Science Fiction's New Utopias
Voyage from Yesteryear, by James Hogan, New York: Ballantine, 1982, 377 pp., $2.95 paper.
Elephant Song, by Barry Longyear, New York: Berkley Books, 1982, 234 pp., $2.50 paper.
Oath of Fealty, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, New York: Pocketbooks, 1982, 324 pp., $2.95 paper.
Good news from "nowhere!" Utopia—"no place," by the word's Latin root—isn't what it used to be.
From Plato's Republic to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, much utopian literature upheld authoritarian ideals. Utopian writers often fantasized a secularized heaven on earth, whose ruling "god" was some omnipotent omniscient elite. Such paternalistic paradises took all the life—and liberty—out of living. Worse, their boring, predictable uniformity took the liveliness out of utopian literature.
Happily, that authoritarian literary genre is today in severe decline. What killed it, of course, were the 20th century's ill-fated attempts to create "utopia" on earth. Mass murder, world wars, tyranny, and torture engendered by utopian socialism and its right-wing variants, national socialism and fascism, induced many novelists to lose their appetite for utopia. Horrified by collectivism's consequences, by Nazi and Gulag concentration camps, novelists invented a new, anti-utopian literature, portraying the literal hells their utopian "heavens" had become.
Beginning with Eugene Zamiatin's We in 1920, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World in 1928, and Ayn Rand's Anthem in 1938, "dystopian" fiction dramatized the perennial conflict between the individual and the omnipotent state. As a futuristic genre symbolically representing the tyranny of the recent past, dystopian literature soon became a fiction with no future. After the dystopian novel reached its climax—and artistic dead end—in such modern classics as Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, Ira Levin's This Perfect Day, George Orwell's 1984, Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, there was literally "no place" left to go.
So now a new generation of cautiously optimistic writers has assumed the challenge of projecting an ideal future. Three recent novels indicate an important trend toward a realistic examination of the problems imperfect people will face, even in a future free society.
A tale of two cultures in conflict, Voyage from Yesteryear is James Hogan's reply to Bellamy's Looking Backward. When an expedition from "yesteryear"—Earth's aggressive, irrational culture—makes contact with a long-lost human star colony, what happens is what every history lesson has led us to expect: the conquest of a weaker culture by the stronger. But which culture—Earth or Chiron—is really stronger?
Chiron, isolated by light-years of space from Earth's violent heritage, has developed its own peaceful, individualistic culture, based on reason and earned respect. Respect, in fact, is the only thing the Chironians can earn. Few in number, born in post-scarcity affluence, and raised by robots in a computerized environment in which wealth and status have no meaning, Chironians don't need money. Competence is Chiron's only coin.
The Chironians work hard and work well, motivated not by greed or Earth's power-lust but by the deeper drive for self-esteem and personal achievement. Investing their energy in the development of expertise and the acquisition of knowledge, the Chironians transform their planet into a "powerhouse of progress." Chiron offers a glimpse of what free enterprise might have accomplished on Earth if unleashed centuries ago.
When Earth's Mayflower II Mission arrives to annex Chiron—if necessary, by force—the Chironians appear defenseless. While Earth relies on the traditional rape of imperialism, however, the Chironians rely on seduction. Disdaining armies or bombs, they wage a subtle, patient, peaceful war of attrition that gradually undermines the legitimacy of Earth's government. One by one, the Mayflower II invaders "drop out" to enter Chiron's more attractive society, where "they don't have to listen to anyone tell them who they are and what they have to be ever again." The final outcome has more surprising plot twists than even the informed reader may suspect.
Praised for his hard-science fiction, notably The Genesis Machine (reviewed in REASON in September 1979), Hogan demonstrates in his latest work not only a talent for imaginative social science but also a maturing talent for characterization. Voyage from Yesteryear is a study in psychological opposites—the individualist versus the collectivist. Yet its heroes are never stereotyped, and its villains are never reduced to caricature. Hogan's soldiers, settlers, scientists, and statists are complex and human, the sorts of characters with whom it is easy to empathize. One feels with them the shock of emigrating to a stateless society, the joy of deciding one's own destiny, and the thrill of living free.
Hogan's only concession to old-fashioned utopian theorizing—and the novel's only flaw—is his initial hypothesis that a sudden cultural "phase-change" could trigger a super-industrial epoch in which money and scarcity become obsolete. His notion that technological progress might end all restrictions on consumption couldn't work on Earth, but Hogan's skill as a novelist and the unique conditions he sets on Chiron almost succeed in making it plausible in the story.
By contrast, Barry Longyear's offbeat utopia is filled with "laughter, bright colors and cotton candy" as well as "mud, broken bones, fights with rubes, pain, endless hard work, frustration, poisoned animals [and] crooked governments." Elephant Song is the centerpiece of Longyear's charming, much-acclaimed circus trilogy, in which he tells the tale of the big top's dying traditions and its unusual resurrection.
While Longyear's saga probably should be read in chronological order, Elephant Song, the second novel in the series, may be the most interesting, because it explores the fascinating process by which a new society takes shape. In Longyear's City of Baraboo, O'Hara's Greater Shows decided to escape an overregulated Earth to roam the stars for more appreciative audiences and higher profits. Elephant Song begins where City of Baraboo ends: sabotaged by an economic rival, O'Hara's Greater Shows is marooned on an inhospitable, uncharted planet. The circus troupers name it Momus, after the ancient God of ridicule.
