Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2003

Making a most welcome to the pages of Challenger is one of our earliest Chall pals, with some cogent thoughts on

 

THE TROUBLE WITH UTOPIAS

James Hogan

       Some years ago, when I lived in California, I attended a weekend seminar on interstellar colonization, generation ships, and how they might function. There were some bright and interesting people there, versed in just about all the relevant technologies, as well as management, social, and psychological sciences. For the first couple of days everyone split into specialized groups and disappeared off into the woodwork of the hotel to study the aspect they had elected to tackle and come up with a solution. The final day would be devoted to hearing presentation by all the groups and debating their findings. As a general writer-guest of the occasion not attached to any group in particular, I was free to roam at leisure around the work rooms where they had ensconced themselves amid paper-strewn tables and walls steadily taking on a new papering of charts--in the process being sometimes taken for a spy sent out by some other group to see what the competition was up to. And, indeed, human nature being the way it is, that happened quite a lot too.

       As was to be expected, much of the material had to do with technical issues, such as the physical problems to be overcome in creating a habitat capable of sustaining life for an extended period in the space environment, energy sources, propulsion systems, materials, structures, and that kind of thing. But one section of the agenda was headed "Types of Social Organization," and addressing it was a team that included a couple of psychologists, an industrial psychiatrist, a management consultant, and a political theorist, among others. Their analysis, in impeccable organization-speak and with a facility for categorization, delineation, and sub-classification that would have delighted denizens of Washington bureaucracies or those masters of desiccation whose tomes line the bookshelves of humanities departments, reduced all of the diversity, richness, triumph, tragedy, and magnificent chaos of human culture to three societal types. These, in a breathtaking imaginative leap, were designated "Type A," "Type B," and "Type C."

       A "Type A" community, we were told, was "Hierarchical and Homogenistic." People in this kind of community believe there is a "best" way of doing everything, which is good for everybody. They think in terms of maximization and optimization, pursue efficiency as a self-evident ideal, operate by majority rule, and consider competition to be the basis of all progress. Nonstandard behavior and minority groups are considered abnormal and undesirable, to be ignored if possible, or corrected if they become too inconvenient. Because of the belief that unity comes from homogeneity and differences create conflict, members of such a system would be divided into groups by age and by occupation. Living units would be all identical, and the inhabited areas would be zoned into residential agricultural, and industrial areas, and so forth. It seems to be axiomatic that all of the above viewpoints and opinions come together inseparably, in one psychological package.

       A "Type B" community, on the other hand, was "Individualistic and Isolationistic." (What is it that makes me uncomfortable about people who want to put "ic" on the end of every adjective?) Proponents of this kind of society value independence and self-sufficiency as the highest virtue. Accordingly, each living unit in a generation ship modeled to this philosophy would constitute its own castle, isolated from the others, with everything adjustable for individual taste and protection of privacy as the major concern. Decision-making would be autonomous and decentralized to the greatest degree possible, with a minimal command structure playing a Jeffersonesque federal role to provide a unified defense and foreign policy in terms of getting the ship in one piece to where it wants to go, and providing for the common welfare.

       The above two categories were disposed of fairly speedily, and it was difficult to avoid the impression that they were included mainly as a token to completeness and impartiality, but with their negative aspects emphasized?not very subtly?to steer us all to accepting the vision that the authors were plugging as the only viable choice, which was given far more time and described glowingly.

       This was the "Type C" community, characterized by being "Heterogenistic, Mutualistic, and Symbiotic." Its members believe in (I had to write this down to make sure I would reproduce it correctly) "the symbiosis of biological and social process due to mutual interaction." Heterogeneity is the primary value, affording a source of enrichment, symbiosis, and resource diversification, while contributing to flexibility and survival, and providing the raw material for ongoing evolution. Majority rule is considered homogenistic domination by quantity, in place of which would be enshrined the principle of "elimination of hardship." Competition is destructive and useless, and is to be replaced by cooperation, the overall design philosophy being harmony of diversity. (The word "harmony" occurred repeatedly throughout the description.) The different elements making up the heterogeneity would not be just thrown together, however, but carefully combined to produce . . . yes, you've guessed, harmony. There were two methods of achieving heterogenization: "Localization" and "Interweaving" . . . And so it went on.

