Back to: Sunbathing in Edinburgh | Forward to: PSA

Utopia

It seems to me that one of our besetting problems these days is that there's a shortage of utopias on offer.

Utopia — a fictional country with a perfect socio-political and legal system — is, of course, fiction. It's a polemical tool that is best used as a lens for examining our ideas about how we would like to live. A road map showing how to get there from here is optional; nor does utopian speculation generally provide a guide to the vexatious question of relations between utopia and the outside realm of the imperfect (should such a thing still have the bad grace to exist).

As a vehicle for fiction, utopias are piss-poor: they don't lend themselves to dramatic tension because they're perfect, and they're also annoyingly persistent — it's not utopia if it comes and goes in a couple of decades. (Indeed, what makes the SF of Iain Banks so interesting is that he does have a utopia, in the shape of the Culture — which, unfortunately, only works due to it being, well, science fiction.)

Anyway: it seems to me that the post-cold war neoliberal dominated political consensus (which is a consensus of the Right, insofar as the flagship of the Left hit an iceberg and started to sink in 1917, finally hitting the sea floor in 1989) is intrinsically inimical to the consideration of utopian ideals. Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, "will it make things worse?" This isn't a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we're immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes. To a conservative, the first priority is not to lose track of what's good about the past, lest the future be worse. But this viewpoint brings with it a cognitive bias towards the simplistic outlook that innovation is always bad.

Which is why I think we badly need more utopian speculation. The consensus future we read about in the media and that we're driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It's not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it's a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can't stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

Having said that, we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It's unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors: even models of development that seem to be generating sporadic progress in those countries that were hammered down and ruthlessly exploited as colonial assets by the ancien regime and its inheritors.

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then ...?

223 Comments

1:

Surely by the definitions given above, the current leaders of the Tory party are not conservatives? And neither were Thatcher and her children, despite the rhetoric.

Utopian speculation is good, up to a point, but I can see it doing most good when tied into real political philosophies which people can be encouraged to go and get involved in. Not that the stories should tell people how to think, rather that they should make suggestions and examples which people can use as inspiration.
Now I'm sure there have been books which have covered what you suggest, but I can't think of any recent ones, but then I feel that I am out of touch with modern SF. On the other hand I probably am not given what passes for SF in the shops these days.

2:

Unless I'm very much mistaken, this sounds similar to Jetse de Vries' largely misunderstood call for optimistic sf, as deployed for the Shine anthology...

3:

Guthrie, the Conservative demand for "innovation" and "entrepeneurship" is largely a matter of "please change things so that things stay as they are" - that is, that money is the only thing valued so that the system that already controls it stays in control. All change happens within that system, rather than changing it.

Where ideas involve radical innovation - where they threaten to disrupt this status quo - we see massive movements to attempt stop it (see the Digital Economy Bill, DMCA, the current wavering on net neutrality and so forth).

The most recent utopian science fiction that I can think of (aside from Banks) is actually the Star Trek universe. I never found it compelling, I think precisely because there was no interest in the actual utopia itself. The assumption was the the Federation "just worked", and that the interesting things happened when utopia met barbarians at the edges. In those few cases where the Federation came under examination it appeared to be modelled on your standard politicking bureaucracies, which made how it worked just more mysterious and the whole thing even less interesting.

Of course, it might have been predicated on some grand enlightenment where people came to their senses and stopped acting like morons, so that the social system wasn't important, but well... that's a social equivalent of "teching the tech".

4:

Surely by the definitions given above, the current leaders of the Tory party are not conservatives? And neither were Thatcher and her children, despite the rhetoric.

Correct, up to a point. Thatcher amd her heirs were economic neoliberals; their conservativism applied mainly to social issues.

The reason you haven't seen any recent utopian SF is because there's a howling void where once the field of near-future SF blossomed; and what little near-future SF there is is mostly noirish cyberpunk or grim meathook futures. The last near-future utopia I can remember seeing was something by Kim Stanley Robinson ...

5:

@Paul Graham Raven: What SHINE delivers for the most part is happy endings in dystopias rather than actual utopian speculation.

7:

Bank's culture is surely a dystopia? The humans are the pets of the god-like MIs played with in the way that we use laser pointers to play with cats. But it's probably the best of all possible solutions to the Friendly AGI problem.

I seem to recall a certain author speculating that in the future the idea of nation states would dissolve and people would become self-governing entities within the bounds of whatever insurance they could afford.

The Wikileaks debacle is already showing a supra-national political body can emerge and seriously disrupt the current system - and I don't simply mean Wikipedia itself but the various bloggers, twitterers, bit torrenters, site mirror server hosts and so on that have clearly taken a side in this info war.

The utopia Assange imagines, as you pointed out yourself a couple of posts ago, is a voluntary panopticon that makes conservative conspiracies collapse under the weight of their own secrecy.

So our future utopia is perhaps businesses made through the medium of Scott Adam's Build a Firm website (http://www.dilbert.com/blog/entry/?EntryID=526&Page=2) and all privacy and secrecy traded in at Facebook or Wikileaks in favour of transparency and easily formed (and dispersed) social, business, academic or political entities.

None of it will be governable under our current understanding but that apple cart already looks to be teetering.

Is that what we want? Depends on who I mean by 'we', which as you hint, is the problem of all utopias - you're unlikely to be able to please everyone, no everfone can be in. And in our super-connected future the notion of what is 'inside' or 'outside' becomes more tricky precisely because old notions like national boundaries become blurred then erased.

8:

@Kathryn True enough, but given Jetse's fight to get submissions that fit the brief (and the incredible resistance to said brief), that's perhaps not surprising; as he pointed out often, there seems to be a huge subliminal block against writing optimistic futures. So while the reach may have fallen short, I'd offer that it was at least a grasp in the same direction Charlie's talking about here. :)

9:

I have trouble envisaging a utopia arising for humanity. It is human nature to compete with each other and to place their own needs above the community at large. It is this that has caused communism and rousseau's social contract to fail in practice. It would therefore appear that self limiting socio political models fail when faced with human nature.

I think we can discount feudalism, tyrany, despotism and autocracy as templates for utopia without great arguments.

This leaves democracy. Democracy has the potential to offer a close to utopian society but can never do so while allied with capitalism as the two are fundamentally exclusive. Democracy works on the principle that all are equal as all have one vote. Capitalism is predicated on the principle that people are not equal because the value of their labour and their ability to purchase are not equal.

Capitalism represents a resource limited world where competition for resources is a result of the need to secure the resources for your group.

It seems that utopias only really occur where there is an enormous surplus of resources to population. Therefore either population must be severely reduced which seems unlikely to be compatible with a utopian visions or the pool of available resources must be dramatically increased. This could only really occur where both planets to inhabit and unlimited transport resources to maintain equality exist simultaneously

My reluctant conclusion is that it is extremely unlikey that there will be a utopia on earth without it having been preceded by a cataclysm dramatically reducing population and with humanity having previously acheived a technological plateau high enough to maintain technology level. Currently technological level is a function of population size but this direct link is already beginning to be broken. Any utopia arising out of a cataclysm will remain until population size constraints begin to pull the society apart.

10:

One thing that erks me a lot in science fiction is how poor most extrapolations of psychological development are. If you look back at the past, we have had vastly different values and perceptions of the world, and this will continue to change. Science fiction, with a few exceptions, often freezes our psychology and only changes the technology. Even when an attempt is made to represent changed values, it often seems shallow to me.

A few months ago I quit my job to start a project to replace money and the free market with something new. The core impetus for this project depends on a prediction I've made that the invention of the internet will result in a fundamental shift in our values because it changes who has the means of consumption and production of information. My first blog post essentially explains my vision for the next 50 years - http://blog.givesalt.co.uk/2010/09/08/am-i-crazy/

As a result of this I think that a lot of what is now considered utopian will be achieved; an end to war, an end to IP, whilst IP generators are still rewarded, driven by equality and efficient. I Even think it will provide intrinsic solutions to climate change and resource depletion. However it won't be utopia, utopia is not a static concept. What we think of as utopia will never be achieved because before we get there we become bored with that vision and move onto some new vision.

11:

gcl and jamie.practicaluseful.com: I do not view any system based on capitalism as an ideal outcome. Also, communism's unsung triumph is that it is the system we use for roughly 75% of our social interactions -- those that take place outside the marketplace, between family members and close friends. (Or do you believe parents should charge their toddlers for room and board?)

Communism undoubtedly has scaling problems; this says more about our shortcomings as cultural social organisms than about it being an undesirable goal.

(As for Bankie's culture books, I do view them as a utopia, insofar as Jamie's reading of them is a perverse one that imposes a hierarchical power relationship between individuals where none is indicated in the books. And it suggests something unpleasant about the world view of the reader, rather than the world being read.)

Full disclosure: I'm planning a not-utopian novel. It probably won't get written before 2012 and published before 2013, because it's the sequel to "Rule 34" (which comes out next year). And it's not a utopia because it's about a dynamically changing world 15-20 years hence ... but a better one; imperfect, but preferable to what we've got today.

12:

Bank's culture is surely a dystopia? The humans are the pets of the god-like MIs played with in the way that we use laser pointers to play with cats. But it's probably the best of all possible solutions to the Friendly AGI problem.

Depends on who I mean by 'we', which as you hint, is the problem of all utopias - you're unlikely to be able to please everyone, no everfone can be in.

Very good point. I think that's one answer to Charlie's worry that Utopias are hard to write because they're essentially perfect: you imagine a Utopia and look at the what the costs are, see how people adjust to it (or fail to). I seem to remember reading somewhere that Aldous Huxley thought that this was what he was doing with Brave New World (which we now think of as straight dystopian fiction.

13:

I have trouble envisaging a utopia arising for humanity. It is human nature to compete with each other and to place their own needs above the community at large.

No, that's not general human nature: human nature is extremely plastic! Rather, you're describing traits identifiable with WEIRD culture. Which in turn is a product of our pulse of historic change.

For the vast majority of our time on this planet, our species has lived in largely static communities, where innovation was vanishingly unusual and zero-sum competition within the community was an invitation to personal disaster.

14:

As a Burkean paleoconservative, I am compelled to issue a corrective to your gross mischaracterization of conservatism in general (*not* neoconservatism, which is Trotskyism Lite), and Burkean conservatives in particular.

We aren't always looking backwards. We aren't opposed to progress - *real* progresss - which takes into account the possible undesirable unintended consequences of any given action (or inaction), and compensates for them.

The main difference between Burkean conservatives and you squishes is that we believe that there's something called human nature, and that it doesn't change very much over time; we believe that the base animating desires of men haven't in fact changed much at all since Neanderthal times, and we're extremely suspicious of schemes to take money out of one man's pocket by force of arms in order to supposedly better both the man being robbed as well as his shiftless neighbors who aren't worth robbing, as they haven't enough ambition and drive and talent and luck to make enough money worth stealing under color of authority.

So-called 'progressives', on the other hand, believe in the supposed plasticity of human nature; they believe they can create their New Soviet Man within a thicket of legislation, regulation, and propaganda, and actually achieve their utopian dreams through him. 'Progressives' believe that 'sincerity' is enough, that facts and evidence don't matter (witness the 'global warming'-nee-'climate change' hoax, where no one can explain how the surface temperature of the Earth can be measured down to 1/10th of a degree Celsius over the last century or so, who ignore the MWP and the Little Ice Age, and who demonize people like Freeman Dyson who dare to ask for actual *data* in place of crude prebiased computer models), that as long as they *believe* in something, anything, that it somehow redeems them and brings them some sort of secular salvation.

We Burkean conservatives believe that rationality, logic, facts, empircism, falsifiability, and a knowledge of history are necessary in order to make rational decisions on any given topic; and we aren't arrogant enough to think that we know what's best for you, we only wish to be let alone in order to try and muddle through our own lives, thank you very much. We believe that anyone with an average or above IQ who applies himself can pretty much infer the facts in most situations, and we adamantly reject the gnostics of the Left who would have us believe that the vision of the anointed is somehow superior to our own judgement on how best to live our lives (see Erich Voegelin).

We know enough about history to undertand that while material advances in things like medicine and technology in general have tremendous positive aspects, that they aren't always wholly unalloyed goods, especially when one steps down from the abstract and delves into the details of implementation (life's like cryptography, in that regard - lots of shiny, clever algorithms, but it's always the implementation flaws which render the system vulnerable to eavesdropping, interception, and subversion).

We further reject the notion that a 'global civilization' is a Good Thing; we value actual diversity (as opposed to paying lip service to it whilst trying to enforce speech codes), as we know how various supposedly universal schemes all seem to go pear-shaped at one point or another, and believe that having a place to escape to in case things really go round the bend is worth having. We believe in experimentation undertaken by those who wish to do so within their own realms, and we explicitly oppose enforced homogenization from above - even if it supposedly is 'for the children'.

I know that you don't like people criticizing your secular religion of left/liberal 'progressive' politics, and that you hold anyone who disagrees with you as being an idiot, a fascist, or both (it's always been fascinating to me how those who bleat about senstivity and 'tolerance' are the most insensitive and intolerant in any given society), but your grossly inaccurate misgeneralizations do deserve a corrective, even if they contract the tenets of the Received Faith of European Socialism.

15:

And from a fictional point of view, Banks needs Contact, rather than The Culture, in order to have, well, something interesting going on.

(Which is similar to Marek's point about Star Trek)

"is human nature to compete with each other and to place their own needs above the community at large."

Not quite true. It is part of human nature, but equally so is cooperation, and even altruism. There's either a Martin Gardner or Douglas Hofstadter book that has a few chapters on game theory and variations on the Prisoners Dilemma, that show why these are actually useful survival traits to evolve, over pure selfishness.

Over a few generations, being able to trust an anonymous party results in a bigger pay off for the group, but also for each population member.

Of course that's a utopian mathematical model - all societies will contain liars and parasites - but no society works that only contains liars and parasites.

Basically, I have a suspicion that the promotion of Man as the Selfish Animal, etc, is very much part of the rationalisation of the current system of inequality, rather than an actual natural state i.e. there are lots of other animal / natural psychological attributes that we are happy to discard, or to look down on.

16:

Roland, I encourage you to click on the link captioned WEIRD in the comment immediately prior to your own. (Hint: empirical psychology research tends to undermine the existence of an invariant "human nature".)

17:

Given advances in complexity theory, cognitive science, and the social sciences along with attendant supporting technology, now may be the time for a revival of the technocracy movement.

18:

For me at least, the defining condition of a utopia is that another reader would find it indistinguishable from dystopia.

19:

I think the most powerful utopia envisioned now is the "free market" utopia as described by Ayn Rand (and others). It is a bit like the elephant in the room, but IMHO it qualifies on all counts as a utopia. And it is popular, particularly in some circles. It will have a strong impact on our (strange word in this context) future.

Just as a random thought. Can we imagine ourselves as in the west "the Versailles of the 21st century"? The palaces in bubbles we live in disconnected from the rest of humanity? Enter the French revolution. What about the values of the French revolution in the 21st century? Or are we only cynics pointing to history and say "yeah, we tried that before. Doesn't work". There is a sense that we have tried everything allready. TINA for the current world order. But of course this is nonsense. Maybe the most difficult exercise is to detach yourself from our cultural perceptions about human nature. A better apreciation of the flexibility and plasticity of human nature will open up other roads to the future to be explored.

20:

I think both utopian and dystopian visions have an important place in our culture. The one to give voice to our aspirations and the other to voice our fears.

Unfortunately, as you point out, utopias are sort of boring. I suppose one answer is to set a story during an external crisis. L. Neil Smith does this in his libertarian-utopian books, with travel between alternate worlds.

There's also the matter of perspective, the libertarian utopia mentioned above may be a dystopia to non-libertarians.

Another problem I've noticed, which may be more of a problem with the writers, is the tendency to lapse into long boring monologues explaining some minor point of the utopian world in the middle of the narrative.

21:

And it suggests something unpleasant about the world view of the reader, rather than the world being read.

Probably, but perhaps that unpleasantness is simply that I can not accept the notion that a perfect utopia is really possible. Sure there is no real hierarchical power relationship between individual humans and other 1.0 rated entities, or the hierarchy is only slight (membership of the Contact or SC elites). But the Minds are the masters. If you are happy with that then fine, it's a utopia.

Communism undoubtedly has scaling problems;

Definitely. But I think we should be careful not to conflate collectivism and altruism with Communism. In a perfect utopia there should be no need to manage and generate wealth at all, either by market economies and Capitalism or managed economies and Communism.

Is the collectivism the internet allows us, and the altruism of people on it, capable of achieving a utopia without either of the other two capital Cs?

22:

Charlie@15 - I categorically reject almost all supposedly 'empirical psychology research' as unscientific twaddle pushed by those who a) are incapable of getting real jobs because it's too much work and b) have ideological agendas which are served by promoting the idea of human nature as infinitely plastic.

I'm currently sitting here in Southeast Asia looking at my umpteenth passport filled almost to bursting with visas and entry/exit stamps from I-don't-know-how-many different countries; while I'm quite familiar with all the weird, sometimes wonderful, often horrid variations in societies and cultures around the world, almost all of their supposedly unique aspects are mere geographically- and/or situationally-specific window-dressing.

We Burkean conservatives tend to believe in the metaphor of Original Sin, or its secular analogue - i.e., that humans are at base, selfish, coarse, and capable of most any enormity in pursuit of their perceived immediate self-interests, and that the purpose of civilization is to countervail and compensate for Man's inherent savagery, and to provide a framework which rewards the harnessing of his dark energies in pursuit of higher goals.

So, whilst your average left/liberal or neoconservative tends to believe that within every man's heart their burns a desire for freedom and democracy, we Burkean conservatives tend to believe that within every man's heart there burns a desire to rob his neighbor and to possess his neighbor's wife, and that one ought to take that into account when assessing various schemes for 'social improvement' and 'empowerment' and so forth.

23:

"slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors"

True enough, but one finding across cultures seems to be that older people are more risk-averse than younger people. The conservatism of age may have a strong biological component.

Can we extrapolate this to, "if a better solution is riskier, an older population is less likely to adopt it than a younger one"? I think the evidence tends in that direction.

So we all might be damned because we all want a safe old age! And the problem gets worse with longer life expectancies, not better. You could call this "the paradox of cozy", by analogy to Keynes' "the paradox of thrift".

(Honestly, though, I think SF tends bleak because its readership communities are aging significantly faster than the societies which support them. The average age of the Analog subscriber is 59. WE'RE ALL DYING AND THE WORLD IS GOING TO HELL. DEATH DEATH DEATH!)

24:

Sticking briefly to the Scottish context, for Charlie's purposes, I was impressed by the outputs of the most recent round of research by Scotland's Future Forum.

They used a framework of Opportunities Missed (stagnation, parochialism, status quo), Opportunities Taken (growth, internationalism, sustainability), and Opportunities Uninvited (systems disruption, communitarianism, creative destruction). Quite a lot of interesting starting points here.

25:

True enough, but one finding across cultures seems to be that older people are more risk-averse than younger people. The conservatism of age may have a strong biological component.

