Tuesday, January 04, 2005

"If only" versus "What if?"

Or, anyway, that was my first thought in response to Ann's comment below. I, too, find dis/utopian fiction fascinating, and that probably explains my enthusiasm for a lot of science fiction/fantasy, at least the branch that asks the "what if?" question. I don't know if I'll stick with that initial response, but let's work our way through it and see what we get.

"If only" seems to me to be the foundation of the Edenic fantasies--"if only humans weren't flawed," is usually part of the heart of it, as is "if only everyone thought the way I do." The utopian fiction (I'm lumping the distopian fiction in there, too, for the sake of brevity) asks "what if?" The Dispossessed, for example, asks, "What if there were no private property? What if the dream of some of the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists came true? What would the society look like?" And, because LeGuin is very smart, "What problems are likely to arise, given what we know about the ways human act?" And then she tries to tease out the differences between the problems that arise as a result of whatever "natural" acquisitiveness and greed humans may possess and the problems that arise as a result of a system that allocates goods and ideas through a property system. What happens when you coalesce power with property? Well, we see that all around us. What kinds of power will make themselves felt even when there isn't property to which one can adhere it? What systems will people put in place, despite their best intentions, that allow power to accrete in systems, in behaviors, in thoughts and deeds?

The most interesting versions of this fiction do not tell us that everything would be fine if only, and, in fact, try to show us some of the problems that are likely to arise even if the flaws in the system are eliminated. Maybe that's it? Edenic versions locate problems in human sinfulness, a sinfulness that can only be redeemed through deities, or other intercessory beings or activities. Utopian versions locate problems in the systems that humans have put in place; even if systems exploit or accentuate a particular character flaw, the flaw is in the systems, not in human sinfulness per se.

The most challenging of these fictions is Brave New World, as Ann mentions. Why? Because the vast majority of the people in the world that Huxley what-ifs into being are happy. They have productive work, but not too much of it, and they are assigned to work that is perfectly suited to their abilities. No one is hungry. No one is exploited in our usual sense of the word. There aren't vast differences in material resources. It sounds a lot like the Shire. What's wrong with it? The fact that it's engineered? Aren't all societies, to some extent? The least challenging of these fictions is Atlas Shrugged, which is really an Edenic fantasy in the sense that Rand surmises that all problems would go away if the system that humans engineered followed here plan. (People who want to follow that plan often are tiresome beyond belief.)

Anyway, it's late and I'm tired, so y'all are going to have to mull this one over some more, as must I.


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