Utopia in Popular Culture

Aeon Flux:
Fans of this animated cult-classic are sure to understand why this show has made the list. In the futuristic setting of the show, events revolve around an ongoing conflict between two societies. On the one side, there is Brenga, a police state run by the autocrat Trevor Goodchild. On the other is the anarchist state of Monica, where the show’s main character – Aeon, a Monican agent and spy – comes from.

Much like the world of the Cold War, these two sides are locked in an ongoing state of detente, where espionage and skirmishes take place back on both sides. The border region between them resembles that of Cold War-era Berlin, where a massive wall separates the two and those trying to cross are either shot or cut down. In one particular episode, people who are missing limbs were a focal point, demonstrating just how many people have fallen victim to the border defenses.

This is a common feature in the story, as it seems that the people of Bregna (known as Breens) would like very much to live the lives of Monicans. Its for this reason that one of Aeon’s duties as an agent is to make regular runs into Bregna to get people out through a series of underground passages. It is also suggested that it is precisely because Monica has no official representatives that it is impossible for Trevor Goodchild to deal with them. He does not seem to understand how their society works, and therefore cannot bribe, threaten, or intimidate them into a peace settlement.

Avatar:
Here is a perfect example of the traditional Edenic civilization being threatened by the evil progress-driven bad guys. Though it was not my favorite movie by any means, it’s undeniable (aka. blatant) utopians themes are quite clear. In short, the Na’vi live a peaceful, contended existence with their environment, and are even telepathically linked to a planetary intelligence known as Eywa.

Borrowing elements from Native American lore, the Gaian hypothesis, and the concept of an ecological utopia, Cameron created a world where paradise was to be found by anyone with appreciative eyes. Whether it was their communion with animals, the trees, or Eywa, the Na’vi elevated the concept of living in harmony with their environment to literal levels.

Demolition Man:
Again, we have what is often classified as a dystopia, but which is made so because of its apparent utopian elements. Set in the not-too-distant future of San Angeles – the mega-city formed from the merger of LA and San Diego – the story revolves around the social experiments of one Dr. Raymond Cocteau.

In addition to being the man who invented the cryo-stasis prison system, which was central to the plot, he is also the man who pioneered the San Angelans “utopian” way of life. In essence, this way of life is bereft of violence, crime, and drug use. The people live what can only be described as a peaceful and contented existence, believing that everything that came before them was characterized by violence and brutality.

The price tag was high, to be sure. People are no longer allowed to swear, play contact sports, own guns, or eat anything remotely unhealthy. Violent and/or sexual entertainment has also been banned, as has real sex. However, the people of San Angeles seemed to accept all this based on the state of society prior to Cocteau’s “revolution”.

The proliferation of violence, chaos, drug use and venereal diseases pretty much left them thinking they had no choice.  Such is the nature of utopian engineering, in the end, where people willingly surrender certain aspects of their lives in order to achieve something better. Much like collectivization, the banning of money, or the elimination of monogamy.

Futurama:
This might seem like a bit of a stretch, but I’ve always felt that anyone who loves science fiction can’t help but notice the classic themes and elements in this show. Usually this takes the form of dystopian elements – suicide booths, career chips, the tax monster, etc. However, at other times, some decidedly cheery and optimistic tones make it in.

For example, in one particular episode (season 1, episode 8: “A Big Piece of Garbage”), Earth finds itself being threatened by a massive ball of garbage. They deduce that only a similar ball would be able to deflect it, but unfortunately, no garbage exists. Everything on Earth is now recycled, used cans are recycled to make robots, and used robots are used to make cans. Nothing goes to waste, which is why Fry must teach them how to litter!

And then again, in season 6, episode 2: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Leela”, Leela and Zapp Brannagan land on what appears to be a mysterious, Edenic planet. Here, Leela and Zapp begin living freely as if they were Adam and Eve, which includes shedding their clothes, talking to a serpent, and living off the land. Of course, it was all a ruse by Zapp who once again just looking to get Leela in the sack, but the illusion was complete!

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri:
There’s a reason this game is one of my all-time favorites, and that is because it’s so inspired! One immediately gets the feeling upon playing this all the way through that a lot of classic sci-fi elements went into the making of it, as well as genuine cultural, sociological and scientific research.

