Today I’d like to talk a little bit about the post-utopian theme found in The Time Machine (and other sci-fi stories of course). In that novel, the Time Traveller’s hypothesis regarding the state of the future to which he travelled is that he must be in some sort of post-utopian era. To him it seems like man had reached a utopian existence, which then promptly deteriorated due to the lack of any more goals or things to do in general. This would explain the existence of the vapid Eloi and scary Morlocks.
This idea really left an impression on me because it’s not often that we think about what would happen after we’ve achieved a utopian society, if indeed such an achievement is possible. And when we do think about a potentially perfect society, we imagine consequences similar to those described in The Time Machine or much more dire. So I’d like to explore this theme and ask whether a utopia is even possible in real life and what is needed to create one.
Sci-Fi Theme: Utopia
First, let’s look at some popular science fiction examples of seemingly perfect societies to see if there are any commonalities that will help us answer our questions:
The Time Machine: As mentioned, here the guess is that every human problem and need had been solved. Yay! The drawback: Serious intelligence deterioration.
The Giver: (This book is on my list, but full disclosure, I already read it in grade 8, along with every other person ever.) In The Giver, society is kind of like the Borg, everything and everyone is the same and it all seems perfect on the outside. The drawback: Nobody has any emotions.
Brave New World: (Also on the list, but haven’t read it yet. Though I have a cursory knowledge of what it’s about.) In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley describes a society in which everyone has everything they need and seems happy. The drawback: Social conditioning and mind control.
Divergent Series: (Not on my list, but probably should be. Have seen the movies.) In Divergent, the protagonist, Triss, lives in a seemingly perfect society in which everyone is placed into a faction based on their personality and characteristics. The idea is that everyone lives the kind of life they are best suited for and happiest in. The drawback: Not fitting in somewhere makes you a social outcast.
How to Create the Perfect Society
I think we have a pattern here. It seems that something must be given up in order for a perfect society to succeed.
There are many more examples of course, but they seem to have this in common. The creation and success of a utopia necessitates a sacrifice. Something must be given up in order for everything to be just dandy, and that thing is usually some kind of a freedom.
Okay, that’s fine. That’s how we all live together in society now. We’ve given up some freedoms that are labeled immoral and bad in order for people to be able to live together in harmony. For example, I can’t just walk into your house and take whatever I want even if it would be good for me because theft is bad for the collective (and the person from whom you are stealing) and should be avoided if we are to live with each other.
But humans are a fickle and tricky species.
Notice how in our examples above the state, or controlling entity, tries to deal with the human variables of emotion and free will: by resorting to mind control or some kind of social conditioning to neutralize the human factor. Not exactly the utopia we all had in mind.
Okay, so if we have to give up a fundamental freedom or some part of our very personal free will, then a utopia doesn’t really seem worth it, does it? I’m okay with not committing crimes so that I don’t jeopardize my fellow man, but ridding me of my emotions and thoughts? That’s not cool. Further, by giving up that aspect of life, we necessarily create a dystopia: perfect on the outside, insidious on the inside. And let’s not forget another important element of these wannabe utopias: force.
Ay, there’s the rub.
The Answer: By Our Own Free Will
So a forced utopia is possible. We’ve seen it in real life as well in regimes such as communism, but such a forced condition necessarily creates a dystopia; exactly the opposite of what we were seeking to do. And we can see this in many a science fiction example.
We’ve learned that a utopia cannot last, and if it does, it’s only because it’s really a dystopia (our examples). If the creation of a perfect society necessitates a forced fundamental sacrifice, then it’s not perfect. The ingredients preclude the thing itself. Either we end up like the Eloi, or we are not free in some important, fundamental way.
The only answer seems to be that a utopia must occur by the free will of the people, otherwise it is doomed to failure simply because nobody really likes being told what to do (there goes that human factor again).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m absolutely all for treating everyone with kindness and respect and spreading good will. And if we really got our act together, I do believe humanity could achieve a kind of utopia, one in which we all work together rather than tearing each other apart. But that kind of utopia, as we’ve discovered, will never be the product of a forced regime. It must be by our own free will.
Look where our researches and musing have brought us. Have we answered the questions I set out at the top? Is a utopia possible? Perhaps, but certainly not as the product of a forced system. What are the ingredients? Giving up some freedoms, which we already do, but not those freedoms that seem fundamental to being a human being in the first place.
Just as a last aside, I really enjoy the idea that human beings need work and things to do in order to maintain our intellect and reason (the Time Traveller’s hypothesis). I don’t think Wells was wrong when he wrote in The Time Machine that our reward for dealing with problems, danger, and conundrums is our mental versatility and reasoning, etc. (I keep coming back to Marx’s ideas about man and his relationship to work. It really deserves a post, but I don’t want to stray too much away from my sci-fi theme.)
Anyways, these ideas bring up many interesting questions:
- Is an unforced utopia possible?
- Are we living in a dystopia right now? We know that governments actively spy on their own citizens in the name of security. Is it worth it?
- Which freedoms are worth giving up in order to live in a nice society and get along with everyone for the mutual benefit of all?
- Which ones cross the line?
- Is such a utopia as Wells describes even possible, in which humans have simply run out of things to do? Or is it in our own nature to never “be done”?
Leave your comments below to discuss!
May 17, 2016 @ 1:37 pm
Great post! As someone who reads and writes a lot on the theme of dystopia, I find your thoughts interesting. I think you have hit the nail on the head: utopias are almost always, inevitably dystopias. Even those societies that seem to live in peace and harmony have external problems. I am thinking here of the Star Trek universe. We are told that there is no poverty and no hunger in the United Federation of Planets, yet for the entire series (all 5 of them? plus movies) this supposed utopian society is at war with someone (Klingons, Borg, etc). So is that really a utopia or just a united response against an external threat?
I think humanity is far too flawed to ever achieve a utopia. As for sci-fi, well it would be impossible to write a story on a utopia as the very essence of fiction is conflict.
May 17, 2016 @ 1:42 pm
Thanks so much, Evelyn! My first commenter! I’m so grateful!
I was discussing Star Trek as well with my brother the other day. I was actually saying that that universe seems to me to be the most perfect story imagined, however, you are totally right! There too, they are constantly warring and at odds with other worlds. I like your idea here about whether that is really a utopia or just a united response. If humanity could be more united in response I think we could go far, but does that mean it’s a utopia á lá Thomas More’s Utopia or something along those lines? Probably not, but worth thinking about. 🙂