Utopian Dystopia

The best of all possible worlds will still have mosquitoes

© Bryan Zepp Jamieson
July 23rd 2011

If you’re like me, and you did a lot of reading as a kid and through your teenage years, then you know the situation: there’s an absolutely unforgettable story you read that left you gasping with laughter, or wonder, or made you look at the world in an entirely different way.
Only one day, you think it might be fun to look that story up and re-read it, and it hits you: you can’t remember the title or the author.  If you’re lucky, it’s a fairly well known story, and you can remember the central character’s name, or there’s some other specific item that comes to mind, and you can Google it.  Once a friend of mine and I were discussing Mount Shasta and science fiction, and I mentioned that Heinlein once wrote a story about the locale.  Couldn’t remember the title to save my life, but a Google search turned it up: Lost Legacy, 1943.
Usually you’re just plain out of luck, and it becomes one of your personal life’s mysteries, along with the name of the girl you kissed in sixth grade, or the name of the TV show with the sarcastic duck and the lumberjack.

One such science fiction story I remembered fondly from high school was one about a society on a different planet that, while human, was profoundly different from any human society seen on earth.  The inhabitants of this planet had one right, and one right only.  But it was all they needed.  They had the right to refuse.
They could refuse any request, formal or informal, civilized or not.  The motto could have been the one for Nancy Reagan’s ill-fated anti-drug program: Just say no.  Any citizen had the absolute right to turn around and walk away from any demand placed upon him.
That was all the inhabitants needed in the way of rights.  Earth had had a war or something and dropped out of sight for hundreds of years, and reappeared in the skies of this world in the form of a huge ship filled with bureaucrats and soldiers, there to reclaim the planet for the empire.
The soldiers and bureaucrats encounter the personal sovereignty of these people, and explode.  The story is as funny and engaging as all hell.
I’m luckier than some folks: I was looking at a issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction that a friend loaned me, and in the Books column by Robert K.J. Killheffer (honest….) I found a reference to it that was unmistakable.  The story I was trying to remember  was “…And then there were none” by Eric Frank Russell, written in 1951.  It was mentioned as part of a review of a compilation of libertarian-themed stories called Give Me Liberty, edited by Martin Harry Greenberg and Mark Tier, Baen, 2003.  If I can find it, I think I’ll get a copy.  There’s a couple of other stories I liked in there.
Killheffer was examining the different between right-libertarianism (Ayn Rand, Robert Heinlein, Jerry Pournelle, usually dealing with an über-capable entrepreneur who works miracles through sheer doggedness and perseverance, overcoming millions of drones in the process) and left-libertarianism, which shifts power and abilities to the people, who use such to counter the depredations of major social entities such as governments, churches, aristocracies and corporations.  Russell’s work was a good example of the latter.  It’s a recurring motif in David Brin’s work, as well.
Science Fiction often has strong elements of juvenile wish-fulfillment, and none more strongly so than stories dealing with utopias.  The two branches of libertarianism merge in this type of infantilism, and it doesn’t matter if the protagonist is a Randian superman or a tractor-art hero of the Revolution.
Often technology lends a hand in some vital way.  More than one SF writer has come up with something that makes individuals invulnerable and/or self-sufficient enough that they can safely turn their back on authority.
A few months ago, I started playing with a storyline in which a deus ex machina pops into everyone’s lives and gives them the ability to be completely self-sufficient.  The device in question are boxes roughly the size of a phone booth and colored gun-metal blue just so I could have a handy excuse to have my characters and narrator refer to them as “tardises”.  Just like the Doctor’s conveyance/spouse, only combined with the devices for sustenance found in “To Your Scattered Bodies Go” by Phillip José Farmer.   These tardises could travel about (although not in time), were bigger inside than out, and through carefully-unexplained technology, make the person in the tardis completely invulnerable to any external environment, and capable of satisfying all basic needs indefinitely—oxygen, food, water, medical care, and even entertainment.  The tardises had some limitations: they couldn’t travel faster than light, and not only could you not mount weapons on the outside, but weapons that depended on anything more than human muscle to work couldn’t work on the inside.  This restriction on weapons is the closest thing to a moral suggestion that the silent and invisible gods who created the tardises make.
One day, they magically appear, one to each person.  The tardis.  Because one inaccurate and pilfered noun is better than a thousand fumbling adjectives.
Anyone who has one (and that’s everyone) can live where they want—on top of Everest, at the bottom of the sea, on the Moon, anywhere.  They can go wherever they like, subject only to Einstein’s laws.  (There are no wormholes or warp drives in this universe).
Utopia, right?
Wouldn’t be much of a story without a few bumps, so I introduced them.
For starters, I make the assumption that humanity is not going to eagerly embrace this incredible boon.  At first, a lot of people will refuse to enter the devices, even as their properties become known, because they are new, different, and unexplained, and people are naturally mistrustful.  In time, suspicions will succumb to increasing familiarity, but I posit that by the time that occurs, roughly a third of humanity will still refuse to have anything to do with the tardises.
Reasons are all over the map, of course.  Some people have religious objections.  Some never get over the fear.  Others feel that humanity’s place is working with the earth, rather than just treating it as a backdrop for their otherwise uninvolved lives.
But the Tardis are embraced by billions who suddenly have no need for governments or economies, and governments fall and economies crash, leaving the tardis dwellers to set up their own perforce loose system of regulation, and an economy that is entirely based on those luxury or entertainment items that the tardises cannot supply.  (L’il Abner readers will remember the Schmoos, affable and self-sacrificing creature that gave humanity everything they needed.  Naturally, they had to be destroyed because they were bad for business.)
Utopia?  Not on my watch!
At time goes by, the people living in the tardises who haven’t abandoned earth entirely have come to value the aesthetic value of the view they get through the door of their tardises.  Thus they aren’t amused to see people living in squalor and hunger (Tacky! Tacky!) and polluting and despoiling the scenery.
The tardis dwellers want an idyllic world that looks like a giant park, and where all signs of human habitation are subtle, and rabbits and deer gambol amongst the mounds that form the ultra-modern homes.  The sort-of world-wide Hobbit village where the author elides over the fact that for the population to be so thinly spread, several billion people had to go missing.
This splitting of humanity leads, eventually, to war.  It isn’t as one-sided as you might guess, since the only way the tardis dwellers can take the offensive is by coming out of the boxes and fighting, which makes them vulnerable, and the people living on the land aren’t exactly ignorant farmers.  They can fight back, and do.
The narrator, sickened by the things he has to do in his attacks on the land dwellers, eventually rebells and runs off in his tardis, and drops himself into his own particular version of hell in the process, but I’m not going to discuss that since it’s the meat of the story.
A lot of what passes for “libertarianism” in the United States today is just fascism wearing a more populist coat of paint.  But even before it was poisoned and usurped by the far right, it was already an unworkable example of utopian thinking.  Hyper capable capitalists have not come to save the day—in the 60 odd years since Heinlein wrote “The Man Who Sold the Moon”, no private sector spacecraft has achieved orbit, let alone colonized the moon.  And if you think any society can uphold the absolute right of refusal, look at how Americans have meekly succumbed to the yoke of authoritarianism, especially since 9/11.
I believe humans cannot be perfected.  For one thing, we have absolutely no idea of what “perfection” is,  and a a result, hold literally billions of different opinions on what it might be.  Does it involve a god?  Is it limited to certain people?
We can’t be perfect or perfected, but we can be better.  And that, I think is why writers write about utopias.  Even my own dystopian view of utopia has a net improvement for humanity, even if humanity is of divided opinions on how best to use this improvement.
We might never reach the stars.  But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking up.

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