The castaways have only themselves—and their traditions—on which to depend for survival. What pulls them through disaster are their gumption and heroic spirit. Guess what the troupers do immediately after crash-landing on Momus. Why, hold a parade, of course! Even in bleak uncertainty, the show must go on.
Loyalty to shared values unites the troupers and helps them develop a delightful culture unified not by coercion but by custom. On Momus, people have their freedom, but nothing is free—not even gossip. Combining the savvy of urban street vendors with the insight of "Austrian school" economists, the circus troupers recognize that initiative, information, and opportunity all have their inevitable costs. So they charge for it. They participate in the free marketplace because of a joyous revelry in the market's process. The challenge of entrepreneurship, the excitement of competition, the love of bargaining motivate them.
Confronted with the often overwhelming, unfamiliar tasks of pioneering a new frontier, sideshow vendors become merchants, bullhands become road-builders, canvasmen become bricklayers. Harness men shift from hitching horses to "hitching" humans in marriage. Soon, gossips demand to be called "newstellers," loan sharks "cashiers" and liars "storytellers."
Bookkeepers evolve into the planet's oral historians, performing the pivotal service of preserving circus traditions. They compete like Greek sophists, Sufis, or medieval troubadours to deliver the most entertaining news and are paid by their audiences afterward, according to how well they perform.
Remembering the number of crooked judges the show had to pay off in its interstellar travels, the troupers maintain their distinct distaste for government and refuse to permit any justices of the peace of Momus. "You call those bookkeepers jaypees," warns canvasman Duckfoot Tarzak, "and the next thing you know, they'll be issuing permits, making laws and hiring coppers to push everybody around."
Out of such small starts evolves a stateless society based on showmanship. Centuries later, in Longyear's Circus World, Momus still has only one law—a law that outlines the procedures by which a government may be created. Complex, and with rigorous participation requirements, that law has never been implemented. But when Momus is caught between two expanding space empires, the troupers face the classic paradox of all free societies: how can a free society remain free if its defense demands the sacrifice of freedom to a centralized power? Who will protect Momus from its would-be protectors?
Whereas Hogan's and Longyear's ideal societies are definitely future possibilities, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle construct in Oath of Fealty a convincing utopia that could be built today, even in the midst of the 20th century's crime, poverty, pollution, taxation, and inflation. Indeed, that's just where Todos Santos is built—in the heart of the burnt-out slums of present-day Los Angeles. A 1,000-feet-high, two-miles-on-a-side glittering white block of flashing windows, Todos Santos is a self-contained "arcology" that houses a quarter of a million citizens.
Todos Santos is a profit-making corporate venture that is exempt from most of the taxes and regulations that have driven inner-city businesses into bankruptcy. It's a future that works. "Simply getting out from under the dead hand of government, chopping out bureaucratic deadwood—that's worth a lot," explains the general manager of the complex.
The arcology offers a haven of security from the riot-torn urban scene, attracting residents—and customers—to its prosperous maximum-surveillance community. Yet its unusual quietness, compared to other cities' noise, is not a result of internal regulation but of custom. "Customs are very powerful here," one visitor notes. Bound by a revolutionary "social contract," Todos Santos citizens pledge their allegiance—their "fealty"—to their unique way of life.
Niven and Pournelle have followed the increasingly popular alternative of privatization (discussed frequently in REASON) to its ultimate conclusion: privatize everything. If you can't fight city hall, secede from it! Their utopian vision, based on Paolo Soleri's architectural concepts, is the latest entry in a utopian subgenre concerned with conceiving the perfect city.
But Todos Santos is not everyone's utopia. Dwarfing everything else around it and offering a permanent reproach to outsiders, the corporate experiment is criticized by politicians and environmentalists for elitism and dehumanization.
The uneasy truce between Todos Santos and the surrounding society explodes into crisis when students, disguised as terrorists, infiltrate the heavily protected complex and are accidentally killed. Todos Santos is threatened with court cases and economic reprisals, and its secret electronic defenses are revealed, while real terrorists prepare to destroy the city-within-a-city.
Niven and Pournelle raise some serious questions in this fast-paced suspense thriller that reads like Robert Ludlum or John Le Carre. Can Todos Santos survive with 10 million enemies on its doorstep? Have its citizens traded their liberty for security? Do such urban utopias represent "evolution in action" or a step backward to technocratic feudalism? Niven and Pournelle offer their readers a lot to ponder but no easy answers.
Todos Santos supplies security; Momus prizes showmanship; Chiron runs on respect. All three utopian visions have in common a deep regard for the shared values and traditions that make freedom meaningful and that freedom makes possible.
Though Hogan, Longyear, and Niven and Pournelle understand that utopia must be built on shared values, they don't pretend that their particular utopias offer the only blueprint for a free society. They seem to be informed by Robert Nozick's suggestion in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that freedom is a filter permitting many different utopias to flourish. Their implicit message is that no one utopia is ideal for all. Since human beings stubbornly persist in remaining unique individuals with differing values, one individual's paradise may be another's purgatory. Our future freedom requires the renewed vitality of this liberty-loving imaginative literature, for it gives us the courage to realize that "utopia" is what we make of it.
Michael Grossberg is a free-lance journalist living in Austin, Texas, and the founder of the Libertarian Futurist Society.