[Marxism] Science fiction and utopianism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Nov 24 07:33:06 MST 2005

Back to utopia
Can the antidote to today's neoliberal triumphalism be found in the pages 
of far-out science fiction?

By Joshua Glenn  |  November 20, 2005

IN 1888, when Massachusetts newspaperman Edward Bellamy published his 
science fiction novel ''Looking Backward," set in a Boston of the year 
2000, it sold half a million copies. Never mind the futuristic inventions 
(electric lighting, credit cards) and visionary city planning; what readers 
responded to was the transformation of a Gilded Age city of labor strikes 
and social unrest into a socialist utopia (Bellamy called it 
''nationalist") of full employment and material abundance.

By 1890 there were 162 reformist Bellamy Clubs around the country, with a 
membership that included public figures like the influential novelist, 
editor, and critic William Dean Howells; and from 1891-96, the 
Bellamy-inspired Nationalist Party helped propel the Populist Movement. The 
Bellamyites fervently believed, to paraphrase the slogan of today's 
anti-globalization movement, that another world was possible.

But during the Cold War - thanks to Stalinism and the success of such 
dystopian fables as Aldous Huxley's ''Brave New World" and George Orwell's 
''Nineteen Eighty-Four" - all radical programs promising social 
transformation became suspect. Speaking for his fellow chastened liberals 
at a Partisan Review symposium in 1952, for example, the theologian and 
public intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr dismissed what he called the 
utopianism of the 1930s as ''an adolescent embarrassment."

Niebuhr and other influential anti-utopians of mid-century - Isaiah Berlin, 
Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper - had a point. From Plato's ''Republic" to 
Thomas More's 1517 traveler's tale ''Utopia" (the title of which became a 
generic term), to the idealistic communism of Rousseau and other pre- and 
post-French Revolution thinkers, to Bellamy's ''Looking Backward" itself, 
utopian narratives have often shared a naive and unseemly eagerness to 
force square pegs into round holes via thought control and coercion. By the 
end of the 20th century, most utopian projects did look proto-totalitarian.

In recent years, however, certain eminent contrarians - most notably 
Fredric Jameson, author of the seminal ''Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural 
Logic of Late Capitalism" (1991) and Russell Jacoby, author most recently 
of ''The End of Utopia" (1999) and ''Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for 
an Anti-Utopian Age" (2005)-have lamented the wholesale abandonment of such 
utopian ideas of the left as the abolition of property, the triumph of 
solidarity, and the end of racism and sexism.

The question, for thinkers like these, is how to revive the spirit of 
utopia - the current enfeeblement of which, Jameson claims, ''saps our 
political options and tends to leave us all in the helpless position of 
passive accomplices and impotent handwringers" - without repeating the 
errors of what Jacoby has dubbed ''blueprint utopianism," that is, a 
tendency to map out utopian society in minute detail. How to avoid, as 
Jameson puts it, effectively ''colonizing the future"?

Is the thought of a noncapitalist utopia even possible after Stalinism, 
after decades of anticommunist polemic on the part of brilliant and morally 
engaged intellectuals? Or are we all convinced, in a politically paralyzing 
way, that Margaret Thatcher had it right when she crowed that ''there is no 
alternative" to free-market capitalism?

Borrowing Sartre's slogan, coined after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, 
about being neither communist nor anticommunist but ''anti-anticommunist," 
Jameson suggests we give ''anti-anti-utopianism" a try. In his latest book, 
''Archaeologies of the Future," just published by Verso, he invites us to 
explore an overlooked canon of anti-anti-utopian narratives that some, to 
echo Niebuhr, might find embarrassingly adolescent: offbeat science fiction 
novels of the 1960s and '70s.

Jameson, a professor of comparative literature at Duke, isn't talking about 
''Star Trek" novelizations. Because of the Cold War emphasis on dystopias, 
Cold War writers like Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. 
Delany had to find radical new ways to express their inexpressible hopes 
about the future, claims Jameson. At this moment of neoliberal 
triumphalism, he suggests, we should take these writers seriously - even if 
their ideas are packaged inside lurid paperbacks.

In Dick's uncanny novels, the author demands of us that we decide for 
ourselves what's real and what isn't. ''Martian Time-Slip" (1964), for 
example, is partly told from the perspective of a 10-year-old schizophrenic 
colonist on Mars, where civilization is devolving into ''gubbish." And 
''The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" (1965) is a psychedelic odyssey of 
hallucinations-within-hallucinations from which no reader emerges unscathed.

Delany, meanwhile, is best known for ''Trouble on Triton" (1976), a 
self-consciously post-structuralist novel that depicts a future where 
neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality is the norm. Le Guin, author of a 
fantasy series for children, ''The Earthsea Trilogy," explores Taoist, 
anarchist, and feminist themes in novels like ''The Left Hand of Darkness" 
(1969) and ''The Dispossessed" (1974). Fans of Dick, Delany, and their ilk 
warn neophytes not to read too many of their books too quickly: Doing so, 
as this reader can attest, tends to result in pronounced feelings of 
irreality, paranoia, and angst.

In ''Archaeologies," Jameson characterizes utopian narratives (which he 
classifies as a subgenre of science fiction) as being, at the level of 
content, less a vision of a truly different world than a situation-specific 
response to a concrete historical dilemma: the immiseration of the working 
class during the later 19th century, in Bellamy's case. Such content is 
''vacuous," he sniffs, and of interest primarily to antiquarians.

