Sunday, February 28, 2010

One Giant Testicle of Freedom

Allow me, if I may, to ask you a deep philosophical question. If you had to choose between living in a seeming utopia that, on closer inspection turns out to be an unspeakable dystopia, or having free will, which would you choose?

Okay, that’s a bit too easy. Let’s try another. If you had to choose between living in an actual utopia or having free will, which would you choose? This is a more difficult question, so I’ll make it a bit easier. If you choose the utopia, it will turn out to be an unspeakable dystopia. Why? Because I said so.

Okay, a third question. If you had to choose between having seventeen normal-sized testicles or one giant testicle the size of a coconut, which would you choose? By the way, if you choose seventeen normal-sized testicles then it will turn out that you live in an unspeakable dystopia.

Of these three questions, only the third has any actual bearing on real life. This is because both pure utopia and pure free will are impossible but, while there is no documented evidence of anyone with either seventeen normal-sized testicles or one giant testicle, it’s conceivable that one could actually achieve those goals.

Despite this it is the first two questions, by which I mean the first question under the guise of the second, that have captured the all the great minds. People like Lois Lowry, Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian K. Vaughan. It was so captivating for Joss Whedon that he tackled the question twice, once with the fourth season of Angel and once with Serenity. Most recently, video game creator Sam Levine tackled the question with BioShock 2.

This begs the question, why are so many great minds and Sam Levine spending so much time asking such a stupid question?

Sam Levine’s explanation: “I have my useless liberal arts degree, so I've read stuff from Ayn Rand and George Orwell, and all the sort of utopian and dystopian writings of the 20th century, which I've found really fascinating.” Also he was trying to a create a society with “really interesting ideas screwed up by the fact that we're people”.

Translated into the non-liberal-arts-major dialect of English, this means: “I wanted to appear deep without actually being deep so I just copied a bunch of stupid science fiction clichés.” I suspect that most of those other great minds have similar explanations.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with clichés. Some clichés can be totally awesome. I’m rather partial to Joss Whedon’s ass-kicking skinny chick cliché (including its use in Serenity). However, there are good clichés and bad clichés (and meh clichés). Ideally, one would adhere to the good clichés and subvert or ignore the bad ones. Usually this is what Joss Whedon does. That’s kind of what he’s famous for. Unfortunately, in Serenity and season four of Angel he adhered when he should have subverted.

Pangloss Revisited

Let’s backtrack a bit, to the year 1710. Gottfried Leibniz wrote a book called Théodicée in which he argued that this world was created by God, and God was perfect, so this world was the best of all possible worlds. As such any attempts to change society for the better like, say, introducing democracy or abolishing slavery, would only make things worse, because they were unnatural acts going against the natural order of things.

Skip ahead 49 years. Some French philosopher dude realizes that this was fucking bullshit, and writes a novel about it, called Candide, that mocks the idea through a character called Pangloss who consistently argues that this is the best of all possible worlds and it turns out not to be true.

Other people then realize this and try to make the world a better place. And contrary to what Leibniz thought, they succeed. We get democracy. We abolish slavery. And we get a world that is significantly better than the world before. But it’s still not perfect. There’s still bigotry, poverty, war, injustice, exploitation and all sorts of horrible things. Maybe we can get rid of those too.

So in comes a new wave of hack philosophers, like Ayn Rand, Francis Fukuyama and Karl Popper who revive Leibniz’s Panglossian ideal. The problem with Leibniz’s theory was that that wasn’t the best of all possible worlds. This is the best of all possible worlds. And while it was completely okay to try an make the world a better place back then, now any attempt to make the world a better place will only result in pain and misery for everyone involved.

The result: a new cliché. Somebody goes to or creates a world that is supposed to solve all our problems. Things go horribly wrong or turn out to be horribly wrong. Usually this is the result of stupidity or bad writing, but it’s usually explained by some nonsense about free will, and everybody learns a valuable lesson about the importance of not trying to make the world a better place. As Larry Niven put it in Cloak of Anarchy “Don't do any more experiments.”

The logic is as follows. Utopia is impossible. A utopia would be better than the world in which we currently live. Therefore a world better than the world in which we currently live is impossible, and any attempt to create such a world will inevitably result in, I don’t know, everybody being killed by fast zombies reavers.

