2015-06-26

Utopia X3
—Editor's note by Ada Fetters

I confess that each year in June, I become briefly mopey at the anniversary of Iain Banks' untimely demise. After revisiting his books, however, it always becomes apparent that he would rather that people devote their mental energy to pondering the ideas and themes in his novels.

Thus we will compare and contrast the utopias of great writers. Specifically, I'd like to look at Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, Plato's Atlantis, and of course the Culture novels written by Banks himself.

The Man in the High Castle is set in a dystopian world in which the Axis were the victors of WWII. Phillip K. Dick's world is so insidious and plausible that the reader is unsettled. For example, the Japanese want United States artifacts: toys, weapons such as revolvers and so on. They are fascinated with the bygone culture. This seems annoying and condescending: then an American reader is disoriented, realizing that this is what our culture did to theirs: condescension masquerading as xenophilia. Yes, it is disorienting to be startled out of one's complacence.

In the world of The Man in the High Castle, the citizens of the former US are discouraged as individuals. The culture (what there is left of it) is fragmented and is also experiencing an existential crisis. Robert Childan, one of the main characters, bounces back and forth between anger at the Japanese and subservient passivity each time he is reminded of how efficient and complex their way of being is. When faced with a conversational maneuver that crushes his pride so gracefully that it raises condescension to an art form, Childan tells himself that this is evidence that the Japanese race is superior. He tells himself that Americans are gauche, blundering barbarians; that everyone has their place; that certain people are meant to rule.

That isn’t even the main point of the story. However, interactions like this create a world of richness and depth, which is important because this is not a fun world to visit. Dick makes a point of showing that the Japanese are gracious in victory. They won and they know it, but they are not cruel. They have tried to help the Pacific coast of America back to its economic feet. However, the Germans are not as kind. Without opposition, things have gone from bad to worse while the Nazi regime commits genocide after genocide and enforces draconian laws on the east coast of the former US. Later it is revealed that they are planning to destroy their former allies, the Japanese.

Long story short, this world is an uneasy place, torn between resignation and anger. The bright thread running through this book is a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which takes place in a world where the Allies won the war. Various characters read it and say, "Oh, if only that were true. I'd like to go there. Alas, it is only fiction." Others claim that it really is true, that there is something more beyond their depressing reality.

And the reader wants to say, "Yes, it is true! It really is true, if only I could tell you, or better yet, show you!"

Of course, the reader knows that our world is not even close to utopia. The US and its allies won WWII, which is definitely better than the world sinking into the horrifying Nazi-ruled of High Castle, but we in this world have our share of problems too. One small event was enough to change their history, but one big event was not enough to completely “fix” ours.

Iain Banks, meanwhile, wrote about the galaxy-wide Culture, which is a post-scarcity, post-currency society. These people are a collection of anarchists who basically have fun while hyper-advanced Ship Minds run their civilization. No one in the Culture is sick, or poor, or hungry. You can explore or do research or whatever you like, all the while interacting with friendly machines and other aliens. Sure, the machines can do everything a thousand times better than any human possibly could, but what of it? The Culture novels are so amazing—they are exuberantly nihilistic-- that after finishing one of them I always pine after that that universe. If only it were true.

What if the Culture's citizens read about our fossil-fueled, impoverished world where nobody can agree on anything? Perhaps they would say, "No, but the Culture is real. You poor squirming things, with no machines to take care of you! If only we could tell you, or better yet, show you..."

Writing a place so beautiful that it disorients its reader and makes our own world seem like the unrealized potential of High Castle requires prodigious ability.

The ancient Greeks knew this, of course. So now we come to Atlantis, the original “better world.” Originally, Atlantis was a small part of a larger point that Plato wanted to make, but he was such a genius that he casually made up something that struck such a chord with humanity that we still aren't done with it. Hence Man in the High Castle and my pining for the Culture.

Two of Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus and Critias, tell of a long-ago time when the gods had divided the earthly territories with the intention that no one would have go to war. Neptune got Atlantis. He promptly fell in love with a human woman and had children, each of whom got a section of the island of Atlantis. At first, these kings were very intelligent and noble: Plato described a wonderful, peaceful place where everybody had enough to eat and more wealth than they knew what to do with, so they spent it building wondrous structures and improving their technology for a healthier, more educated citizenry. Basically it is the Culture with gods instead of robots.

Of course, Plato never intended Atlantis to be a real place. He made a joke about it in fact, writing that Criteas heard it from his father who heard it from a wanderer who heard it from somebody-or-other who heard it from "a priest" who'd had it handed down from generation to generation of priests before him. What Plato meant by that was, of course, that the source was completely anonymous and unreliable and so this should be taken as an illustration of his argument, not as a real place.

After all, "utopia" is "nowhere" by definition.

Phillip K. Dick and Plato agree that utopia can't just exist, it has to be earned. That was Plato's whole point: kingship might be a decent way to run things if the country is fortunate enough to have all the natural resources they need and have a king who is god-like in his compassion, wisdom and knowledge. Similarly, the Culture is post-scarcity and ruled by compassionate Ship Minds.

Real places, though, aren't like that. Indeed, that was Plato’s point. Iain Banks cheerfully admitted that the Culture could not come to be, with humanity the way it is now.


Plato, Dick, and Banks also agree that the dream of this better place must start somewhere, if it is to have any chance of becoming real (this is why Ursula Le Guin issued her challenge to writers to come up with alternatives to capitalism). A change must begin with the possibility of something beyond one's current reality.



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The Editor, Ada Fetters has been published in The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Copperwood Review, Humanist Magazine, Niche, Tertulia, Debris, Poetry Pacific Magazine, Pink.Girl.Ink and most recently in Bewildering Stories.

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