by Sheila Finch
Using Benford’s five characteristics of reactionary utopias (1984) as a framework for discussion, Finch examines the literary utopian societies of two novels. The social, political, and physical worlds of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1973) and Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty (1981) offer ample evidence for a thorough comparison within this framework. The arcology used as foundations for these literary worlds is key in the development of their respective social, political, and intellectual realms.
Utopian or dystopian, the view of the near future adopted by an author owes much to the political and social climate of its time. Two dystopian works by Paolo Bacigalupi, out of the many that have appeared in recent years, illustrate this point: The Windup Girl (2009) with its fears of megacorporations and genetically modified crops, and The Water Knife, (2015) which explores social collapse and regional water wars as result of global warming. Well thought-out utopian fiction is harder to find; perhaps it’s harder today to be hopeful about the world’s fate! In the early days of science fiction, it was possible to write a paean to progress such as Hugo Gernsback’s 1925 serialized novel “Ralph 124C 41+,” a title more readily understandable to the younger generation used to the abbreviated language of text messaging than it may be to their parents. (Aldous Huxley published Brave New World in 1932, an obvious candidate for an ambiguous utopia, so the tide was already turning.)
The primal vision of utopia is ultimately derived from the myth of the Garden of Eden; the perfect state, benign, protected, unchanging, conflict free, perhaps even climate-controlled. Literature is full of examples of human longing, often inchoate, to return to such a paradise, and from this deep yearning come the experimental designs of its establishment on Earth that we call Utopia. Yet even the primal pair found Eden an impossible place to live for very long, static, authoritarian, technophobic and guilt-ridden as it turned out to be.
For the purpose of this discussion we shall accept as utopian fiction only works in which the description of the society is at least as important as the plot or the characters, a society the author obviously intends as displaying admirable, even ideal characteristics. One such novel that appeared in 1974 is Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia.” Another in 1981, intended I think less ambiguously, is Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty. By comparing the two, we may illuminate the problems authors face in creating truly believable – and admirable – utopias in a skeptical age.
Five Reactionary Signatures of Literary Utopias
In order to give structure to the discussion, I propose adopting the five-point yardstick of what we might call “trouble in paradise” developed by Gregory Benford (1984). According to Benford, “Nearly all utopias have one or more characteristics which we shall call reactionary, in the sense that they recall the past (often in its worst aspect.)” These characteristics are:
- Lack of diversity
- Static in time
- Nostalgic and/or technophobic
- Presence of an authority figure
- Social regulation through guilt.
How well do The Dispossessed and Oath of Fealty measure up to these criteria?
Concerning the first aspect, diversity or lack of the same, Benford points out that in many literary utopias, culture is homogenous, and there are few divergences from the norm, social or ethnic. While it might be unrealistic to expect much ethnic diversity on this barren planet, populated by an original group of anarchists sharing similar backgrounds and beliefs even after they’ve dispersed into separate settlements, Le Guin’s description of society on the planet Anarres portrays very little diversity from one settlement to another. Contrast this uniformity with the decidedly non-utopian, colorfully decadent sister planet of Urras where several nations exist. On Anarres, children are raised in a communal crêche; they receive a carefully restricted education which from an early age discourages individuality as egoizing (Le Guin, pp. 25-26). This avoidance of difference continues into adulthood, complicating the careers of artists and scientists who’ve been taught that it’s unacceptable to stand out from the crowd. Clothing, too, shows a lack of diversity in this society. While on his trip to Urras, Shevek is taken to a bewildering shopping center where garments of all kinds and materials are available for purchase, something unthinkable back home on Anarres. “He could not look any more. He wanted to hide his eyes” (p.116). Le Guin is obviously aware of the paucity of color and individuality in the society she describes, and intends its effect on the reader. One of the causes of utopia’s “ambiguity” here is that it is ultimately visually stultifying. Later in the novel, we go back to a time when Shevek, frustrated by his lack of progress in physics, spends time with a group of students, one of whom is a composer who isn’t being offered an expected position by the Music Syndicate. “’You see, I don’t write the way I was trained at the conservatory,’ Salas says. ‘I write dysfunctional music….They want chorales’” (p.153). A society where the ruling Syndicate exerts control over what music will be acceptable is a dull society indeed.
We might expect Niven and Pournelle’s work to portray the near-future world of Todos Santos, bordering on a modern Los Angeles teeming with minorities and cultural idiosyncracies that both authors must be familiar with, to pass this test. However, one of the first things we learn about this arcology is that despite the percentage of the population represented today by the Black minority, Preston Sanders – who “ranks high in the Todos Santos heirarchy”– knows himself to be “one of a couple hundred black people in a building the size of a city” (Niven & Pournelle, p.14). It’s not an idle comment, for this fact fuels Sanders’ already strong feelings of isolation. And if Blacks and Black culture are scare commodities in the arcology, other ethnic groups fare worse. We meet no Mexicans, for instance, and no Asians, not even running the obligatory Chinese restaurant. (Not even such characters as tattoo artists, bulldozer operators or even a subway mugger have non-Anglican names. Possibly this is something we should be thankful for!)