In the Case of Cloak of Anarchy, this is because Larry Niven actually believes that nonsense. That’s probably also the case with the BioShock games. But in pretty most of the other cases, the main reason people appeal to the cliché. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End is a bit odd in that he sides with the seeming utopia. Similarly Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven is more of a “Monkey’s Paw” thing. For the rest of them, they should know better.

The Mad Social Scientist

There is a similarity between the “utopia turning into unspeakable dystopia” cliché and the much more well-known “mad scientist” cliché. Once again somebody tries to change things, this time a scientist trying to change the natural order of things. He makes something that, because of stupidity or bad writing turns into a horrible monster, but it’s explained by some nonsense about there being “some things man was not meant to meddle with”. And then everybody leans a valuable lesson about why science is evil. In other words “Don’t do any more experiments.”

Let’s look a Serenity for instance. Serenity was based on a totally awesome show called Firefly about a small ship carrying thieves and smugglers on the outskirts of a corrupt and repressive society dominated by militarism and class inequalities. It pretty much said it like it is. It explored all sorts of genuinely interesting topics like “honor among thieves”, the reality behind folk heroes, and how awesome it is when skinny chicks kick people’s asses.

There was also a really stupid episode called “Bushwhacked” that was trying to cash in on the fast zombie craze by introducing these people called “reavers” who were basically fast zombies, just not called that. The reavers sucked, and that episode sucked, and most people preferred to ignore that episode altogether. For some reason, when Joss Whedon made the movie, he decided to focus on the one thing about the show that sucked.

Another sign that Joss wasn’t thinking things through when he made the movie: Mr. Universe.

Anyway, back to the deep philosophical questions about utopia and choice and a world without sin. In addition to the reaver stuff, the movie centers on crazy ass-kicking skinny chick River, who had scientific experiments done on her, but was to crazy to articulate them. She’s now being hunted down by an operative who goes by the name of “The Operative”. Watching the movie, you might notice that this operative is different from all the other characters. The other character’s speak in a cowboy dialect mixed with Chinese swear words. The Operative, on the other hand, speaks in a British accent and his dialogue consists entirely of vague abstractions about sin and better worlds.

He also has different motivations than the other villains. Most of the other villains are either thieves trying to make a profit, bounty hunters trying to make a profit, or agents for the government and/or the Blue Sun Corporation trying to cover up some horrible thing they did. The Operative, on the other hand is, at least according to one of the characters, waaaaay more dangerous than that. Why? Because he’s a true believer, that’s why! A true believer in what? Vague abstractions about sin and a better world, that’s what!

Somewhere alone the way, River utters the word “Miranda”, which turns out to be a planet that was kept hidden from the rest of the solar system, despite the fact that there had previously been advertisements promoting settlements there. They find out where it is and go there and find a bunch of dead people. It turns out their deaths were all nonviolent. They just sort of laid down and died. Creeeeepy!

Then they find out the shocking truth about the whole thing from a video recording of a scientist chick who worked there. She explained that the scientists were innocently trying to create world peace, and naturally they assumed that the ideal way to achieve this goal would be to drug all the settlers into passivity. Shockingly (to everybody but the audience) this went horribly wrong, because the scientists didn’t do a very good job at making the drug, which just ended up killing everybody. However, it killed everybody in a very symbolic way by making them all lay down and die of starvation.

On top of this it turns out, that for some strange reason, the drug had the exact opposite effect on some people, turning them into fast zombies reavers. Why? Because that’s the obvious consequence of any attempt to create world peace! That’s why!

Up until everything goes wrong nobody ever seemed to question what was going on. It never even occurred to them that maybe, just maybe, drugging the entire population of a planet in to being passive might not be the best way to achieve world peace. Not the scientists. Not The Operative. Not the characters we’ve come to know and love over the course of the series. No one.

Even after everything goes wrong, the thought still never occurs to them. They all still think that this was the best way to achieve world peace and decide that world peace itself is the problem. For instance, our plucky hero, Malcolm Reynolds gives a rousing speech to his crew about what they just witnessed and the need to do something about it. He says

Y'all got on this boat for different reasons, but y'all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this - they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They'll swing back to . . .

