The conversation of a century! I had the opportunity to discuss with Carroll Grabham, dystopian author and creator, mastermind of the podcast The Future is a Fucker about the differences and similarities of Utopias and Dystopias. We decided it was time to do a bit of a debate and the following resulted:
Carroll Grabham (CG): So, to begin with what makes utopia so great when we live in dystopian times?
Tristan Evarts (TE): I think Utopia is necessary more than ever in Dystopian times because it acts as something to believe in, something to hope for. That light at the end of a dark tunnel. Dystopian literature in dystopian times perpetuates itself and doesn't always act as a call for change or a warning. Instead it can sometimes come across as simple "the end is nigh" doomsday saying.
What makes Dystopia so appealing during Dystopian times?
CG: To me, Dystopia infers a cosmic joke, as if the utopia we were building is being dangled in front of our noses then stolen away, again and again. There is and should always be hope for society and certain trappings of utopia are frequently availed through tech. Prevention and treatment of disease is a big one among others, but we know that any system is open to corruption and the feeling of being controlled is powerful. The use of tech as the means of control is even more insidious as much as we aspire to better health and more harmony among people and between society and the earth.
Why do we always want more as a society?
TE: Good question - I think that it's in the basic human drive to want more. It all goes back 40,000 years ago with Neanderthal man and his cousins, where if you didn't have the drive to find more food, supplies, if you didn't gather or hunt enough you'd starve and die. A lot of ways, those basic instincts never quite leave us. We always want more, but perhaps the difference in Utopia/Dystopia is the way in which we go about satisfying that need. Dystopians seem to be more based off of exploitation - while Utopians are governed by a commonly accepted sense of fairness.
What do you consider have been the most influential dystopian literature or philosophies in the 20th/21st century and why?
CG: Orwell and Huxley certainly opened up the definition of dystopian worlds and I explored them as a kid, along with finding nuggets of dystopia in Lewis Carroll and even Dickens.
The futuristic or fantastical aspects are far too often the fur coat with no knickers when it comes to exploring dystopias. The likes of Gibson, Atwood, Mieville and Stephenson have distilled the allegory because they remember that the terror that exists in our fears of falling over the edge of civilisation in post capitalism and succumbing to mindless control or just mind control are all really fucking close at hand. For my tiny part, the future has to be absurd, maybe not Python absurd but, well, Donald and Boris...
TE: Orwell and Huxley certainly played a big part in dystopia literature. It's certainly developed a lot since then with Gibson and the introduction of cyber-punk, and of course Atwood had some interesting dystopias as well. Is it really that the fear lies in falling over the edge of civilization? Or can it exist in other places too? It seems to me the fear comes from loss of individualism almost exclusively. Where character becomes assimilated by society.
Absurdity might be inherent in dystopian worlds at some level, in the same way that Hamlet can be viewed as a comedy in the right light. Dystopians can also be viewed as dark comedies in a way.
CG: We've more common ground than the original utopia vs dystopia question might suggest. I agree with all of that statement.
Is utopianism a dangerous semantic ideal, especially if contextualised within a political idealogy? To expand, why does it have a place in modern thinking, even if we're focusing on literature and genre? Behind every totalitarian figurehead within and outside fiction, from Stalin to Pol Pot to Big Brother, the regime espouses a utopian paradise as part of its news speak, which simultaneously dopes, entices and chastises the masses. Does this mean that utopianism has an inherent danger?
TE: I certainly don't see it as such. The danger often comes when there is a misunderstanding of the idea of Utopia. While it may be used in propaganda of totalitarian/authoritarian governments or institutions, it's a word not properly applied in logical context. The dictionary definition of Utopia is a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions. Let's first ask if a perfect law can be in-just? I would think that justice is inherently part of the idea of perfection. So any society which has laws which target certain people unfairly, or even certain parts of a society cannot be one with perfect laws, therefore, at least one part doesn't live up to the definition/logical meaning of what it means to be Utopian.
What often happens is that there is a promise of a Utopia which is never delivered. What you end up with is dystopia, a dystopian society masquerading as a Utopia, but one which wouldn't stand up underneath scrutiny. So the danger comes in the misuse and misunderstanding of the word rather than the word or concept itself. But the fact that Utopia is (mis)used as a kind of lure for people to participate or welcome these types of society speaks to it's inherent appeal to most people. There is this deep-set desire to find the Perfect place, a peaceful, functionally perfect, perhaps even Arcadian society.
Question: How do we know if we're not in a Dystopian society? If we don't meet the extreme idea of a Dystopian society, is it possible that we are still in effect a lesser version of a dystopia? How then, would we leave or move away from Dystopia?
CG: How do we know if we're not in a Dystopian society?
That's part of the problem. We don't, and in a world of fake news and double speak, this bubble is still expanding. Maybe a change in leadership could help. Dump Trump out on his arse and see if that has a positive domino, but my spidey senses say no. Not now, not ever.
If we don't meet the extreme idea of a Dystopian society, is it possible that we are still in effect a lesser version of a dystopia?
That has a similar rub to the first part of the question. The dangerous part is that we think that a little bit of a dystopia is acceptable when there are red flags everywhere. Reactionary forces are using tech right now to take away our basic rights. Democracy is eroding. Whether this happens by stealth or by the crude posturing of some orange gimp leads us away from the main point. It's happening.
How then, would we leave or move away from Dystopia?
