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[GUEST POST] Gerry Canavan on Dystopia, Anti-Utopia, and the End of the World

Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th and 21st century literature. His current research projects include Science Fiction and Totality and Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Octavia E. Butler, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is out now from Wesleyan University Press. You can follow Gerry on Twitter as @GerryCanavan.

Dystopia, Anti-Utopia, and the End of the World

by Gerry Canavan

One of my great frustrations as a teacher of science fiction is the imprecision with which we use the word “dystopia.” We typically speak as if “dystopia” is the negation of utopia, but this is not quite right. Dystopian speculation more properly describes the opposite of utopia: utopia is the good place (eu-topia) that is not a place (ou-topia), while dystopia is the bad place (dys-topia). But the bad place of the dystopia still has something to teach us: it is the warning of the bad times that will come if we refuse to act, the reflection of our own bad times that we must work to change. This is why the typical plot of a dystopian narrative is actually pretty hopeful: the story of the heroic revolution that overthrows a corrupt regime, or the time traveler who changes history to prevent it, or the story of how our heroes might run fast enough and far enough to break out of the confinement of the nightmare city altogether and escape into the free and open country outside.

Dystopia is about oppressive social conditions that might be altered, evaded, or averted, and so it still contains hidden within itself the same hope for a better world that drives utopian speculation. The true negation of utopia is therefore the literary form of the anti-utopia, which is a disproof of utopia, rather than simply a negative one. Here the revolution in which we were placing our hopes turns out to be just another agency of the corrupt regime, or the time traveler manages to bring about the very nightmare he was sent back to prevent; in an anti-utopian narrative there’s nowhere left for us to run. Similarly, where dystopian thinking locates unhappiness in our bad social institutions, anti-utopian thinking locates it instead in human nature: we’re just built wrong, either biologically (we’re bad monkeys, with evolutionarily imprinted impulses that will always cause us to turn on each other in the end) or theologically (we’re fallen, wicked souls). In this sense the quintessential anti-utopia is really the failed utopia, the ugly horrors we bring into existence whenever we foolishly try to make the world a better place.

In a fourth position on the chart we find a perhaps even more chilling possibility: the anti-dystopia, the opposite of anti-utopia and the negation of dystopia. Here utopia is not impossible, and in fact it is already here; in the anti-dystopian narrative we discover we are already living in the best of all possible worlds and we need do nothing but enjoy it. This is the consumerist end of history of the 1990s, or the market utopia of neoliberals today; in the reactionary anti-dystopia any change to the coordinates of our contemporary institutions is not only unnecessary, but utterly irrational; why would we intentionally destroy paradise?

When we read science fictional narratives we can see all four of these interpretive moods overlaying each other, fighting for control. Consider Star Trek, which plainly positions itself as a utopian future for the human race, freed from hatred, freed from want, freed from violence of any kind. On the Earth of this happy cosmopolitan future everyone is free to rise to their level of excellence outside economic constraint or the bad luck of their birth. From the perspective of the Federation it is Earth’s history-our present-that is the dystopian nightmare: an era of pointless, brutal exploitation and endless wars that culminates in the atomic World War III that nearly ended civilization forever. But over the larger run of the series the utopian fantasy never quite holds; in fact the Enterprise‘s mission of peaceful exploration constantly collapses into the very violence the utopian reading nominally disavows. A heavily armed warship inevitably blundering into murderous conflicts with the many alien species it encounters, the Enterprise from this perspective becomes the anti-utopian proof that horrific violence is actually inevitable; no amount of progress can prevent it. The dystopian gaze of the series on our present can be similarly twisted into anti-dystopia; not only does the teleology of its future history promise that paradise will come to us if we only wait, both the characters’ frequent trips to our time and the larger allegorical stakes of the series insist that we do nothing but wait. Characters like Edith Keeler who actually believe in the ideals of the Federation and who seek to enact them in our era are presented as fools who (in her sad case) must literally be removed from history in order to prevent their influence from taking hold; in their present, Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer are all repeatedly forced to betray their high ideals in the name of temporary contingencies. The moment of utopia’s actual fulfillment is thus perpetually delayed; the Nazis or the Russians or the Viet Cong or the terrorists or the Klingons or the Borg or the Dominion or the Xindi always arrive just in time to prevent us from ever having to live up to the dream.

