Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Threescore and Ten-Part Three

Stories of utopia began in the Renaissance as a kind of fantasy of the present. As late as the nineteenth or early twentieth century, a utopia of the here and now was still plausible. No more. Stories of utopia have now become a fantasy of the future, in other words, a sub-genre of science fiction. For example, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a sort of King Solomon's Mines (1885) for women and set in the present, was published in 1915, before America's entry into the Great War. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, a dystopian novel of the future, was published just six years later, even as the Bolsheviks tightened their grip on Russia, even as Europe was in decline. Note how quickly visions of a perfect society became visions of a perfectly awful one, and how quickly utopia became dystopia. Now we can hardly imagine a perfect society of the future, at least in the literature of science fiction. That hasn't stopped some people in the real world from attempting to bring it about.

The religion of flying saucers has often been utopian in its vision, a belief that our space brothers are here to save us from ourselves and to help us create a perfect world. Scientology, too, is utopian in its way, reaching as it does towards individual perfection. Both came out of the science fiction of the 1940s, when the future looked so bright. The utopian vision of the future, exemplified in 1950s images of rocketships and flying saucers, has faded. Scientology of course has given us a glimpse of the totalitarian aspect of science fiction. Thankfully, that offspring of L. Ron Hubbard's diseased mind may be fading as well. (1) Marxism--so-called "scientific socialism"--Nazism, eugenics, technocracy, and global warming are other examples of beliefs that have passed from "science" (more accurately pseudoscience) into the real world. Each is essentially tyrannical, authoritarian, or totalitarian in nature.

So, stories of utopia and its supposed opposite, dystopia, now belong to the science fiction author. (2) The word utopia means, literally, nowhere. The word itself admits its own impossibility. We know that human perfection is impossible, yet there are those among us who still believe in the perfectibility of human society and will do anything to bring it about. That belief goes back at least to Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and has been the source of more than a little grief and suffering. Thinking people know that utopia is an impossibility, that in order to bring about a perfect society, people must be stripped of their imperfections, hence of their humanity. Witness the operation in We, by which the protagonist, D-503, is cured of his "illness," that is, his possession of a human soul. In the end, every utopia--being a society of perfect, hence soulless, people--must be dystopian. So utopia is impossible, but dystopia may not be. In fact it may be a very real possibility.

To be continued . . .

(1) More on the totalitarian aspect of science fiction later in this series.
(2) Including Margaret Atwood, who doesn't like science fiction and doesn't count herself among the authors of that lowly genre.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman was first published in 1915. That makes this year the centennial of Gilman's feminist utopia. I mentioned Margaret Atwood above. In 1985, she published a dystopia for feminists, The Handmaid's Tale, thus another neat and even anniversary year. Ms. Atwood is a bundle of contradictions. In one recent interview, she seems to have gone off the deep end:
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale is having a big moment on social media and elsewhere because of the various states in the United States who’ve enacted some quite strange legislation having to do with pregnant women.
Charlie Rose: Like what?
Margaret Atwood: Like if you are pregnant and you are even suspected of possibly not wanting your baby you can be arrested and chained up to your hospital bed until you have the baby. Tennessee has just enacted legislation like that. Texas has got it. A number of them have it. . . . (from Charlie Rose, Nov. 11, 2014)
More recently, she completed a novel that will not be published for another hundred years, not long before the bicentennial of Herland.
Captions and text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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