Jo Walton’s latest genre-defying novel, The Just City, revisits a favourite question of mine: Just how exactly should society be run? Her basic setup is that Pallas Athena and her brother Apollo are discussing Plato’s Republic, and decide, being gods: Why not put the plan to the test? So they pull willing thinkers from throughout time to give this social experiment a try. The result is as much an ode to Plato as it is a criticism of some of his ideas.
Walton isn’t the first science fiction(ish) writer to imagine alternate political structures, economic systems, or cultural mores. In fact that’s a pretty large part of what science fiction is about, and it’s the rare work that doesn’t address social questions even in a glancing way. But there’s a sense of the conversation coming full circle, to have such a modern, boundary-pushing writer revisit the earliest detailed plan for the ideal society in the history of human thought.
The term Utopia wasn’t coined until nineteen centuries after Plato’s book-length dialogue, by Thomas More. He went back to the Greek language in naming his titular island paradise, thinking it clever to give heaven on Earth a moniker meaning “no place.” Some who use the term today don’t realize that even the person who first put a name to the concept didn’t actually believe a perfect society was possible. Science fiction is a natural fit for imagining societies that are, if not perfect, at least better than what we have today.
Robert Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, for example, followed the exploits of a homo sapien biologist from our world, and a homo neanderthalensis physicist from an alternate Earth. What made neanderthal society so great? Well, for starters, there was practically no crime; the entire species was unified under a single government; and the last and worst war in history, many centuries in the past, had seen only a few thousand casualties. Sawyer doesn’t make it as clean-cut as all that. The neanderthals practice eugenics and strictly control breeding, and he shows some of the ways that can go wrong.
But stepping outside of our own history and values, we would have to admit that, objectively, no one in any society has ever had absolute freedom. We accept the limitations, iniquities, and small injustices of our world because we’re used to them and lack a prior context which might make us see them as less palatable. Sawyer is thoughtful enough as a writer to imagine how an outsider might see us, and how a very different society might look, not to us, but to one who was born into it.
The tradition of radical social or political ideas in science fictional works is well represented in the works of the Big Three. Robert A. Heinlein certainly expressed an opinion on how society should function in Starship Troopers, though it was a far cry from Utopia. Perhaps the nearest to Utopian science fiction writers were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Both were willing, at least sometimes, to write stories without bad guys. Conflict, certainly, and adventure often. But no assumption that there are evil people out there (or aliens, or robots, or whatever), and whether in the year 1950 or 3250, that bad individuals will do bad things. No, their futures seemed basically peaceful and pleasant for the vast majority of sentient beings.
Take Asimov’s short story “The Last Question,” that followed humanity through the near future to the end of the universe. Each time, some individual asks a question of the most advanced electronic intelligence available at the time, whether the universe absolutely has to run down or if entropy can possibly be reversed.
When you think about it, this is incredibly optimistic. Humanity survives until the heat death of the universe, a time so far into the future it would dwarf the current age of the cosmos, let alone the age of our own young, little species. Where Frank Drake guessed humanity might blow itself up within his own lifetime, Asimov saw us maintaining an evolving but unbroken technological civilization from now until the end of time, such that the only thing we really had to worry about was the eventual result of the second law of thermodynamics.
And why not? Dystopias and apocalyptic scenarios are all the rage, and I like a good fictional nuclear war as much as anyone. But it doesn’t hurt us to dream a little bit about everything turning out okay. If we sincerely consider the possibility that we might actually figure things out, who knows? Maybe we even will.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Winnipeg Free Press, Care2 Causes, and, naturally, AE. He maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.