What Kind of ‘Topia?

British author Jule Owen has written an excellent new SF novel, The Kind, which is set on a future Earth where both the environment and human societies have been transformed by the effects of climate change, but also by technological advances. The book explores both the dystopian and utopian aspects of the scenario, while telling a compelling story. I strongly recommend you purchase and read it.

For her book’s launch event, Jule assembled a panel of scientists, writers and futurists to discusss its themes. I was honoured to be a member of that panel, along with Danbee Kim, Christine Aicardi, Stephen Oram, Alan Ashley and Simon Gosling.

With Jule’s permission, I have reproduced below the two-part question she asked me and the notes I prepared for my answers. I hope they will be of interest and might stimulate further discussion.

Jule’s question(s) to me:
(1) Is there something in our culture that is biased against positive stories?
(2) Are gritty, disastrous, violent, dystopian stories more artistically valid?

Notes for my answers:
(1a) I think our bias toward stories that evoke dark emotions, i.e. fear, anxiety, dread  – which I’d argue are often stickier memory-wise than positive ones ­– predates “culture” as it is commonly understood in Western society (caveat: other cultures might differ). I think this bias is deep-rooted, likely dating back at least to Neolithic cave art, perhaps even to when Neanderthals were widespread (e.g. recent cave art finds c. 65,000 BC). Could the roots of dark fairy tales stretch back to at least Neolithic times? I wouldn’t be surprised.
(1b) In recent decades there have been many more dystopian works than utopian ones (compare the online lists!). This is partly because it’s much easier to create a satisfying story, with characters that develop while overcoming challenges, in a dystopian scenario. But Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed provides a superb counterexample: a satisfying story that fully engages with utopian themes. I think works like The Kind, which engage simultaneously with both extremes, will become increasingly prominent.
(2a) Are negative stories more artistically valid? This is even harder to answer, because what do we mean by the term, and how would we measure it? Is it simply whether (and for how long) a creative work continued to exert influence? To my mind, ongoing relevance isn’t enough to qualify a work as “artistically valid”. Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X (1960) meditates on gender fluidity in a utopian society in ways that are arguably highly relevant now, but many 2018 readers might find it tedious to read because it is light on plot. But for all that, I think it’s a good book and still well worth reading!
(2b) Something I find interesting in this context is whether a different ending would have altered our perception of a work’s significance. Would George Orwell’s 1984 be less influential if Winston Smith had evaded Big Brother? Would Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale be less revered if Offred had escaped from the Eyes’ van? Turning that around: Would The Road by Cormac McCarthy be more artistically valid if the boy had died at the end? It’s interesting to speculate, but difficuktto answer.
So I have more questions for you and no clear answers!

After each of the panel members had answered Jule’s questions to them, there was a wider debate, with several intriguing questions coming from members of the audience. It would be inappropriate to record those here, although I have included another of my pre-prepared notes below, which I referred to during those discussions. I used it to introduce a term that seems pertinent to the utopia-dystopia dichotomy and which seemed to gain a little traction that evening.

Do we need (will we see?) more stories of what I’d term “dotopia”? In this scenario, “to do” is the maxim and “it will do” is the goal. Such stories won’t be about the pursuit of utopia (unreachable, in my view) but instead will feature protagonists who strive for solutions that are “good enough”. These stories will explore scenarios where humans strive to make climate change bearable for all, to limit the power of corporations, where everyone will do work that enhances the common good.