       The community had every kind of facility, amenity, and service imaginable. Nothing had been overlooked by the planners or excluded from their calculations. Residential units were allowed 49 square meters per person: 37 sq.m. of floor area and 12 sq.m. of exterior space. Business districts were assigned 10 shops to every 1000 people, and 2.5 sq. m. floor space per office worker. There were schools and hospitals; halls for churchgoing, community meetings and theaters; a variety of entertainments that were educational as well as beneficial; facilities for a wide range of creative hobbies; park spaces for sports, recreation, and leisure. It all sounded utopian. It was all very harmonious, of course; as well as being balanced, symbiotic, heterogenistic, wholesome, nutritious, healthy, hygenic, and clean. . . . And so antiseptic, vapid, insipid, germ-free, and sanitary that my first reaction was a feeling of acute nausea. Or putting it bluntly, I wanted to throw up.

              Where were the sleazy bars, night clubs, and strip joints? What about some pool parlors, casinos, X-rated movie theaters, and pinball arcades? In other words, the things that a lot of real, live, flesh-and-blood people in real, jostling, bustling, hustling--the things that make real "heterogenistic" communities--like to do sometimes. Or wasn't this place meant for real, live flesh-and-blood people?

       It was an upper-middle-class academic intellectual's ideal of how other people ought to live; a projection of the secure, worry-free suburbia that model families of TV commercials and yucky movies inhabit, infused with correct attitudes and social virtues, and healthily nurtured in body and mind. Maybe it was their fantasy of the world they thought their children wanted to grow up in. But the possibility that the subjects might not be quite so enthralled by it all didn't seem to have occurred to anyone. Perhaps I should amend what I wrote above to read: nothing had been overlooked by the planners except how the unasked recipients of all this moral guidance and cultural improvement might feel about it. Like the computers that the social engineers use to process their statistics and graph their models, the inhabitants--"social units," not people--of the exercise were receptacles for programs to be loaded into and then tweaked until desirable behavior was seen to emerge. The only problem is, humans have this funny habit or not reacting desirably to being treated like that.

       Back in the late seventies, after I left Massachusetts and before I wound up in Florida, I spent some time in New York City. One of the people I got to know there was a black character called Pal, and I remember him recounting his perspective of the social programs launched with much fanfare in the sixties. "They sent rich people's kids from well-to-do suburbs outside the city to tell us how to live," he told me. "They knew nothing about blacks, nothing about life in the streets, and nothing about what it's like to be poor. They felt guilty because they were rich and had it easy, and they were gonna do good things for us to make themselves feel better. So they gave us handouts of other people's money that they'd taken away in taxes, making out like they were being real generous --which said we weren't capable of earning our own. They set quotas to force people to give us jobs -- which said we couldn't make it on our own abilities. They lowered the entry grades for our kids to get into schools -- which said they didn't have what it takes. They gave us food stamps and took away our self respect, when all we'd ever wanted was the opportunity to prove ourselves on equal terms. And then, they expected us to be grateful! What would you have done?"

       "I think I might have gotten pretty mad and set fire to their cities," I said.

       "Damn right!" Pal agreed. "That's just what we did."

       It's strange, too, isn't it, how many of those same people, who gave their children secure, worry-free environments to grow up in, with all problems taken care of and everything provided, ended up embittered and resentful because they didn't get any gratitude from that direction either -- and perhaps had their cities burned metaphorically.