In general, yes. (There are exceptions.) But individual wealth also frequently correlates with age -- probably because older individuals have had more time in which to accumulate wealth. Could the apparent risk-aversity of the old actually be just an adaptation protective of their relative advantage? (With a side-order of them being more vulnerable to physical insults -- less stamina, less ability to recover from injury, and so on.)

(This, in combination with the somewhat over-sensationalized headlines this week about telomerase reactivation in mice causing them to show signs of regression in senescence have got me speculating along science fictional lines: what would a society with indefinite physiological youth prolongation (not immortality, but the ability to put the ageing process on hold) look like, psychologically?)

But yes, I'm with you on the bleakening of the ageing SF readership ... except that I think the SF readership you're talking about is in any case obsolete; they grew up with the paradigmatic yardstick for progress being speed, and the new metric is bandwidth. Those readers are still out there, but most of the existing SF writers haven't noticed them (much less are interested in writing for them).

26:

You are a sad man Roland.

In my own experience, people are generally quite nice and often go out of their way to help other people.

27:

Now this is a great topic Charlie! I often think that the future is potentially so bad that apocalypse may be our only path to utopia. Otherwise it takes some pretty impressive imagination to see how we get from here to anything remotely utopian. I’ve given it a shot here: http://thedoomerreport.blogspot.com/2010/11/imagining-eco-matrix.html

For a post-apocalyptic SF/fantasy utopia, I came up with this: http://wizardsquest.blogspot.com/2010/12/wizard-world-prologue-dawn-of-new-age.html

I’m very conflicted on this topic; I’m sort of half Tolkien/Evola mystic-reactionary, half Kurzweilian techno-utopian. I guess I can go either way as long as the future is NOT more of the same!

28:

Sean, I'm really not a fan of either mysticism or apocalyptic singularitarianism. Much less of Raymond Kurzweil (I was around on the extropy-l mailing list in the early 90s and I know whose kool-aid he was drinking.)

Also? The Apocalypse is a Christian eschatalogical concept, not a blueprint for a better tomorrow. Wars suck, especially for the colateral civilian casualties (into which category you, or I, are most likely to fall should we be unlucky enough to get caught up in one).

29:

"Communism undoubtedly has scaling problems; this says more about our shortcomings as cultural social organisms than about it being an undesirable goal."

You'd have to change human nature quite a lot for it to be possible. And I am afraid it would not be only a cultural change, but a genetic change.

We are wired to care and help our close tribe (who were ancestrally closer relatives), and not care that much about people outside it. Any proposed utopia has to change that, or work with that.

30:

There is no inherent "human nature", but our cognitive capacity is bounded by strict biological limitations. I would argue that those biological limitations are going to be the largest hurdle to any kind of utopian society. For all that we've improved our communication technologies, the human ability to manage in-group and out-group relationships hasn't really improved. For any utopian society to work, one would need to fundamentally restructure the way human being recognize in/out-group relationships.

That's my pessimistic point.

On my optimistic point: depending on how one defines "utopia", that is unnecessary. The Japanese word wabi describes the slight imperfection that makes something otherwise perfect more perfect than if it lacked that imperfection.

If we limit our view to right now, and ignore the future consequences of our society, I would argue that we're living a pretty damn utopian existence. There certainly isn't a period in history that I would favor over this one. We are closer to a utopia than we have ever been at any point in history.

And I think that plays a role in the lack of utopian speculation. Life is actually very good for most people, at least in the west. Utopian speculation is borne out of dissatisfaction. Most people are pretty satisfied with the status quo.

Which raises the question: which non-Western cultures or downtrodden subcultures are churning out Utopian fiction? Is there some hidden treasure-trove of Furry utopias to be had?

31:

Solving the in group/out group response problem would be at the top of my list when setting course for Utopia.

There is however, at least one solution to this problem. Change the membership of the in and the out groups. Diverse mixed schooling seems to be a big positive there.

32:

What then? Joseph Tainter wrote a dry academic text called The Collapse of Complex Societies, in which he pointed out the meaning of collapse of today's civilization:

In fact, there are major differences between the current and the ancient worlds that have important implications for collapse. On of these is that the world today is full. That is to say, it is filled by complex societies; these occupy every sector of the globe, except the most desolate. This is a new factor in human history. Complex societies as a whole are a recent and unusual aspect of human life. The current situation, where all societies are so oddly constituted, is unique. It was shown earlier in this chapter that ancient collapses occurred, and could only occur, in a power vacuum, where a complex society (of cluster of peer polities) was surrounded by less complex neighbors. There are no power vacuums left today. Every nation is linked to, and influenced by, the major powers, and most are strongly linked with one power bloc or the other.


Peer polities then then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.

33:

The problem with that is that it seems that humans can only have a certain size of "in-group" before things start breaking down. There are ways around it- but they all seem to involve things like uniforms and military discipline, which I wouldn't think should truly be part of a utopia.

Diverse/mixed schooling simply means that the in/out group dichotomy is going to be set by something less obvious and overt than what it's usually set by.

34:

The list of SF utopias is pretty short:

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy and Pacific Edge
Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed
David Brin's Earth
The Culture
The Federation in Star Trek

(not an exhaustive list, but I don't think there are many more)

Writing about utopia is hard. If everyone's happy and content and there's no excessive bastardry happening, where does the dramatic tension needed to drive a plot forward come from? You can either have an external threat (like in the culture books, or in the black hole in Earth) or human emotions (like in the last quarter of the mars trilogy and Pacific Edge). It seems like most writers would rather write about $BADASS HERO fighting against $EVIL BADDIE whilst chasing after $SPACE MAGUFFIN.

The really interesting part of utopias is the journey to get there. We want this, how do we get there from here? The Mars trilogy mostly covers that (although there's a huge unspoken reliance on robotics and automated self-replicating manufacturing all the way through).

It's also missing in politics. If you could have any world, what would you have? What would labour, the lib dems and the conservatives want if they could make the country into anything? I think that'd make for some very interesting manifestos.

35:

But individual wealth also frequently correlates with age -- probably because older individuals have had more time in which to accumulate wealth. Could the apparent risk-aversity of the old actually be just an adaptation protective of their relative advantage?

I haven't seen it broken down that way, but I strongly suspect not. Anecdotally, the wealthy 20-year-old jetsetter engages in much riskier behavior than the equally wealthy 70-year-old power broker.

(Going by car insurance rates -- the make of car being a good proxy for usable wealth -- it's not even anecdotal. Though that of course could be the actuarial model.)

36:

I think that the Maker movement counts as a utopian one. But, even if we can all make everything we need locally everywhere in the world, the old fat cats will still control the sources of the raw materials.


Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" is an interesting read on what has brought past civilizations down. My recollection is, in general, rapid (local) ecosystem collapse was the main cause. As you said, this time it will be global??? Oops.


I read Cory Doctorow's "FTW" last week. Very inspirational. Workers of the world, unite. You're doing a project with him, yes?


Frustrating how badly the conservative rope-a-dope here in the US is confounding the liberals. Teabaggers = dupes of the Koch brothers, but, they're not dupes, no sir, not them! It's hard to know how to counter the 24x7 stream of propaganda and disinformation that is spewn forth by Faux "News".


On the "no human nature" contention, Stephen Pinker's "The Blank Slate" argues comprehensively in favor of the opposite view.

37:

I take your point. Inter city sports team rivalry perhaps demonstrates this.

However, for people to act on in group/ out group instinct, they need to be able to identify which group people fall into. That identification is much harder when you can't stereotype on such obvious things such as ethnicity, country of birth, language, religion (or lack of it), sexual orientation, parental income etc...

Gotta be an improvement in my books...

38:

Life is actually very good for most people, at least in the west. Utopian speculation is borne out of dissatisfaction. Most people are pretty satisfied with the status quo.

Oh really? Then why is self-harm (cutting, scarification) just about at epidemic levels among young women here in the UK (up to 30%)? Ditto high levels of stress-related disorders and prescribing for depression?

Some of this may just be showing up because we're looking for it today, but there's a lot of stress about right now, even among folks who have homes, three square meals a day, and (where appropriate) jobs or education prospects.

39:

Two points:
First, there's a difference between the practical problems of creating a utopia (or at least a better world) in fiction, and doing so in reality. It's perfectly possible to set stories in an ideal world (see Jane Austen) and still have interesting themes to talk about. On the whole SF doesn't seem to be able to do this, and it's fair to argue that building a complete civilisation in the future just to tell the story of the misadventures of two lovers, would be a bit excessive. And SF writers were historically crap at character-driven plots anyway. On the other hand, Bank's utopia seems to me a perfectly plausible one.
Second, my generation (born in the decade after WWII) is probably the first in which progress has actually gone into reverse. When I was a boy, SF tended to be optimistic because the world was visibly getting better. Unemployment had been abolished, education and health care were free and of good quality, crime was low, transport and infrastructure were being improved all the time, ravaging diseases of the past had been conquered .... The present generation of SF writers were born into an age of continual mass unemployment and poverty, of social and state breakdown, so that utopia, or even a better society seems hard to imagine. And those in power have willed it so, for their own purposes, unlike their predecessors in the 1950s who actually wanted to improve things. We won't see utopian SF on a large scale again until our culture and our political leadership starts to think positively about the future once more.
Don't forget, utopia is a relative term: if Marx had been able to return to England in the late 1960s, he would have thought that utopia had been achieved: practically all the demands in the Communist Manifesto had by then been fulfilled.

40:

For your general inhabitant of a liberal western country, most people's quality of life looks pretty utopian, but it's a bit shallow. I don't think it's a utopia if it's only for a small part of the population.

Most people still have to worry about health, a roof over their heads and continued support for their families. Most work people do isn't towards their direct benefit, and often isn't entirely voluntary. How many people have a job they don't like, just to pay the bills? And that counts for most members of society, not just the poor.

41:

So Tainter explained that collapse, when it comes, will be global. Do people think we can avoid collapse? It will take a system-wrenching shift to avoid collapse, and I don't see anything motivating such a shift short of collapse itself. Consider that exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world. Consider that the we are already past the limits of our finite world, and rather than braking, we are accelerating. We will hit the wall at high speed and break into thousands of small shards. Given that our economics depends upon growth, what are the chances that we can invent a new steady-state economics and transition to it without collapse? Non-growth economics is harder than you might expect. Only a few think about it at all, and all they do is write about ways to slow down growth, because they cannot think of a successful way to eliminate it.

When collapse comes, 80-90% of the world population may disappear quickly, as in the fall of most complex societies of the past. This could set up the conditions for a successful utopia (e.g. the invention of steady-state economics), but more likely we will simply see a repeat of the last round. In other words, our "solution" to the problem of growth in a finite world is cycles of growth, followed by collapse, perhaps Dark Ages, and then repeat the cycle. At least it makes for good fiction, unlike utopias.

42:

Charlie@15 - I categorically reject almost all supposedly 'empirical psychology research' as unscientific twaddle pushed by those who a) are incapable of getting real jobs because it's too much work

I note the lack of a cite to any evidence for this sweeping libel, and conclude that you are not going to contribute anything but vacuous abuse. Fuck off. Note to self: I see Dobbins elsewhere, must remember to killfile.

43:

You presuppose that self-harm is triggered by the environment, and not a genetic or neurological state. Regardless, even if we grant that it's environmental, it supports my argument: real challenges are so far and few between that people take to self-injury to retain the stress of a more primitive state of being.

What follows is partially talking out my ass, because I'm not aware of any real statistics, so I'm simply going by anecdote. In my experience with cutters, we're dealing with individuals from mainstream society. Their basic needs are entirely met. They are so wealthy that they have access to the Internet. While they may be searching for the upper levels on Maslow's hierarchy, the bottom of the pyramid is entirely satisfied, which puts them light-years beyond the historical state of humanity.

So far as I know, there isn't a cutting epidemic among individuals living hand-to-mouth, or suffering from dysentery due to contaminated water supplies. Self-injury is a luxury of a utopian society.

When we're talking about the western style of stress (not real stress, like disease and starvation, but anxiety, pressure to perform, etc.- stress about the upper tiers of Maslow's hierarchy), we're not dealing with a true environmental condition. That sort of stress is entirely invented by the person being stressed. I admit this is a controversial view, but I think that the emotional stress that we think of when we say "stress" is a condition created by the individual experiencing the stress. It is their response to an environmental condition.

Which isn't to say that they have conscious control over that response- you can no more choose to feel happy or sad about something than you can choose to be stressed or unstressed. But I do think that one can train oneself to not respond with stress to emotionally stressful situations.

Regardless: Western emotional stress is, again, a luxury that exists in the absence of more concrete forms of stress. We are generally well nourished, have extreme amounts of liberty, leisure time. To quote Louis CK: "Everything is incredible and no one is happy."

44:

You're missing the key point I was getting at, though: the lack of Utopian speculation is because things are pretty great, in the West. Which means that, if you want Utopian speculation, look in places where things aren't so great. They can't be too awful- otherwise everyone is too busy fighting with survival to sit and wonder about utopias.

I'd be quite curious to see what sub-Saharan utopias look like.

45:

@26 Yes but aren’t there times when things are so dysfunctional that the only way forward is the collapse of everything? Is that what Dark Ages are – necessary periods of reboot when your civilization’s operation system has become hopelessly FUBARed?

You say you dislike mysticism, but isn’t trying to imagine the future itself a mystical enterprise? I have no idea how to rationally envision the future, so I use my intuition. And my intuition is telling me that we have lived in a very aberrant era of extreme material progress and social change, but that we’re probably going to be returning to something more historically “normal” soon, which means the return of a lot of things that you would probably consider regressive (like mysticism and religion). Of course can imagine anything we like, but the actual future is under no obligation to make a good SF story or cater to the prejudices of SF readers!

46:

Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse.

... my friend Doug has spent substantial time this year in sub-Saharan Africa, including a month and a half in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Before that, he lived in the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. I used to joke with him about his next assignment: Grozny or Kabul? I don't do that so much any more.

Tainter is interesting but overblown. His three primary examples -- the *western* Roman Empire, the Mayans, and the Chaco cultures -- have all had serious revisions away from his models of collapse due to further archaeological research. For example, Tainter does not include the results of the decipherment of the Mayan script, one of the great intellectual humanist accomplishments of the later twentieth century.

And Tainter's "declining marginal productivity of complexity" is flawed. He's an anthropologist, not an econometrician, but basically he's rediscovered labor and capital intensification. This is why econometricians factor out labor and capital when discussing productivity increases.

47:

@36 Yes there is a lot of stress despite material comfort, which suggests to me that what we have is a *spiritual* crisis. The success of Avatar, Lord of the Rings, Islam, etc. all point in this direction, don't they? To me it's pretty obvious that materialism, whether of the Marxist-Leninist or Randian-Capitalist variety is doomed to failure as a basis for society. I think what we need is not so much "Science Fiction" as "Spiritual Fiction" to help us imagine a different way of viewing the world which is more spiritual, magical and enchanted.

48:

Excellent point. I hadn't looked at it that way.

I'd really like to read more foreign SF, and seeing what other culture's utopias are would be a fascinating way into other cultures.

49:

Good grief.

I didn't realize "Burkean conservative" meant "I read the lecture notes for Hobbes' LEVIATHAN and have a lot frequent flier miles."

(Apologies to M. Stross if this is just troll-poking.)

50:

Dammit, I forgot the differences between the social/ economic concervative attitudes. Nice to see we agree on Blair and Brown in the previous thread though.

Hmm, books from the last three years that are near future which I have read - Moxyland, This is not a game, Halting state, The execution channel. None of them are utopian, all show people trying to deal with a vast and complex world in which they don't matter very much, and could perhaps be read as warnings for the future.

Andrew G. #19 agrees that utopias are boring. I say, not when you are building them. Which is, IIRC, what Robinson is doing in his Mars trilogy. So, more stories vaguely like that please.

Juleslt #14 hits upon what I consider the reality nowadays:
----
Basically, I have a suspicion that the promotion of Man as the Selfish Animal, etc, is very much part of the rationalisation of the current system of inequality, rather than an actual natural state i.e. there are lots of other animal / natural psychological attributes that we are happy to discard, or to look down on.
----
Thats right. The class war of rich against poor is going well for the rich. It helps that they have siezed control of large parts of the cultural hinterland (apologies to people who study this sort of thing for a living). A way I like to put it is that many of those who have gotten to the top more recently are somewhat unpleasant, greedy and obsessive people, and they are busy turning the world into a mirror image of themselves, rather than one in which those of us with different drives, ideals and characters find good to live in.


51:

Let me throw this out there: perhaps modern doomsayer futurism and science fiction is actually utopian for its readers. E.g.:

Kunstler's name is mostly associated with nonfiction works like The Long Emergency, a bleak prediction of what will happen when oil production no longer meets demand, and the antisuburbia polemic The Geography of Nowhere. In this novel, his 10th, he visits a future posited on his signature idea: when the oil wells start to run dry, the world economy will collapse and society as we know it will cease. Robert Earle has lost his job (he was a software executive) and family in the chaos following the breakdown. Elected mayor of Union Grove, N.Y., in the wake of a town crisis, Earle must rebuild civil society out of squabbling factions, including a cultish community of newcomers, an established group of Congregationalists and a plantation kept by the wealthy Stephen Bullock. Re-establishing basic infrastructure is a big enough challenge, but major tension comes from a crew of neighboring rednecks led by warlord Wayne Karp. [from Publisher's Weekly]
Or maybe its sequel?
Having established the parameters of a society bereft of government services, automobiles, public utilities, consumer goods, and computers, Kunstler writes with more finesse in this portrayal of a community of survivors in Upstate New York, an old-fashioned yarn of character-building confrontations between humans and the wild, outlaws and decent folks. Kunstler decries our refusal to face facts about our oil habit, dramatizes how quickly “the great thrumming engine of modernity” can be halted, and celebrates the benefits of living intimately with nature. But his social concerns never [...] undermine his seductive characters: plucky young Jasper, the doctor’s son; ludicrous bandit and psychopath Billy Bones; a sexy and accomplished witch; and the gruff leader of the bizarre and prosperous New Faith commune who possesses his own supernatural powers. [from Booklist.]

Doesn't that sound awesome? building your own community from scratch, having a meaningful life free of the alienation of the modern world, using machinery that you personally understand? But with modern sex.

How did James Nicoll characterize these? Backswing fantasies: ninety-nine percent of the world must die horribly in order that I MYSELF can have a heroic life. (After all, it's easier than going out and getting a heroic life. Which is entirely possible to do in the modern world, but it might involve effort and pain and failure and competition from those people. You know who they are.)

52:

Utopia? I'll be happy if humanity avoided extermination or a dystopia.

Just consider Iran and Wikileaks on Pakistani nuclear security, etc.

The worst part isn't if a city here or there goes BOOM, the problem is the control society we will get. (Maybe that is unavoidable. The individual power of destruction increases with technology.)

My first point is that centrally planned systems don't work -- they aren't flexible enough to change with development; their population move to capitalist/democratic societies unless they are locked in.

So any Utopias can't be planned -- or have to be static in technologies. (Which in itself will create unrest.)

