We continue our leisurely tour through the Utopian worlds proposed by science fiction with an eye to which one would be best for raising a family.
I should mention my reason for using childrearing rather than sightseeing or adventuring as the touchstone for selecting a society to join: when you rear children, you are obligated to give moral instruction and leadership, to guide their formation of virtues and priorities. Your society at large and your neighbors (real or, through the entertainment industry, electronic) either help or hinder the process. By the thought-experiment of choosing our neighbors in utopia, the values and virtues of the neighborhood, and, more to the point, of your own soul, are brought to light.
In last week’s episode we looked briefly at three Golden Age views of utopia, from A.E. van Vogt, from Ayn Rand, and from Robert Heinlein. Each seemed to be an exaggeration of the primary virtue with which the writer was concerned: for Van Vogt’s Null-A Venus, that virtue was sanity, the proper orientation of the mind to reality; for Ayn Rand’s Galt’s Gulch, it was self-reliance taken to a logical extreme, as if the quid-pro-quo of capitalism could also be used for personal relationships; for Robert Heinlein’s Covenant, it was something of the humble yet frontier spirit of ‘grit’ and gumption that made America, oddly combined with the smug Sexual Revolution vices of self indulgence and sexual perversion which so rapidly are unmaking America.
The problem is that any virtue, if it becomes the sole virtue of a society, crowds out other virtues: there is no portrayal of artistic wildness in the sober Venus of van Vogt, no altruism in Ayn Rand’s Utopia of Greed, no chastity nor prudence in Heinlein’s vision of a tomorrow of orgies.
In the next generation of science fiction writing, we saw both a better (in the sense of more literate) quality of writing, and a deeper (in the sense of exploring variations on a theme). The variations on the theme in these cases were utopias that abolished the state, and its apparatus of force, altogether.
Unlike the earlier stories, some of these writers portrayed details of how daily life would work in their utopia.
From the book The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. LeGuin
Here, the utopian anarchists have departed from the cruel capitalistic totalitarianism of Urras and they live a life without possessions. They also have no names, except for random syllables assigned by computer, and no possessives: no one says the word “me” or “my.” There is at least one famine during the course of the book, and no Joseph and no Pharaoh to store and distribute gain against these seven lean years.
During the famine, food, which hitherto had been free to all comers, is now being horded and wasted, and rioters are storming railway graincars. I was too young to wonder why there was not a famine every year, since no one owned the farms, and workers who worked were fed as happily was workers who loafed.
I recall one scene where crying children are yanked out of sitting in the sunlight by the communal nanny (the child does not know his mother or father, of course) so that he will not develop any ego or possessiveness. The stupid self-righteous yet casual cruelty of that stuck in my memory.
Also, there is a scene where Shevet, a brawny manual laborer, beats up on Shevek, a mathematician, just because he is annoyed that they have a similarity of names. Even as a child I wondered why, if assault and battery were legal on the Anarchist utopia, Shevet could not beat up Shevek every single day. As a schoolboy I had seen children prey on each other in a like fashion, and also had bullies pick on me. I had never seen teachers and principals pounding each other in the face over some frivolous dispute, however, and I was not sure why that system had anything to recommend it.
Anarres is also run by some sort of Committee, which prevents Shevek from publishing his results in his own name, and which also gets his friend the playwright (who writes something critical of the Committee) into an insane asylum.
Marriage is both scorned and illegal. Instead of saying, ‘my wife’ a husband would say ‘the partner’ and the mating partnerships would dissolve at will. In other words, the men are not real men. Tarzan could not live in this place, nor could Zorro, and nor could James Bond, King Arthur, Mr. Frodo Baggins of Bag End, or any other hero of literature noble or simple. Adam and Eve from Milton’s Paradise Lost would be lost here, and they are utterly without sin, fault or flaw — and if prelapsarian men cannot tolerate your utopia, it is ambiguous to say the least.
Verdict — You cannot raise a family well in a Utopia where you are cattle. You cannot raise a family at all in a Utopia where the family unit is outlawed.
And your unknown children would starve in the system where everyone and no one owns and runs the farms and ranches.
RUINED EARTH 1976
From the book Floating Worlds by Cecelia Holland.
Earth of 4000 years hence is ruled by a permanent committee for the Revolution. Domed cities keep the municipal air within an otherwise pollution-poisoned and uninhabitable outer world. This example, if memory serves, was the first time I had come across the concept of an anarchy in a book. Even as a child, I saw the drawback to the anarchist (in this case anarcho-communist) political philosophy.
The main character, Paula Mendoza, in the first chapter, falls into a dispute with a shopkeeper. A junkie stole a flute from her and sold it to a shopkeeper, who buys it in good faith for forty dollars. She asks its return; the shopkeeper offers to sell it to her for six hundred. Negotiations break down. She takes a week off work and spends her days sitting on the front door stoop of the shop and asking customers not to shop there, driving his business away. Meanwhile he throws water buckets on her, or has his people try to chase her off. Eventually she gets the selfsame junkie to sit on the doorstep taking drugs and spewing, which drives all the customers away, and the shopkeeper caves to her extortion, and sells her the flute for fifty bucks.
Even as a child I saw the problem with this system, or, rather, this lack of a system. Stealing from people who cannot afford to take a week off work is clearly the way to go.
Also, my impression as a child was that the main character was a pretty girl, and at least some customers turned away from the shop on that basis alone. So, stealing from unpopular and ugly people is also the way to go.
I am not sure why the shopkeeper did not hire a thug or two for less than the price of the flute to support his side of the argument (by rolling her in a carpet and throwing her off a bridge) or did not wait until he had lost six hundred dollars worth of business, and then destroy the flute in front of her eyes. I am vaguely under the impression that murder and assault were outlawed, but not theft and extortion.
In any case, the ugliness and gross unfairness of this method of solving disputes hung in my brain for at least four decades. It is practically the only scene I recall from the novel.
I admit I do not recall the details of the political economic system described. Whether it was lawful to hire someone to do your harassing and extortion for you I don’t remember being mentioned. One would assume a rich and charismatic man could get a gang of young toughs attached to his household by the generosity of his gifts, a sense of obligation and shared danger, and the reputation for justice and magnanimousness. The rich man would then be the same as Hrothgar of Hereot, or Beowulf of the Gaets, the ring-giver. Instead of handling the matter herself, Mendoza the anarchist would have gone to Beowulf and begged for justice, ripping her clothing and pouring ashes in her hair.
I do remember the main character girl confronting the Committee of Permanent Revolution (or some name like that) and chiding them for not maintaining the ideals of the Revolution, namely, overthrowing themselves. Rather than punishing her, the Committee likes her spunk and gives her a job! I may not be remembering it right, but that is my memory. The Committee acted totally arbitrarily and unfair, as did the girl, as did the shopkeeper, as did the junkie, and no one seemed to care whether the junkie killed himself in public with an overdose.
Verdict — I would not want to raise a family here merely because I would not want my daughter, even if she were as tough-as-nails as Paula Mendoza, to live in a place where the only recourse if a druggie steals her flute is to get selfsame the druggie to puke on the storefront of the guy who bought it in good faith. This utopia, as we can see, is one where Beowulf of Hereot would prosper, and not little girls.
Noted — No immortality or other particular medical advances. Public intoxication was the norm. No particular marriage customs: the main character whores around with men and women in a sexually enlightened fashion, and as best I recall this was a social norm, not a weakness just of that character.
Next week: Three Types of Anarchy
Don’t miss last week’s column: The Most Perfect World From the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program“). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.