November 9 – Dystopia/Utopia

//November 9 – Dystopia/Utopia
November 9 – Dystopia/Utopia 2018-01-07T15:01:49-04:00

Media

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1932.

Scott, Ridley. Blade Runner. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1982. (make sure to watch Director’s Cut or Final Cut)

Vonnegut, Kurt.  “Harrison Bergeron.”  The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  1961.

“Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” The Twilight Zone, season 5, episode 17, CBS, 24 Jan. 1964.

Theory and Commentary

Baccolini, Raffaella. 2004. The Persistence of Hope in Dystopian Science FictionPMLA 119(3): 518-21.

Milner, Andrew, et al. 2015. Ice, Fire, and Flood: Science Fiction and the AnthropoceneThesis Eleven 13(1): 12-27.4

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11 Comments

  1. Stacy Shirk November 9, 2016 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    Anyone else feel like we’re living in a dystopia this morning? At least we still have Harrison Ford.

    In “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (which is set in 2000!), they describe “an age of plastic surgery, bodybuilding, and an infinity of cosmetics…” The show posits that this conformist society is a possible future – to what extent are we closer and/or further from this scenario? On the one hand, the “portrait of a young lady in love – with herself” reminded me (not to be cruel) of the Kardashian’s and the “selfie generation.” On the other hand, I thought about the loosening of Hollywood standards for looks (admittedly an incredibly small loosening), and the social media stars who promote difference and confidence to be who you are, whoever you are. There are so many ways our society celebrates differences more than it ever has, though I’m also now reassessing that belief since the election results.

    The use of soma in Brave New World seems very similar to the “Instant Smile” in The Twilight Zone episode – the characters take it and become numb to real feeling, replacing it with a faux-happiness. Again I ask – is this where we’re headed? Or in many ways, are we opening up to feeling even more than in the past, because of things like viral emotional videos online and forums like Tumblr and Twitter where people can say however they’re feeling with almost complete freedom? Is this good, bad, neither? Both? And how does it change our more personal interactions and beliefs?

    In the opening scroll of Blade Runner (set only three years from now), The NEXUS 6 Replicants are described as “superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them.” Obviously there are a ton of science fiction works that have the basic premise of humans creating superior robots who eventually turn on them, but how realistic do we find this possibility? I want to believe that humanity would never be that stupid, but I also believe humanity would be willing to sacrifice a lot just to make life “easier.”

  2. Sam November 9, 2016 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    Well…

    1. The definition I think of as most widely used for dystopia is “bad place.” Looking at all of this week’s media, how important are actual places to the overall narrative? Throughout each story, uniting themes are control and conformity, put into place by named or unnamed powers that be. In “The Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” “Harrison Bergeron,” and Brave New World, what beyond the ways in which systems control people and their actions and freedoms sets these worlds apart from our own? Does the existence of AI in Blade Runner make the world in which it is set more foreign? Does Brave New World’s birth model? Are the places defined solely by their technological advances?

    2. I came into the reading of Brave New World thinking of “Utopia and Science Fiction,” by Raymond Williams and what he wrote about it in his concluding paragraphs, that there was a utopia to be found here. For those who “get out from under.” (p. 211) Are Bernard and Helmholtz going to a utopia of sorts? Or is there a hope for them to remake society from where they are going? Is theirs the kind of “ambiguous, open ending,” that Baccolini refers to which “maintain(s) the utopian impulse within the work?” (p.520)

    3. How can we assess whether a ‘cli-fi’ film or text can do what On the Beach did for the popularization of nuclear disarmament? What does it need? Milner’s article listed some possible necessities—i.e. global appeal (translatability into other mediums and/or languages), climate change as the primary novum. All of the novels somehow come up short, according to Milner, while the films face the problem of pacing when trying to portray a slow process. Is such a work possible to conceive? Could the answer be outside of these traditional mediums?

  3. Johnathan Peter McCauley November 9, 2016 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    On Harrison Bergeron:

    -How SHOULD we think of utopian societies? Are all utopias destined to slip into dystopias?
    -Is Kurt Vonnegut’s interpretation / extrapolation of equality fair? Why or why not?
    -Can you think of any other “virtues” that deep down, in their purest form, are truly less desirable than they seem at a distance?

    Also, @stacy – yes.