My second point might be a bit related to the previous.

Sam J Lundwall wrote a book (1977, Swedish "Utopia - dystopia") arguing that most any of the historical utopias would be equivalent to a dystopia, if implemented.

Consider, if a leader argue that your country is a perfect utopia -- then what is opposition? (See how fun it was to be a dissident in Soviet and North Korea, where the leaders claimed to have the Answer to society.)

53:

You presuppose that self-harm is triggered by the environment, and not a genetic or neurological state.

That assertion betrays a remarkably naive view of genetics. Our phenotype (the expression of our genome) is modulated by environmental factors, even before birth -- arguably prior to fertilization. There's no either/or about nurture/nature -- the only answer to the question of "which is more important in human development?" is "both".

54:

I appreciate the statement of your opinion, problem is, it's not necessarily characteristic of Burkeian conservatism;, in some ways, it's more characteristic of if not right libertarianism, at least a strong stance of economic liberalism, maybe together with some social conservatism; you can justify this with Burke, but then, you can also justify stalinism with the Acts of the Apostles. And your stance of 'humanum homini lupum' and of civilization as something alien to the beast within is more akin to the social contract theory of the French Enlightenment than to the State as the Natural Order of Things.

Also, the idea of an immutible human nature is not necessarily part of conservatism, it were the French revolutionist who argued about the violation of human nature and its natural rights by vile monarchists, the connection of an infinitely malleable human nature with the left is in no small part derived from the successors of Marx and Engels (there is no marxism), who got it from left hegelianism, who got it from, well, Hegel himself used it to argue we owe everything to the social and political circumstances that create us, in his case the Prussian state, and well, I bet right hegelianists didn't disagree. And if you look at hegelianism in General, as a system there is much more of European conservatism in it than of the French Enlightenment, Marx and other dissenters withstanding.

In this scheme, your stance against those polite forms of expropitation called taxes and welfare are also not necessarily Burkeian conservatism, taxes and welfare are themselves valued traditions, so your stance against them is itself very not conservative; many programs of social reform were initialised by conservatives. And well, if you look at the French revolution, it all started with one group not wanting to pay the bill for the idle ones, or tying to paint it this way in the history books; for starter, just look up the 'Third Estate'.

In general, American Paleoconservatism (I have yet to hear of Paleoconservatism in an European context) is hardly representative of Burkeian conservatism, if only for the fact the guy was a freemason, which wouldn't make him too popular with part of the Religious Right part of the demographic. In some ways, the stressing of 'organic change' in the works of Burke and other European early conservatives is more akin to Neoconservatism; but the, you can't generalise for all of European conservatism, e.g. especially in Germany in the early 19th century any reference to the nation state would have been very 'un-conservative'[1].

And then, your general rational slant against 'The left' also doesn't square that well with Burke's insistance on the finiteness of the human intellect. And squaring him against 'progressivism' is quite 'ahistoric', where 'ahistoric' is the very antithesis of earlc conservatism; in Burke's time, there were no 'progressivists', if you try to draw parallels to todays political movements, many French Revolutionaries were more akin to certain modern right libertarians, with their insistance against hierarchical orders and their reliance on national sentiments[2], and a lot of what you call 'progressivists' would cluster in the conservatism of Burke's time.

So , sorry, calling your stance characteristic of Burkeian conservatism is either errorneous or a case of Cultural appropriation.

[1] Meditations of Eternal Laughter; in the las incarnation of the never-ending discussion about conscription in Germany, some guys didn't shy away from calling levee en masse an archconservative institution; err, well, not really. History, F, sit down...

[2] Anybody noticed the similarities between the Jacobins and some of the Tea Party followers? Speaking about cultural appropiation, besides the ascent of Hegel is Marxist circles[3], the celebration of the Jacobins by several self-styled left revolutionaries is one of the things that astounds me all the time[4].

[3] Yeah, I know, Marx himself was no Marxist, but they call themselves that way.

[4] Well, but then, not really. Anybody familiar with the strange results of postpuberty in male human beings, eh, WEIRDs, see Norman's Gor and like can see a pattern.

55:

Err, sorry for the spelling errors, I'm down with what feels like a combined form of the cold and SAD, and sadly our gracious host's blog has limited possibilities of subsequent edits with posted articles.

56:

I haven't seen it broken down that way, but I strongly suspect not. Anecdotally, the wealthy 20-year-old jetsetter engages in much riskier behavior than the equally wealthy 70-year-old power broker.

I suspect that experience plays a big role: the older person has seen a lot more go wrong, and has through hard experience learned about risk management.

Some of it could also be biochemical — less testosterone, more caution, that kind of thing — but I'd bet that a lot of it is a gut-level realization that things can go pear-shaped even to good, special, unique people…

57:

I think, that the problem with the concept of Utopia or even that of Dystopia is, that these are moving targets.
What was regarded previously as an Utopian concept could already have been archived. We don't realize this as we take it for granted.

For example, in the middle ages (or now in the third world) living without hunger was regarded as utopian. The german have the Schlaraffenland (from the 16th century) as this utopian concept. Where everybody has enough to eat. In most of the western world this has been archived for most of the population. Yet we do not realize this as Utopia anymore.

Or a democratic government, for most of human history we have lived by the hand of the stronger man (or woman). Now we have at least some countries in the world that practice democracy or at list give lip service to it. For a slave in the roman imperium that would have been Utopia...

As such what, we now regard as Utopia can be archived in the future and will, hopefully, not be regarded as utopia and will be taken for granted.

58:

Awesome, my friend. Have you thought about writing a book?

59:

Wonderful post. In Gordon's Notes I use "Enlightenment 2.0" as my tag for posts on this topic. Sparse lately I admit.

In my case it's perversity. When all looks doomed one might as well be a relative optimist. Failure is not an option and all that (except, of course, it is inevitable.)

Along the lines of optimism, I do wonder what Gates and Buffett and the like are up to behind the scenes. I know what I'd be doing if I had their kind of power, and I wouldn't make it obvious.

As you well know, of course, Banks Culture is a bit of a dubious Utopia. That's what makes the books fun -- he finds ways to introduce dramatic tension into Utopian SF. Because what's Good for the Culture isn't necessarily good for individuals, and because in the Culture sub-Minds (ex: humans) are basically pets.

60:

Err, problem is, AFAIK some psychological issues get better with stress, while, of course, others naturally don't; but then, this still means there is something amiss for many people.

Another problem with self-harm is the fact that it is a very multifactorial phenomenon; On the one hand, it's something physiological and by no means restricted to humans, but can also observe it in animals, e.g. domestic pigs that gnaw on a chain to get a constant inflammation. On the other, according to my limited[1] exposure to the psychiatric hospital system, in some cases it seems to be a social contagion, e.g. A starts it, Friend B observes, repeats and feels better, Enemy C sees A expressiong A's emotions, thinks A is a pussy and shows A and B how hardcore C is. Notice by the way that even if this article had originally many pronouns of the female gender in it, the phenomenon is not restricted to them; but then, males and females express many things different in our (and other) cultures, e.g. the prevalence of alcoholism and depression.

[1] Well, for somebody with a known history of neurodevelopmental issues and a knack for Gothic, EBM and Industrial...

61:

You say you dislike mysticism, but isn’t trying to imagine the future itself a mystical enterprise?


Nope.

I have no idea how to rationally envision the future, so I use my intuition.

Well, there's your problem in a nutshell: intuition relies on heuristics based on prior experience, and tends to fail when it comes up against the unprecedented.

62:

Poke away on my behalf!

63:

Backswing fantasies: ninety-nine percent of the world must die horribly in order that I MYSELF can have a heroic life.

Yup. And there are some unpleasant ideological assumptions encoded in this kind of fantasy -- spin-offs of a particular strain of the American foundational mythology of ruggedly independent frontiersmen (and their women) taming an uninhabited wilderness with their own hands (and guns). The frontier may have closed more than a century ago, but there are still folks spinning fantasies about how to re-open it.

64:

1. "Human nature," fairly obviously, changes with human culture. There is, I suppose, some basic inborn component, but this is not--think about it!--determinative of most of the behavior of humans. There is nothing "natural" about automobiles, roads, houses, cooking, etc., etc. etc. The question of the range and basis of human behavior is an important one, but it is also far from an answered one, and the belief that we know what that range is, and that we have cultural knowledge of all human possibilities, is an unreasonable one.

2. In some important sense, a utopia is not possible in the physical universe. This is not heaven. Humans are mortal and the physical world we know is probably mortal. However, societies that are happier than most current ones are probably possible.

3. Rather than utopia, perhaps you hominids need to just think about a happy world that will last longer than the next two centuries. Because you are headed for a crash.

4. You are afraid of the utopias you have already imagined, which is probably why you are not writing new ones. You are afraid, even, to take basic steps that will improve matters. The United States is scared to fix its broken health care system. Europe is afraid to fix its banking system, and reject the neo-mercantilism of its major industrial powers. Everyone is afraid of the internet. You hominids are afraid to stop fighting wars. You are afraid to let women control their own bodies.

Croak!

65:

If the future is an unknown fog bank, then aren't those warning "road signs" dystopias?

I'm not a fan of utopias, for the reasons cited by other commentators. But I am interested in avoiding driving into a dystopia so I see fiction about those as useful warnings about driving up a particular road that initially looks good (probably a Top Gear metaphor here).

Fiction is replete with utopias that really weren't, e.g. Clarke's "The City and the Stars" and Hilton's "Lost Horizon", the latter described as a utopia but a would be a living hell for me.

66:

The comments seem to have driven right past it, but I believe the origin of Star Trek-style utopia was the birth of the replicator, which allowed for a true Freedom From Want. While many still preferred actual, grown food or handcrafted items, the leveling effect brought about by being able to create virtually everything at a whim removed the economic motivation/limitation from society and allowed for lifestyle choice based on interest and will rather than a profit motive. It's a lot easier to spend your life doing research when you don't have to fight for grant money, for instance.

Of course, this followed some serious revolution in power generation and the discovery of some incredible molecular manipulation techniques. If I remember right, the replicators work like the transporters do, in that they order atoms into coherent, usable items. I'm not holding my breath for anything similar anytime soon.

67:

OTOH, Transmetropolitan had replicators too, but I sure as hell wouldn't call that utopian.

68:

On the Culture: Not really sure how a society where any individual or group can freely choose to leave to go & do their own thing can be called a dystopia. Unless you posit the Minds are manipulating things to such an extent that Culture 1.0-level individuals only have the illusion of free will?

On human nature: Seems to me each side picks those attributes that best support their argument. I don't believe any system of societal organisation yet developed truly accommodates the breadth & complexity of how we behave.

What certainly seems true is any system that assumes the best of people (Communism) or the worst (Capitalism) will create problems.

It's a shame there doesn't seem to be anyone really thinking seriously about a different way of doing things and moving forward away from the destructive left/right worldview. Or if there is anyone thinking this way... they're not getting enough support to spread their ideas more widely.

69:

The thought crosses my mind that a Utopia has to be a 100% deal - as Spider Robinson' four-word summation of Utopia goes, "Nobody's hungry, nobody's angry." Key word there being 'nobody'.

For example, here's a 99.999% Utopia - Omelas.

70:
You presuppose that self-harm is triggered by the environment, and not a genetic or neurological state.

Err, barring any revelations about causality violations in our bodies, everything is neurological; sometimes, the ultimate explantion may be genetics, like in Chorea Huntington, which also self-mutilation, but even there, the picture is complicated; on the etiological level, because how some superfluous trinucleotide repeats lead to Huntington is a non-trivial matter; on a phenomenological level, because if the patient bites into his tongue it may mean anything from loss of motor control to loss of sensation to coping mechanism for understandable aggression. In most cases, the picture is less clear, with a certain genetic (or epigenetic) component likely, but different factors likely occuring; and then, self-injury is not necessarily cultural inaccepatble, if you go with historic catholicism; flagellation or pain girdles, anyone?

Regardless, even if we grant that it's environmental, it supports my argument: real challenges are so far and few between that people take to self-injury to retain the stress of a more primitive state of being.

Err, sorry, that's a little bit simplistic on so many levels; first of, in some ways you seem to suppose that every human needs the same amount of challenge or, more general, external stimulation. That doesn't seem to be the case, for unknown (genetic and/or social) reasons; look at Eysenk's introvert/extrovert, look at different physiological reactions to stress in sociopaths and 'normals' etc. So the right amount of stimulation for one person may be insufficient for another. Second of, people with self-injurious behaviour seem to be a quite heterogenous group, and, paradoxically, if we follow our little simplistic stimulation model of self-injurious behaviour, it may 'help' both with over- and understimulation. In understimulation, for obvious reasons, in overstimulation, because first of some 'overstimulation' may be understimulation trying to compensate, second of because the human neuroendocrine system may hav some strange feedback loops.

And then, we should take some of those statistics with a grain of salt; there may be a difference between some experiments with a pin and self-mutilation requiring serious chirurgic intervention.

In my experience with cutters, we're dealing with individuals from mainstream society. Their basic needs are entirely met.

That may be one subgroup, but then, the most extreme cases I met were in an 'assisted living' enviroment, and even if I only got a short glimpse, the cutting seemed to be the least of their problems. But then, their is nothing like refining your prejudices with cluster analysis...

http://www.psychsystems.net/Publications/2005/14.%20bpd%20in%20adol_Bradley_jrnl%20of%20child%20psych%202005.pdf

High-funtioning internalizing subtype? Frell, no wonder I stick with the loonies...

71:

Conservatism ("paleo" or "neo") - it's all word games and ratiocinations. Political programs are for twisting the universe into desired shapes - they are not themes, of which symphonies can be composed.

Hunger? Food for all!

Maso rispose che le piú si trovavano in Berlinzone, terra de' Baschi, in una contrada che si chiamava Bengodi, nella quale si legano le vigne con le salsicce e avevasi un'oca a denaio e un papero giunta; ed eravi una montagna tutta di formaggio parmigiano grattugiato, sopra la quale stavan genti che niuna altra cosa facevan che far maccheroni e raviuoli e cuocergli in brodo di capponi, e poi gli gittavan quindi giú, e chi piú ne pigliava piú se n'aveva; e ivi presso correva un fiumicel di vernaccia, della migliore che mai si bevve, senza avervi entro gocciola d'acqua...

Or frustration, poverty, loneliness:

It was a most wonderful experience to him—an almost supernatural experience. It was like encountering an inhabitant of the fourth dimension of space, a being who was free from all one's own limitations. For four years, now, Jurgis had been wondering and blundering in the depths of a wilderness; and here, suddenly, a hand reached down and seized him, and lifted him out of it, and set him upon a mountain-top, from which he could survey it all—could see the paths from which he had wandered, the morasses into which he had stumbled, the hiding places of the beasts of prey that had fallen upon him.

And so on - One can get a nice read on the hang-ups and desires of the person authoring the political program by what they focus on The entertaining rants of the "Paleoconservative" above - a FINE examplar of the "whipped dog"/alpha dog theory of society - underline this - witness the juxtaposition of this:

The main difference between Burkean conservatives and you squishes is that we believe that there's something called human nature, and that it doesn't change very much over time; we believe that the base animating desires of men haven't in fact changed much at all since Neanderthal times, and we're extremely suspicious of schemes to take money out of one man's pocket by force of arms in order to supposedly better both the man being robbed as well as his shiftless neighbors who aren't worth robbing, as they haven't enough ambition and drive and talent and luck to make enough money worth stealing under color of authority.

with this:

So-called 'progressives'...believe in the supposed plasticity of human nature...[T]heir New Soviet Man within a thicket of legislation, regulation, and propaganda....'Progressives' believe that 'sincerity' is enough, that facts and evidence don't matter (witness the 'global warming'-nee-'climate change' hoax, where no one can explain how the surface temperature of the Earth can be measured down to 1/10th of a degree Celsius over the last century or so, who ignore the MWP and the Little Ice Age, and who demonize people like Freeman Dyson who dare to ask for actual *data* in place of crude prebiased computer models)... We know enough about history to [understand] that while material advances in things like medicine and technology in general have tremendous positive aspects, that they aren't always wholly unalloyed goods, especially when one steps down from the abstract and delves into the details of implementation (life's like cryptography, in that regard - lots of shiny, clever algorithms, but it's always the implementation flaws which render the system vulnerable to eavesdropping, interception, and subversion).

Fascinating. An entire political program, fused with philosophical underpinnings, to justify "Don't Bug Me About My Leaking Cesspool, Because Unlike You At Least I Have A Decorated Porcelain Toilet."

I agree with Carlos, above. The recent literature is full of utopias - they are just Utopias we can't easily recognize, because they're not about the perfect society Where Stuff And People Function Tolerably Well Enough For All. These utopias are about the perfect world for the maimed and yearning individual whose viewpoint the reader is meant to sympathize and but they are not for the rest of the cardboard latex fuckholes (i.e. the rest of us) who have to go down in Act I in order to clean the plate for the yummy dessert of self-actualization.

Maimed and yearning for what? IDK. But there's a streak of powerlessness yearning for power - submissiveness yearning for domination - weakness yearning for strength....etc.

Here's a horrible thought - What is the archetypical utopian vision for the aging boomer/boomerette contemplating dementia, long-term care insurance, and decades of sexless impotence before the void?

72:

Yup. And "100% nobody angry" strikes me as being impossible for us humans: our behavioural envelope is just too damned wide.

On the other hand, I'll settle for "nobody needs to be angry" as a sufficient substitute.

(In reality, I don't believe in the achievability of utopia. But I'd hate to think we were living in the best of all possible worlds right now, and it's all downhill from here ...)

73:

"Nobody needs to be angry" is a much better formulation.

I note Spider's utopias - in both the Callahan's and Mindkiller sequences - require upgrading humans in significant ways, specifically a kind of universal mind-sharing/total empathy. Envisioning a utopia that doesn't defy the old saw about "you can't change human nature" - whatever the hell that is - now, that would be tricky!

74:

I think it's hard to do a 50 year project as way too many unknowns.

It might be a good intermediate step to hypothesize the present data problems that such a utopia needs to solve

1: Planetary population / carrying capacity needs to have reached a point of sustainable equilibrium
2: Technological advance needs to continue without destabilizing the utopia, ingenuity and creativity need to be allowed free expression
3: Some kind of global social / political solution to nation states and wars needs to be in place, both in support of 1: above and also to prevent species annihilation. This solution needs to preserve individual liberty

Some systematic way to alter "human nature" seems a very helpful if not necessary condition to all of this to me

Maybe something similar to "Diamond Age" by Stevenson only with a positive spin?

The hardest thing to imagine is 2). I think this is where most thought exercises get derailed.

75:
Conservatism ("paleo" or "neo") - it's all word games and ratiocinations.

At least in the American context, it's hard to take some of the batshit whackos, err, the Paleocons[1] serious; and with Neocons, I somehow think they are something of a scarecrow both for the 'political left' and the extreme right, which is very definitely not what Burkeian conservatism is.