       The most livable cities, in my experience, weren't planned down to excruciating detail. To a large degree, they just happened. I grew up in the nineteen forties on the west side of London. There was no zoning and not much regulating then. Streets of houses, crowded markets, shops, pubs, schools, parks were all jumbled up together. Just walking around town was always an experience with something going on, never dull or boring like a modern-day suburban graveyard with its rows of white monuments, each on its patch of green, and nobody in sight. There was a railroad marshaling yard where you could sit on the grass bank by the tracks and watch the trains shunting and being formed up, with the occasional express thundering through from Paddington on its way to Wales and the West Country. Behind it was a canal with a scrap metal yard on one side, with mountains of water tanks, oil drums, sheets of corrugated iron, and all kinds of junk that the kids would build into a tank, an airplane, or a submarine, and play all day. On the way to school we passed an automobile assembly plant and a printing works, where on warm days they kept the doors open and you could talk to the workers during their break and watch the newspapers and magazines coming off the presses. And there were parks with big, solidly-built, iron-and-wood swings, roundabouts, bucking broncos that could throw you ten feet if you didn't cling on right--not the wimpy plastic things they have today because of lawsuit paranoia -- along with swimming pools, sandpits, and playing fields. Across the main road where the electric trolley buses ran, behind the cinder grounds where the visiting fair pitched camp at the Easter and August holidays and the circus came at Christmas, was a large area of open heath bordering a prison on the far side, and which still had sandbagged, barbed-wire- enclosed anti-aircraft-gun emplacements from the war, where we played soccer with the soldiers. It was a community in every sense, where industry was part of everyday life, and men with greasy coveralls weren't something remote who existed on TV, but people who made the things we all used and ate their lunch in the cafe between the greengrocer's and the fish-and-chip shop at the end of the street. A lot of young people that you hear these days have absorbed the message from the media and frequently at school that technology is bad, causing pollution and cancer and despoiling the planet. They don't connect industry with their own everyday needs at all. I see children of families that are far wealthier than we were in terms of owning more possessions than we could have dreamed of . . . but I'm not sure I envy them in their rows of model homes, marooned on islands of secure conformity, miles from anything interesting to do unless a parent has the time to drive them there. (We could go anywhere in London for a few pennies on the underground and the bus network.) And they're not allowed to have problems or challenges and learn to deal with them in their own way, because any hint of a worry or fear or self-doubt is met by swarms of counselors, social workers, experts, analysts. . . Yet we read continually of the difficulties young people experience with alienation, boredom, disenchantment, and the self-destructive behavior that can set in as a result, in the form of drugs, vandalism . . . suicide, even.

       True satisfaction and the inner feeling of self esteem comes from doing worthwhile work and the knowledge of being up to dealing with life's downturns when they happen. What kind of work is worthwhile? The kind that people seek and are willing to pay for in one way or another without being made to. The kind that's needed. But what does somebody do who has nothing to offer that anyone really wants? Being a free-rider in life--the feeling of consuming and putting nothing back in return--is discomfiting and dissatisfying to most people. One reaction that it evokes is that of the compulsive regulator and legislator. If we produce nothing that people will voluntarily spend money on, or have nothing to promote that they'll vote for at the ballot box, then dammit we'll make them take notice of us and need us!

       There seems to be a certain kind of mind that preoccupies itself with social engineering and visions of creating the ideal society. I suspect that very often there's a streak of suppressed envy at work too for the producers and creators whose work is genuinely valued by others. And this can easily translate into deriving a perverse satisfaction from obstructing and negating the achievements of others as a way of combating the discomfort--a task made easier, perhaps to the degree of being turned into a crusade with a purpose, when bolstered by the conviction that the achievements are illusory or endangering to Mother Earth or whatever. So in the utopias which they create, they become not just needed but necessary, a paternalistic, expert elite, advising behind the throne while ministering the benefits of superior wisdom to the grateful and respecting peasantry. So what could be a greater anathema than the suggestion that the peasants might be capable of muddling along and managing their lives to their own satisfaction without need of it?

       The trouble with utopias comes when not everyone agrees that they're so utopian. What do you do if the peasants aren't so enamored with the vision dispensed from on high and start developing the peculiar notion that they'd rather be left alone? Well, obviously that's just an aberration. They just need a little "help" to become enlightened. The irony with the former Soviet practice of putting dissidents in lunatic asylums lay in the fact that it wasn’t simply a malicious form of punishment; the ideologues believed that anyone not wildly enthusiastic over the system had to be genuinely insane and in need of corrective treatment.

       You can fool some of the people for some of the time, and you can fool yourself all of the time. But you can't fool reality. When some utopian dream experiment on Earth eventually collides with one of the realities of life--the most usual one being human nature--it might be the end of the utopia but it isn't the end of the world. The disillusioned and hopefully wiser disperse back into the general run of things, and history carries on. But what happens in a less resilient, spacegoing community, such as a generation starship, when its over-planned and rigidly maintained system is unable to accommodate to, or failed to recognize in the first place, the whims and wants of real people living real lives? You can't have your dissidents transferred or retired from the service like malcontents among the crew of an aircraft-carrier or submarine, nor throw them overboard in the way a council of elders might expel the misfits from a back-to-basics colony, while shooting them has this tendency to spread doubts as to the totality of a leadership's commitment to the sacredness of harmony. But if you employ screening and selection procedures at the recruitment stage as is often advocated, comparable to the military's way of assembling teams for demanding tasks of long duration, then the spacegoing community isn't representative of real human conditions to begin with. So how can it be expected to cope when real human problems begin to arise?--as they will. And in any case, since we're talking about generation ships, what do you do about the aberrants who will inevitably be born later, who don't conform to the original selection criteria?