In apocalyptic zombie fantasy we can identify the same pattern. Zombie fictions typically present themselves with an anti-dystopian internal logic: they are a dire threat about what would happen in the absence of contemporary institutions like supermarkets and the state. What we have now is good; something different from this would be horrible. Relatedly, zombie fantasies typically have an anti-utopian moral character: the real threat in such stories usually turns out not to be the zombies but other living humans, towards whom we must always assume a preemptively violent posture lest we be taken advantage of, hurt, or killed. But in such stories there is always that kernel of utopia as well: the dystopian situation of the zombies’ rise turns out to obscure what is actually often a utopian fantasy about the end of work, where people who were oppressed or unhappy in our time can start over (as if on a new frontier) and build a better, more meaningful life for themselves after the end of the world. At the far end of this the zombies become the unconscious inaugurators of a strange kind of zombietopia, a social order where no one hurts each other, no one is ever excluded, and no one is ever lonely, as we see in Kelly Link’s wonderful story “Some Zombie Contigency Plans“:

Zombies didn’t discriminate. Everyone tasted equally good as far as zombies were concerned. And anyone could be a zombie. You didn’t have to be special, or good at sports, or good-looking. You didn’t have to smell good, or wear the right kind of clothes, or listen to the right kind of music. You just had to be slow.

Soap liked this about zombies.

There is never just one zombie.

Even the zombie’s bite, which kills you and thereby turns you into a zombie, from their (non-)perspective has a weird utopian flavor; for zombies, violence is not a casting out, but rather a drawing in, a welcoming home. That’s how they bring you into the fold.

In the eco-apocalypses we study in Green Planets, the same pattern recurs. What is the political charge of an eco-apocalypse like climate change, or ocean acidification, or Peak Oil? How are we to understand these visions of bad futures as they come to us from scientific projections and risk calculation spreadsheets? Is the coming catastrophe the dystopian clarion that warns us we must change-or is it the anti-utopian proof that we will refuse to change, even at the cost of civilization, or the planet itself?

In the introduction to the book I talk a bit about the fantasy of the Quiet Earth, the future version of the planet that is devoid of human life entirely. The anti-utopian version of the Quiet Earth is the elegiac fantasy of an entirely dead planet-a murdered planet-in which the human species has left behind nothing but ruin before finally killing even itself. Margaret Atwood captures this spirit of the Quiet Earth in a flash fiction written for the Guardian during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit called “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet,” which finds a human race whose apex of development was the twentieth-century creations of deserts and death. In a spirit of mourning and loss, the speaker of the piece addresses him- or herself to the unknown aliens who have come, millennia hence, to bear witness to our vanishing: “You who have come here from some distant world, to this dry lakeshore and this cairn, and to this cylinder of brass, in which on the last day of all our recorded days I place our final words: Pray for us, who once, too, thought we could fly.”

The positive side of the Quiet Earth-its utopian/dystopian aspect, such as it is-retains at least some small sense of hope, though for other life forms, not for us. Such texts frequently suggest that the elimination of human beings can itself be thought of as a kind of misanthrophic eco-paradise; without us, at least, the dogs and the trees and the birds and the bees can go on living. In the wonderful Kenyan short SF film Pumzi (2010), directed by Wanuri Kahiu and available on Netflix, the allegorical stakes are these explicitly; after a devastating series of water wars and droughts, the human race has been driven underground, clinging to every drop of water that can be wrung from sweaty T-shirts or recovered from the condensation on bathroom mirrors. The world outside the bunker is totally dead. But our scientist hero, Asha (meaning “hope” in Sanskrit, “life” in Swahili), discovers a plant seed that she believes can still germinate; stealing into the forbidden world outside, Asha sacrifices first her meager water ration and ultimately her own life to nourish the world’s last, and first, tree. A shift to the sublime, God’s-eye perspective of time-lapse photography shows the slow return of life to the desert after years, decades, centuries-Asha’s corpse nourishing its roots. If it’s us or them, the film suggests, perhaps we should choose them.

But the real hope, of course, the one we can barely bring ourselves to imagine any more, would be to solve the problems, cancel the apocalypses, and never let the Earth grow Quiet in the first place. In the interview that concludes Green Planets, Kim Stanley Robinson lays out his plan:

What I wanted to suggest is that because we have the ability to do better, our situation eventually will get so dangerous it will force us to do better. The desire will be there, and the tools are there (science and politics and culture), so the struggle is on, starting now and going on for some centuries at least. We don’t have to wait until the year 2312 to act, obviously, and it would be terrible if we did. Since we know now that we can greatly improve the situation by what we do, we should start now, and shoulder the frustrations of how long it will take without too much whining or quitting.

That’s the dynamic, work-a-day definition of utopia Robinson offers up in his 1988 novel Pacific Edge: not some static happy end-state, not a prize, but hard work, “struggle forever.” It sounds exhausting! But I suppose we should get started.

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