But then, it's not always just about words, but sometimes also about labels with meanings, and Burke is quite important for the history of politics, though if the protagonists liked hom or not is a different matter. and having the pleasure of knowing a self-styled 'conservative revolutionary'[2], I think it's important to stress the point we don't dislike them cause they are conservative, hell, in some ways we are conservatives ourselves; it's because they are the very antithesis of what we think conservatism should be about, and they are batshit whackos who would be a good substitute for the nihilist clowns in
'Big Lebowsk' if it weren't for the heaps of skull they keep rising were reality refuses to submit to their notions. Oh shit, and the last quote seems to be very in line with Burkeian conservatism.

That understanding their mindset is more something of their belly and eggs than their brain is another matter...

[1] But then, Alex Jones plays a street preacher in 'A Scanner Darkly', so what...

[2] Believe me, fun is to be had...

76:

I agree with most of this. Utopias are important as aiming points [why aim at the mediocre, as most governments do?] and thought experiments [because they need to fit together and need philosophic drivers]. Finally, they contain something of the debate about 'how humans should live', a debate we never seem to have either because we are consuming stuff [developed world] or trying to survive [the rest].

Also, there is a 'good' place for Utopias in fiction, the theme of 'trouble in Paradise', Women at the Edge of Time and The Syndic [though that is an imperfect anarchist state, suits me though].

My current, personal, belief is that we need to deal in the emergent, by doing many, many small but 'right' [in the Buddhist sense, pretty much] things and gradually these will fit together. But then, as a product of the 60s, I'm an unreconstructed optimist.

77:

It strikes me that we don't even need utopias. We just need stories where the selfish, self-obssessed people who directly or indirectly, as a class, wield power over most governmental and economic systems, and control the flow of resources, slowly or suddenly come to realize that their excessive self-interest is self-injurious (because selfishness is the only thing that motivates them).

When I imagine a realizable utopia, I imagine Norway, as I've read about it (the closest I've been is Finland, and only to visit). Although it strikes me that perhaps that prosperity comes at the cost of keeping the gates locked rather tightly. My best yardstick for utopias is how well they chart on the Gini coefficient. And I suspect that isn't enough information.

As for optimistic yet realistic stories, I think a world in which the needs of the most vulnerable members of society were better met----since I'm not hopeful enough to imagine the causes of those vulnerabilities being removed, needs being met would do.

I find it hard to put my faith in political philosophies anymore. I resent that it seems it has to be a matter of faith.

I don't see how it can work though. In real life, children don't come into the garden and melt the heart of the Selfish Giant. How many Wendell Potters can there really be? Can one strategically plan to reduce conservatives' selfishness?

78:

"...they contain something of the debate about 'how humans should live'..."

Unfortunately this seems to spawn ideologies and the dystopias that follow. There is already far too much 'telling me how I should live' in society today for my liking.

Perhaps it is better to keep the future unknowable, maximizing options and steering away from dystopia wherever possible?

79:

One mans' Utopia is another's distopia...

80:

I'm all for both utopian fiction and philosophy (the two are not the same thing). But both suffer from the same limitations. Utopia is - by definition - static. How can we improve upon perfection? And secondly, why would we need to? If we were ever to achieve a utopian ideal (whatever that would look like), it would bring social, technological, and genetic change to a dead stop.

The recent (if I can call the last seventy years "recent") popularity of dystopian fiction suggests that contemporary English-speaking cultures have become inherently skeptical of utopian thought. Dystopian fiction points to the flaws and weaknesses of utopian philosophy, and I think the paucity of contemporary utopian fiction represents a failure to respond to the critiques inherent in those dystopias. Most of the significant dystopias (Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984, Vance's Alastor books, Morrow's City of Truth, Moore's V for Vendetta, etc.) share many features with the utopias that preceded them (More's Utopia, Wells' A Modern Utopia, Skinner's Walden Two, etc.). But I can only think of a handful contemporary utopias (with the possible exception of Ajvaz's The Golden Age and Banks' Culture books) that attempt in any way to address the underlying weaknesses of the utopian ideal.

If we want to create contemporary utopian philosophy (and the fiction that communicates it), we need to (a) face up to the weaknesses inherent in previous utopian philosophy, and (b) develop a response to them.

In many ways, Banks has done that with the Culture. However, in his books the process has become fait accompli: we meet the Culture when it is already established, functional, mature. The growing pains - that which is relevant to us today or a century from now - are notably off-camera.

I'm sure those of us who have seen the effects of communism firsthand can testify (paraphrasing Bismarck): Utopias are like laws and sausages: it is better not to see them being made.

81:

No, utopia is at best an asymptotic target; we can't get there from here but maybe we can get within spitting distance. That gives us a good reason to write about utopias: we need to find out what direction to head in.

I have to agree there's too much focus on dystopia just now; SF hasn't been so depressing since the 1970's, when we were all going to die in a horrible ecological collapse (oh, wait, we still are), according to current dystopias). Too much dystopia is giving me dispepsia.

As for having to change human nature to get to utopia, I call bullshit. We don't know what human nature is yet, let alone how easy it is to change. I notice that a lot of the political and economic writings that insist on a "nature red in tooth and claw" reading of human nature are written by apologists for an existing power structure: that's the nature of the currently powerful and so they think it must be based on universal principles. That's ass-kissing, not science.

82:

My thoughts -- the short form -- are here (Yes: the long form is basically the complete blog [see link in my name], and its first fruits this anthology).

Nevertheless, a few short remarks:

"Utopia" is the wrong term: it's a push-button word that immediately calls up clichés and blanks out productive thoughts. Near-future, optimistic SF covers the topic at hand much better.

And yes, it's hellishly difficult to write. Just try it.

And yes, we need it, more than ever.

BTW: if I'm quiet in the days to come, this is because I have to do a training on board of a laid-up vessel for the day job, and I'm not sure how internet access is down there.

83:

A lot of the contempt people show towards transhumanists is based on a conception of them as wooly headed utopians, I must be reading the wrong transhumanists because they all seem to be distinctly dystopian to me.

Anyway, as someone pointed out earlier, utopias are predicated on technological breakthroughs, you have godlike beneficent AI, you can have the culture, you have cheap matter transmutation, you can have the federation, you get the green revolution, you can have 1960s Britain (a 19th century utopia as mentioned by a previous commenter)

There are plenty of writeups of nanotechnology and other approaching techonologies that make nice predictions that sound fairly good, but reading the dystopian versions is always more entertaining, but again dystopia as warning sign also has been mentioned before in this thread.

>Transmetropolitan had replicators too, but I sure as hell wouldn't call that utopian.

Transmetropolitan's setting doesn't really hang together in any coherent fashion

84:

I don't think anyone has yet mentioned the Flynn effect as a possible cause of what has happened in SF. Better-educated people are less likely to believe promises of a perfect world, and more likely to see the defects in any such proposal.

Also, the 'unprecedented tools for sharing information' allow people to see two things more clearly than ever before. First, the huge number of people that there are. One is no longer competing for status in one's home village; one is competing for a living with millions of strangers. And second, the utter venality and selfishness of the people entrusted with power.

Any vision of a modern utopia is going to have to overcome the resistance of an extremely sceptical audience, so it probably wouldn't sell. Case in point, even the open-source vision(s) at Worldchanging hasn't found many buyers yet. I don't know how the Transition Towns movement is going, but my impression is that it's reaching a peak.

85:

My take is that humanity, as a species, is slowly getting closer to a possible utopia - but this utopia isn't going to be quick in arriving. The changes have been gradual (I'd put the starting date at around 1500CE) but slowly we've been civilising ourselves, looking further and further outside the boundaries of our own heads. As the spaces for the "monkey sphere" (the group of about 150 people most humans can "know" properly) expand outside just our household, our street, our village, our city, our country, our continent, we start to care more about abstract issues in a wider sense. One of the great hopes I can see is the internet - not just the technology, but the social admixture which is appearing as the web becomes more complex, more diverse.

Primarily, it's about people interacting with other people, and noticing similarities rather than differences. From my own experience (which may well be unusual, I admit) I've found the friendships I form on the 'net, and the groups of people I interact with, are people with whom I share ideas and attitudes. They're people who think like me - and some of them are other Australians; some of them are in the UK; some are in Europe; others are in the USA or Canada; yet others are in Japan; and still others could be anywhere on the globe. But they're all "people like me" - even though our experiences in getting to this point differ vastly. But it gives me context for various bits and pieces of news I read. If there's a bushfire in Canberra, I'll hope the people I know there aren't going to be flooded out. If there's an earthquake in Japan, I'll worry about the folks I know there. News about the various political and social ructions happening in the US these days makes me concerned for the people I know of who are effectively caught in the throes of a culture in convulsions (or possibly the mid-stages of collapse). It's not just something abstract happening somewhere else - it's a real event, affecting real people.

Some pointers I'm hoping to see along the road to this particular utopia are the following: a greater demand for political and economic thinking which isn't bounded within the immediate short term - instead of thinking in terms of "what will get me re-elected" we need our elected representatives to be thinking at least fifty years into the future; a greater questioning of what we're being fed by the mass media (particularly in these days of the global News Corporation); a more widespread rejection of dehumanising tactics as a method of group delimiting (bullying, denigration, marginalisation, exclusion etc); a greater questioning of the values and prejudices we grow up immersed in; a greater concentration on removing the reasons for crimes rather than just punishing the people we catch doing them; an expansion of altruism not only on a personal, but on a national and international level.

Actually, now I think about it, my idea of utopia is one which was talked about by quite a few people. The one most folks in WEIRD societies would be familiar with was a Jewish philosopher and rebel who spoke about it in the dying days of the Judaic kingdoms, about seventy years before the Bar Kochbar rebellion against the Romans. But there was also a Hindu prince, a group of Chinese philosophers, an Arabic trader, and quite a few others. Basically, the main philosophy involved is "be awesome to each other, yeah?"

86:

Why is it, btw, that Democracy is presented everywhere as the absolutely only viable way of government without so much as acknowledging that there may be something else?

After all, a Democracy is nothing but a Theocracy modulo one syllable. Instead of the resident representative of god, it is the personification of *the* people (singular!) that's supposed to rule the people (plural!).

It is useless to stress that it doesn't work, because that much is obvious - if it did, why are we having this discussion?

Is it really enough to keep hanging on to the same argument as the Communists in economic debates, that it works, but we're just not doing it right?

Is representing a majority really sufficient to dictate what everyone is supposed to do? Does a majority even know what is in their best interest? Can a majority easily enough act in its own best interest to be relevant as a way to rule itself? I know that *I*, as just one person, am challenged on both of the last two counts in quite a number of decisions - and history absolutely doesn't suggest that a group consensus is that much better in it.

Maybe we should try to find alternatives. While I don't find Plato compelling, there is exactly one thing that I like about his Utopia - that rulers are chosen by competence, not majority.

Or maybe we should ask ourselves what to rule? A major problem today is that you're basically stuck in your country of birth with whatever government there is. There is neither much of a way to switch countries nor to switch governments if you're unhappy about your situation. Especially if you have some really good reason to be unhappy - like living in the Balkans without being allowed to leave for and permanently settle in the EU, where things are a lot better.

The question we should be asking is not "Who is the king?" but "Who makes a king a king?". That used to be the church. The church - not the catholic church, as there was no need for the distinction way back when. Along came the protestants and suddenly there was a new group who could make kings.

Who is making governments these days? (Corporations?)
What groups could be making governments these days? (????)

Is the current conception of a 'government' really such a good idea in the first place? Can it be replaced by something else, just as most of the world replaced the concept of a divine supreme ruler by something else?

87:

Yes I like your last paragraph. The only route to utopia in my mind involves spiritual revolutions like the ones started by those prophets. Science and technology obviously isn't enough, and is at least as likely to bring apocalypse as utopia. The revolution is always in your mind, and it doesn't matter if you're living five thousand years in the past or five thousand years in the future.

The question is, where does one find the inspiration to change one's beliefs if the existing ones are leading you into oblivion? I would argue that it's a mystical or spiritual process that can't be rationally explained, any more than we can rationally explain how an Arab orphan who spent weeks in a cave seeing angels could have such a profound effect on the planet for the last 1400 years. Of course I'm sure the host of this blog would disagree and has some neurochemical explanation for that too...

88:

jamie: Bank's culture is surely a dystopia? The humans are the pets of the god-like MIs played with in the way that we use laser pointers to play with cats.

But it's probably the best of all possible solutions to the Friendly AGI problem.

___

True, probably the best. But the thing I find most interesting about Bank's AIs is that they *are* so humane, on the whole -- that we are not 'just pets.'

89:

In a sense, we're utopian now; no major worldwide wars for 65 years, standards of living have increased in significant ways, health care (even for the poorest) is much improved, food availability up to the point that it's not a determining factor for most of the populations' lives.

We find new limits to be frustrated with, though.

I think that an interesting Utopian exercise is to take anything that's a limit on individuals or society now and remove it, and see what happens.

Energy. Food. Raw materials. Manufacturing capability. Interchange of information and news. Access to knowledge.

We're in the process of doing the last two globally; what that will mean is an exercise in futurism not utopianism, per se. But imagine more absolutist endpoints and play with it.

One can imagine small increases, like everyone worldwide suddenly gets US/European energy availability - or big ones, like everyone on earth gets 10-100-1000x more energy available to work with.

One can take away other factors. What if fresh water became available in any quantity? What if access to space was as easy as access to jetliners now? What if the computational power available on earth was a thousand, million, or billion times higher? What if medicine could cure all the diseases currently active, and/or cure or reset old age (this latter shows up fairly regularly in fiction already)?

90:

@ 9
But people ARE NOT EQUAL
Their "IQ" (please note the quotes) are not equal, their physical strengths are not equal, their manipulative/co-ordination skills are not equal.
Sme can write great prose or verse, some are illiterate, some can do (or not) the same for music .....

Charlie @ 11
IS the Culture an Utopia?
It has problems, and incomplete solutions, and makes (sometimes messy) mistakes ....

Roland Dobbins @ 14
I call LAIR on you.
Global Warming IS happening.
Start HERE ...
It's a multi-collected data-scheme many thousands of data-collectors, small error bars etc.
Read it CAREFULLY.

@ 29 and everybody
"Communism" is a RELIGION
It proffers a supposed "utopia" - with the usual eschatological consequences - like killing all the kulaks.
Religions offer utopias - they ALWAYS produce hell.

@34
"The Dispossesed" is a UTOPIA?
You've lost your mind!

@ 47
"Spiritual" utopias?
Have you lost your mind?
We've tried that, several times, and they always result in even more torture, death, blackmail and irrationality.

@ 49
"LEVIATHAN" had a lot of good points.
Unfortunately Mr Dobbs seems to have overlooked them.
Rather like the Adam Smith Institute, who don't appear to have read Adam Smith ....

The Raven @ 64
YES

91:

George:

> no major worldwide wars for 65 years

I beg to differ.

The Cold War was worldwide and it wasn't cold. Neither in terms of nuclear weapons (500 atmospheric explosions should be enough to qualify it as a nuclear conflict.) nor in terms of conventional warfare outside the countries of the blessed billion (aka the developed world).

92:

'Utopia is - by definition - static.'

While Utopia (impossible place) is the word for what Charlie is talking about, I'm guessing that all the implications about perfection and stasis are more counter-productive than illuminating.

Personally, I'd just settle for a setting that is an appealing place to live, while remaining reasonably plausible, and, crucially, connected to the here and now (not 300+ years in the future, a fantasy or alternate history). I'd even settle for the status quo if it's maintenance could somehow, by some magitech, be made plausible.

To an extent, progress is natural and inevitable until stopped, like a rock left out in the sunlight gradually becoming warmer. Education allows science, science allows new technologies, technology naturally serves to eliminate resource constraints, society eventually reorganises itself to get rid of the strictures imposed to deal with them.

To put it another way, global society is like a shark - it moves forwards, or it dies.

There's a lot of books out there that are set hundred of years in the future, with all kinds of warp drives and AIs, that feel exactly like a rock on a scorching hot day that still has frost on it.

So if you are talking about a future society, they you really need to be writing something that from here looks rather like a utopia. You have to think 'what would a corporation look like if not structurally corrupt'?. How could you have a democracy where people get to really choose between a range of viable options, instead of just worse and un-worse?

If you can't manage that, you might as well stick to vampires.

93:

I go along with some of those above: Not everybody will always agree on whether or not an imagined society is a utopia. And I believe that utopias have to be stable in most senses of the word, since a temporary utopia doesn't count.

So, is the Kesh society in LeGuin's _Always coming home_ a utopia?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Always_Coming_Home

---David

94:
I have trouble envisaging a utopia arising for humanity. It is human nature to compete with each other and to place their own needs above the community at large. It is this that has caused communism and rousseau's social contract to fail in practice.

Not necessarily, IMHO. It is human nature to seek status and recognition, but how is this status and recognition defined may be very different. Nowadays it is frequently measured by value of possessions or power over subordinates, this is however not the only possible way. E.g. in scientific circles it may be number of articles published in prestigious journals, in arts and entertainment it may be a number of fans, etc.

It would therefore appear that self limiting socio political models fail when faced with human nature.

Models created by theorists suffer this frequently. It seems (to me at least) that many of the proposers of new social/political/economical/whatever order, after designing some "perfect system", happily assume that people, awed by it's greatness, will behave exactly as the designers expect (and no one would be working actively to destroy the system). Then reality comes along...

Communism is a perfect example of this - if all the people were good communists, the system would work. But these bad, bad people wouldn't behave, even after years of indoctrination, psychiatric treatment and Kolyma gulags.

The only way for better system to exist is to evolve. Attempts to speed this up by force will end badly.

And regarding SF utopias, the only one that I consider working and livable (as in "I'd consider moving there") was Chiron society from "Voyage from yesteryear". It isn't perfect but quite close to my ideal.

95:

I suspect that experience plays a big role: the older person has seen a lot more go wrong, and has through hard experience learned about risk management.

Some of it could also be biochemical — less testosterone, more caution, that kind of thing — but I'd bet that a lot of it is a gut-level realization that things can go pear-shaped even to good, special, unique people…

Thinking about it, if it's learning through experience over biological factors, you should see convergence to an optimal risk management strategy over time. I don't think you do.

96:

(The second paragraph of the previous post should have been in italics; it's Robert Prior's originally. Must have misplaced the tag. oh well!)

97:

Individual societies based on particular theories of class stratification, power sharing, economic distribution, etc. seem to have lifetimes on the order of a few centuries; after awhile unforeseen external forces break in on them and change their environments, or internal groups learn how to game the system and break them from within. What a long-lasting utopia needs is well-designed metasystem that can adapt to external forces and neutralize the gaming of internal forces. I have no idea what that might look like, but then I don't know what a real short-term utopia might look like either (all the ones I've read about would last less than a generation).

Of course, if human nature really is rigidly fixed, then a working meta-utopia could probably only be built by something like a group of Minds.

98:

Folks, science-fiction itself is basically a utopia. It usually sets as a standard for decision-making and world-shaping the values of the Enlightenment: reason, fairness, and the scientific, systematic consideration of evidence, inter alia. In the current context of resurgent non-reality-based ideologies, writing any science-fiction at all is utopian.