       Many humanitarians depressed by the human condition and deploring the exploitation and imperialism of the nineteenth century were nevertheless impressed by the achievements of science. If science could unify mechanics and gravitation, resolve questions that had been asked for millennia, and produce the steam engine, the telegraph, and the railroad, then surely all the human problems of ignorance, want, injustice, and oppression were within reach of being solved by the same application of objectivity and reason. But the ideologies constructed as a consequence, claimed to be founded on "scientific" principles and devised for the most part by concerned thinkers with the sincerest of intentions, led to some of the most vicious and intolerant regimes of recent times.

       For, when the end is something as noble as finally realizing the Golden Age of human equality or the Millennium of opportunity, what, by comparison, are a few trifling rights and liberties of those unenlightened who, from motives of greed, selfishness, or contempt for the laws that apply to others, would stand in the way? If the institutions of a free society become obstacles to the Great Plan by obstructing the consensus that the Plan needs to be implemented, then those institutions will have to yield or be suspended. For the sake of "harmony" and the "best interests of society as a whole," those who oppose us will have to be . . . removed. Once begun, the path leads ultimately to the secret police, the midnight arrests, concentration camp, and the gulag, not as unfortunate instances of good intentions that went wrong, but as inevitable consequences of a precedent that sacrificed the individual to a supposedly greater collective good, and made service to an ideal the only measure of worth and justification for human existence.

       Good reasons can always be found why those who disagree should be coerced into living as others think they should. The thin end of the wedge that rapidly widens to become the stripping away of rights and freedoms wholesale is usually the assertion of a position that few could find grounds to disagree with, such as fighting wars on drugs, protecting children, combating "terrorism," which disarms potential opposition in advance. Once the cause has been identified with furthering the common good, then any questioning of it automatically becomes the mark of the common enemy. In an artificial space habitat, vulnerable to extortion attempts and sabotage as well as being subject to all the natural rigors of the hostile extraterrestrial environment, the crucial importance of preserving security affords a ready-made justification for imposing a regimented, coercive order "for your own safety and protection and the good of everyone."

       And again, unlike the wilderness that was available to immigrants to this country in earlier centuries, a starship habitat doesn't offer unlimited room to expand into and get away from neighbors you don't like; its physical resource are limited. The management and allocation of shortages--and their creation, if necessary--have always provided fertile breeding grounds for "people's" committees, planning boards, bureaucratic departments, and the like.

       I'm not, of course, suggesting some kind of anarchy as an alternative or any way to run a spaceship. If history shows anything about the relative merits of different forms of human societies, it's that while totalitarian systems certainly kill more people than democratic ones do, anarchy kills far more still. But since a long-duration space experience involving a society-in-miniature offers all the temptations and pretexts that the zealots for authoritarianism relish, what I am asking is how best to preserve the values of free choice and self-determination that our political and economic systems are based on~~ the foundations of the way of life we believe in. It would be ironic, to say the least, if after threatening nuclear retaliation to defend those values here on Earth, we were to lose them and capitulate to precisely the forces that we perceive as so threatening, the moment we venture out into space. Or must we conclude that our way of life simply isn't suitable for exporting into space at all?

       How, in other words, do we prevent the emergence of a social order that stifles the kind of personal initiative, originality, and assertiveness that has proved the driving force and character of our culture, and avoid creating in its place a collection of docile and acquiescing social statistical units? Of the proud ship which lifts out of lunar orbit and turns outward toward the stars, how do we insure that what arrives one, two, three, or more generations later hasn't degenerated into a spaceborne sheep pen or a human vegetable patch . . . or worse, a concentration camp in which all dissent and threats of diversity have been suppressed by force?