  4. Matthew Dischner November 9, 2016 at 4:20 pm - Reply

    1) I feel like Blade Runner is almost comically dystopic. Part of this, of course, is that is has served as a blueprint for many pieces of dystopic SF that have been released in the decades since it premiered. But even still, the movie is almost wholly negative. What good is there in the world that Blade Runner portrays? Is there anything to emulate (besides, of course, the prevalence of noodle bars)?

    2) My feelings towards Brave New World and its portrayal of Native Americans are, complicated. I’m disappointed by how stereotypically many of the “savages” are shown. And yet, I’ve never seen, in SF or any other speculative fiction, such a large land mass set aside as a reservation (a term I also despise). How are we to read these “Savages” and their society? How do we read Huxley’s portrayal of them?

    3) Twilight Zone is always reliable for a good head scratch. What amount of individuality is lost when we lose individuality of appearance? What value is there in individuality of appearance, disregarding the whole “beauty” aspect? Isn’t this the exact philosophy behind uniforms? Is the drive to express ourselves individualistically an inherent part of human nature, or is it conditioned?

  5. Ivan Martinez November 9, 2016 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    It seems that all of these texts (and episodes) point to a fear of a loss of individuality. Now that we are approaching (or past) the date that these dystopias take place on, are we really having that problem?

    Or are our more pressing societal issues perhaps better addressed by cli-fy?

    Here are some questions to test if whether you are a replicant: You are watching the presidential election. Donald J Trump wins the state of Ohio by a comfortable margin. Colorado comes in blue but only by two points .Then Hillary Clinton loses Pennsylvania and struggles to keep New Hampshire. Michigan and Wisconsin are both projected for Donald J Trump.

    Pending interrogatives:
    Where do we go from here?

  6. Arline November 9, 2016 at 4:55 pm - Reply

    1. “Harrison Bergeron,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,” and Brave New World are all dystopias (from our point of view) with popular support. How does this inform our definition and discussion of “progress.”

    2. “Utopia is maintained in dystopia, traditionally a bleak, depressing genre with no space for hope int he story, only outside the story: only by considering dystopia as a warning can we as readers hope to escape such a dark future (520).” Baccolini puts forward that warnings will be enough, and that people will take notice. But do dystopia and warnings really just drudge up fear?

    3. The only real “dystopian” qualities I could see in Blade Runner was that it was dark and raining all of the time and all the animals seemed to be gone. This, of course, hints at some kind of climatic disaster but I wonder what it is that truly makes Blade Runner a dystopian society? I wonder if the background of the city scene had fewer Chinese characters (as in the written language and actors) if it would no longer be a dystopian narrative rather than simply a warning of how we might one day treat Artificial Intelligence.

  7. Sophie November 9, 2016 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    1) How does the world in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut reflect not simply the concerns of 1960s America, but also present day tensions and societal divides?

    2) How are women portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and what role do Freemartins play in society?

    3) Are John and Lenina free at the end of “Brave New World”? How does the tone shift in the final chapters to emphasize their newfound freedom -or lack thereof.

  8. Sigrid von Wendel November 9, 2016 at 5:27 pm - Reply

    I relate to Baccolini’s comments on dystopian feminist works offering hope or humanity within the narrative, instead of it being entirely snuffed out in works like 1984. I’m trying to do that for myself right now, coming off some time spent with the Clinton campaign in New Hampshire. This election result heartbreaking for me, but far from the end of the world. Not dystopia. Acting like this is the end of times, and America is done, and oh my god the sky is falling!, just gives Trump a bigger win than the one he already doesn’t deserve. I’ve stopped watching the news.

    Brave New World…

    Is Huxley’s world our world? A significant population of people – through conditioning, maybe not fully consenting (do they have agency? what does agency mean?) – content with a social order that gives them a clearly defined place and purpose and fulfills basic needs, even if it subjugates others. Provides them a compelling narrative of why those people are subjugated, why even they themselves are subjugated. Then outsiders: some who feel that reality and freedom are marked by extreme sacrifice and pain (john the “savage”). Others thinking critically, but content to be isolated (sent to islands) and without impact on the “masses.
    I’ll add in a group not present in Brave New World: Others who are, at least in theory, but possibly not in practice, willing to give up their own personal wealth/resources/lifestyle/range of choices so that others can be better off.

    Huxley brings up issues of consent and agency. Can you consent to that world not truly knowing the alternative? Are the various levels of society in his world capable of consent? What does it mean if we say “no they are not”? Isn’t that denying them agency and selfhood on some level? Or is it different because they were scientifically engineered to not be able to consent? (is that possible?) Some argue that mentally handicapped people are not able to consent. Can we consider the lower strata in this light? Where do we draw the line of mental capacity to consent?