From this point of view, Neal Stephenson's _Anathem_ is utopian: it presents, by the end of the narrative, a social improvement characterized by a new-found influence of reason and scientific ideals.

Writing optimistic science fiction is a different problem. If the future is bleak, at least for some societies, willful blindness would actually be a betrayal of reason. In the current context, lucidity already seems utopian to me. But lucidity is the first step to coming up with appealing scenarios that are also credible.

99:

Apocalypse may be a christian metaphor, but that doesn't mean it's never applicable.

When I look at resource depletion I wonder. Ocean fisheries may never recover to what they were. (When the dominant predatory fish are removed, a different species tends to move in, and then frequently to previously dominant species has no way to recover.) Minerals are becoming more dispersed. Currently junkyards are some of our best ore deposits...but you need electricity to do the refining. (Or fractional distilation. That might be a road to recovery after a real collapse...if people remembered the possibility.)

Solar power may lighten the problem of peak oil, but it won't eliminate it.

Population keeps increasing, and food supplies are nearing their limits.

Etc. Some problems seem to have solutions. Some have obvious solutions that people aren't willing to accept. Some problems don't seem to have solutions. And some problems may not be problems in the long term. But we live in the short term. And occasionally a new solution is found.

I am, by nature and training, a pessimist. (I remember hiding under my school desk to defend myself from a nuclear attack. And thinking at they time how silly that was.) But we have (probably) made it through the most dangerous part of THAT particular pass. Unfortunately, there's many others in the not-far distance ahead.

FWIW, I am a singularitarian. By hope if not by conviction. I see no plausibility of humanity surviving the next century unless AI makes an increasingly large number of correct decisions. It wouldn't need to even be smarter than a person. Merely not to be as greedy and untrustworthy. (Yes, some humans appear to be trustworthy. But you can't tell. And you can tell that they *want* to make the choice that they see as more personally advantageous.) If governments don't end up being run by intelligent computers, then I see no measurable chance of humanity surviving the next two centuries. If an AI is put in charge, then it all depends on the nature of the AI. (Could be good, could be bad.) And it does appear to me that things are on track for an AI of approximately human intelligence to appear around 2030. (A date which hasn't changed in around a decade. Possibly longer, but I can't remember for sure.)

N.B.: I'm *NOT* predicting the possibility of a Utopia. Merely the possibility of a just and honest government. (Even that I'd rate as a rathe low probability.) This clearly *isn't* a Utopia, because:
1) it's not static, and
2) most people won't like it.

If it happens it will probably be done by "subversion" of the current system as an economy measure, replacing increasing numbers of civil servants by AIs and robots. And it will probably progress faster in the workplace than in government. An obvious intermediate stage is one where a steadily decreasing proportion of the population has a job. (I think it's currently around 20%. That's not what the official figures say, but I know they are lying, just not how much. [I live in the US.])

100:

FWIW:
On thinking a bit, I'm reminded of some of the Mack Reynolds stories from the 1960's in Analog. I never liked those stories, and they didn't include intelligent computers. But the society that was protrayed is something like an optimal version of the intermediate state that I'm ... I guess I've got to say "hoping for", but only because all the alternatives seem worse.

The particular series that I'm thinking of had a class ridden society, video transmitted "war games" where the combatants fought using a pre-decided set of allowed weaponry, etc. And a largely unemployed citizenry who were kept docile by a ration of "Tranks". (Self-administered "opium of the people" with few addictive properties. The worse side-effect seemed to be turning them into couch potatoes. Marijuana would probably work.) The unemployed seemed to live at about a 1930's upper-lower class standard of living...but with more gadgetry.

Of course, the theological opponents of giving people sustenance without requiring the "Sweat of the brow" would probably be happier with people rioting in the streets, but I think that most governments wouldn't take that approach. OTOH, another possibility is to adopt the solution used with pidgeons, and include a birth control chemical with the Trank. (That, of course, was never even considered by the Analog stories.)


101:

Greg Egan has recently developed an interesting galactic utopia called the Amalgam in various short stories and the novel "Incandescence".

His recent near-future novel "Zendagi" is not utopian, but it does lay out a path of gradual improvement and pitfalls avoided. The most plausibly imagined first steps toward AI I have ever read, amazing stuff.

As Egan was quite disgusted with, eg, Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, I see it as an excellent sign that he's now imagining futures like these.

102:

I can offer one recent utopian science-fiction work: Chris Carlsson's After the Deluge. Not a superb novel, in strictly literary terms, it nonetheless provides enough narrative interest to keep the didactic and expository parts from getting too boring—better than Heinlein managed some times. Best of all, though, is its realistic view of utopia—there are still criminals, still friction and frustration, still unsolved problems. In that sense, though it doesn’t try to define a clear path from here to utopia, it at least tries to show a utopia in its early formative stages. Worth a look.

Oh, and I actually downloaded it as a PDF some years back, when it was being freely distributed. Now it seem to be for sale in hard copy. I’m not sure whether the popularity of the free version earned the author a publication deal, or what, but I don’t think the digital version is available any more—at least, not from the author.

103:

On the Culture: Not really sure how a society where any individual or group can freely choose to leave to go & do their own thing can be called a dystopia. Unless you posit the Minds are manipulating things to such an extent that Culture 1.0-level individuals only have the illusion of free will?

Leave and go where? The Elanch? I think that's the right name - I don't have a copy of any of the books here sadly - which are like Canadians to the Culture's Americans and are not free of the influence of the Minds.

The Minds take great pleasure in manipulating galactic politics without directly meddling with the meat. But in the same way as a super AI can easily convince you to let it out of the box, the Minds can (and do) easily convince the humans to remain in their gilded cage, or escape to the Elanch. And if someone does want to leave (even beyond Canada, er the Elanch) then it's still not a true utopia. A true utopia would have 100% participation.

Finally who is in ultimate charge of the direction of The Culture? Everyone voted on the subject of the Iridian war (and many left for the Elanch afterwards who disagreed with the outcome), but war was what the Minds wanted and they got it. How much influence did they put forward to convince people? How close to violating free will does that come?

The Culture would be a brilliant place to live, and would certainly be very close to feeling like being in a utopia. But it is not a utopia, and it is at the edges and in the mistakes the Minds have made that this shows through and that is precisely where all the subject matter of the stories comes from - the edges and the mistakes, the parts that break the utopia.

104:

It's funny how Banks is coming up in this discussion, as an example of that rare science fiction author who does write about an utopia.

Yes, Banks writes on and on about the "Culture" utopia in his novels but I think that he isn't a science fiction author at all. His case is very interesting because he does think that he is a science fiction author. He really is a good author, a good novelist who uses science fiction as a backdrop only. It's like that film called "Star Wars", which came out in 1977. It was presented as a science fiction film. Lucas thought he was doing a science fiction film. But Star Wars used science fiction as a backdrop only. The plot, the characters, everything could have been lifted and then dropped in front of a western backdrop or a fantasy backdrop.

What makes the Banks case most interesting is that usually the "science fiction" novelists who use science fiction only as a backdrop are also persons who have major problems with plots and/or storytelling and/or characterization and/or dialogue. Banks has none of those problems. He's a good novelist, a master of his craft. But there's a lot more to writing SF than being a good writer. It took me long years to understand this. I first read Banks as a teenager, and after each novel I would feel this incredible intellectual hunger. I didn't understand why. Why? It was tricky because he was so good as an author, unlike the typical "general failure" SF authors. His talent kept me from seeing a simple answer, a single word: Backdrop.

So, modern science fiction authors, real science fiction authors, don't like to write about utopias at all. Just look at you Mr Stross: " We should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions." and "We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or…". But are you writing them? Of course not. Will you write them? I bet you won't. They're not fun for a true science fiction author like you. They represent the end of speculation. They're closed systems.

105:

@99 How exactly is human level AI going to solve our problems when we already have billions of those? If you mean superhuman AI, then you’re basically turning AI into God and becoming religious. But if the take home message of transhumanism and singularitarianism is that humanity is on its way out, soon to be superceded by superhumans or AI’s, then I don’t think that particular religion is likely to win too many converts. What exactly is the vision of a transhumanist utopia, other than some vague claims of technological transcendence via “mind uploading” that are as unproven as every other promise of religious salvation?

106:

which is a consensus of the Right, insofar as the flagship of the Left hit an iceberg and started to sink in 1917, finally hitting the sea floor in 1989

As my gran used to say, if life hands you a sinking ship, make submarines. The problem is that it hit the sea floor when stalin had trotsky exhiled for advocating collectivisation, puttered along for a while and then in 1989 it all went a bit...Kursk.

Submasocialism is dead, killed by crappy reactors, long live anthibianarchism?

Isn't the thing about "no dramatic tension in a utopia" where James Nicoll's whole "the environment is hostile enough to provide dramatic conflict all on its own" thing would come in handy? That's pretty much what drives the drama for the bits of The Dispossessed set on the anarchist moon after all, at least during that great famine period (and it was really gripping to read as well).

Utopia + Volcano = Drama!!!

107:

My goodness, it sounds as if you might be a tad bit optimistic here! Somewhere in Canada Peter Watts is reading this and is very disappointed in you, or at the very least laughing paternally with the mental equivalent of a pat on the head and an "oh, how cute of Charlie!"

I, however, approve. (and Mr. Watts, if you are here, your pessimism is highly entertaining. Please continue to provide reasons for me to toss money your way.)

But I bring up Mr. Watts for the exact reason of his skepticism of a brighter future. It is symptomatic of of the cynicism and skepticism that prevents utopian ideals from arising. (Maybe correctly, too!) It is as if society has subconsciously absorbed Richard Rorty's ironic thesis but rejected his remedy: liberal ideals are so tinged with the ironic understanding of their lack of universal or absolute applicability that the efforts towards them that might produce the prodigious social improvement seen in decades or centuries past is aborted in utero, and the result is apathetic horror.

I don't know the solution, but i am hopeful that some emergent property of the changes wrought by the increases in the increase in the rate of change in society, in technology, in communication patterns... Somewhere there will be a spark to ignite what is necessary. But still, when I read Mr. Watts I find myself all to often afraid of the parallels I see in the world today.

108:

...But then again there's no real environmental problems that a utopia could struggle against on earth... whelp, better get back to writing that novel about how global islamic warming is going to DOOM US ALL...

109:

@Charlie Stross "gcl and jamie.practicaluseful.com: I do not view any system based on capitalism as an ideal outcome. Also, communism's unsung triumph is that it is the system we use for roughly 75% of our social interactions -- those that take place outside the marketplace, between family members and close friends. (Or do you believe parents should charge their toddlers for room and board?)" I do take your point but I'm not completely convinced this is a communist interaction merely because it involves exchange of value without a monetary basis. *parent* "In exchange for your labour the state of *our house* will provide for your needs now go and clean the car" *son* "you have a car - Capitalist bourgeoisie pigs!"

I am not a fan of capitalist democracy in particular due to the inherent internal contradiction set out in my earlier post and would be keen to see a better model.

I am excited by the prospect of the forthcoming book and will be intruiged to see your take on a new model. I will try to be patient...

110:

@85- "I've found the friendships I form on the 'net, and the groups of people I interact with, are people with whom I share ideas and attitudes. They're people who think like me - and some of them are other Australians; some of them are in the UK; some are in Europe; others are in the USA or Canada; yet others are in Japan; and still others could be anywhere on the globe. But they're all "people like me""

All that means is that your in-group isn't based around national lines. It's _easy_ to get along with people who are like you-- how would you build a utopian society full of people who disagree on fundamental issues?

Or, of course, how would you get people to agree on fundamental issues by means that don't wind up being...harsh?

111:

@ 94
I disagree
Humanity's need to compete, maybe ... to dominate, not so sure.
My own, unscientific and biased observation is that 95% of the time at least 95% of the people - up to 99% of the people are all right.
Then there's that 1-4%.
These are the people that all the laws and constraints are about.
Not just "criminals", people who steal and kill, but those who bully, those who dominate, those who lie.
How does one set up and regulate a society so that these, the unutterably self-centred (for that is what they are) are kept under control, without infringing on everyone else, without having such severe control-methods on everyone, that you are un-necessarilry restricted?
This is the heart (maybe) of the libertarian or alternatively freedom-loving versus state-control arguments.
I know I don't have an answer to this one.

@ 99
"population keeps increasing"
NO
Once you get to a decent standard of living (like even 1900 Britain, never mind 1950 or 2000) the population stabilises. Even in an 150% male-religious-bigot-dominated society like "Iran" - the Persian birth-rate is dropping, the women won't stand for being used as breeding-machines. And this seems to be a general result, applicable every where.

Also: "singularity" - somewhere between 2020 and 2035 I'd say. "Blue Brain" anyone?
As for rationality, well, maybe not This piece of irrational bullshit

@ 103
Elench
And no, the war was forced on the Culture, they had no choice. Banks makes this clear, and deliberately so.
The Idirans were religious fanatics - akin to some we could easily name from current or recent history.

@ 106 and Charlie at the start.
"Flagship of the left" ?
You what, uh?
No. We already know that communism is a religion, with its' own internalised utopia, which cannot and does not work, with all the usual trapping of religious believers trying (and eventually failing) to force people into the utopia-which-is-really-an-hell.

112:

John Brunner's "The Long Result" is an account of some of the progress toward one.

Bits of Niven.

113:

@111- The "domination" problem probably would require genetic engineering-- being deferred to by others causes very pleasant changes in the neurochemistry of the "dominant"- testosterone and serotonin go up while cortisol goes down. Being the alpha in the ape tribe feels good. As long as this is so, someone's going to get a taste somehow and want more.

114:

Greg: Communism isn't just an ideological creed with religious overtones; it's also the way we organize our family groups. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" is a pretty good description of the dynamic at work within [non-disfunctional] families and close kin groups.

It tends to break down when extended to much larger groups, but works reasonably well up to kibbutz scale. I suspect the core problem is sociopathy, the psychological disorder characterised by lack of empathy and manipulative intent that seems to have a prevalence of 1-3% in the general public -- you're unlikely to get a sociopath in a family of 1-10 individuals, likely to have one or two in a kibbutz-sized group, but if you try to scale up to a group the size of a city you're going to have thousands or tens of thousands; and also, it's harder for ordinary people to behave empathically when dealing with a large number of impersonal contacts.

(Note that this isn't a recipe for a violence-free utopia; it's quite possibly how many of our paleolithic ancestors lived, in tribal groups with common ownership of what little they could carry, and extremely violent interactions with their neighbours.)

Sociopathy is a major problem for any utopia (unless you're Ayn Rand, in which case the worthy are sociopaths). Hmm ...

115:

Deeper problem there- if you can't manage things so that maximizing one's own interests/wants/desires can only be done at the expense of society's at large, it won't just the the sociopaths who are the grit in the gears.

Arguably, this is the biggest strength of capitalism- since business activity is, on average, pretty useful to society at large, it provides a mechanism for people with little or no empathy to do something useful for others as they pursue their own aims.

116:

Sorry- make that "can't only be done"

117:

@jamie:

Leave and go where? The Elanch? I think that's the right name - I don't have a copy of any of the books here sadly - which are like Canadians to the Culture's Americans and are not free of the influence of the Minds.

There have been at least two examples of people leaving the Culture to join other civilisations - one of which involved that individual changing his entire species to do so. I stick by my original assertion that this level of individual freedom precludes the Culture from being a dystopia.

I think you've rather missed the point of my post though. I never said - nor do I believe - that the Culture as written is a Utopia. Just that it's not a dystopia.

118:

The Zetetic Elench are one of many ex-Culture groupings, it's just that one has a large plot investment in "Excession" so its name pops up a lot. Such groupings are usually headed for eventual Sublimation, something the Culture-at-Large seems to be studiously avoiding and so it lets the Up And Outers split off before they can drag the rest of the Culture with them en masse.

There are other ex-Culture environments mentioned in the books where Culture technology has been downgraded or excluded[0] to allow the participants to enjoy nature in the raw if they so wish. See Heinlein's "Coventry" for a predecessor example.

[0] The Minds probably keep a watching brief on such environments even if they don't grossly interfere in its operation. Who knows where an Out Of Context problem might pop up when those silly yoo-mans are involved?

119:

Isn't the problem with larger groups ultimately down to the fact that intra-group communication doesn't scale?

For a group to remain cohesive & resistant to "default" (in the game theoretic sense) they need to all roughly agree on what they're doing, believe that it will be of net benefit to them, know their own role within that goal & trust that everybody else is working towards the same ends as well. Once that's no longer true, you get an inevitable breakdown of trust (is that person just freeloading, or taking a well deserved break from a long hard day?) and the opportunity for subgroups to either create conflicts that break the group up, or subvert the resources of the larger group for their own goals (be that personal benefit or something else).

The trust and communication you need for a group to remain cohesive is facilitated by kin relationships which enhance both; hence the small 'tribe' as the unit of human society until the invention of agriculture. Any larger group is inevitably going to fragment internally.

An extension of this communication problem is that for larger groups, the resource allocation problem arises in spades: it becomes impossible to know how best to allocate resources, because knowledge of how much each activity costs suffers from the same kind of communication problem.

The argument for capitalism, at least of the Adam Smith variety (rather than our current odd mix of socialist government and oligarchic corporatism {which overlap} with a large chunk of capitalist enterprise in pieces of the economy which are too fast moving for the oligarchic elements to keep control) is that a market economy is the best available solution to the pricing problem for larger groups because the market gives us a more accurate "price" for what some endeavour will cost than any other method. Like democracy though, even when it works it's the least worst method available: the heights of utopia are probably beyond the reach of capitalism.

On the culture: The culture as dystopia (Minds on top, humans as pets) is certainly a valid reading (IMO), but it's undermined by the radical freedom that the Culture asserts: no-one is forced to either join or stay, and that goes for the minds as much as the humans. This freedom is underpinned by the fact that the Culture is not resource constrained in any meaningful way. If it were, then there would be internal and external conflict over the use of those resources & that would (probably?) place limits on that freedom.

120:

Charlie @ 114
Tend to agree with you.
But look at what I said about between 1 & 5% of the population promptly screing it for everyone?

@ 119
Yes.
Money is a measure of scarcity

121:

Charlie @ 114
I tend to agree ... but ...
Remember what I said about the 1-5% who don't get along, who exploit?
And what happens in families, when an exploiter gets a grip, internally?

@ 119
Culture:
Money is a measure of scarcity, remember?

122:

The means of the Culture are science fantasy, but I'd unreservedly call the ends utopian and Where I'd Most Like to Live if it Weren't Impossible. If the Minds are so good at peaceful and democratic persuasion that they've effectively subverted free choice, it's only in the same way that offering a hungry man a sandwich subverts his free choice to instead eat leaves or bark.

Brave New World seems to me a species of utopia, but one that's often (intended to be?) culturally dissonant to the reader, so it ends up mentioned in the same breath as actual-dystopia 1984. Peter Watts once managed to chill me with a description of a dystopian-utopia, the VR Heaven from Blindsight. I'm not repulsed by junkies or wireheading in fiction, but somehow Watts managed to make Heaven deeply disturbing.