Sorry to interrupt, but do you think you can guess what horrible thing they’ll swing back to? Is it “They’ll swing back to genocide?” Is it “They’ll swing back to trying to drug people into submission”? Is it “They’ll swing back to using helpless working people as unwitting guinea pigs for poorly thought out drug testing”? If you guessed any of those, you would be wrong. Let’s let our plucky hero Malcolm Reynolds speak for himself.

They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin'. I aim to misbehave.

Groan. As a side note, did you know that our ancestors were once cannibals. They actually ate each other. The mere thought that something was wrong with eating each other was unheard of. And yet nowadays only crazy people would even consider eating other people. Going back farther, they used to fling their feces at each other.

But it gets better (where by better I mean worse). Everything comes down to a one-on-one action sequence between our plucky hero Malcolm Reynolds and The Operative as Mal tries to broadcast the video of the scientist chick. When Mal finally wins, just before he plays the video, he utters the single worst line of dialogue in all of Whedon-dom spoken by somebody whose name isn’t Mr. Universe: “I’m gonna show you a world without sin.”

Then The Operative learns that a world in which everybody is dead is an example of a world without sin and, as such, the only example of a world without sin and, as such, the only example of a better world, and comes to the conclusion that he was wrong about the whole “better world” thing and instantly becomes a good guy. Blech.

By the way, that world where everybody was dead. It does indeed lack sin. Do you know what else it lacks? One Giant Testicle! Think about that, man. It’s really . . . deep, you know.

Worlds Without Sin

Other examples of the cliché don’t necessarily go all out with the mad scientist stuff. But they do feature a lot of contrivances to show that the seeming utopia is, in fact, not. They also pretend that these contrivances somehow follow naturally from the act of trying to make a better world. Also all of these utopian worlds lack one giant testicle.

A partial exception to this is The Lathe of Heaven which, as I said takes a “Monkeys Paw” approach. William Haber tries to solve the world’s problems one at a time, using George Orr’s magic brain, but every time it results in a Twilight Zone-worthy zinger. You want to end racism? ZING! Now everybody’s the same color. You want to end overpopulation? ZING! Plaaague! You want world peace? ZING! The Earth unites to declare war on . . . the moon! If Haber asked for a turkey sandwich, you can bet your life the turkey would be a little dry.

This is all still contrived, but she doesn’t claim that the contrivances flow naturally from anything. They’re just zingers.

Not so, Lois Lowry’s The Giver. In her Newberry Metal acceptance speech she explained her approach to writing the book.

In beginning to write The Giver I created – as I always do, in every book – a world that existed only in my imagination – the world of “only us, only now.” I tried to make Jonas’s world seem familiar, comfortable, and safe, and I tried to seduce the reader. I seduced myself along the way. It did feel good, that world. I got rid of all the things I fear and dislike; all the violence, prejudice, poverty, and injustice, and I even threw in good manners as a way of life because I liked the idea of it.

One child has pointed out, in a letter, that the people in Jonas’s world didn’t even have to do dishes.

Other things Lois Lowry doesn’t like: color, love and identical twins. So now you know. Lois Lowry is a crazed psychopath who fears and dislikes color, love and identical twins.

But Lowry continues,

But I’ve never been a writer of fairy tales. And if I’ve learned anything through that river of memories, it is that we can’t live in a walled world, in an “only us, only now” world where we are all the same and feel safe. We would have to sacrifice too much. The richness of color and diversity would disappear feelings for other humans would no longer be necessary. Choices would be obsolete.

Ah, so it’s not that Lois Lowry thinks that color, love and identical twins are bad things. She just thinks that a world without prejudice will inevitably lack color, a world without poverty will inevitably lack love and a world without violence will inevitably involve killing identical twins. Similarly every turkey sandwich will inevitably be a little dry.

As a side note, if you wanted the richness of color and diversity to disappear, wouldn’t you want more identical twins?

There’s an idea here that, somehow, making the world a better place would also make it duller and more drab. Even Clarke, the only one who sided with utopia, referred, in Childhood’s End to utopias succumbing to boredom, “the supreme enemy of all utopias” once the novelty wears off.

By definition, a better world would not inherently be more dull and drab, let alone a perfect world. It would be less dull and drab. The assumption seems to be that “violence, prejudice, poverty, and injustice” are what makes life interesting. But do people actually look at the genocide in Darfur and think “this truly is the spice of life”? I certainly hope not.