For starters, there is the concept of colonizing a new world and the social experiments that it naturally will entail, which is in keeping with KSR Mars Trilogy. Each faction in the game represents a different take on engineering the perfect society. There are the humanitarians, the believers, the Gaians, the hive-mind people, the free-marketeers, the militarists, and the rational empiricists.

What’s more, the technology tree that is featured in the game contains many options for social engineering, the intended end result of which is a perfect society in one form or another. These include Thought Control, Cybernetic, and Eudaimonic, three basic visions of utopia which are dependent upon repression, post-humanism, and a utilitarian, social welfare approach meant to enrich the lives of as many people as possible.

There’s even the option of achieving transcendence, which is one of the victory condition’s of the game. This is achieved by merging with Alpha Centauri’s planet-wide organism, becoming part of its mass consciousness and ensuring a sort of quasi-immortality as it were. This is considered the biggest and best victory option since it ensures planetary peace, as opposed to conquering all the other factions, united them, or cornering the planet’s energy market (the three other victory conditions).

Star Trek:
When it comes to commercial sci-fi, Star Trek pretty much has the market cornered when it comes to utopian elements. Whether it was the original series, TNG, or its subsequent spinoffs, it was clear that humanity had reached a state of technical and social perfection thanks to advances made in science and technology, not to mention good old fashion optimism.

For starters, the United Federation of Planets was an egalitarian democracy where all member races were entitled to representation, a constitution guaranteed extensive rights and freedoms, and all wants and needs were addressed thanks to replicators, abundant energy, transporters and warp technology.

And of course, numerous references are made to the fact that Earth is crime free, all known diseases have been cured, and troublesome things like poverty, slavery, exploitation, inequality and human drudgery have all been eliminated. No real explanations are given as to how, but its clear it happened by the 22nd century.

Star Wars:
Though not a utopian series by any stretch of the definition, there are some tell-tale aspects of the franchise which warrant examination. For example, though the bulk of the story takes place during the “Dark Times”, when the evil Empire rules, numerous allusions are made to a time before the Empire where things are described in somewhat idealistic terms.

For example, here is how Obi-Wan describes the role of the Jedi in the good old days as follows: “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.” In addition, it is also made clear that the Old Republic was governed by an interstellar democracy known as the Galactic Senate. Between the Jedi and the government, things like slavery, conquest, blatant racism, genocide, and all other forms of behavior common to the Empire were highly illegal.

In having this era of peace and relative prosperity to compare their current circumstances with, Lucas was able to drive home the point of how the Empire was illegitimate and had seized power by unjust means. It also made the heroes current predicament seem that much more emotionally involved.

Wing Commander:
Calling to mind such franchises as Star Trek and Man-Kzin Wars, the Wing Commander series takes place in the distant future when a semi-utopian humanity is engaged in a war with a militaristic foe. As with the violent Kzin, the enemy in this series known as the Kilrathi, are a race of feline anthropoids.

Governed by a strict hierarchy and warrior code, the Kilrathi are driven to war and conquest and have been fighting humanity for generations. Though no formal description is ever made of the Earth government or human customs, many hints are given that suggest that the Terran Confederation is governed by the comparatively enlightened ideals of humanitarianism and democracy.

For instance, in the first Wing Commander it is said that Kilrathi do not place the same importance on alien life as the Confederation. Evidently not, since conquest, slavery and genocide seem to be par for the course for them! In addition, several alien species are allies with the Confederation, usually for the sake of mutual defense against the Kilrathi.

And as with Star Trek, the bad behavior of the enemy species is held in contrast to the comparatively peaceful and egalitarian behavior of humans. And as always, this is designed to illicit a point about history and human nature.

Conclusions:
When it comes to popular culture, there never seems to be a shortage of inspired science fiction elements. This is true of movies, television, and the gaming world. However, I can’t help but notice just how more common dystopian movies, shows and games are. For whatever reason, it just seems like tales of dark futures are much more popular. Is it because dark futures seem more realistic, or might it have to do with the proliferation of dystopian literature in the last century or so. Either way, believe me when I tell you that examples of modern utopian sci-fi franchises were much harder to find. No wonder Neal Stephenson challenged the sci-fi writers of the world to come up with something cheerier!

