My new novel, Walkaway, is about a world where the superrich create immortal life-forms (corporations) so effective at automating away labor that the rest of us become surplus resources. The ensuing battleover whether humanity will finally, permanently speciate into elite transhumans and teeming, climate-wracked refugeestriggers slaughter and persecution. Its a utopian novel.
The difference between utopia and dystopia isnt how well everything runs. Its about what happens when everything fails. Here in the nonfictional, disastrous world, were about to find out which one we live in.
Since Thomas More, utopian projects have focused on describing the perfect state and mapping the route to it. But thats not an ideology, thats a daydream. The most perfect society will exist in an imperfect universe, one where the second law of thermodynamics means that everything needs constant winding up and fixing and adjusting. Even if your utopia has tight-as-hell service routines, its at risk of being smashed by less-well-maintained hazards: passing asteroids, feckless neighboring states, mutating pathogens. If your utopia works well in theory but degenerates into an orgy of cannibalistic violence the first time the lights go out, it is not actually a utopia.
I took inspiration from some of science fictions most daring utopias. In Kim Stanley Robinsons Pacific Edgeeasily the most uplifting book in my collectiona seemingly petty squabble over zoning for an office park is a microcosm for all the challenges that go into creating and maintaining a peaceful, cooperative society. Ada Palmers 2016 fiction debut, Too Like the Lightning, is a utopia only a historian could have written: a multipolar, authoritarian society where the quality of life is assured by a mix of rigid social convention, high tech federalism, and something almost like feudalism.
The great problem in Walkaway (as in those novels) isnt the exogenous shocks but rather humanity itself. Its the challenge of getting walkawaysthe 99 percent whove taken their leave of society and thrive by cleverly harvesting its exhaust streamto help one another despite the prepper instincts that whisper, The disaster will only spare so many of its victims, so youd better save space on any handy lifeboats, just in case you get a chance to rescue one of your own. That whispering voice is the background hum of a society where my gain is your loss and everything I have is something you donta world where material abundance is perverted by ungainly and unstable wealth distribution, so everyone has to worry about coming up short.
(Recall that half the seats on many of the Titanics lifeboats were empty. Some toxic combination of panic and uncooperativeness drove those who made it to safety to leave those benches half-filled, even as more than 1,500 passengers drowned around them.)
The difference between utopia and dystopia isnt how well everything runs. Its about what happens when everything fails.
Heres how you can recognize a dystopia: Its a science fiction story in which disaster is followed by brutal, mindless violence. Heres how you make a dystopia: Convince people that when disaster strikes, their neighbors are their enemies, not their mutual saviors and responsibilities. The belief that when the lights go out, your neighbors will come over with a shotgunrather than the contents of their freezer so you can have a barbecue before it all spoilsisnt just a self-fulfilling prophecy, its a weaponized narrative. The belief in the barely restrained predatory nature of the people around you is the cause of dystopia, the belief that turns mere crises into catastrophes.
Stories of futures in which disaster strikes and we rise to the occasion are a vaccine against the virus of mistrust. Our disaster recovery is always fastest and smoothest when we work together, when every seat on every lifeboat is taken. Stories in which the breakdown of technology means the breakdown of civilization are a vile libel on humanity itself. Its not that some people arent greedy all the time (or that all of us arent greedy some of the time). Its about whether its normal to act on our better natures or whether our worst instincts are so intrinsic to our humanity that you cant be held responsible for surrendering to them.
Our technology has revealed much of human nobility and cruelty. Its given us global troll armies, to be surebut also communities of mutual aid, support across vast distances, mobs of good people effecting one internet-based barnraising after another. Science fiction stories about the net predicted both, but the best science fiction does something much more interesting than prediction: It inspires. That science fiction tells us better nations are ours to build and lets us dream vividly of what it might be like to live in those nations.
Last year was full of disasters, and 2017 is shaping up to be more disastrous stillnothing we do will change that. Disasters are part of the universes great unwinding, the fundamental perversity of inanimate matters remorseless disordering. But whether those disasters are dystopias? Thats for us to decide, and the deciding factor might just be the stories we tell ourselves.
This article appears in the April issue. Subscribe now.