    Do we need struggle and pain to appreciate life or live fully? Why do we do things that hurt us? Are we defined by pain and heartbreak? By how we heal, or do not heal, from hurt?

    Who is invited to your utopia? How much is utopia grounded in a community of likeminded individuals? Can you convince another person of your utopia?

    On some level, I think we all want to be satisfied. We try to achieve that satisfaction in different ways, based on who we are, what we’ve experiences, etc. I’m not satisfied with the patriarchy, but others are. I gain satisfaction trying to subvert it through action. Others don’t, or try to subvert it in other ways.

    Can utopia and dystopia coexist? Is that, in some ways, true of America right now?

  9. Jane Excell November 9, 2016 at 6:01 pm - Reply

    The complete lack of any reference to gender differences in Brave New World’s description of its societal conditioning process seems like a very glaring omission in the text’s otherwise detailed construction of its citizens’ highly-controlled development. In the novel, we see a world where, although it is never openly acknowledged, women seem to be treated as less than men: they are thought of (and think of themselves) as “pieces of meat” and their bodies are objectified and allowed to be handled sexually in the workplace in ways men’s bodies are not. However, there is no mention in any of the many passages describing the conditioning applied to fetuses, infants and children of any gender division, or conditioning that is given only to women (other than the contraceptive classes which they consciously take). What does this lack of commentary on the novel’s sexual inequality imply about its views of gender? Should we accept this as another, just unspoken, sign of the society’s flaws, or does it more clearly reflect the flaws of the time in which it was written?

    What does Charlie think of the World Controller in Brave New World’s description of philosophy: “Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons–that’s philosophy.”? 🙂

    The following passage from Brave New World strikes me as a perfect example of Raffaella Baccolini’s observations that SF is, “regarded as a potentially subversive genre, as it ‘occupies the space outside the literary enclosure’” (519):

    “no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behaviour. Murder kills only the individual–and, after all, what is an individual?” With a sweeping gesture he indicated the rows of microscopes, the test-tubes, the incubators. “We can make a new one with the greatest ease–as many as we like. Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself.”

    Baccolini goes on to remark that SF can use its subversive tendencies “to move its reader to see the differences of an elsewhere and thus think critically about the reader’s own world and possibly act on and change that world” (520). How might we use the World Controller’s views on the dangers of “unorthodox” behavior to critically evaluate the world today?

  10. jpetinos November 9, 2016 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    What is it that disturbs us so much about the friction-less utopia/dystopia of Brave New World? How does our own commercial environment seek to remove ‘friction’ from daily living? I was especially interested in how soma serves as a way to fill time and eliminate discomfort. Would humans choose to live in the utopia/dystopia of Brave New World?

    Similarly, in the Twilight Zone episode, there is something disturbing about the idea of giving up one’s appearance and body to conform and to look like everyone else, even for the sake of equality. What is it about our appearance that contributes to our individuality? How important is our appearance to our identity and why do we find the idea of changing our appearance unpleasant, especially with the end goal of equality, as portrayed in this episode?

    “Harrison Bergman” seems to critique the notion of an imposed equality, and I notice that dystopias, including Brave New World, often take sameness, conformity, equality, to an extreme. How can we understand dystopias as operating on either extreme of a spectrum in which one side is complete individualism and on the other is complete conformism?

  11. Charlie Peterson November 9, 2016 at 7:04 pm - Reply

    1. Is the existence of an underclass necessary for a dystopia? In the twlight zone, the maid is treated as an underclass memnber. “I don’t know why teaching you people names is so hard.” In Brave New World there are classes and even the native populations that are radically different, like dogs. Can we have society without people “knowing their place.”

    2. Homogeneity also is a large component of both the twilight zone and Brave New World. People who experience a desire not to fit in do not fit in dystopias. They are compelled to fit in – via mandated drugs, conditioning, or social compulsion. Can this be related to the agency safety duality? A safe society cannot be a free society. Does this speak at all to the election we just had?

    3. Is it expereince that makes us spirited beings? I am drawn to the memory/expereince theme in Blade Runner. The synthetics have false memories implanted, but to them they are real, and in the famous “tears in the rain” we lament the loss of a robots memories. As he dies a dove flies up to the sky symbolizing his spirit going up. Can a synthetic experience be just as real as a human one? Is individual experience the necessary foil to the failures of dystopian homogeneity.

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