‘I cannot make it cohere’ – or, utopia

Been pondering utopia, largely because I’ve just been reading ‘Utopia’. Like Heaven, Utopia is a post dramatic place; drama being conflict, the only drama that can happen in a utopia is a fall from perfection, because that’s the only way of inducing conflict. That fall’s either going to be the fall of the individual, or the fall of the Utopia. The dramatic choice – which am I going to show?

‘Paradise Lost’ a great example of the first. In religion, utopia exists and is uncorruptible. It’s only us that screw up – so drama in a religious context uses the utopia as a baseline to set individual redemption / corruption against. Thinking more broadly, is any set of absolute moral standards a utopia? ‘Absolute’ implies achieved perfection, changelessness, which isn’t really what us humans do.

The second offers more dramatic possibilities… the fall of a utopia; either the breakdown of a utopian system or the discovery that all is not as it seems. ‘Brave New World’ in this context? Bernard the atypical alpha (shorter than the norm) and John the Savage provide non-utopian viewpoints that critique and corrode the utopia. ‘1984’ – a fallen utopia, in fact a warning against utopias, betrayed as evil by its treatment of the individual.

More recently, there’s Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. Simmons’ Hegemony is an apparent utopia; as the novel cycle progresses, we’re educated along with the characters and understand how the impacts of the Hegemony are profoundly negative. What’s most interesting is that many of those impacts aren’t even registered by Hegemony people; apart from anything else, very effective satire on us, now.

Also, a critique of the Culture – always something of a smug utopia. Over and above this, one of the interesting things about IMB is the extent to which he has to drive plots by introducing external, non-Culture elements – whether from sub- or super-Culture sources. Again, you can only get drama out of a utopia by destabilising it, and if the utopia is pretty much perfect (as the Culture is – a heaven analogue, perhaps?) that destabilisation has to come from outside.

Of course the final outside is us the reader. We break utopias by reading about them, comparing their (inevitably) limited solutions to the problems of life with our own complex lives. A systemic mode of life can never respond adequately to the complexities of being human. As people, we are destroyers of systems, because if we don’t break them, they break us. And, broken, we end up inhabiting limited utopias of our own, pitied by externals – readers – deep in experiences that are completely denied to us.

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