If there is a lack of racial diversity in Todos Santos, perhaps there is social diversity to compensate, a way the residents have of dressing or behaving that marks them apart from the crowd? “’What was it about them,’ muses visitor Sir George Reedy, a Canadian Deputy Minister, ‘that made them seem like a gathering of distant cousins?… They don’t dress as flashily as one expects of Southern Californians’” (p.35). A more telling detail occurs in arcology resident Cheryl Drinkwater’s explanation to Thomas Lunan, newsman and outsider, of the way the neighborhood park concept operates (or not) in Todos Santos. Showing him a fantasy-like playground in a gigantic, artificial tree on the roof, she explains how all the children of the arcology come there to play. Neighborhood parks are not much used any more, being relegated to “adults and babies mostly. And we use them for ball games if it’s raining on the roof” (p.122). There are no neighborhood fiestas or community cook-outs in Todos Santos. The breakdown of the localized system is explained as being due to increased security. Since it is safe to wander anywhere in Todos Santos, people no longer form attachments to neighborhoods, once the stronghold of cultural diversity.
This sameness also distinguishes the behavior of the residents in certain key areas. Everybody loves the cops (and there isn’t a bad cop among them). Nobody chafes at the lack of privacy which results from the constant surveillance under which they live. And never is heard a discouraging word in Todos Santos at the way the leaders handle the occasional intruder incidents – no protests, no hesitations, no alternate suggestions. The reader may well ask: a city-sized building in which no one at all has a complaint or at least a different opinion?
Static in Time
Samuel R. Delaney’s novel, Triton (1976), argues that since humans are by nature prone to change, a static utopia cannot survive. But a utopia that changes implies that it was not perfect in the first place, and therefore not utopian as we use the word, a visionary system of political and/or social perfection. Life involves change on every level, and such change is not always perceived as negative. Some change represents the effect of new and better data that doesn’t necessarily cast doubt on the wisdom of the old way of doing things which it replaces, just the now-outdated knowledge. There is nothing to suggest that the original society conceived of by its prophet and martyr Odo was designed not to evolve. Yet this understanding runs counter to the tendency of the citizens of Le Guin’s Anarres to resist the very originality and individuality of its thinkers that would lead to significant cultural growth. In an early exchange between a young Shevek and his fellow students, the (to them) odd idea that perhaps life on Urras has become quite different in the one hundred and fifty years since the anarchists came to inhabit the moon is discussed (p. 37). And at the novel’s close, the Ambassador from Terra has a conversation with Shevek in which he recalls his understanding that his home world had cut itself off, that his people “refuse to look outward,” that he’d hoped inspiration for change would come from Urras but believes now that he was wrong. She tells him that it is Urras – “the kindliest, the most various” –that more closely resembles Paradise in her opinion (pp. 298-303). The inward-looking, static quality of society on Anarres is what makes it the ambiguous utopia that Le Guin calls it.
Todos Santos is a prime example of a static society. The most telling point is that this arcology is not run as a democracy with the seeds of change built into the system itself, but as a feudal aristocracy. It is a tri-partite dictatorship; Arthur Bonner, General Manager, and Barbara Churchward, Director of Economic Development, are in actual control, with Frank Mead the comptroller putting in the word received from the parent company in Zurich. All decisions are made at the top and (as we’ve seen), enthusiastically received by the residents. Since Bonner and Churchward are said to be geniuses, and have computer implants to increase their efficiency as well, it becomes hard to imagine change being contemplated on any level above that of refining the security measures. Indeed, the residents congratulate themselves that there are no alternatives possible. (As a side note, compare this ominously repressive system of “utopian” government with the mafia-like controllers of the desert arcologies in Bacigalupi’s dystopia, The Water Knife.)
There are areas in which it is admitted that something is not as all-perfect as everything else in Todos Santos, but even here, astonishingly, real change is never considered. For example, all the residents are expected to eat a certain number of meals each month in “Commons,” a high-tech cafeteria; the purpose of this is to reinforce the cultural sameness observed previously, and also to give the residents access to their executives who must follow the same rule. We might expect that everybody would love this custom, given their propensity for preferring the universal over the local. But we are given a curious detail. MacLean Stevens, not a resident nor a fan of Todos Santos, tells Reedy, “’They’re not only charged for