Taking Away Choice

Also, in Childhood’s End a bunch of aliens rule the world and force everyone to obey them, and ultimately causes them to evolve into a bunch of unthinking drones. In BioShock 2 scientist Sofia Lamb thinks genetically engineering everybody into being unthinking drones will totally solve the world’s problems. In Season Four of Angel a demon goddess Jasmine thinks using magic to turn everybody into unthinking drones will totally solve the world’s problems.

This allows a convenient sound-bitey explanation for why utopia is bad (except in the case of Childhood’s End): you’re taking away choice. Once again, in a better world, and especially in a perfect world, one would think choice would feature prominently.

But the “utopia vs. free will” cliché was conceived of by libertarians and libertarians like saying the word “freedom” over and over again until it loses all meaning, sort of like Obama does with the words “hope” and “change”. Libertarians also think of everything in legalistic terms as if having the word “freedom” enshrined in law will inevitably result in actual freedom. This was evidenced by Ron Paul’s totally-not-made-up 2008 presidential campaign slogan “Legalize Free Will!”

Of course actual freedom is always limited by material conditions. If you have to work all day to survive you’ll have significantly less freedom than a wealthy CEO who can hire people to do all his work for him. This was explained by Friedrich Engels, one of those horrible people who wanted to create a better world, in his eulogy for Karl Marx, another one of those horrible people who wanted to create a better world. Engels said that Marx

. . . discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.

So, contrary to Lois Lowry’s claims, if you really want to increase freedom you have to get rid of poverty and exploitation and all that nasty stuff. People shouldn’t choose between making a better world and freedom, because those are dependent on each other.

At least in the case of the great testicle debate, there’s a real choice involved.

You Can Do Better Than That

What makes all this even more absurd, is that so many of the people who employ this cliché would probably shudder at the actual political implications of the cliché. Consider Brian K. Vaughan. He made a great Marvel comic book series Runaways about a team of teenage superheroes fighting their supervillain parents, who were part of a crazy supervillain organization called The Pride. Then they died, so they fought other Marvel villains in the second volume.

Then the third volume came and Vaughan decided to have a bunch of MMORPG nerds restart The Pride? Why? Because they sincerely, honestly, genuinely believed that following The Pride’s mission of contacting a bunch of demons to kill the entire world’s population except for six people would actually result in a better world. In other words, because they were stupid.

So far, so harmless. You can’t have superheroes without supervillains and you might as well give the supervillains some sort of motivation but most people don’t care about that aspect. However, there is a B-plot involving two of the heroes, Karolina and Xavin, that draws the villains’ idiotic motivations to the fore in the worst possible way.

These characters are aliens whose peoples have recently perished in warfare, and Xavin is understandably depressed by this and wants to fix it. She is also wondering why the other heroes are depressed by the death of one of their friends but are ignoring the fact that Xavin just escaped from a genocidal war!

Karolina, who has more experience with Earth culture comforts him with the words “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” For some reason, she is unaware of the fact that the quote was attributed to Stalin, and that, when the quote is mentioned by other people, it’s usually meant to critique that attitude, not promote it.

For some reason, Xavin is moved by this Stalin quote and decides that she will no longer worry herself with her people perishing in a genocidal war and instead focus on her new adopted planet. She vows “Mark my words, from this day hence, Earth is my abode. I vow to do whatever I can to improve your world.” Karolina’s reply is the single most atrociously awful line of dialogue in all of entertainment, outdoing the “world without sin line” from Serenity and even Mr. Universes dialogue.

She says “No, only villains try to change the whole world.”



And because of the stupid New Pride thing, Xavin actually believed her. Note to Martin Luther King. According to Brian K. Vaughan, you’re on par with a bunch of MMORPG nerds who want to summon demons to kill the entire population of the world but six people. But, seriously, does Brian K. Vaughan actually believe that nonsense? Does anyone?

Seriously, You Can Do Better Than That

I mean, look at the world we’re living in. We have a president who was elected on a platform of “change”. And what does “change” mean according to him? It means maybe, conceivably considering the possibility of establishing a toothless “public option” in a healthcare bill that will still leave most of our healthcare in the hands of the same HMO’s who have been fucking everything up and, just so he doesn’t come off as “too radical” he’ll allow an anti-abortion amendment as an act of compromise, and maybe he won’t enact the bill after all and focus on more “practical” things. On top of that you have the Teabaggers who think that that will result in some sort of dystopia. Meanwhile moderates like Ralph Nader are viewed as crazed extremists.

