Utopias & Realism
I’ve been asking myself recently why we consider violence realistic and kindness unrealistic. It started with me reading Humankind by Rutger Bregman. Bregman’s main thesis in the book is that we have a tendency to believe humans are cruel, selfish, tribal. That, should civilisation collapse, we’d all revert back to monsters. But he challenges that myth with the assumption that humans are, deep down, pretty decent. This is more radical than it sounds. Most of our myths around human nature are negative.
As a writer, I consider myself a myth-maker. So I started wondering about how we could change those stories about human nature, and how to write stories about people who are kind. I soon realised I’d face a credibility problem: people wouldn’t believe me. People would assume the writing isn’t ‘realistic’ because the characters weren’t violent and unreliable. Gritty fantasy, the brutal kind, is considered ‘realistic’ because it mirrors our understanding of human nature. 1984 is realistic because it’s depressing. Serious literary fiction is sad. How do we avoid that assumption, in readers?
Bregman actually faces the same problem in his nonfiction work. He says it’s hard to dismantle myths – scientific myths – we’ve built around human nature. He notably tackles well-known scientific experiments, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment or the Milgram Experiment, and shows how, although they captured our imagination, they were flawed in their execution and may not be representative of human nature. The one example that stuck with me most in the book is about the bystander effect, which states, as a theory, that the more people witness violence, the more there is a risk of everyone freezing in apathy, waiting for someone else to intervene. I believed this myth for a long time. Bregman addresses the murder of Kitty Genovese, which sparked that theory, and it turns out the bystanders didn’t stand by, but did call the police (who didn’t come), and some did intervene by leaving their flats to check if she was alright.
So why was it so easy for me to believe that, should I be attacked in a crowd, no-one would come to save me? And if that was wrong, what other deep-rooted beliefs aren’t true about how badly people behave?
For one thing, we remember bad events much more easily than we remember positive events. The more shocking, the more it imprints on our memory. So we have a tendency to remember the one time someone was cruel, rather than the ten times someone was kind. This doesn’t play in our favour when judging other people. There is another problem, for a fiction writer at least. Happiness doesn’t create narrative drive. So happy stories are at risk of being boring. Don’t get me wrong, I love Becky Chambers, but I do find hopepunk can lack stakes, and sometimes there isn’t enough drama for me to stay engaged. Nothing ups the stakes like a good villain!
There is also a risk of the writing feeling repetitive. Leo Tolstoy famously wrote in Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m not sure that’s true, but there is truth to the fact that we can think up quite a lot of varieties of suffering, whereas happiness starts with a common baseline (comfort, safety, etc.). Kindness also stems from the same place. One could argue violence can become repetitive, and it sometimes does, but because we’re wired to be feel adrenaline in the face of brutality, we don’t get bored of it as easily.
Which leads me to the crux of my article today: how to write a utopia?
Dystopias basically write themselves. But utopias have to face all the problems outlined above: lack of stakes, sameness, perceived lack of realism. Yet a utopia is radical, in the same way Bregman’s book is radical – it gives us momentum. It gives us something to reach for. Utopias tell us all is not lost, what we have isn’t the best we can get, we don’t need to be satisfied with what is, we can hope for better. Cynicism is, in many ways, conversative. It feeds into the old idea that what we have might not be perfect, but it’s the best we can get – whereas utopias challenge this belief. They ache for more.
I’ve been reading some utopias recently, or some stories which are considered utopias, and I’ve found that often, for narrative purposes, utopias are saddled with a dark secret, something awful in the shadows, often subverting the idea that they’re utopias in the first place. This is true of Those Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin. Although at first Omelas seems perfect, Le Guin struggles with the world, considers its cost, and although the story is never moralising, it does end with those who walk away from Omelas, who aren’t ready for happiness at such a price.
An interesting answer is N. K. Jemisin’s Those Who Stay and Fight. It mirrors Le Guin’s structure and goes so far as to mention Omelas, so there’s no doubt her own utopia, Um-Helat, is inspired by Le Guin’s city.
Again, Jemisin challenges the reader, asks us why we won’t believe in her perfect city, and then reveals the price to maintaining it. In both cases, violence and oppression lie at the root of the utopia. It makes for a better story, of course. It sticks to our minds better. But I’m not sure it challenges the myth of the brutality of human nature.
This being said, I do think some stories do. The Dispossessed, by Le Guin again, is ‘an ambiguous utopia’, in her own words – but I do think it’s a hopeful way to picture a possible future. If not perfect, at least a very brave attempt at a successful anarchist society. There are weaknesses to the utopia, notably a risk of uniformization and the use of social ostracism as punishment, but it is better than what we get, and something we can aspire to.
I’d argue The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, over the course of the series, would also fall into that category. As technology improves over the course of the series, so do human rights, and by the end we’re in a much more feminist, less martial society, than the one we started with. It’s not so much a fully-fledged utopia as a story where progress is positive, and the world at the end of the series is noticeably better than at the start.
To me, the Discworld is also about people being good despite the odds. (A few examples that spring to mind are the Vimes/Watch and Weatherwax/witches books, as well as Small Gods.) Not everyone is kind, but overall decent folk fight hard for truth, justice, peace, and mostly get their way. The situation improves over the course of the series, for the most part, and characters support each other, grow as people, and never lose their humanity. Because it’s funny, Pratchett gets away with it – the plot is partly fuelled by the comedy, and partly by antagonists resisting the bettering of the world by the main characters.
I think those books give us some of the keys to writing a story – with stakes and action and tension – while defending a hopeful, positive view of human nature. Maybe it’s best not to start in a utopia, but to work towards it: to show how progress can be achieved, but has obstacles to overcome. The main characters can be deeply kind despite the antagonists. Imperfections can, and maybe should still exist, but they needn’t be awfully brutal. Subtle but realistic flaws in an otherwise near-perfect society, or one striving to be perfect, adds to its depth and credibility.
Who knows, we might get gritty, realistic utopias in the future?
24 May 23