams.

So, in which fictional post-apocalyptic aesthetic should we plant our utopian urges today? Of course we cannot actually fall to them, we already know that! Omega Points are not easy to come by in real life, they’re just hypothetical test-cases — we can’t rely on them to solve our problems for us. But as rough negatives of the map of the climb, they’re far from useless; they may not be flashlights, but they are batteries. And it may not be night yet, but it probably will be soon.

Let’s stop and make camp here for a while, maybe light a nice science-fictional fire. Omega is far below us.

Alpha’s still above.

And since though men go and come, earth abides…well, let’s let it abide with us a little while.

Fast falls the eventide, and all that.

Oh no, I think I’ve written another ridiculous blogifesto.

But oh, well. Pass the beans, please.

And the links, too.

Hopefully that all adds up to a meal.

18 responses to “The Only Good Utopia Is A Dead Utopia

  1. In fact: ugh. This post’s a pretty good example of how it might be a good idea to just take a day to pull the thing together, damn it!, rather than sitting down and bashing straight through and then hitting “publish”.

    Somehow in all that, I didn’t quite make the point of the title as well as I wanted to: that in SF stories the Fall is the entryway to the utopian world, not the exit from it.

    But, hell if I’m gonna rewrite it now.

  2. There, I fixed it. Well, half fixed it, half ruined it some more…

    Bah. Yay!

    Heck, I dunno; it’s just a blog post.

    Oh, and hey Clone! Yes, I keep telling myself that, too. Actually I keep telling myself I need to go read one, you know?

    Think I will. “The Young Caesar”, by Rex Warner. Quite remarkable for the way it captures Caesar’s relentlessly pragmatic voice. I have to keep reminding myself it’s actually a novel.

    Hah, see, I can be off-topic too!

    (yawns) See you tomorrow, world.

  3. Kind of off-topic, I know, but Plok, you really need to go and write a book.

    I support that. And if you do, I volunteer to edit it for you. Partially because I’d like to, and partially because I’d like the experience, and partially because I suspect most other editors would throw up their hands at the prospect.

    I wonder what it would be about.

  4. As for the utopia stuff… I think you’re on to something. Of course, some of this is just the needs of fiction: if it is a utopia, you probably don’t have much story there, so any story about a utopia is either about one being established or one being torn down. And our only exposure to utopias comes via writing (I don’t say fiction; Thomas More and Plato probably didn’t think they were writing fiction), because we haven’t had any in real life.

    The notion of whether the sixties could have led to a utopia is an interesting one. I don’t doubt that there are those who think it was (or even still is!) possible, but I’m not one of them. For me, the last word on that topic comes from my favourite political blog, written by a history professor who, like me, is a Strauss-and-Howe guy:

    http://historyunfolding.blogspot.com/2008/08/bye-bye-boomers.html

  5. But Matthew, if there ever were to be a utopia it would have to stem from the Sixties…and the Thirties, and the Fifties, and the Eighteen-Nineties and the Seventeen-Tens…after all, they all led to the Sixties in their turn, right? We’re looking at long multigenerational graphs here: the ideas lurking inside “hippie” probably acquired their specifically American momentum with Emerson, and I don’t see why the generational inflections of those ideas should be counted as forceless now on contemporary thinking just because Ben and Jerry sell ice cream. In fact that’s mostly my point: as long as we have imaginative fiction, the past isn’t another country, it’s just a fallow field.

    That’s a great article, by the way — and with some nice turns of phrase, too! I may go back to that guy.

    But I take issue with his idea that the “student movement” died away at the end of the Vietnam War (though I can only do so by treating what he said as more general than he probably intended it to be): surely you know, as I do, as anyone who’s ever been to university does, that it’s actually alive and kicking — it just belongs to people of different hairstyles now, different historical perspectives. No?

    We have conservative people in their sixties now — um, who are not diehard ideologues — who would tolerate an Environmental Court (it would be like the old Maritime Courts!), patronize their local independent pot-grower for medical reasons, buy only fair trade coffee, support scientific trials of LSD, and would endure a loosening of the laws surrounding squatter’s rights and cob houses. We’ve got stuff seeping into the groundwater here like nobody’s business from the general upstream direction of the Sixties, I think. Only because the Sixties are “dead”, of course…

    I dunno. Agree/disagree?

  6. But Matthew, if there ever were to be a utopia it would have to stem from the Sixties…and the Thirties, and the Fifties, and the Eighteen-Nineties and the Seventeen-Tens…after all, they all led to the Sixties in their turn, right?

    The point, as I took it, was more that, to the extent that there ever could be a utopia that stemmed primarily from the Sixties, we’re living in it now.

    But I certainly don’t mean to imply that everything ticks along only to the rhythm of the generational cycle; I’ve never thought that. And, yes, influences linger, fictional and not. Including when nobody expects them to.

    That’s a great article, by the way — and with some nice turns of phrase, too! I may go back to that guy.

    I’ve thought very highly of him for a long time.

    I take issue with his idea that the “student movement” died away at the end of the Vietnam War (though I can only do so by treating what he said as more general than he probably intended it to be): surely you know, as I do, as anyone who’s ever been to university does, that it’s actually alive and kicking — it just belongs to people of different hairstyles now, different historical perspectives. No?