The Alien Graph

The Alien Graph

Behold! After a few days of contemplating what I said in the Ancient Aliens post – you know, about how alien’s technology and moral capacity are often interrelated in sci-fi – I realized I needed to put it into graphic form. And as I said in that post, if we are to consider technological advancement as one axis and level of benevolence as another, then the outcome would look something like this:

click to enlarge

The design is based on the Zombie graph that’s been floating around the internet for some time. There, the designer placed different Zombie movies based on two criteria: intelligence and speed. In much the same way, I’ve designed a graph for aliens that is based on two similar criteria: technological advancement and level of friendliness.

I selected aliens that I thought best represented the range of development and behavior in the sci-fi genre. I also included as many franchises as I could think of, just off the top of my head. I certainly wasn’t scientific about it, just relative and to the best of my abilities. And when I was done, I noticed an interesting pattern…

Hostile/Advanced Aliens Rule!:
For example, notice how the vast majority of races from your well-known franchises (Star Trek, B5, Stargate, Star Craft, AvP, Halo, etc) fall into the upper left quadrant. This is the area where malevolence and technological sophistication combine in varying degrees. By contrast, the second largest concentration of races occurs in the advanced/benevolent quadrant, again to varying degrees. Almost no races fall into the nascent (i.e. primitive) quadrants, be they hostile or gentle.

On the one hand, the Xenomorph from Alien and the Arachnids from Starship Troopers both fell into the technologically backward category (technically), and were both classified as malevolent because of their innate hostility to foreign organisms. The Na’vi, from Avatar, were the only alien race that fit the bill for technologically nascent and benevolent. I’m sure there are plenty of examples that could stack this analysis in a different way, but like I said, this was off the top of my head.

The Zerg, I have to admit, were a bit of a conundrum for me. While they are technically a race that does not employ technology per se, they are highly advanced in terms of their biological evolution, to the point where they rely on specialized creatures in the same way that humans rely on machinery. But then again, that’s all for the sake of ensuring that the different factions in the video game are evenly matched. It’s not meant to be a realistic assessment. Much the same is true of the Xenomorphs. While they do not employ tools, fly around in spaceships, or use guns, they are nevertheless an extremely evolved organism that is capable of besting humanity in any contest.

And just to be clear, the middle point of the graph (0,0, where the axes meet) is where humanity stands now in terms of moral behavior and technological development. Sure, some say we’d fall into the evil quadrant, but I tend to believe that humanity is morally ambiguous, neither too good or too evil. Where aliens fall into the spectrum in most sci-fi franchises is meant to reflect this. Much the same is true of technological prowess, where aliens are classified as “advanced” or “primitive” solely in comparison to ourselves.

This all might sound anthropocentric, but that’s the point, isn’t it? These are stories written by human beings for other human beings. All the references, symbols and measuring sticks come from inside us. So in the end, aliens themselves, as represented in our best science fiction, also come from inside ourselves. Their values, their tools, and even their appearances are all constructs of what is familiar and accessible to us. In short, they are merely tools with which we measure ourselves, both morally and technically.

Conclusions:
Well, right off the cuff I’d say the reason we prefer our aliens hostile and advanced is because it makes them seem more threatening and scary that way. Clearly, this makes for a more interesting story. While an alien race that is kind, innocent and backwards can make for an effective tale about the evils of colonialism and imperialism and how one can easily find themselves on the side of evil, these seem to be fewer and farther between. I’d say this is most likely because moral allegories are less intriguing than action dramas. Or maybe just prefer to think of ourselves as the good guys. Let someone else serve as the allegory for evil, selfish and runaway imperialistic behavior!

In addition, there’s the very real possibility that humanity will be making contact with an intelligent life form at some point in the future. And when we do, it’s likely to be the most awe-inspiring and frightening of experiences. When it comes to the unknown, ignorance begets fear and we prefer to err on the side of caution. So it would make sense that whenever we think of aliens, even if its just for the sake of fiction, we would naturally prefer to think of them as both learned and potentially hostile. If indeed aliens serve as a sort of projection for humanity’s own thoughts on itself, than pitching them as potentially hostile beings with advanced technology represents our own fear of the unknown.

In any case, if there is life out there, all these questions will be resolved in the distant future. Hell, maybe even the near-future. If some theorists are to be believed, aliens have already made contact with us and might even be walking among us right now. Granted, most of these people are hanging around the 7/11 with tin foil hats on, but they can’t all be crazy, right?