In a world where our standards have been set so low, maybe you can find a better target for scorn than people who genuinely want to make the world a better place. Where’s the science fiction and fantasy where working within the system results in a bunch of evil horrible stuff happening? Who’s writing stuff like that? The answer, it turns out, is Joss Whedon, who used that as the main theme of the totally awesome fifth season of Angel.

And why must every science fiction utopia ultimately turn out to be an unspeakable dystopia. Can’t you portray a future that’s genuinely better than the present. It doesn’t even have to be an all-out utopia; just a better world. There are plenty of examples of this in literature, but the only real example in popular culture is Star Trek. And of course, some asshole thought it would be a good idea to sell that franchise to the guy who wrote Armageddon, who decided to “re-imagine” Star Trek as a cross between a bad frathouse sex comedy and a military recruitment ad (the most unspeakable dystopia of them all).

You could also try looking at the actual issues involved in trying to make a better world. How do you prevent a tyrant like Stalin from taking over from within? How do you prevent a tyrant like Pinochet from taking over from without? How do you make sure that actual change occurs rather than a few minor reforms that get undone as soon as the next election, like la François Mitterand. Ken Loach does this stuff, be he doesn’t do science fiction. The closest thing we have to "Ken Loach . . . but in space!!!" is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, but we could really stand to have more of that stuff.

If you want to do a dystopia, just make it be a dystopia. And give the dystopia some plausible reason for occurring, like The Iron Heel or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Barring that, you can make it an allegorical dystopian satire that takes some stupid notion to its logical extreme, like Idiocracy does with right-populism. If you squint real hard and ignore all of Sam Levines interviews, you can also pretend that BioShock does this with libertarianism.

If you really want to do a “better standard of living vs. civil liberties” battle, there is another cliché that’s much better suited to such a debate: the “alien invasion as metaphor for colonialism” cliché. The best part of that is that the “better standard of living vs. civil liberties” question is a short-term thing and there’s the possibility of getting both if you fight for it. Earth: Final Conflict tried to do this and the V remake pretended to do this, but ultimately fell back to a “humans good, aliens bad” mentality. The new Battlestar Gallactica did a much better job, but ultimately decided that random religious nonsense was more interesting.

If you absolutely want the whole “somebody stumbles across a seeming utopia that turns out to be an unspeakable dystopia” thing, the only genuinely awesome example would be Futurama Comics No. 36. In this issue Amy, Hermes and Zoidberg venture below the sewers of New New York and discover an amazing land filled with people in white robes who are all incredibly friendly and explain that they ventured into there to create a perfect world. In a shocking twist it turns out that (gasp!) the society was founded by a bunch of snobby hipsters who were being sarcastic the whole time. Now that’s how you do the cliché right!


  1. This shit is hilarious. You truly have a nose for smelling out irony, Mr. G. Mother-Fuckin' Brown.

  2. I think you're responding to a false dichotomy by creating another false dichotomy. Dystopian fiction in the late 20th century tends to be based around the broadly true but somewhat unimaginative idea that massive social-engineering projects tend to make life worse in the long run. You are is taking the true but equally unimaginative fact that dystopian fiction rarely bothers to justify this conclusion (1984 excepted, and that's less "social engineering is bad" and more "totalitarianism is bad") and trying to use that to prove that social engineering is good.

    You're also misrepresenting Leibniz, Rand, and Popper while pushing the frankly rather bizarre idea that social engineering is a good idea in the general case because a better world is conceivable.

    And isn't it really blindingly obvious that "choice is a necessary component of a perfect world" isn't any better justified than "choice is an impediment to a perfect world"?

  3. I haven't laughed as long or as loud in quite a while. I don't care whether you're right or wrong about this stuff; it's just hi-larious (to borrow a Fireflyism). I found it by searching "Morris Utopia Technology" and coming upon your post about the News From Nowhere/Looking Backward smackdown--and I stayed to look around your blog a bit.

    Some day, when I've got more time, I'll read more. Keep it up.