Friday, June 16, 2017

Dystopias and Utopias (at BayCon)

This was Dive into Worldbuilding's first ever live show at a convention, and it would not have been possible without the help of the terrific BayCon tech folk and also my friend and fellow discussant Kimberly Unger, who helped make sure everything connected and worked with a minimum of feedback or other difficulty.

We spoke about Dystopias and Utopias because that was the theme of the BayCon convention. The layperson's definition of a dystopia is a society in which everything is going wrong and everyone suffers; a utopia is the opposite, a society where everything goes right and everyone benefits.

If a dystopia is a society that involves oppression and misery, then are post-apocalyptic societies dystopias? They quite frequently involve oppression and misery, but there's a sense that much of this is due to outside forces. It's pretty clear that the Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and is definitely classed as a dystopia, but what about Mad Max? Where is the borderline?

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie definitely portrays a dystopia, and so do The Handmaid's Tale and  1984.

Kate brought up the most critical question, however: "For whom?" A society that is utopic for one group might easily be dystopic for another. Who counts in this society's equations?

Che said that dystopia gets more air time, and dystopias are certainly popular today. Why are they so appealing? Very likely it's because of their resemblance to our own world and the social problems we grapple with today.

Star Trek was written as a utopia, which makes it unusual. However, Star Trek plots often involve the utopic Federation society intersecting with dystopic societies on other planets. Are there problems in utopias? Does that stop them from being utopias? There are quite a few examples of ostensible utopias that have problems, including Demolition Man.

How would you maintain your utopia?

We mentioned the existence of the language Esperanto. It is not the only language that was designed for the purpose of promoting human unity; there was a period in history when it was commonly believed that if we all spoke the same language it would bring humanity together.

Sameness is something to be wary of, however. The portrayal of some utopias makes them seem unnaturally uniform, and in fact there are quite a number of dystopias designed around the idea that too much sameness is unnatural. It's important to draw a distinction between commonality, and sameness. Sameness might seem great as long as it is our sameness, a sameness we feel at home in, but human diversity is such that no sameness can really last as a societal model.

Morgan noted that "utopia" means "no place." The word when it was invented acknowledged that there is no such place.

Since people are different, they imagine utopias differently. The male version of a feminist utopia is not really like what a utopia would look like if it were written by a woman.

What would a blended positive society look like? Tonya suggested that there might be pockets of small states.

Here are some examples of utopian visions:

Coleridge and Southey's Pantisocracy - they imagined their own little utopian place in North America but ignored indigenous people and servants. (Thanks, Patsy)

Everfair by Nisi Shawl (which we discussed here on the show)

Utopia by Thomas More

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Some of us argued that the society in The Handmaid's Tale would be perceived as utopic by the men who ran it.

Kimberly suggested that The Matrix has an interesting mention of utopia, where the machines say they set up a "perfect" society but no one was happy with it.

Che mentioned hippy communes, and the idea that automation will free us from drudgery.

Another question that came up was, "What happens if there aren't jobs?" Our society sees work as necessary, and capitalism relies on the idea that a person gets supported on the basis of their work contribution, but if there is no need to work, what do we do? This is one of the reasons why people are experimenting with Universal Basic Income. Does societal support make people lazy? Most of us argued that it does not, and there is scientific evidence to suggest this is correct. Our culture over-values work for profit. We imagined that if people did not have to work in order to live, to eat or to be healthy, there would be a lot more art in the world. There would be a lot more gardening. The idea that laziness results from lack of work is a cultural mythology.

Some shows portray people as being captivated by video games and becoming sloths. People who criticize video games often don't understand their value and what kinds of useful things they teach.

We spoke about YA literature dystopias. Apparently they almost went out of style at one point, but then they came back. Fighting the powers that be is a big concern for young people, as is finding  your place in society. So is changing the world.

Kate noted that teens hear a lot about what jobs are available to them, but only a few, like doctor, lawyer. "There are a gajillion jobs outside the approved lifestyles" that you never hear about.

Deborah said that she was encouraged to be a doctor or lawyer, and said her sister wanted to be a judge but skip the part about being a lawyer. She said she's thought a lot about what different choices she would have made if she knew all the options she actually had. One of her preferences might have been to be a radiology tech.

Dystopia creates a narrative of limited choices. Always ask, "Who are the people you don't see?" There are people who are working at night doing pest control in restaurants, for example. Some jobs are invisible. Cooks are behind the scenes but they have power.

Kate says we tell the stories of the pilots, not the soda-machine fillers.

Do we have systems that recognize diversity?

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed portrays a socialist utopia, but still, if you are not part of the mainstream, you are not valued.

What does it mean to be a contributing member of society?

I recommended the book Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner (I referred to it as Lunch, oops!), which talks about women and their unrecognized contributions to our economies.

Starship Troopers portrayed a utopia in some sense, but all those people had to have kids and send them off to die.

Does utopia mean finding a way to appreciate everyone's contributions?

Morgan asked, "What does it take to convince people that life is not a zero-sum game?" If everyone gets something, does that make it no longer valuable? Must rarity be linked to value? What kind of inherent value is there in things?

What are the costs of existing in society?

Kate noted that you may not know what you need.

If you are an author, how can you write well about things you don't really understand? You can't know everything about everything. How can you write about economics well? What about chemistry? Patsy noted that she goes deep into research on DNA, for example, and she says ".002%" of what she studies will end up on the page.

I mentioned Zilpha Keatley Snyder's book Below the Root, which is a flawed utopia.

Che mentioned how problematic it is to think of native peoples as existing in a sort of "primitive utopia" which was a view many colonialists took.

Thank you to everyone who attended this discussion. I really enjoyed it, and I hope we can run the show at a convention again sometime.


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