    Yes and no. Sure, there still is a student movement, or rather a bunch of student movements, and I have no doubt that you could show how they’re the direct inheritors of the student movement of the ’60s, but I believe that they really are quite different animals now (and have been different since, maybe, the end of the Vietnam War). And far less influential.

    We’ve got stuff seeping into the groundwater here like nobody’s business from the general upstream direction of the Sixties, I think. Only because the Sixties are “dead”, of course…

    ‘Over’ isn’t ‘dead’. I mean, of course the ’60s are still a big issue; the 2004 election was basically about the ’60s, wasn’t it? But, sure: stuff happened during the ’60s that are going to echo down throughout history for as far ahead as we can see. The sexual revolution, for instance; that’s one genie that I don’t think will fit back in the bottle. Entirely. I think what will happen with our ideas of the ’60s is that another decade will come along that will replace them as the most-recent-dividing-point-of-history. (I nominate the 2010s, although it’s possible that it’ll be the 2020s.)

  7. The irony is, you just turned me on to Emily Carr and like wow. Van Gogh’s reckless daughter rides away into the wilderness, into a way of life still going on in the midst of its own crumbling memorials. Now there’s a past I’d like to give a future to, or what’s a hypertime for? Not another lost race yarn, nor a full-scale alternate history, just a sort of trippy amplification of it all where the woods really are that deep, the stars are that bright, every clan pole has its story to be discovered, and the losses and injustices can all be outlived. You’re talking about utopia, and I can’t stop thinking about romance.

    I don’t have a definite argument, and can’t exactly come to grips with yours. For whatever reason, I found I was thinking of Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (romance for sure), Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong in Snow Crash (a friend once said he’d sign up like a shot – business+ethics+environment), and that I should read The Iron Council.

    What sticks with me though, is the passage in The Vampire Lestat where he relates his reactions to waking up in 1984 New Orleans after sleeping since 1880. He sees a parade of liberties, and a far healthier common cast of mind, now that old class and religious oppressions have gone. He notes that the new does not replace the old any longer, but blends it into the culture. It’s a bravura piece of persuasive writing, saying that this is pretty much utopia already, and if not, then the ingredients of utopia are our best efforts and impulses here and now.

  8. Are we talking about social or economic utopias? If it’s mainly about social issues, then I’ll grant you the sixties (and seventies – women’s liberation in particular gained prominence later) are still important today. But if you mean economically, then the eighties is our reference decade. Your average Haight-Ashbury hippie wouldn’t have had any philosophical time for Neo-classical economics and let-the-speculators-screw-everyone laissez faire private sector profiteering. No, that’s firmly the legacy of the greed-is-good eighties generation.

  9. Your average Haight-Ashbury hippie wouldn’t have had any philosophical time for Neo-classical economics and let-the-speculators-screw-everyone laissez faire private sector profiteering. No, that’s firmly the legacy of the greed-is-good eighties generation.

    But it’s the same generation!

    Admittedly, it’s not–well, probably not–the same people in that generation, but it is the same generation. They grew up with the Mickey Mouse Club telling them they were the future leaders of America, and they believed it, and they went on to rip up every aspect of civilization from front to back, in defiance of common sense, honour and tradition, because they thought they knew they were right.

    I admit that my generation didn’t do much to help the situation.

    (Yet.)

  10. The same generation. Well, to some extent that’s true. It’s a mathematical truth that many of the important figures in the eighties would be part of the sixties generation. But that’s far from exclusive. Reagan and Thatcher and Hayek and Milton Friedman weren’t boomers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sticking up for the sixties generation – a collection of people who are far less lovely than they probably believe – but there’s a danger of crediting them with events that weren’t primarily their responsibility. I see eighties thought developing as a reaction to the economic disasters of the 1970s, and I’m hopeful that whatever’s coming next will be a consequence of the very recent disastrous failures of the free marketeers. That’s my best hope for a utopia, anyway.

  11. Reagan and Thatcher and Hayek and Milton Friedman weren’t boomers.

    No, true. Then again, Reagan at least was an important figure in the ’60s; go listen to CCR’s ‘Ramble Tamble’ again if you doubt it.

    there’s a danger of crediting them with events that weren’t primarily their responsibility

    Truer words were never spoken.

    I’m hopeful that whatever’s coming next will be a consequence of the very recent disastrous failures of the free marketeers.

    I imagine it will be. Partially.

    That’s my best hope for a utopia, anyway.

    Well, one thing about utopias that we won’t achieve is long-term stability. I believe that any free society will change drastically and in unpredictable ways every twenty years or so. So in that sense we won’t get a utopia. Things can get better, though; we have made progress and there’s no reason why we can’t make more.

  12. “I don’t have a definite argument, and can’t exactly come to grips with yours.”

    Not quite sure I’ve finished making it, Jonathan. This could be the book right here.

    Hm, I should probably link all these things together explicitly at some point…

    Glad Emily Carr interests you! Me, too. We’ve made a most peculiar world, here…

    Clone and Matthew, I’m content to let you two knowledgeable fellows disagree for my entertainment, since I intend (possibly) to round my point of view off later on.

  13. Pingback: Topics In Fantasy: Emily Carr, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, Los Bros Hernandez, And The Hibakushi « A Trout In The Milk·

  14. But Christ, could anybody make heads or tails of what I was saying there? Jesus, I feel like I’ve turned into Kenneth Smith, only with a crappier education…

  15. Pingback: The Edenic Fracture: Panel Madness Day One « A Trout In The Milk·

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