Margaret Atwood warns against extremism and pushes activism. We have to use the same channels to push back at dystopia as the ones that are being used to deliver it. Otherwise we really will stop talking to each other and just talk to machines, like in my book/podcast. What scares me about that is that it is has already started and that we are losing the faculty to know or care about the difference between the two.
But let's keep aiming for better.
My question is: does Utopia really mean the world's ills are solved or does this work on a smaller scale? Is Utopia purely about perception/mindfulness/zen? A good day at the office?
TE: I don't think Utopia really means that all of our ills have been solved. I think what it means is that we've learned to handle them in mature, responsible ways. So a Utopian story is a demonstration on how to solve issues in a more positive way. Is it zen/mindfullness? In some ways I'm sure, though perhaps more of it comes from simply learning to communicate and accept differences instead of simply tolerating them which to me sounds more like common sense and human decency than anything else. Zen evokes in some sense a kind of mysticism which I don't think should apply.
Are dystopians effective means of warning? Are there any examples of them successfully allowing us to change our ways or are we stuck unavoidably creating those futures depicted?
CG: Dystopia is a way of describing the dysfunctional ways of the world right now and how this dysfunction can be magnified in the future. In that sense, it is a warning, but only in the effective sense if it links to a socio-political movement that has numbers and momentum behind it. Take Extinction Rebellion, who sprang up from millions of disaffected young people who could see the major problems of the world in plain sight.
Dystopia is starkly apparent in Aleppo, Afghanistan, anywhere ravaged by war, pestilence or famine. That existence won't be changed by science fiction writers. We shiver at the scenario of THE HANDMAID'S TALE or totalitarianism of 1984, but aspects of these dystopias are happening right now in places that don't have the luxury of protest and a daily fight for survival is the norm.
Until we figure out a way to stop being part of the problem in the third world, the first world will continue to develop into the monster, blinkered by it's own ideologies and perceived superiority. Colonialism and imperialism might seem crass now, but they exist in the shiny new constructs of capitalism; colton mining in the Congo, anyone? Modern slavery?
These cheerless little numbers exist beneath the radar, but the world isn't changing fast enough to address these concerns and the concerns of the environment over the drive for economic growth and profit.
My next question is jumping on the current pandemic, but it probably needs addressing in context. What does covid 19 mean to the utopian? Is it a blip on a march to inevitable equilibrium or a pragmatic consequence of evolution and population growth?
TE: I'm not sure in the grand scale covid 19 means much to Utopia - as bad as it is, we're truly lucky it doesn't have a higher mortality rate. Though, to take a point of view I don't necessarily agree with, there's been study to show that every time there's a mass die-off in human population it's usually followed by a period of flourishing. The most notable example is the effects of the black plague leading to the beginning of the Renaissance period or the number of those killed during WWII leading to the foundation of the United Nations which if not always effective, is perhaps better than nothing.
I'm not sure I agree that's an accurate way of looking at it, but it's interesting to consider. I do think that Utopia may only be possible where there's space and resources to balance out accordingly. Where there's over-population and limited resources the survival of the fittest kicks in, systems get rigged and greed is rewarded. It's one of the reasons I believe space travel and colonization is absolutely essential to the future of the human race. Utopia seems more of a guide to the future, but one worth working towards.
All in all it's possible to see a respite, a change of our views on the way we treat our environment and the way we govern. There's a map of the nitrogen and carbon emissions of China pre- and during the plague and the difference is beyond startling. It shows what an impact our activities and curbing those activities have on our environment. It is possible to make a better world, right now. It may just be that covid-19 is what we need to spur us to action, but it may also just not be serious enough. It will certainly carry consequences and energize rallies and movements for a while. As I mentioned at first, it really is a bit of a miracle that it's not more deadly. If it had the mortality rate even a quarter of what the black death was we'd be looking at fatalities in the 100s of millions.
What do you think covid-19 means to dystopia? Is it more fuel to the fire or (seeing the panic and hysteria the virus has created) is it wise to play on those fears or will it just cause more disillusionment and despair?
CG: My labour of love and pain is THE FUTURE IS A FUCKER. It's a book and a podcast about a future London where no one speaks to each other and the networks have taken over. Sound familiar?
This isn't to sound smug about a serious problem in society, before and during CV, or even an attempt to sound prescient or clever. But the conditions around social engineering and what makes a pandemic still possible have curdled in the bottle over recent decades. The unfortunate fact is that we were due a cull and gaia is ready in the wings.
On a human, individual level, this is unbearable, but we are all too ready to read fiction and watch films about dystopias, so we shouldn't be too shocked when disaster visits. Again, the West/1st world is less accustomed, whereas the 3rd world takes a breath.
Berlin is one of my favourite cities. They don't just acknowledge the horrible histories, they own it. On every corner, every street, every building new or old. This isn't reveling in dystopia, but it acknowledges its existence in a profound, lasting way. It isn't a question of should we play on it, we must play on it.
Thanks to Carroll Grabham for participating in this enlightening and engaging conversation. For more information on Carroll and the podcast The Future is a Fucker and other dystopian projects, visit grabham.org or check out a link to the novel version: https://amzn.to/33xjy5o
And thank you readers for your interest in this interview and for your continued support of our magazine.
What are your answers to any of the questions asked in this debate of Utopia Vs. Dystopia? What questions do you still have? Drop us a line, comment below, we're curious to know what you think.
As always, remember, you're wonderful!