The ability of utopian narratives in particular, and science fiction in 
general, to break the paralyzing spell of the quotidian has less to do with 
its content than with its form, he argues persuasively. (Buck Rogers-type 
science fiction in the mode of ''extrapolation and mere anticipation of all 
kinds of technological marvels," as Jameson puts it, is far less effective 
at doing so.) It requires a tremendous effort to imagine a daily life that 
is politically, economically, socially, and psychologically truly different 
from our own. And this effort, Jameson writes, warps the structure of 
science fiction. As a result, he claims, even Dick's amphetamine-fuelled 
potboilers are as productively alienating as the plays of Brecht and Beckett.

But isn't it perverse to describe novels quite so alienating as utopian? 
The title character of Dick's ''Palmer Eldritch," for example, is an 
industrialist-turned-evil demiurge who brings to mankind a ''negative 
trinity" of ''alienation, blurred reality, and despair" in the form of 
Chew-Z, a drug that inducts users into a hallucinatory semireality from 
which they can never finally escape. Le Guin's ''The Dispossessed," 
meanwhile, was written as a pointed critique of typical utopian narratives: 
It's set on Annares, a planet whose hippie-like inhabitants value voluntary 
cooperation, local control, and mutual tolerance - but who have preserved 
their grooviness through dogmatic conformism and an entrenched bureaucracy 
that stifles innovation. Le Guin's protagonist abandons Annares for a 
nearby world, one that is superior in important respects because its 
inhabitants value the free market; later editions of the book are subtitled 
''An Ambiguous Utopia."

Delany, finally, gave ''Triton" (set on a Neptunian colony where no one 
goes hungry and everyone is sexually confused) the subtitle ''An Ambiguous 
Heterotopia," to signal his own critique not only of utopian narratives but 
of Le Guin's vestigial nostalgia for pastoral communes.

Asked in a recent interview why the science fiction novels that he calls 
utopian portray future societies not even remotely like the 
cloud-cuckoo-land the term suggests, Jameson explained that the problem 
confronting Cold War science fiction writers was how to describe utopia 
''negatively," in terms of what it won't be like. ''There is, in effect, a 
ban on graven images, meaning you can't represent the future in a realistic 
way," he said. Anti-anti-utopian writing ''has to be about freeing the 
imagination from the present," Jameson continued, ''rather than trying to 
offer impoverished pictures of what life in the future's going to be."

Dystopias aren't the only example of ''negative" utopianism, Jameson points 
out in ''Archaeologies." The rise to popularity in the mid-1960s and early 
'70s of disaster novels - about atomic warfare, meteors hitting the Earth, 
environmental collapse, and so forth - ought to be interpreted as evidence 
of a collective desire to start over from scratch, he writes. He points to 
books like Dick's ''Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb" 
(1965), a pastoral set in a post-apocalyptic Berkeley; Le Guin's ''The 
Lathe of Heaven" (1971), about an overpopulated Portland, Ore., made 
livable by a plague; and John Brunner's ''The Sheep Look Up" (1972), about 
an Earth whose air is unbreathable.

These books are more utopian, in a way, than Bellamy-style idylls, Jameson 
claims, because the latter offer false hope that ameliorative reforms might 
transform society. ''What utopian thought wants to make us aware of is the 
need for complete systemic change, change in the totality of social 
relations, and not just an improvement in bourgeois culture," he said. ''If 
we want a [bourgeois idyll], we can go to Celebration, Fla."

If discussing a future society that can't be represented realistically is 
complicated and off-putting, that's because ''it's a new form of thinking," 
Jameson insisted. ''It's a new dimension of the exercise of the imagination."

Jameson, who's been writing about Dick, Le Guin, Delany, Brunner, and 
others in the pages of scholarly journals like Science Fiction Studies for 
30 years, is reticent when it comes to the question of what makes a great 
anti-anti-utopian narrative. ''The talent or the greatness of science 
fiction writers," he said, ''lies in what individual solutions they have 
for a formal problem - the ban on graven images - that cannot be resolved. 
There's no universal recipe." But when it comes to the power of science 
fiction to spring us from what he claims is our current state of political 
paralysis, Jameson is enthusiastic. ''It's only when people come to realize 
that there is no alternative," he said, ''that they react against it, at 
least in their imaginations, and try to think of alternatives."

Can reading science fiction, I asked, help us decide between various 
utopian alternatives - urban vs. pastoral, statist vs. anarchistic? No, 
replied Jameson, insisting there are ''utopian elements" in each of these. 
What science fiction does afford us, he said, ''is not a synthesis of these 
elements but a process where the imagination begins to question itself, to 
move back and forth among the possibilities."

What contemporary science fiction author most inspires this ideal process? 
In ''Archaeologies," Jameson suggests it might be a former doctoral student 
of his, Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote his dissertation on Philip K. Dick 
and whose popular trilogy, ''Red Mars" (1992), ''Green Mars" (1993), and 
''Blue Mars" (1995), explores the political, economic, and ecological 
crises that ensue when 21st-century colonists from Earth begin terraforming 
Mars. Instead of asking the reader to decide on any one of the colonists' 
competing utopian ideologies, Jameson said, Robinson ''goes back and forth 
between these various visions, [allowing us to see] it's not a matter of 
choosing between them but of using them to destabilize our own existence, 
our own social life at present."

In the final analysis, Jameson writes in ''Archaeologies," the demanding 
exercise of holding incompatible visions in mind is what ''gives utopia its 
savor and its bitter freshness, when the thought of utopias is still possible."

Joshua Glenn writes the Examined Life column for Ideas. E-mail 
jglenn at globe.com. 

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