Ongoing trends point away from utopia: communism and democracy with broad participation have both been tried for extended periods and demonstrably fallen short of utopia. Many if not most programs to prevent and reverse environmental degradation come too little and late. The same advances in robotics and computers that may liberate men from labor may also liberate governments and plutocrats from public opinion; with a comprehensive security apparatus based on technical rather than social authority there is no need for even minimal consent from the governed.

Ongoing trends point toward utopia: global oil use per capita peaked in the 1970s, but global economic production per capita has continued to rise. Photovoltaic power, although painfully expensive by current comparison with conventional fuels, is still cheaper than fossil-driven electricity circa 1900. Global population is still rising but the rate of increase has slowed considerably; it should peak late this century. Technological and industrial development plus broader education look likely to make the median global citizen more prosperous faster than fossil fuel deprivation or population increases can diminish and dilute prosperity.

123:

I disagree regarding communism, I do not see it having been tried for a long period anywhere, which may as has been said upthread, mean it doesn't work outside the family/ small groupings. Soviet Russia does not count, state ownership and control of the means of production is not in any way communism, and neither is despotic control of the state by a small group of oligarchs.

124:

I suspect the main reason utopias have fallen out of favor in science fiction is because so many of the utopians of the previous century exhibited a reliable predilection for killing large quantities of human beings. At this point, the rational and humanist response to anyone who seriously presents a plan for imposing Utopia X on humanity should be to immediately shoot him in the head.

Whether "human nature" exists or not, it should now be obvious to any sentient being that societies which depend upon human beliefs and behavior changing drastically are inevitably going to attempt to rid themselves of those individuals who are either unwilling or unable to sufficiently modify their beliefs and behavior.

125:
I'd hate to think we were living in the best of all possible worlds right now, and it's all downhill from here ...

How about "we are living in a pretty good of all possible worlds right now, and it can go uphill from here"?

* We have solved the Malthusian problem. Inadvertently, with a massive stroke of luck, we now have a stable population within grasp. 9 billion people (estimated peak population, circa 2050) is a lot of people, but it's a finite, bounded number; we can engineer for that.

* Peak oil (and peak various trace chemicals) may turn out to be manageable; as oil (or whatever) runs out, its price rises and replacements are deployed as they become profitable.

* Climate change may be a problem, or then again it may not; 5mm/year sea level rise is not catastrophic. It can be solved by migration, well within the bounds of historic migrations, or by importing some Dutch know-how.

* Democracy, safety from crime, health — they're all trending upwards, despite all the set-backs that we see in the news. To some extent, that's why they're news — they're the exception to the overall positive trend.

There are problems and challenges ahead, sure; overall, though, the world is looking up!

126:
Non-growth economics is harder than you might expect. Only a few think about it at all, and all they do is write about ways to slow down growth, because they cannot think of a successful way to eliminate it.

I wonder if zero population growth might be the new fee tail... without the downside of disinheriting second sons and all daughters (or vice versa). If the number of people is roughly the same in each generation, subdivision is not much of a problem.

The ancient British lawn formula ("seed and roll for five hundred years") might become much more common!

Once the number of people is constant and everybody is housed, it won't take much effort for the quality of housing to improve continuously, generation after generation, century after century.

(Obviously, this assumes that inequality isn't rising fast enough to wipe out the effect, but that's plausible, at the least.)

127:

The Culture and the United Federation of Planets are utopias (for values of utopia that allow the few who feel a call of adventure an outlet) precisely because of Contact and Starfleet respectively. Those 2 organisations serve to give the few who seek adventure or political power their outlets (and get written about because that's where all the interesting stuff happens).

128:

As a corrective to the idea that a machine without our hangups, but without the omniscience of the Culture Minds, would have to be better than us at the job: Peter Watts' Maelstrom. The technocratic AI decided that the shadow ecology was "better" than us and started mopping our tree of life off the board, sine ira sine studio. Or what if the Culture-type AI's decided, for some set of parameters, most of us would generally be happier as Klingons than as Federationistas?

129:

Communism isn't just an ideological creed with religious overtones; it's also the way we organize our family groups. "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs" is a pretty good description of the dynamic at work within [non-disfunctional] families and close kin groups.

But there's always a little Timmy who shirks out of doing his fair share of the dishes, and the punk still gets his allowance!

130:

Human families operate with the hidden economy of genetics in the background.

I sometimes wonder if humans are able to form large societies simply because we're all so closely related due to the near-extinction event of 70000 years ago that reportedly reduced us to aprox. 2000 individuals.

If we had the genetic diversity of other primates perhaps we'd be even more fractious and xenophobic.

131:

Which raises the question: which non-Western cultures or downtrodden subcultures are churning out Utopian fiction? Is there some hidden treasure-trove of Furry utopias to be had?

There is pretty recent libertarian utopia in Russian language space, a set of novels written by Alexander Rozov in 2008-2010 years about the world called "Meganesia". Or at least first 3 books are libertarian and utopia, last one in the series turns more into technocratic side and has red khmers and massacres of civilians painted as positive things... but world in first books is real utopia where you really would want to live in.

Ukrainian writers Marina and Sergey Dyachenko have at least two books that can be qualified as utopia. First book is "Pandem" where utopian lifestyle is enforced by extraterrestrial/supernatural power. Second one is very recent, published this year, novel "Migrant or Brevi Finietur" that describes "postpostindustrial" society with non-scarcity economics and complex "social responsibility" based decision making.

But much more often dissatisfaction turns into dreaming of USSR resurrection or rising of Great Russian Empire that punish USA and "liberasts" for what they did to Russia or alternative history with great empire created by Genghis Khan from his Orda and Russia or... I guess you catch the idea.

132:

Shine or Metatropolis. That's two right there. We've also got things like Robinson's Mars series from the 1990s,Earth, perhaps the Dream Park series from the 80s, and so on.

Kind of sucks that:
a) Authors used to write this stuff.
b) Authors ARE writing this stuff,
and
c) very few are noticing.

It used to be much easier to find such stories 20 or 30 years ago, and even then they included global warming, idiot politics, and the threat of looming disasters.

Personally, I blame the major publishers who have decided that this stuff won't sell. That's a remarkably passive attitude. It's like they've gone from trend spotters to bottom feeders.

133:

You've all missed a few relatively recent ones.
The anarcho-socialist state in The Cassini Division by Ken Mcleod, similar to a very small Culture, but without the AI's (well, not friendly ones). Mind you, it's fully socialist and I have images of some readers of this blog spluttering into their tea/beer/beverage of choice ;)
I suppose the post-Fall society of The Sky Road is in some way utopian too.

Also, the society in which Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is pretty utopian (with the interesting addition of whuffie).

On a personal note, I'm not sure if the entire society in Stephenson's Anthem is utopian, but for me the Mathic world certainly appealed (ymmv).

134:

#132 Personally, I blame the major publishers who have decided that this stuff won't sell. That's a remarkably passive attitude. It's like they've gone from trend spotters to bottom feeders

Which reminds me of a discussion I had with an agent a whil back about trilogitus (the state where you refuse to publish anything that doesn't have "Book N of a major new trilogy" on the cover). His argument was that trilogies and continuing series sell better than stand-alone novels. I can accept that this is true, but is it true because they sell better, or because they're better marketted, and if it's because they're better marketted, isn't it a self-fulfilling prediciton that they'll sell better?

Using our host as a case study on the subject, the first book I actually bought was Glasshouse, partly because I knew going in that it was a stand-alone novel. There are several others I might have chosen first on the same basis, (actually including "The Atrocity Archives" because it's not got "The Laundry Volume 1" on the cover, so IMO that's a good, if possibly "brave" [see Yes Minister for definition of the value of brave used]), but I wouldn't have started in on "The Merchant Princes" if I'd not read several of his stand-alone novels first.

135:

Charlie, is this:

Also, communism's unsung triumph is that it is the system we use for roughly 75% of our social interactions -- those that take place outside the marketplace, between family members and close friends. (Or do you believe parents should charge their toddlers for room and board?)

really plausible?

Wouldn't it be more reasonable to say that what we are seeing is not communism (which in the Marxist form was teleological and based on the messianic triumph of the proletariat) nor capitalism, but something prior to both? What you say seems almost like attributing the rump of the House of Lords to a triumph of capitalism, whereas it's a hold-over of feudalism.

Seems like what you've got here is more like The Gift than The Communist Manifesto.

But it's clearly not capitalism....

Cheers

136:

Charlie: who is better equipped than you to produce a few utopias, say 3 or 4, novella-length, related by contrast?

137:

A human level AI won't necessarily solve out problems. It might, however. This would be because it might be unselfish and trustworthy. The inherent problem with trusting governments is that those who control them are NEITHER turstworthy nor unselfish. If government became trustworthy, then it would be more reasonable to trust it. (Obviously.) As an unselfish entity, it wouldn't be perpetually seeking self-aggrandizment. Many of the acts that governments promulgate don't have any rational basis, but are merely power-seeking by those in charge. Empire-building is another pernicious characteristic of humans with power.

Read C. Northcote Parkinson for an extended list of the ways people behave in organizations. These would largely not be engaged in by an AI that was trustworthy and unselfish.

Additionally, an AI could be expected to be cheaper to run than a human. There might be other reasons why it would be better. (I could speculate on a few.)

Note that NONE of these are guaranteed benefits. They all depend upon the nature of the AI that gets created. It could be an unmitigated disaster. But we've already been within 30 seconds of nuclear annihilation. I don't think we can survive another two centuries with people in control.

138:

"Nobody's hungry, nobody's angry." could easily be met if you could achieve the following condition: "Nobody's alive.".

Soon the stars will be right and the Elder Gods will awaken. Ia Ia Cthulhu Fhtagn! Ia Ia Cthulhu Fhtagn! Ia Ia Cthulhu Fhtagn!

***NO CARRIER***

139:

Actually, the one absolute defining characteristic of Western civilisations over the last few hundred years or so is how incredibly open to change they are, and how incredibly fast change happens in them.

If you look at ancient archaeological records from stone age times (and this includes early to mid Bronze age), you should be amazed at how little is actually going on over time. Stone tools do change over time, but it takes thousands of years for the styles to change even a very little bit; the basic technology stays pretty much static for tens of thousands of years, with only fairly minor changes in style and function. Primitive humans are very, very, VERY conservative indeed!

The last few hundred years are not typical of how humans behave. Normal human behaviour is to pick a technology and stick to it regardless; this mad, frenetic dash through different technologies with tools and systems changing radically over times below one human lifespan is wildly atypical of normal human behaviour.

Normal African culture is a lot more typical of how normal humans behave; steadfastly sticking to a very basic set of technologies and pig-headedly ignoring anything dangerously new, and reacting violently to the immediate neighbours is absolutely typical of humans for most of their existence.

140:

The New York City Math Teacher above makes a good point about these "utopias" being fantasies of self-actualization. Let me jump up a level: isn't it a little odd to think a better future can be obtained through having more optimistic entertainment?

I know science fiction fans like to claim that science fiction gives people tools to think effectively about the future. I've seen very little sign that this is actually the case, however, and many signs against it.

Perhaps science fiction should be reworked so that it gives its readers the tools to think about the future more clearly first, and worry about its utopian content later.

141:

Utopia? Let's start by amending Socrates simple and direct prescription: Know thyself.

Here it is: Know thyself: Study primatology.

Why? Because we will simply not have a future, or at best we will have a future that repeats itself as it has since the advent of the first hominids, which is quite depressing given the toys we are now playing with - unless we are able, in an absolutely unprecedented way, to begin (and this is just for starters)deconstructing our seemingly hard-wired capacity for self-denial in the form of religion, science, politics, narcotics ... ad infinitum. And how likely is that? Denial of what? Denial of our origins; denial of our primate heritage which has begotten our own unique and inexorable brand of predation.

Personally, I believe that the shotgun marriage orchestrated by nature between the neo-cortex and the limbic system requires further refinement. Perhaps nature is writing up the divorce decree right this very instant! I'm also inclined to believe that utopia's, too, can serve not only as an inspirational scenario planner for ... well, at least some of us ... but also as another form of self-denial.

Pardon my cynicism. I'm just another spurned lover of life. Cheers!

142:

I tend to think that the job of [good] fiction isn't just to entertain but to irritate -- to introduce a sandgrain of discontent with the world-as-it-is, and to rub the rash with some new ideas. When it works, it works spectacularly well and introduces new metaphors into public discourse -- consider, for example, the long-term success of "1984".

Mind you, promoting the tools to think clearly about the future is a fine and worthy goal.

143:

Soru @92 and everyone else.

Thomas More coined the word Utopia. He based it on two Greek roots; "ou" for not and "topos" for place. No Place.

144:

I'd also say that literature also functions to inspire.

Global warming utopia is probably an oxymoron.

However, if we're really entering an age of the crisis of civilization, it's amazing to me that it's not generating a rich literature about the angst of people living in a hotter, more chaotic world.

If older SF was inspired in part by the problems of the expanding empires (much as the western is), perhaps newer SF needs to take it's inspiration from, oh, traditional Irish songs, Scottish ballads, Fado, all those lovely stories about people who are forced by cruel circumstance and die heart-broken or immigrate to China. We've got plenty of lovely stories about suffering, why not use those to inspire us to get through an uncomfortable future?

Heck, I'll bet Jewish literature has a lot of that too, come to think of it. A retelling of The Golem in a 21st Century ghetto isn't a bad way to start, I'm thinking.

145:

Yes. And? So what? Your point? Doesn't stop the vehicle of the Utopia being a vehicle of criticism of the status quo!

Utopia, More, Book One:

I will begin with the occasion that led us to speak of that commonwealth....Raphael had discoursed with great judgment on the many errors that were both among us and these nations; had treated of the wise institutions both here and there, and had spoken as distinctly of the customs and government of every nation through which he had passed, as if he had spent his whole life in it, Peter, being struck with admiration, said: "I wonder, Raphael, how it comes that you enter into no king's service, for I am sure there are none to whom you would not be very acceptable: for your learning and knowledge both of men and things, are such that you would not only entertain them very pleasantly, but be of great use to them, by the examples you could set before them and the advices you could give them; and by this means you would both serve your own interest and be of great use to all your friends."
[...]
"Though to speak plainly my real sentiments, I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable. Therefore when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians--among whom all things are so well governed, and with so few laws; where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality, that every man lives in plenty -- when I compare with them so many other nations that are still making new laws, and yet can never bring their constitution to a right regulation, where notwithstanding everyone has his property; yet all the laws that they can invent have not the power either to obtain or preserve it, or even to enable men certainly to distinguish what is their own from what is another's; of which the many lawsuits that every day break out, and are eternally depending, give too plain a demonstration; when, I say, I balance all these things in my thoughts, I grow more favorable to Plato, and do not wonder that he resolved not to make any laws for such as would not submit to a community of all things: for so wise a man could not but foresee that the setting all upon a level was the only way to make a nation happy, which cannot be obtained so long as there is property: for when every man draws to himself all that he can compass, by one title or another, it must needs follow, that how plentiful soever a nation may be, yet a few dividing the wealth of it among themselves, the rest must fall into indigence.

Aaaah! Evade! Evade! Usenet Argument sighted! Aggghhh!

"So that there will be two sorts of people among them, who deserve that their fortunes should be interchanged; the former useless, but wicked and ravenous; and the latter, who by their constant industry serve the public more than themselves, sincere and modest men. From whence I am persuaded, that till property is taken away there can be no equitable or just distribution of things, nor can the world be happily governed: for as long as that is maintained, the greatest and the far best part of mankind will be still oppressed with a load of cares and anxieties. I confess without taking it quite away, those pressures that lie on a great part of mankind may be made lighter; but they can never be quite removed. For if laws were made to determine at how great an extent in soil, and at how much money every man must stop, to limit the prince that he might not grow too great, and to restrain the people that they might not become too insolent, and that none might factiously aspire to public employments; which ought neither to be sold, nor made burdensome by a great expense; since otherwise those that serve in them would be tempted to reimburse themselves by cheats and violence, and it would become necessary to find out rich men for undergoing those employments which ought rather to be trusted to the wise--these laws, I say, might have such effects, as good diet and care might have on a sick man, whose recovery is desperate: they might allay and mitigate the disease, but it could never be quite healed, nor the body politic be brought again to a good habit, as long as property remains; and it will fall out as in a complication of diseases, that by applying a remedy to one sore, you will provoke another; and that which removes the one ill symptom produces others, while the strengthening one part of the body weakens the rest."

Utopian fiction.

I have an irrelevant aside as relating to the susceptibility of man's institutions to improvement.
A thought experiment. James Kunstler:Ernst Jünger(aka Das Lich) :: The Long Emergency:The Glass Bees.

Kunstler's ouevre is meant to inspire in the reader a frisson - a boner - from the STRIVING ADAPTIVE HEROISM of the viewpoint character, ONLY EXPRESSED WHEN HE WAS FREED OF CENTRAL AIR CONDITIONING AND THE OL'-BALL-AND-CHAIN. The latter applies a cold shower, as only is possible when administered by a man who had, in his twenties, lusted after the self-actualization possible in gas-wafted, bullet-perforated airs above fetid trenches, while thereafter achieving only the self-actualization possible by a self-aware forty-something trapped in administration and forced to enjoy the nightlife of occupied Paris (including socializing with *Cocteau*, ye gads).

146:

I like that. Jazzy funky emigré rec-room Cabalists fresh from Kiryat Gat, animate a New Golem in Brighton Beach, a Golem who will defend the Satmars from the hipsters, who will expropriate the blacks of Crown Heights for the Lubavichers, who will pile great piles of _Commentary_, _The New Republic_, and the _Hebrew Union Free Book of Prayer_, high on Eastern Parkway for burning and public shaming. His dread silhouette shall lurk around the corner, striking terror into the heart of the shatnez-wearer, or the TV watcher, or the biology book reader! This Golem, he will schokkel to a hip-hop hava-nagilah beat!

147:

Off topic, but the Google ebookstore opened today in the US. Searching on "Books by Charles Stross" turns up 15 titles.

148:

If older SF was inspired in part by the problems of the expanding empires (much as the western is), perhaps newer SF needs to take it's inspiration from, oh, traditional Irish songs, Scottish ballads,

Yes, because if there is one thing SF hasn't had enough of, it's manufactured nostalgia for a Celtic past.

149:

Ossian, mark MCMLXIII, "Fir dóiteáin-i gceannas agus leithris a Breacáin?" IN SPPAAAACE!

150:

Bill, Google's eBook store isn't available outside the USA yet. I'm in the UK, so I can't see any of those titles.

I will prod my agent to go have a look and ensure nothing's being sold there that shouldn't be. (Viz: I have no objection in principle to my books being sold, as long as I get my share of the proceeds. When that doesn't happen, I get irritable.)

151:

I was thinking more of the songs about leaving relatives behind after the potato famine.

But you're right, if we talk about nice, red-headed fiery Celtic heroines frying in the heat of a 50 deg C Donnegal summer, you're right, there's too much of that.

