Brian Aldiss, H.G. Wells, Iain Banks, Michael Chabon, Roger Penrose, Thomas More, Ursula K. Le Guin, Utopia
Two roads converged in a dark wood.
Or, to be more accurate, two pieces of reading converged in the darkness of my mind. They are distinct pieces, unrelated, but the coincidence of reading them at about the same time untethered connections that, I suppose, have meaning to me more than anyone else.
The first was an essay in the Paris Review: Michael Chabon writing about Ursula K. Le Guin. What struck me in this essay was when Chabon talks about Le Guin’s attitude towards reading, and literacy in general. For Le Guin, Chabon tells us, literacy was “defined not simply as the capacity to read a text but as a means of training the imagination—and ultimately of constructing an authentic self—through sustained encounter with literary art.” In other words, literacy and imagination are the same thing: to read is to imagine; and it is through our imaginations that we become who we are.
Taking the next step, therefore, the function of any piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction, is to excite and exploit that imagination. Literature that does not engage the reader imaginatively, that does not make us think, see, wonder, learn, enjoy, is failing in its most basic purpose as a piece of literature.
Which takes me onto that second road, a novel I was reading before I chanced upon that Chabon essay, and that I have finished reading now only after having put aside the essay. This is White Mars, written by Brian Aldiss in collaboration with Roger Penrose. Now, it has to be said that Aldiss could be, shall we say, hit and miss as a writer. He wrote a number of things that were extraordinarily good: beautiful, vivid, engaging. But he also wrote a number of things that were simply bad. However, this is the only one of his novels that is not just bad, it is dull. It is only as you engage with the tedium of this book that you realise that even novels that were catastrophically bad, like The Eighty Minute Hour, were never actually boring.
But it is not the faults of White Mars as an individual novel that concern me here, but rather as an exemplar of a type of novel.
White Mars, which came out in 1999, is a utopia. In fact it is a utopia of an almost classic form, a form that generally hadn’t been written throughout the preceding century. The model of the classic utopia stems from Thomas More’s ur-text: the perfect society has been established some time before in the image of its progenitor, King Utopus or his avatar, and has since remained fairly static as a society since once perfection has been achieved there is nowhere else to go. H.G. Wells began to challenge that formulation at the beginning of the 20th century with A Modern Utopia, which suggested that utopia was not a destination but a process. Wells would continue to develop this notion in his subsequent utopia writings, such as The Shape of Things to Come, but already the environment in which utopias prospered had been changed. The technological consequences of modernism, evident in the First World War, made people start to distrust the future. And then we saw the brutal and authoritarian consequences of utopian political aspirations in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, militaristic Japan, China, Italy, Spain and elsewhere. Utopia gave way to dystopia as a vision of the planned society.
One of the things that is odd about White Mars is that it is a utopia at at time when the dystopia is in full flood. The few utopias that were being written were ambivalent about the notion (Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia or more tellingly “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”), or imagined radically changed circumstances, such as the universe of plenty in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. Nobody was writing the sort of guided tour of the institutions that were making everybody’s life better. Oh there is some scientific hand-waving in the novel, but it is at its core the sort of political, social, cultural utopia that Wells and his predecessors used to write. The sort of book where dealing rationally with everything makes everything perfect.
Take such ideas alongside Le Guin’s dictums about how vital the imagination is, and it seems a natural fit. Shouldn’t we all find our imaginations stirred by the notion of making a better world? But in fact, it is dystopias that have better engaged with our emotions through the simple device of telling a story about someone caught in the laocoonian coils of a dystopian system. Utopias fail so often because that is precisely what they do not, what they cannot do. There is no story in utopia. There should be: imagine how exciting it is in a crime story or a science fiction story to read about someone solving a puzzle, working their way towards a position that makes sense and that makes things right. Isn’t that exactly what a utopia should be: solving a social puzzle and making it right.
But that is not the story that utopian writers (and I am definitely including Aldiss in this) have chosen to tell. Thomas More had two models to draw on for his original Utopia, the traveller’s tale typified by recent books by Amerigo Vespucci, and philosophical disquisitions typified by the work of his friend Erasmus. Those who use More as their model have concentrated almost exclusively on the traveller’s tale, and that model has barely changed in the centuries since. More presented an argument; his successors present a status quo, a fact that has to be explained, described, but not dramatised.
Aldiss (and I am assuming that Penrose’s contribution is largely connected to the handwavium concerning the search for something beyond the Higgs boson) sets the story up as if it is going to be a sort of intellectual detective story. Economic collapse on Earth leaves a small Mars colony stranded, so they have to start working out how to govern themselves. That should be fine: a succession of social issues (what to do about sex, about crime, etc) become the puzzles to which utopian thinking provides the solution. But having set the situation up, Aldiss immediately resorts to the standard utopian model of the traveller’s tale, as if that is the only way that anyone can think of presenting a utopia. So we get the puzzles, but as soon as a rational response is suggested everyone falls in with it, nothing is complexified, nothing is made dramatic. It is the besetting sin of utopian writers that they consider their own particular utopia so obvious that everyone will immediately see its rational wonderfulness. Aldiss is no different from anyone else in being unable to see why anyone might disagree with his oh-so-rational solutions.
There is imagination in utopian fiction, but the imagination is expended on the idea, not on the story. In that respect it fails Le Guin’s test: it is an engagement with the imagination of the writer, a sort of literary onanism, not with the imagination of the reader. Just as the utopian writer cannot imagine an antagonist who might, for perfectly rational reasons, work against the version of the perfect state they have just invented, so they cannot imagine a reader who will not instantly see the sense of their invention. So the classic model of a utopia is a series of showcases for different aspects of the perfect state, it does not attempt to dramatically win the reader over to the benefits of such a state. The argument is assumed to have been won before the reader even opens the book. Which is why so many utopias, and White Mars is just such a case, are dull, because the literary engagement is not an imaginative engagement.