Friday, August 26, 2016

More Utopia, More Dystopia

I have heard and read more about Utopia and Dystopia lately. Before I begin on that, I would like to ask a question: What is Dystopia? The reason I ask is that the terms Dystopia (or dystopia) and dystopian are thrown around pretty readily these days. There isn't any precision in their use. It seems to me that too many people call any unpleasant future a dystopia. If Utopia is a perfectly good society, then it seems to me that Dystopia is a perfectly bad one, where there is complete order and control. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921, 1924), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949), and the movies THX 1138 (1971) and Logan's Run (1976) are dystopian. Mad Max (1979) and The Walking Dead depict unpleasant futures, but they are not dystopian. In the futures they postulate, there is only disorder. People's lives are not controlled by an overarching State. Mad Max, The Walking Dead, and stories like them are instead post-apocalyptic. That's not to say that a post-apocalyptic story cannot also be dystopian, but if there is no order and no control, there is no dystopia. Perfect order requires a totalitarian State. Where there is no State, there can be no dystopia, unless individual people themselves impose order upon themselves and upon each other, something they are unlikely to do given that we are by our very nature free and resistant to impositions of order or attempts to control us. The current trend towards political correctness is an attempt at control of people's thoughts, words, and actions. It is essentially a movement towards totalitarianism, i.e., dystopia. It has also shown signs of succeeding.

Utopia came first of course. Although the word itself means essentially no place, utopia has come to mean a place of perfection or where government and society match some lofty ideal of what is good. The term dystopia is used in reaction to that. It's a place where government and society are perfectly bad. (As a parallel, a functional family is a good one. A dysfunctional family is a bad one.) Alternative terms for dystopia are cacotopia, kakotopia, and anti-utopiaKakos is from the Greek, meaning bad or wicked. In Italian and in English, we have the word caca, meaning to defecate or excrement. I don't know what etymological relationship those words--kakos and caca--might have, but it brings new meaning to Robert De Niro's character Harry Tuttle in the movie Brazil (1985). Harry is a sort of ninja heating engineer who works outside the law and wastes (rim shot) two functionaries of the State by drowning them in sewage. One, played by Bob Hoskins, is named Spoor, which is of course another word for scat or droppings.

So, let's call things what they are. An unpleasant future is not necessarily dystopian. It might just be unpleasant. And, as the meaning of the word implies, Utopia does not exist. There is no such thing and there can be no such thing. (I would add, as a message to anybody who carries around in his little brain any kind of utopian scheme: quit trying to bring it about.) Utopia cannot exist for the simple reason that a perfect government or society requires that the people composing it or instituting it be perfect. How do you expect to make a perfect thing out of imperfect parts? Alternatively, Utopia imposes perfection upon imperfect people, making them, in essence, no longer human. In short, every Utopia is a Dystopia, and every person in pursuit of Utopia is, whether he realizes it or not, an incipient tyrant.

So, in 2015, the French publishing house Flammarion issued Soumission, a novel of the near future by Michel Houellebecq. Soumission may not be exactly dystopian, but it describes the run-up to what must be a dystopian society, an Islamic State that requires, by its very name, submission (the meaning of the title and roughly the meaning of the word Islam, i.e., surrender). I have written about Soumission before. Now there is a novel by a Muslim Arabic writer to match it. The novel is 2084: La fin du monde and the writer is Algerian Boualem Sansal. Mr. Sansal's book is set in a more distant future, in an overtly dystopian religious society. I have not read this book, but I'd like to give it a try. The title refers to George Orwell's dystopian novel of the twentieth century. The plot, summarized in several reviews, makes me think of Planet of the Apes (1968), a story that is definitely post-apocalyptic and vaguely dystopian.

Finally, I just happened to hear part of Science Friday today. For those who haven't heard it, Science Friday is a weekly show on public radio in which the host, Ira Flatow, discusses science, technology, and, I have to point out, merely pseudoscientific or science-like topics. (If Ira Flatow is not an atheist, he at least tolerates atheistic malarkey from his guests. He's also an unquestioning adherent to the cult of global warming. Now I find out that he is, like "Bill Nye the Science Guy," not a scientist at all but an engineer.) Today (August 26, 2016), Mr. Flatow and his guests discussed Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake as part of their SciFri Book Club series. They used the words dystopia or dystopian several times in reference to Ms. Atwood's book. I haven't read it so I can't say for sure, but Oryx and Crake sounds to me more post-apocalyptic than dystopian. I should point out that her novel from 1985, The Handmaid's Tale, is in fact dystopian, and like Boualem Sansal's book, set in a totalitarian religious society, in this case a Christian rather than a disguised Islamic society. In its form, The Handmaid's Tale is something like The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908). I should also point out that one of Ira Flatow's guests today was Annalee Newitz, who is also about to have her own dystopian novel, Autonomous, published by Tor Books.

I guess there is some irony in calling for precision (i.e., order) in the use of the term dystopian. Then again, imprecision in language, or to change the meanings of words, is one of the goals of the mind reaching for totalitarian control over people's lives. In any case, again, let's call things what they are, and let's have more dystopian fiction.

Copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for the (probably) futile effort to remind people what "dystopia" really means.

    Utopias are where policy decisions of government worked out well. Dystopias are the bad results of policy decisions. They are not anarchies or a Hobbesian state of nature.

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  2. You use language very well, my friend, often voicing your disdain without actual stating outright that you disagree with a viewpoint. As you know, I'm an Atheist myself, but based on previous posts I wasn't surprised to see your reference to "atheistic malarkey." I was, however, a little surprised to read the reference to the "cult of global warming." Such climate change is a documented fact; the world has been getting steadily warmer over the past century, with the warmest years recorded all occurring within the past decade. As to the question of whether this change is just part of a natural cycle or the cause of human alterations of our environment; well, there is good scientific evidence to support the claim that human activity is at least A cause. Green house gases (like carbon dioxide) are so named because their presence in a planet's atmosphere helps the planet retain solar heat...the more carbon dioxide present, the more heat that is retained. And for the past century-plus mankind has been pumping more and more carbon dioxide into our atmosphere. As technology improves and human population increases, this volume of green house gases has also grown, exponentially. Changing the atmosphere thus HAS to impact our climate. But again, the question is, to what degree? It is cause for concern; a shift of a very few degrees can have vast impact. (The last Ice Age was the result of a drop of only about 5 degrees Celsius.) There is a reason that 98% of the scientific community accept the theory that climate change is, at least in part, human driven. The science is there to support it.

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    1. Dear Mike,

      Thanks, I think.

      My point in bringing up atheism is that Ira Flatow is supposed to be a journalist, specifically a writer and reporter on science. He should first be unbiased. He should second challenge people who make unsubstantiated claims or who try to use his show as a soapbox or a tool of propaganda or to advance their own non-scientific ideas. He should third talk about scientific matters and leave non-scientific matters, such as the existence or non-existence of God, untouched. That's my opinion. I call it malarkey because I have never read or heard a cogent argument in favor of atheism. (I call it malarkey also because it's a word that comes easily to the Irish. Recently, Joe Biden used that word and everybody wondered what it means. I wondered how they could NOT know what it means. Then I remembered that not everyone was born with the simultaneous blessing and curse of being Irish.)

      You'll notice that I did not say anything about global warming itself. I mentioned the CULT of global warming. And a belief in global warming is in my opinion very cult-like. Setting aside its other cult-like attributes, global warming has its dogma which shall not be questioned. Science is about asking questions. It does not shut down or attempt to shut down dissent. A belief in global warming does not permit dissent. In fact, there are global warmists who would like to see dissenters silenced and even imprisoned for their heresy. What scientific idea is so weak that it must rely on the power of the State for its success? Global warming is a kind of Lysenkoism. It is politics masquerading as science. And as such it is a recipe for tyranny, poverty, and misery.

      That's my opinion.

      Thanks for writing, Mike. I always like to read your comments.

      Terence

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  3. You are so right; much of the discussion on global warming has become more political than scientific, with non-scientists on both sides of the issue loudly denouncing anyone who dares to disagree with them. Worse, some try to suppress other views, and suppression -- of even the most outrageous theories -- has NO PLACE in science.
    It's a shame that such an important issue has gotten mired in the political and capitalist arena.

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    1. Dear Mike,

      If global warming is a scientific issue, then it's either a fact or it is not. Global warmists have lost sight of science, though. Instead they have inserted themselves into politics. The reasons, I think, are simple enough: if anthropogenic global warming as a belief gains enough traction, then applications of force can be used to deny people their rights and their freedoms for the sake of "saving the planet." The cult of global warming has realized that and has seized upon it. They envision something like a Utopia in which the members of an elite (themselves) call the shots, in which all people (except for themselves of course) are made to live under a regime of their own design, and in which human beings have perfect control over the earth's climate. The first two have been tried before. The last is an absurdity. If global warming is a fact, it has to stand on its own merits. If it can't stand without applications of force--as is shown by the warmists' attempts to silence dissent--then I would say it's an extremely weak idea.

      I agree with you, suppression of dissent has no place in science, but because scientists are human beings, they allow all of their very human flaws and failings to enter into the equation. As for the idea that global warming has become mired in politics, I believe that's by design, for, like I said, global warming is essentially a political issue masquerading as science.

      Keep the comments coming.

      TH

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  4. The fact that there are people who have co-opted both sides of the global warming issue for their own agenda in no way invalidates the science behind it. As you pointed out, humans all have human faults and failings, one of which is an all too common inability to be respectful when disagreeing. The expression "It's my way or the highway" voices this thin-skinned attitude quite well. After nearly forty years of reading on this topic, I feel very certain that human generated climate change is a fact -- not just a political football -- and worthy of serious study and intervention. It is too bad that there are people (again, on both sides) who obscure the facts with hostility and outright lies in order to advance their own dogma on the issue.

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    1. Mike,

      It's probably too late to rescue the scientific question of global warming from the domain of politics. Once something is tainted with politics, it can probably never be made pure again.

      TH

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