Actually, imagine the novel where people are *nostalgic* for that sort of thing. That would be fun to read.

152:

Wow, it's been quite a while since I've seen so many nutters together - it's specially jarring since you're one of the most level-headed, thought-provoking writers out there, Charlie. I mean, if your avarage middle-aged gringo is like some of the people I've read here, it's not that surprising that shit like the tea parties and tories are gaining strenght out there in the anglo-speaking world.

Anyway, as someone living in a certified Hell Hole - for example, every time I take a walk around town, I see someone going through another's people GARBAGE looking for food (and no, this is not a hyperbole) - not to mention the ever-expanding favelas choking the cities, or how living in the city with the biggest per capita murder ratio of Brazil makes you wish you were a christian, just so you'd be able to pray everytime you leave home - fictional dystopias don't really have much appeal to me; I'm 100% with you on the necessity of creating new Utopias.

However, unlike some of the other commenters, I don't think it's really necessary that a benevolent god-like A.I magically change our lives, or that some new scientific mumbo-jumbo end scarcity. I have a feeling that the only "utopias" worth living in are the ones built on sweat, blood and tears.

Anyhow, I have a feeling that getting in the road to Utopia is not quite as hard as some would have you believe - it's simply a matter of getting out there, doing the best you can, not only for yourself, but for your community, and fighting for it. But, hey, it IS a lot more comfortable to go into the internets and cry how we are all doomed.

153:

NYCMT still skiving @149 Google Translate doesn't have Gaelic but Irish gives "Male-headed fire and Tartan toilet?" Err, In Space?

154:

"Flying Red-heads and their Tartan Latrines"

155:

So we should be aiming for eutopian tales rather than utopian ones? I would rather live in a good place than a non-place.

156:
On the other hand, I'll settle for "nobody needs to be angry" as a sufficient substitute.

So a proper Utopia would first require that we all agree on what is worthy of true anger as opposed to whining. There is a lot of whining going on out there. Oh the people doing the whining will tell you their's is a just and righteous anger but come on, we all know its whining.

But I suspect my list of whiners and your list of whiners would be different, perhaps very different. A righteous anger comes from injustice. We agree on what is and what is not just, then we agree on what Utopia should achieve.

A Utopian story is one that uses a whole narrative to communicate a definition of justice that does not fit in the normal sound bytes we use to debate politics.

I think the reason for the dearth of Utopian stories issue is that we would rather criticize the current situation with irony and satire than put forth a positive alternative.

I am afraid the reason for that is we have no idea what the alternative is. All ideologies have a life cycle. Liberal capitalism, the last survivor of the great 20th century mass ideologies has had its run. We live in a world where all the problems that liberal capitalism can solve, have been solved and we what we are left with are the problems it could never solve plus the problems it created.

We really need to move onto the next thing.

157:

[ Deleted by moderator -- off-topic, derailing. ]

158:

What then? That's the same question asked by the Romans about their 'world wide' civilization.

159:

"Note that this isn't a recipe for a violence-free utopia; it's quite possibly how many of our paleolithic ancestors lived, in tribal groups with common ownership of what little they could carry, and extremely violent interactions with their neighbours."

You don't need to go to the Paleolithic, you can find it in recent history. As I like telling people, while Inuktitut may or may not originally had a word for "war" (as in an organized clash between large groups), the language certainly does have words for "murder", "revenge", "ambush" and the like.

Samuel Herne reported the case when some of his Dene guides, when they happened upon a group of Inuit (well within tradiitonal Inuit territory and nowhere near where the Dene ever travelled), immediately attacked and slaughtered them for no reason other than that they were Inuit.

160:

"An obvious intermediate stage is one where a steadily decreasing proportion of the population has a job. (I think it's currently around 20%. That's not what the official figures say, but I know they are lying, just not how much. [I live in the US.])"

It's higher than that, but it's hard to pin it down from available data if one is picky about what counts as a proper job. About 139.4 million employed people in the US, (~300 million total population, ~238.7 million not in school or otherwise incarcerated) ~28 million part time, ~25% of total employed < $10/hr. But some part-time workers make good wages or are close to full time, and there are also complicating factors such as dependents, two-earner households, variations in cost of living, and so forth.

A decent estimate based on BLS and IRS figures is that about 90 million (+/- 10%) earn enough to afford to pay modest bills, (~$20,000/yr. before tax) with only some of the fripperies such as college loans, pensions, health insurance, transportation etc. So the gross employment rate in the US is 58.4% without being picky about job quality, or ~35-40% being slightly picky.

(Apologies for the off-topic and US-centric post, though the numbers are likely somewhat similar in Britain and W. Europe.)

161:

Oops - forgot to escape the angle-bracket. That should have read "~25% of total employed earn less than $10/hr." [then a list of complicating factors for what constitutes a wage sufficient to actually pay the bills]

162:

Charlie, with all due respect. We don`t need utopias. What we need is for science fiction authors to remember that they are WRITERS, not futurologists. They should create entertaining literature with round characters, instead of trying to force-feed us with their visions.

163:

And there's been a big change in the duration of jobs.

Some politician says "There's a million jobs unfilled!" and screams about the lazy and shiftless but there's a big difference between jobs that last a month and jobs that last a year.

(Secondary thought: all these temporary jobs are keeping HR staff in work refilling the roster--do comparisons of costs allow for that?)

164:

@ 145
Thomas More
Remember that this man was a devout RC, who cheerfully watched "heretics" burn, and was then posthumously "sanctified" by his relatives, for opposing Henry VIII. More, actually, wasn't nice to know.
Ernst Junger was lucky to live. He was peripherally involved in the July plot, and the Geheimnis-Polizei had the dirt on him - but Adolf refused to believe it.

@ 148
Particularly as the "Celtic past" is a completely manufactured non-existent myth (if that isn't an oxymoron) In the meantime, I'm waiting to see how (some) Irish politicians will wriggle their debt crisis to be all England's fault - because some will ....

@ 152
You DO realise that most of the "Tories" you denigrate (and possibly correctly) are, nonetheless dangerous crypto-pinko-socialists, with commie leanings, according to the Tabaggers? Which is one reason why I find the latter so scary.

@ 156
" A righteous anger comes from injustice"
You do realise just how dangerous that sentiment is, or don't you?
Think about the righteous anger of total bastards like Dominic, or Cyril of Alexandria or Bernard (Clairvaux), or Mahmud, or Lenin .....
Be very, very careful what you wish for - you just might get it.

@ 157
I'd rather not "think Hegel", thank you very much, given the direction the products of his musings went in.

@ 158
Wrong.
THIS is the first world-wide (so-called) civilisation.
At the same time as Rome, there existed, at least, also the Persians the Mauraya and the Han - I forget who was dominant in the Americas then - Maya?
All VERY different from each other.

@ 160
Didn't realise that USA was that far down the banana-republic road.
Here, the figure is unlikely to be over 10% - even with similar guvmint massaging.

165:

Utopia is a reasonable belief to hold if you are a child because it fits in with other contextual beliefs such as the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.

I fail (miserably I might add) to see why letter of the law and spirit of the law should be a serious cause for conflict and why they should not be complementary.
What is the problem with confusing literal and figurative?
Material and immaterial, spirit and flesh, fact and fantasy, symbolic and bucolic.

When I threw in bucolic at the end, I didn't quite know what to pair symbolic with, and I didn't really know what bucolic meant, except it rhymed and it reminded me of colic.

Definition of BUCOLIC
1: of or relating to shepherds or herdsmen : pastoral
2a: relating to or typical of rural life
b: idyllic

I close my eyes and see.
what then is blindness?
Yes I remember that. I'm in favor of keeping the eyes open and sometimes seeing that the costume is a seasonal thing.
That search might be a bit like measuring the position and speed of light. You not only need where but also when to look. And sometimes, if you don't mind, a reflection might be the 'clearest' vision of who and what you are looking for.
Take care and safe trips always.
And if you ever get a notion and get near, you are welcome here.

One unachievable aspect of having a Utopia is not believing it is achievable, another is an unwillingness and inability to share the tools and resources that do achieve it. I wonder what name would be apt for almost or close enough...Euphoria.

166:

#164 @ #148 - If anything, "manufactured non-existent myth" is a tautology (and possibly 2)!

#164 @ #152 - Agreed. With the note that some teabaggers seem to have a genuine antipathy for all relevant (to them) political parties. Actually, that's the main place where I'd agree with them; the few politicians I have any time for it's about the individual, rather than the colour of rosette (s)he wears when campaigning.

167:

Anatoly: obviously, I disagree strongly. Why don't you go write your own ideology-free entertainment and sell it?

168:

"Didn't realise that USA was that far down the banana-republic road. Here, the figure is unlikely to be over 10% - even with similar guvmint massaging"

Where are you? 10% would be low employment just about anywhere.

I found the UK employment report, and though it is a bit harder to figure out than the US numbers, the employment rate seems to be just a little lower than the US, just under 58%. (not a totally apples to apples comparison, though with slightly different definitions of every number in each country.) I haven't found the UK wage distribution data yet, but I suspect that with NHS and stronger welfare the UK effectively comes out ahead of the US despite nominally lower income.

I hadn't gone looking for it, but it was striking in the report the extent to which UK-born and men have borne the worst of the UK job losses of the past two years. Without the safety net you'd likely be seeing even more political radicalization in the UK.

169:

One of the interesting features of our consensus dystopia is how many (billions) of people in it think it's a utopia. At one end of the tube you've got the 'baggers desperately fighting to keep their rights to medical bankruptcy and at-will employment, at the other end, huge numbers of recent arrivals in the Big City who are delighted to have electricity and GSM coverage and all sorts of dirty possibilities, and who didn't have sewerage back home anyway.

170:

OTOH "the Constitution" doesn't say that you can have govt funded healthcare (it also doesn't say that you can have an air force or government science programmes, but that's somehow different). ;-)

171:

Alex,

I know, and I still periodically go out in the woods and clean up the trash dumps of the new migrant utopians.

One thing that's missing from this discussion is the utopia's durability.

I agree that many people are quite happy that their lives are much happier and more stable than their childhoods were, and my wife is one of them.

However, we simply can't afford so much affluence for so many. It ranges from a huge demand for shark-fin soup in China toppling ecosystems throughout the pacific (read up about trophic cascades before snarking, please), to global climate change, deforestation, aquifer depletion, mass extinctions, etc. etc. etc.

How long will the prosperity last? That's a good question for any utopia. It goes along with how to make things "prosperous" for everyone in a sustainable, long term way. And you know, that's difficult. Especially since part of the necessary transition is convincing people that doing more with less is making them more prosperous...

172:

Interestingly, they have two of the short stories you did for Tor.com on sale for 99 cents. I like the idea of being able to buy short fiction for a dollar...

Only 3 of your Family Trade books, and not the first 3 either. Prices are good though, all at mass market paperback prices except The Fuller Memorandum (11.99).

173:

OGH sed:

what would a society with indefinite physiological youth prolongation (not immortality, but the ability to put the ageing process on hold) look like, psychologically?

This would be a fascinating speculation to work through fictionally and I thoroughly recommend this line of thought to whichever bit of your subconscious is in charge of your idea-factory (unless my recommendation jinxes your subconscious - in which case, damn).

Regards
Luke

174:

It's one of the issues I'm thinking of tackling tangentially in "The Lambda Functionary" (if I ever get round to writing it, and if it gets written as planned and under that name ... not before 2013, on current scheduling).

175:

Maybe I will. 8-)

But you should remember that good literature last much longer than ideologies.

176:

remembering to remember....being two distinct individual unique miraculous creative genius cells in search of one another....and then knowing the orgasmic bliss of being oneself....and dividing myself into 100 trillion amazing miraculous integral genius cells all working in perfected harmony....WE all know utopia all too well...

177:

Okay, show us some great literature that doesn't have some sort of ideology behind it. What do you think motivates writers? Why do their characters do what they do, or the plot go the way it does? Did Dickens write "Oliver Twist" because he thought pickpocketing orphans would make for a ripping yarn?

178:

A thought upon Utopia, in response to the idea that they are poor to write because they are perfect, would arguably be...What if your definition of utopia, or at least, an improved way of living, is Sufficiently Strange that it merits examination, and an illustration of why it works and that people with tedious, more conventional visions, are actually wrong?

Whoever these lucky people might be, they live fulfilled lives and are happy...They just hate something fundamental about the situation that we live in right now, and there is evidence that they are right and have avoided it.

It is frankly very easy to be dystopian, yes, as that simply involves pointing out faults, it is harder to write something where the answer has been arrived at, and certain readers might not like where that takes them...Ah well.

179:

This is neither Utopian nor Dystopian, but I wouldn't be surprised if we don't get into a landscape of cycling settlement.

Such a cycle is proposed for the Andes, where the appearance of Mega-Ninos about every 500-600 years seems to destroy whatever empires were around at the time. With the disintegration of central authority, settlements were smaller and more localized. Then, when the climate improved, kingdom and empire building started again.

We may see such a cycle on a global scale, especially if technology tops out somewhere (for instance, computers stop getting faster, fusion just can't be made to work, etc). In a weird way, everyone gets their utopia at some point in the cycle. The Monster Truck Pagans and their survivalist brethren get their utopia when civilization breaks down, and they get their little keep off in the howling wilderness, while the sophisticated urbanites get their utopia when life becomes civilized again a few centuries later. It would suck to live at the wrong time, of course, but it's a realistic alternative to blind progressivism.

Of course, if you prefer truly sophisticated alternatives, consider how the Intermediate Disturbance Hypothesis might apply to world civilizations and the creation of utopias. It might be possible for it to be a golden age, somewhere, at any given time, without it being a golden age everywhere all the time.

180:

179- good post, kind or relates to modern agriculture(the basis for civilization) and the problems with it. Most of our crops are annuals which historically relied on source-sink ecological strategy to survive. thus why early agriculture relied on slash and burn or river flooding to work. Modern agriculture stays in one place hence why we poison ourselves with pesticides, fungicides and petro-chemical fertilizers. Good crop rotation, and intermixing grazers can help the problem but still can't guard against longer term stochastic events like floods and drought. In general nature makes it hard for us to stay in one place over a long period of time, as many fallen empires have found out. So how do we combat this? No easy answers, but as Charlie points out, I would sure like to read some creative speculative fiction that poses some solutions, Satire and dystopias are great to point out are flawed assumptions but we some hopeful solutions are also needed to keep up our spirits and invigorate our imaginations.
Other topics I would like to see tackled include, Economics( How can a finance system which assumes infinite growth exist in a world of finite resources?) and Social arrangement( How can we live in small groups to promote sharing and limit social cheating, while still getting along with the 7 billion other people?) Big questions, where there are no easy answers but I believe we should at least try.

181:
The Monster Truck Pagans and their survivalist brethren get their utopia when civilization breaks down, and they get their little keep off in the howling wilderness, while the sophisticated urbanites get their utopia when life becomes civilized again a few centuries later.

I somehow doubt the survivalist faction won't be the first to go when civilization crumbles, since they are quite reliant on industrial products, more so than your usual small town folks; anybody trying to pass 30 km without a car is invited to learn, and if the few roads on the way detoriate thanks to general civilizational breakdown, that'd be double so. Add supplies and like to this, and you're in for fun, for ghastly values of fun. They could adopt by getting used to do some of the manufacture and repair[1] themselves, but then, technicians, blacksmith and like are there for a reason, the training involved in developing your skill is cutting on your worktime, which explains the specialization in human societies, so you either

a) compromise by curbing your expectations, and go down in tech level; means, no monster trucks, no firearms, no fertilizer, soap and other niceties of the Solvay process be gone.
b) wait for somebody to develop those skills, which'd lead to some popluation concentration.

That was one of the things interesting in the premise of the 1632 series by Flint et al.; give, the Grantvillers had some resources and education, but still, many of the things taken for granted required serious industry to get them working, in the long run, the best way to stop idles flights of speculation was 'how may stainless steel are you going to need for this, again?'.

In the nutrition business, they might fare better then their more centralized brethen, since there is more land for low level agriculture, but then, areas untouched by agriculture are usually areas unsuitable to agriculture, so that might differ too. And cars are handy in big area agriculture, too, for reasons including prevention of ugly 'who stole our crops again, by the way?'-moments.

In general, surviving in the wilderness in humans involves getting along well in groups, organizing people and like; and why were those survivalist in the wilderness, sorry to ask?

That should be different with religious groups like the Amish and like, but with the Elohim City demographic, guess they are busted, and rightly so...

[1] Anybody seeing their local hardware store closing down might offer a sigh of despair.

182:

#25, #173 and #174 - ISTR Arthur C Clarke did something of the sort in "The City and The Stars", but that's the most recent "eternal youth Utopian fiction" I can think of. Your views may vary, if you've read it.

#177 - Dickens was motivated by money! Seriously, he was a professional author, in a time when most of those made their main income from selling serials to magazines, hence the very episodic nature of most of Dickens' work.

183:

Certainly Dickens was a professional author. As is Charlie. As was almost anyone who has ever produced a decent size body of work, as otherwise they'd need some other form of income, and that almost always (excluding gentlemen scholars) cuts into writing time.

What does that have to do with whether the writer has an ideology in what they write or not?

Probably zilch.

Approach it from the other direction. Say you do have an ideology. How, perhaps, do you best illustrate the awfulness of poverty, of the life of the underclass? You write a story set among them, showing characters either struggling to surmount, or submitting to, the conditions they find themselves in. And in the process, if you are a great writer as well, you end up with something like Oliver Twist. Otherwise, you might as well write some fluff that disappears like today's chicklit will do - brain candy that may be innocuous enough for our Anatoly, but that is missing the extra ingredient that great literature requires.

Of course, having something you want to say doesn't itself make great literature either. Just look at Ayn Rand's works!

184:

I've also seen it argued convincingly that Dickens is not a great fiction author, but he is a great writer of social history docudramas. Not that that actually matters to my point, which was that the length and episodic nature of Dickens' works was motivated by money rather than by the need to have a tale of that length to tell the story. Incidentally, Dickens has never figured in my top 20 favourite writers, and is presently in the list of about 10 people who I've tried to read several books by, and never finished any of.

I've never read Ayn Rand, and I suspect I now never will!

185:

"Not that that actually matters to my point, which was that the length and episodic nature of Dickens' works was motivated by money rather than by the need to have a tale of that length to tell the story"

Ah.

In which case, I'm not sure what the point of your point was.

186:

Gaia, from Asimov's "Foundation's Edge" would do nicely. Story from interactions with surrounding, less than utopian societies. Wonder if anyone will pick up where "Foundation and Earth" left off?
For the here and now, a return to capitalism with a human face would be welcome.

187:

There are no books in Asimov's Foundation trilogy after Second Foundation! ;-)

188:

Not sure if it leads to utopia or dystopia, but you might be interested to know (if you're not already glued to the webfeed) that SpaceX just succeeded in launching their Falcon9 rocket and putting the Dragon payload capsule in orbit.