       The paradox, in short, is: How do we design a society whose one, overriding attribute is that it wasn't designed?

       The answer, I would submit, is not to try. Instead, let it design itself. Why is it necessary to specify all the details of how people shall work and play, where they should live, what they should think? . . . for generations that haven't even been born yet. For the simple fact is that nobody knows or probably can imagine what the conditions might be of such an expedition ten, twenty, thirty years out, or what social, psychological, or other stresses could arise to challenge its resourcefulness. Quite possibly, even the natures of the people who had come into being by that time could be completely alien to the comprehension of anyone shaped by our planet-bound perspectives. The approach indicated, then, is surely to try to anticipate nothing, but to build in the flexibility that will enable the people concerned to create their own style of community as they go. And since from what we've been saying, one form of community is never going to suit everyone, this means "communities."

       The Royal Air Force in Britain in World War 2 had an unorthodox way of forming bomber crews, but one that proved very effective. There was no matching of psychological profiles by experts or grouping according to the results of elaborate personality tests--maybe because nobody had the time, rather than through any dazzling insight. But what they did was simply turn loose the new recruits fresh from pilot training, navigation and gunnery school, and so forth in a hangar as one huge, unsupervised throng, and let the crews find themselves. A captain might find a flight engineer and radio operator who all liked the look of each other and thought they might get along, and together they would wander around in search of a navigator, tail gunner, and so forth until the crew was complete. Compatible temperaments had a knack for finding each other, and the teams that gravitated together in this way tended to be, dare I say "harmonious"?--and enduring.

       Maybe a generation starship mission could adopt something of the same principle. Imagine our initial ship -- or preferably ships, two or three, say, to provide lifeboats in case of emergency; Columbus had the right idea--lifting out from parking orbit accompanied by a flotilla of immense cargo repositories packed with materials and equipment of the kind used in the construction of the manned craft. Or the rafts could have been sent out ahead at intervals over years if need be, to be overhauled and consolidated as the voyage proceeds. Now there's no need for any elite clique of prescient experts to spell out in advance what kind of geometry the descendants in years hence shall inhabit, the organization of the society they will form part of, and how they will function in it. Because as all the unpredictable factors that time will bring unfold, and various groups and factions emerge with different ideas about the kind of world that they think would appeal to them, they can simply go out and build their own.

       What a great way to allay the boredom and disgruntlements that are bound to surface among any human community shut up for a long period in a limited space, besides providing an outlet for surplus energies and a reservoir for preserving the richness of diversity that we cherish! Tired of walking through the same mall-like concourses and residential decks every day, and seeing the same patches of hydroponic greens on the far side overhead, interrupted by star-filled sky windows? Fine. Get a like-minded group together and design yourselves a torroidal world, dumbbell-shaped world, a modular Ferris wheel . . . anything you want. You can set yourselves up as a Baptist community, Mormon, Muslim, Buddhist; or try out an experiment in Libertarian living, Socialist, Libertine, Monarchist, or perhaps united as of one mind in serving your own local dictator; even "Hierarchical and Homogenistic," or "Heterogenistic, Mutualistic, and Symbiotic" if it really grabs your fancy. And the beauty of it is that none of these attachments to a social formula or style of living has to be permanent. As the initial strung-out stockpile of construction materials gradually transforms itself into a formation of liberal-to-tightly-run city states, frontier towns, religious monasteries, pleasure resorts, urban crushes, rural spreads, academic retreats, and who-knows what else, the changes and contrasts of moving from one to another could be the source of variety found to be essential to a healthy life. It could be an invaluable means of education too. For what quicker and more effective way could there be of revealing the realities of someone else's utopia than shuttling across a few miles of intervening space and trying it for a while? And what better preparation could those distant descendants have, of whatever generation eventually arrives at an inhabitable world, for dealing with the conflicts and vicissitudes that go to make up real human existence than to have lived with them all their lives?

       So what mix of objects will eventually drop into orbit to begin surveying that new, far-off abode? A variety of thriving, mutually supportive communities, ready to extend the pattern across a new world? Or mutually distrustful armed fortresses, seeking only their own territory to enclose and defend? I have no idea. But that's the whole point. At our end of the venture, nobody can have.

In the meantime, though, I think I may have concocted an idea for a new book.

 

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