Everything is depressing and messed up so let’s take a lunch break to talk about neartopias.
If you look up the phrase “neartopia” on the web you’ll find a couple solitary pages of someone proposing a anarcho-libertarian island government, but that’s not what I mean in my use of the term. Instead, I mean a particular brand of sci-fi — and speculative fiction more generally — that presents a world considerably more socially just and personally fulfilling than the one we currently inhabit in a way that seems at least partially achievable.
Think Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge. Le Guin’s Dispossessed. In film, examples are less common, but a recent neartopia would be Black Panther’s Wakanda.
Neartopias are not utopias. They have problems. They have to have problems because problems are what drive plots. And on another level problems are just interesting in a way that non-problems are not. They also aren’t post-scarcity Star Treks, or visions of a perfect 6030 A.D. They are “near”-utopias both in the sense that they lack perfection and in that they seem near-enough to be achievable.
Neartopias also have blindspots. Each neartopia pulls from cultural assumptions that will be eventually — like all things — be revealed as problematic. The Golden Age of sci-fi produced some neartopias, for instance, but had a relationship with technological progress and industry, for example, that was — well, let’s say underdeveloped.
But these visions are fundamentally different than dystopias, which serve as a warning, which map a world we need to try to route around.
I was very into dystopias for a while. But like a lot of others– see, for example, the solarpunks — I’ve worried over the last few years about their efficacy as a tool for social justice and change.
Take Minority Report, a dystopia that imagines a world of constant surveillance and personalization, one where people are judged to be guilty before they commit a crime. A warning, right? Except, somehow when run through capitalism it becomes a blueprint for an IPO.
Worse yet are the “Utopia is secretly a Dystopia” plots, from The Giver, to Gattaca, to… well, just about any film that starts out with a utopian vision. These films often take as their target inequality or other current issues. More common formats recently are “the utopia built on the backs of the poor or non-elite.” or “the government that provides the good life in order to control you.” (Both of these have spawned a thousand YA dystopian series).
Those are important messages, but I wonder if they get garbled a bit in translation. The message of the Secret Dystopia seems to be that social and technical progress is always bought at the expense of someone else and that government provisioned services are always bought at the expense of freedom. But while these are biting critiques of our current moment, it’s important to remember that these zero-sum patterns are not laws of physics, but rather products of a system designed to produce unequal outcomes and quell dissent. In using the future to critique our current reality, dystopias often serve to reinforce fundamentally conservative viewpoints, treating constructed elements of our current system as eternal truths that will replicate infinitely into the future.
As I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the disinformation environment I’ve thought more and more about the role that art needs to play in moving forward a society that is overwhelmed by the sludge of our current politics and culture. And I keep coming back to this idea of Solarpunk, and, more broadly, neartopias:
To many, solarpunk represents an ignition for activism. “The great programs of the 20th century often began as fictional proposals, from moon landings to Social Security,” says Flynn. “It’s time we returned to higher ambitions for what we can do as a society.” When Ulibarri picks up a book, she’s looking for an escape that isn’t as familiar as dystopia is. “Maybe it is escapism, but it gives me a sense that things can get better,” she says.
There’s not a big finale here — just lunchtime musings. But I’m curious how many other people have a hunger for this new vision of science fiction, from Wakanda to Solarpunk? I can’t be the only one. It’s time to show a future where technological progress is not bought at the cost of the oppressed. Where government can be a tool for good — not House of Cards with more computing power. Where we move beyond this current turd of a result and in to something better.
I’m in the market for neartopias — if you have some favorites I should read, throw them in the comments. Are there significant other strains outside of Solarpunk I should know about?