I think that's the first time in history that a private company has launched something into orbit (without using a public sector space program for the launch vehicle); and we got to watch the launch live over the web from countdown to MECO, watching a webcam feed from the rocket itself.

Utopia it might not create, but it's nice to see what the tech will let you do these days...

189:

I think that's the first time in history that a private company has launched something into orbit

Um, no. Firstly, it's SpaceX's second launch of a Falcon 9 -- on top of their earlier successful Falcon I launch -- and secondly, ArianeSpace has been a commercial launch vendor since 1980; while CNES is a shareholder, and some other European governments own shares, ArianeSpace is a profit-making public company. You're also missing Boeing and a bunch of other American companies who launch stuff, although many of them are heavily reliant on recycled ex-military tech.

190:

The Orbital Sciences Pegasus was a commercial development, though the government bought a bunch of launches before the first flight and thus effectively subsidized that. The motor vendor basically developed the three motor models gratis (as equity investment, w/o cash changing hands in any significant quantity), but that's a valid commercial action.

As Charlie points out, Falcon 9 flight 2 is the fourth successful SpaceX flight (in a row), after Falcon 9 flight 1 and Falcon 1 flights 4 and 5.

Arianespace / CNES / ESA are so tightly wound up with government funding and management that it's hard to call Ariane commercial, but they sell rockets at more than marginal cost and plan around profits, so that's at least a non-smelly claim.

Commercially developed rocket attempts go back a long time. Percheron, Conestoga, OTRAG, ....

191:

The Culture always struck me as a self-aware utopia. Whether by luck, design, intervention by Minds, what-have-you -- it had deliberate safety-valves all over the place to basically handle the problem that "people" and "utopia" don't work well together.

Contact for those whose guilt over the plight of others would prevent them from fully enjoying a utopian life. Special Circumstances for those needing to do more than 'charitable works'.

The various other organs -- dealing with the Afterlives, with smatter outbreaks, with this and that -- to appeal to other meddlesome urges that prevent people from just settling down and indulging in a life of hedonistic excess.

Not to mention the vast array of games, virtual realities, sex, drugs, physical changes, gender changes, freedom from disease and even pain, species changes, and even the ability to participate in intellectual pursuits despite the existance of Minds who could solve things in just an instance.

And last but not least, Sublimation and immigration to other, different Cultures.

Utopias aren't natural, they aren't sustainable without work.

The Culture novels are, by and large, about that work -- the struggles and problems of the people that can't just relax and enjoy 24/7/lifetime parties.

192:

It is, however, the first successful private orbital reentry vehicle.

193:

For bonus points -

What was the first flown commercial reentry vehicle, and when did it fly?

194:

I was just talking about SpaceX/Falcon/Dragon with a space-savvy friend, and we kind of simultaneously came up with the notion that the most important effect of this string of successes will be a paradigm change. I.e., other folks will realize, "OMG, you can actually do this even if you're not a national gummint/huge military-industrial company! And maybe make money!"

We'll see, but one hopes that this will lead to more competition for the existing launch market, declining prices, and maybe new markets.

195:

Oh, and, we should remember that the technologies of Utopia (Falcon 9/Dragon in this case) can be turned around for less Utopic purposes. F9 is a pretty good ICBM when judged against 1960s standards -- it delivered its multi-tonne payload some 800 meters from the aim point.

196:

And I just read comment #194 and thought "paradigm change? You mean privatised ICBM's?"

Finally there's no excuse not to have your own ICBM in your volcanic lair.

197:

The Falcon9 is just as bad an ICBM as the Soyuz (R-7) was - which was no more than 2 years in service. It had a payload of 5.5 tons, range 12,000km and a payload of about one ton into orbit - without the (now standard) third stage.

But having to fuel a rocket a couple of hours before launch just isn't a practical deterrence - it is only useful as a first strike weapon. And a nuclear first strike is suicide (or so one hopes). For deterrence, you need storable fuels.

The largest ICBM ever planned (that never saw service as an ICBM) was what we know as the Proton rocket these days. It was supposed to deliver 100+ megaton hydrogen bombs into the US. That's why it is using a decidedly environmentally unfriendly combination of nitric acid and hydrazine as fuel.

More modern ICBMs use solid fuel, of course. (Not coincidentally the same as the Space Shuttle.) That is mostly due to much lower payload requirements that are down to both, much better guidance (thus much lower yield requirements) and advances in building ever lighter nukes at a given yield, especially boosted fission designs.

Those use a few grams of Lithiumhydrid (with deuterium replacing the hydrogen), which does produce a miniscule amount of energy through nuclear fusion, but a large amount of very fast neutrons that can boost a nuclear explosion that would otherwise fizzle due to premature disassembly of the core. (Which allows more impurities in Plutonium, but also smaller cores with much lower yields and a uranium tamper that will provide extra targets for the fast neutrons to split and release additional energy.)

My guess is that North Korea tested the core of such a bomb without the special sauce. The necessary yield to initiate the fusion reaction is less than 1kt, which the second test easily surpassed.

See also:

nuclearweaponarchive.org

198:

"...But having to fuel a rocket a couple of hours before launch just isn't a practical deterrence..."

Dang ! Just when I thought I had the perfect Christmas gift for Dr. Evil.

199:

"A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time."

The obvious question is, "Based on what evidence?" There seems to be ample gross evidence against it, in terms of a civilization being an entity being capable of sorting things out within its borders, providing some sort of benefit for members. That is probably simplistic; students of history can very probably supply examples where no benefit was provided, it was all done by force of arms, yet the organization persisted long enough to be considered a civilization. In which case the term begs for scare-quotes.

A more interesting question would be, "How would we recognize the emergence of a global civilization?" That's restating my original question, of course. I'm not convinced that that we can do more than recognize that the first toddling steps may have been taken, as I'm not sure what sort of metric applies. Speed of communication? Doubtless important (Roman roads, etc.) but just points on a curve, at least until someone establishes that this is a discriminator, and the curve actually involves a step function. Or has that been done, including providing a rationale for foo as a discriminator?

That's just an idle thought, off the top of my head . I'm not after references, just how you might order the trends you've seen, and which lead you to that conclusion. Think of it as a panel question.

200:

That's an insightful take on the Culture.

I second Paul Harrison @101's suggestion of Greg Egan's 'Amalgam' setting as a Utopia. It's a galaxy-wide meta-civilisation, with no FTL travel but where peoples & cultures generally just get along. Along with the novel "Incandescence" there are also the short stories available via Egan's site: Riding the crocodile and Glory(pdf).

201:
The obvious question is, "Based on what evidence?" There seems to be ample gross evidence against it, in terms of a civilization being an entity being capable of sorting things out within its borders, providing some sort of benefit for members.

Well, according to this definition, there never was anything like a civilization; most of the usual suspects (Aztecs, Hellenism, Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, Europeans in the time of colonialism) were characterized by a level of inner inequality and lack of possibilities for general appeal that would dwarf modern problems; I seriously doubt the Hugenots had a possibility to appeal to the European community like even the people in Darfur have; even if Sudan i not a superpower, even minorities in Russia or the USA have more rights then they have. That scaling from one long scale billion metric tonnes of shit to one short scale billion metric tonnes of shit is a questionable achievement is another question...

202:

It's a lousy ICBM by 1970s standards, though -- not accurate enough, but more importantly, it runs on LOX/Kerosene and has to be fueled up and pressurized on an exposed pad. It's broadly comparable to the mid-1950s Soviet SS-6 missile, which was so successful they were withdrawn as soon as a successor that could be prepped for launch on less than 6 hours was available (but which is still flying to this day as the R7 or Soyuz launch vehicle).

203:

A global civilisation won't fall over all at once, it's too powerfull for that. It might suffer a century long collapse, as the border of the non-anarchic world shrink ever inwards.

204:

If you put your faith in us to create a utopia,
Then, my friend, I'm sorry
But there really is no hope for ya.

205:

The problem is the infrastructure. For instance, my power, food, and water all come from dozens to hundreds of miles away. Destroy a couple of pipes, a few power lines, and a couple of highways, and I'll probably die with about a million other people before they get them fixed.

This has been true since the 1980s, if not much earlier, and it's true for (at rough guess) a billion or two people on this planet. Maybe more

This isn't a recipe for Armageddon, as human life in general always is fairly precarious. But the point is that our global culture can collapse very quickly indeed. Among those who feel we've already passed the tipping point, there is a general sense that the best thing we can do is to cushion the fall, so that there's a slow decline rather than cataclysm.

206:

"The list of SF utopias is pretty short"

Theodore Sturgeon, "The Skills of Xanadu." Everyone in telepathic contact with everyone else; which means that everyone understands and loves everyone else.

Sturgeon, To Marry Medusa. Cosmic group mind creates a human group mind in order to conquer. Human group mind takes over cosmic group mind. Everyone understands and loves everyone else.

I can't remember title or author of the one around 1960 in which women start spending much more time in the kitchen. Things progress from there to a Constitutional amendment taking away women's right to vote. That's where it ends; but it's strongly implied that, with women in their real place again, everyone lives happily ever after.

Poul Anderson, Brain Wave. People and animals become very much more intelligent. There are difficulties, but at the end it's utopia -- except for those whose IQs only rose to 300 or less.

207:

Well, at least we have a plethora of dytopian speculative fiction out there. From "The Day After" to "Jerico" to "Minority Report" to "Terminator" to "1984" to "Brave New World" to "Planet of the Apes" to "Battlestar Galactica" (which has utopian components as well) and on and on and on, we have been warned of lots of futures to avoid.

"Matched," by Ally Condie, is a particularly interesting example, as it involves an intentionally utopian designed community of the not to far future that while sterile and soulless achieves a lot of objectives and provides a decent life for its people - it is a "be careful what you wish for" myth.

Of course, one reason could be that the "End of History" folks are right, at least for a very long (i.e. many millenia) time frame. We could be at a point in history something like that of the Linear Pottery Culture (LBK) of early agricultural Europe that developed a society that evolved very slowly for about four thousand years until the Bronze Age. Perhaps we will never get out flying cars, and will live in a world where everyone has parliamentary government and a social welfare state a la the Democratic Socialist consensus of Europe indefinitely, with modest technological accomodations to Peak Oil and climate change, but no really profound social transformations.

Of course, I don't really believe that. Technological change usually changes society as well, and while our understanding of the "hard sciences" like physics and chemistry and geology has reached a point where breakthroughs that change daily life don't seem likely, and we may even soon reach the theoretical limits of computational power and materials science, our understanding of genetics has plenty of room to grow and there is every reason to expect that this will have transformative effects. A Utopian world would be one where the advances we have made in genetics and social science are in fact utilized to make our world better.

From an author's perspective, I also think it is worth considering the possibility that the most stable long term future of humanity is not one world government, but a modest number of competing systems. It isn't clear that state monopoly is stable although the Harappans seemed to have managed to stay unified as a single state for five thousand years (perhaps because they had no ethnic divisions in their formative period), and China had a very long dynastic run. The Romans and Chinas each interfaced with an outside world of "Barabarians" who at different points disrupted their stable state. Catholic hegemony in Europe eventually fractured into Protestant and Catholic. The divide between Communism and Western Democratic capitalism emerged as soon as absolute monarchy was vanquished. Not a decade passed from the period when the great divide in the world was between facists and non-fascists and the re-emergence of the Communist and Western Democratic divisions. With the end of the Cold War, that divide is fading, but we now have a world divided between a Chinese model (that no longer looks particularly communist), a Western Democratic capitalism model, an Islamic model (with Iran and Saudi Arabia as exemplars), and a Third World capitalism model, and I think it is only a matter of time before we have Christian theocracies somewhere in Africa. The Traveler RPG game world envisioned a society where the big division was between those who favored individual ownership and those who favored corporate ownership.

Old divisions we thought we vanquished return. The boundaries of the European Union bear a striking similarity to the divide between Catholic and Orthodox Christian Europe that arose after the Western Roman Empire fell, despite all sorts of other alignments that cropped up in between. Countries like Ukraine and Italy have very distinct regional geographic divisions politically and culturally that reflect divisions that existed before these modern nation states came into being. American ideological leaning of partisan voting patterns at the county level have remained almost unchanged for more than a century, despite the Republican and Democratic parties trading their positions as parties of the left and right respectively.

Who knows what the new divides will be. I wouldn't be at all surprised, for example, to see a reformed, rehabilitated and probably rebranded form of slavery or indentured servitude - perhaps in an effort to make large scale immigration polically paletable to anti-immigration political forces, or as a form of criminal punishment - return to at least one of the major competing societies in the future. There are already law review articles out there arguing for the first time in a century that ethical objections to indentured servitude were overstated.

Similarly, I think that the economic success of China is going to force a lot of Western and non-Western non-Chinese political scientists to take the notion that it is possible to have a healthy one party system without full blow freedom of expression (something that was far more stable for countries transitioning from monarchies than the Western Democratic model) more seriously, rather than dismissing it as a political form that is simply tantamount to dictatorship.

208:

I live in a small city and my power, water, and food are all within five miles. (I can't actually walk in the farmer's market, where there's a butcher and cheesemaker as well as fruit & veggie merchants, but most people can.)

209:

:7 I think what takes place on social media and what these services actually *are* is quite ironic.

If wikileaks is about exposing sensitive secret government and corporate information to the public. Then facebook must be the very definition of a reverse-leak site.

It's where people voluntarily expose sensitive personal information to corporate and political interests. You upload all your details and detailed map of your friends and family, and even spend time on the site socialising, consuming content, and ultimately profiling your personality through tastes and political movements you 'like'.

When your done and log off, that 'like' button will continue to track your moves all over the web.

People think of Facebook as a serivce, it's not, it's a company, and the product they sell is you and your personal information.

It's ironic then, that so freedom of speech, press, information is now taking place on social network services.

210:

@ 207
Have you, or anyone else come across the Strange Maps web-site? Several times, the persistence of "borders" has been noted there ....

211:

This seems like another route into the earlier discussion about the generation ships and how to make them habitable long-term. A lot of the same problems are there, in terms of resource shortage and population density. The central question is how humans live together through systemic adversity and privation, and then how we envision the answers to that question in a positive way rather than skewing negative automatically.

Regarding SHINE, (full disclosure: one of my stories is in there), both Paul and Kathryn are right. If I remember correctly, Jetse tried his best to define optimistic SF as distinct from utopian SF. For me, utopian thought requires optimism, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Optimism doesn't need a utopia as its telos; the sentiment is an end in itself.

212:

Here's the recipe for "aliens".

Take the limbic system; slather on a thin layer of neo-cortex and then bring to a boil for around 170,000 or more years; then let simmer for 10,000 or more years - starting with the establishment of agricultural settlements. Turn off the burner and remove the lid at the end of the 18th century; let cool for 100 years until "instrumental reason" has fully merged with greed and fear ... and you've got huge, predatory multinational corporations ... er, aliens.

213:

Did you mean John C Wright's Golden Age, rather than Ajvaz's?

I've always considered the Golden Age trilogy's utopian vision to be one of the most compelling in recent sci-fi. Granted, the basic premise is highly derivative of the Culture, but with the addition of steampunk-esque victorian values and additional modes and layers of existence (full and partial dreaming for example) that give it a unique identity. It also hints at repeated cycles of apocalypse before a stable society rose from the ashes.

The best thing about the trilogy though is the incredibly plausible and well-considered big bad danger that it creates within a utopian world without resorting to evil aliens or some other simplistic narrative device.

For what it's worth I also rather enjoy Neal Asher's take on the Culture (the Polity) where rather than skirting around the issue of how humans can be equals to vastly superior AI's he simply takes it head on: They can't, the human race is quietly conquered by our AI progeny in a largely bloodless coup, after which they rule us in a benevolent dictatorship where Humans are mostly freed of the shackles of senescence and violence and able to focus on their creative hobbies.

It's just like the Culture except that nobody's kidding themselves.

214:

I like Jack Williamson's Humanoid Series, although the very best part is the original story: With Folded Hands.

215:
"The Dispossesed" is a UTOPIA? You've lost your mind!
Uh, it says as much on the title page. 'An Ambiguous Utopia'. It is definitely some kind of utopia, but it is equally definitely not unblemished sunlight: some things are wrong, and keeping it from decaying away from anarchism will require constant effort.

216:

I'm afraid that anyone with any training in computer science or physics or the theory of computation or mathematics found both the sophotechs and the Big Bad Danger in the Golden Age trilogy to be so hilariously implausible that they very nearly blew our WSODs out the window. Yes, the Nothing was an extremely creepy monster, but, excuse me, it is impossible even in theory for any computational system to work the way the sophotechs claim to, and it appears to be possible to kill them stone dead with trivial paradoxes as a result. It is impossible even in theory for any physical system to work the way the Nothing claimed to (though of course it was probably lying). I'm not convinced that it is impossible for any economic system to work the way the society in _The Golden Age_ worked, but that the author is a frothing Randite of the worst sort (who caught religion shortly after writing the book, as if to emphasise his tendency to attract every bad meme floating around) does not argue in its favour. That it ended up in a state of total war (with, uh, entities of unknown capability an unknown distance away with unknown goals and who were our own relatives, but, hey, let's go for total war rather than any negotiation even though they're thousands of light years away) does not argue strongly that it was much of a utopia either.

217:

@ 215
U. K. le Guin was being; SARCASTIC
Ahem ....
Odonian society on Anarres is plainly broken, as (even more obviously) are the other societies on Urras.

218:

Global civilisation in terms of a dependent trade network. (Do we? I'd guess so, based on the amount made in the far east, but I couldn't proove it).

219:

Doesn't Accelerando qualify?

220:

Accelerando is a utopia only for the roughly 1% of humanity who don't get exterminated by the ab-human products of the singularity. Do pay attention, please?

221:

Charlie @ 220

Sorry, I don't get that.
Where has 99% of humanity been killed off in "Accelerando"?
I know I had problems with one or two points (Don't even ask about the one you recommended by Rajemanio; "Quantum Thief - my brain still hurts trying to work out what, if anything, is really happening, as aopposed to mind-states) ..
Come to that, how are they killed off?

222:

You missed the bit with the Vile Offspring in the last third of the novel, did you?

They're dismantled and recycled as computronium. And the upload minds the Vile Offspring are firing at the survivors on Saturn are actually a denial-of-service attack using fakes (literally: false consciousness).

And Aineko is not a cat.

(The back story once you begin peeling away the facade is incredibly grim ...)

223:

I realise that Aineko isn't a cat - and is a cyborg-front of some sort - though I suspect he/she/it changes as time goes by, becoming more and more manipulative and ruthless ....
I couldn't get what was happening with the Vile offers - I'll have to re-read it, and see if I have completely misunderstood what's going on. Whereas with Q-theif I KNOW I don't know what's going on.

Come on, sunshine(s) [note], if someone like me, who started with "last & First Men before age 10, with aphysics degree can't work out what's happening - then perhaps you need to put a few more pointers/clues in?

[note] This applies in Spades to "quantum thief"

Specials

Merchandise

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on December 5, 2010 11:12 AM.

Sunbathing in Edinburgh was the previous entry in this blog.

PSA is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Search this blog

Propaganda