On Utopias: Our Best Case Scenario--'The Jetsons', 'Foundation', or...?

Is there a purpose to human existence? A meaning to human life?

Most philosophers today won't go near such grandiose and nebulous questions, not least because such questions seem to presuppose that there's a transcendent force--God, e.g.--directing our lives. But it's natural and unavoidable to wonder if, as a species, there's some end-state we are either barreling towards or ought to be striving to realize. In science-fiction (and fiction generally), such end-state societies--the 'good' ones, anyway--are utopias ('utopia', which was coined by Thomas More in his 1516 book of the same title, means 'no-place').

Utopias are almost always 'janus-faced', good and bad--ideals to be strived for, yes, but anthill societies by the same token, where humanity's edge is no longer being sharpened against the whetstone of adversity. This is the quintessentially human predicament: we want and feel compelled to strive for a state of security and rest, where all needs are met, justice is administered, and potentials realized. But the reality of such a state would smother us; without challenge, scarcity, adversity, and struggle--both physical and intellectual--we as a species would stagnate and weaken, and quickly become vulnerable to predators internal and otherwise. The basic lesson of most sci-fi utopias is just this: we can construct the perfect society, but the cost may be our humanity itself.

This is my depiction of what I call a 'moral utopia', from my book How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias. This is the opposite number of the situation depicted in '1984', which was a moral dystopia, a situation without the comfort of hope or the hope of comfort. This is a Galactic Capital, a city of teeming billions, the center of an empire of thousands of prosperous worlds, all connected by links of commerce and cultural exchange. Titanic, faster-than-light starships fill the skies, nature reserves abound, and universal peace reigns.

A moral utopia is a situation in which the full potential of human nature is realized, in which a maximal percentage of humans is given the greatest possible scope for exercising physical and intellectual capabilities, consistent with the fullest realization of social and economic justice. I believe that if it's possible to specify a purpose of human existence, a goal or end-state towards which we are or ought to be moving, this is probably it. It, or something very like it, is the best we can hope for, as a species. I think that many people, when pressed for a reason why money should be spent on space exploration as opposed to alleviating poverty here on earth, feel (but can't always articulate) that it's necessary for just this reason. We won't have a hope of establishing a galactic society (in which alone can humanity truly guarantee its long-term survival) without taking steps to colonize space right now.

Above: A population dystopia, from How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias.

If we neglect to think big, to start planning now for a future space-going society--if we put all of our resources into alleviating poverty in the here and now--we may be funneling ourselves, willy-nilly and with the very best of intentions, into the sort of Malthusian catastrophe pictured above: a dystopian nightmare of crime, poverty, pollution, and people people people.

Something very close to the moral utopia I'm talking about was presented by Isaac Asimov in his celebrated series of Foundation novels. The Foundation saga begins thousands of years in the future--a galactic republic comprising thousands of worlds has the planet Trantor as its capital. Trantor is a city-world, covered entirely with urban growth, populated by scores of billions, all devoted to the mountainous task of galactic administration. Peace and prosperity abound; the situation is utopian indeed--but again, there's a dark undercurrent to this state of affairs. The republic is stagnating, rotting from within, teetering under its own bureaucratic weight, and the psychohistorian Hari Seldon correctly predicts that it will disintegrate, Roman Empire-style, into anarchy within 300 years.

Above: The planet Coruscant from Star Wars: Episode 3, Revenge of the Sith (2005).

Trantor was the inspiration for the planet Coruscant from the more recent Star Wars prequel trilogy; like

Trantor, Coruscant is a city-world, the utopian heart of a vast galactic republic, apparently vigorous but dangerously top-heavy with bureaucracy, on the verge of being taken over by a two-faced, opportunistic nemesis.

Two other darkly utopian sci-fi masterpieces bear mentioning here: Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World (1931), and George Lucas' early film THX-1138 (1971). Both of these pieces are set approximately 500 years in the future, and both describe classic ant-hill (i.e. stagnant) utopias. Both involve the idea of breeding being tightly overseen and technologically controlled by the state, and both crucially involve the idea of the people depending at all times on mood-altering and controlling drugs. A common theme to both these pieces is that a 'perfect' society could only be achieved if people were willing to voluntarily medicate their own humanity away.

Above: from THX-1138 (1971).

A different but very fascinating type of sci-fi utopia is what I call the retro-utopia.

Above: A retro-utopia from How to Draw Sci-fi Utopias and Dystopias.

The retro-utopia gives us a nostalgic vision of how the future used to look. And it used to look simple and fun--the versions of the 21st century (and beyond) on offer from the 1930s through the 60s were typically dominated by people flying with personal jetpacks (still rare and dangerous in reality), robot servants (robotics has advanced by leaps and bounds, of course, but we're still a long way from robots that can interact in a versatile way in real time), and routine trips to other planets (in reality it's over 40 years since astronauts walked on the moon, and were still about a generation away from the first manned flight to Mars, at best).

Above: George Jetson and family, from The Jetsons (1962-63).

The locus classicus of the retro-utopia is, of course, The Jetsons of happy memory (produced by Hanna-Barbera, it ran in primetime in the early 1960's). A more recent sci-fi retro-utopia was presented in Andrew Niccol's much-overlooked 1997 film Gattaca.

Above: Ethan Hawke in Gattaca (1997).

Gattaca had utopian and dystopian elements--it tells of an ambitious young astronaut-in-training (played by Ethan Hawke) trying to sneak his defective heart past the prying eyes of his overseers in the American rocket program. It takes place in an unspecified future and in an alternate reality--a reality with a decidedly 60's aesthetic; the astronauts wear business attire even as they're blasting off (it's like a mash-up of 'Mad Men' and 'The Right Stuff'). Despite the sense of impending disaster and claustrophobia simmering in this film, the retro-aesthetic gives it a simple and comforting feel, a sense of genial familiarity, of past and future comfortably merging.

Few in the 1950's, 60's, 70's or even 80's could have predicted that the true revolution of the (early) 21st century would have been in information transmission and sharing. The makers of the original Star Trek could hardly have been expected to foresee that within two generations most people would be carrying what are essentially Spock-esque tricorders. Why would anyone need them?

Good science-fiction is not directly about the future, technology, utopias or dystopias. It's about the present, about what we're doing to the world and ourselves, and about what we need to change--either to get something good or avoid something hideous. In good science-fiction it doesn't matter that the predictions about future technology turn out to be wildly off the mark--those predictions are just by-the-way, they are never the true point. And the purpose of fictional utopias is to make us reflect on the question: is it even possible (let alone good) for humanity to shoe-horn itself into a preconceived, 'perfect' society? Could it be that we could only do so by sacrificing something that, albeit dangerous and unpredictable, is essential to our flourishing: our very humanity, our sense of adventure, our need to explore, change and grow? Is our current society, with all its injustices and imperfections, already the true utopia?

Only time will tell.

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