Sunday 11 May 2014

Topias [U- & Dys-] and Biological Musings

Lately, I've been thinking about dystopia in science fiction. It seems to be everywhere and increasing, in both novels and film. Assuming this isn't just selection bias on my part, why would this be? Is it because environmentally, our world is more dire than ever before in our history, and that makes it hard not to feel a touch glum? Is it because the ubiquity and relentlessness of our modern media reinforce the sense of everything going to shit?

By contrast, utopia rarely seems to get a look-in. Why? Is it easier to imagine things going pear-shaped than things going well? Is it pure pessimism, or a sign of our times? Perhaps writing utopia is simply boring. Story-telling, whatever the medium, thrives on conflict both internal and external. Without conflict on some level, the narrative drive is lost. Does the inherent lack of a level of conflict in a utopian setting make creating drama so much more difficult? Is it bland?

Iain M. Banks' Culture series of novels are set in what is often referred to as an anarcho-socialist utopia. Yet that milieu isn't always so utopic. Conflict emerges through threats from within and without, and the Culture itself doesn’t always behave ideally or entirely benignly (I'm thinking of "Contact" and "Special Circumstances" and their tendency to colonialism). It can also be stultifying for some characters, who yearn for escape from its unrelenting ethos of “niceness”. And then the question arises of whether the Culture is truly free: to what extent is it controlled by the Minds, with the sense of liberty being merely a fa├žade?

Dystopia is not only easy to imagine, it is also easy to maintain. Things can readily go from bad to worse to really horrible. But how can a utopia be maintained? It demands stasis, and stasis demands control.

In "The Quest for Utopia", a recent episode of ABC Radio National’s "Future Tense", Nicole Pohl  (editor of the Utopian Studies Journal) refers to Oscar Wilde’s 1981 essay, "The Soul of Man under Socialism":
…[H]e says it is actually the journey towards Utopia which is the most important thing. Once you imagine, you have to go from A to B and then you arrive in B, then you have a totalitarian state, …nothing will change, there can't be any dissent, there can't be any fluctuation, any adaptation to new forms.
A wonderful paradox: utopia gives birth to dystopia. 

Of course, the quest for utopia isn’t just a dream of the progressive left. It is the goal of neo-cons, of fascists, of aspiring dictators and theocrats. It is just that their idea of utopia mightn’t quite gel with everyone else’s. As Fatima Vieira, Associate Professor of English at the University of Porto, President of the Utopian Studies Society (Europe), says in the Future Tense episode,
…[Y]ou can find Utopian ideals in Hitler or in Stalin, and from their own point of view of course it is Utopian because they have their own ideas about changing society. I would say that the Utopian perspectives should be seen not from the point of view of the receiver but from the one who dreams, who has the dream and who wants to change society.
I’ve been musing upon these issues in relation to my work-in-progress, where one character’s utopia is another’s dystopia. It seems to me that there is a parallel between the social flux pushing towards and against utopias and dystopias, and the evolutionary flux affecting varieties of symbiosis in the natural world. Just as with human politics, the interaction between species is never in a static state. Evolutionary and environmental forces ensure the relationship veers to the advantage of one or another in an unceasing dance of power. 

Symbiosis is the interaction between species, a prolonged and close association whereby one or both gains a survival benefit. It is usually categorised into three groups. Parasitology is the most well-known. Here, one species obtains a benefit from another to the detriment of the host. Think leeches, fleas, mites, amoebic interlopers... they are all around us and in us. Some are the stuff of nightmares. (Curiously, for historical reasons, disease-causing bacteria aren't technically categorised as parasites, but that is rubbish. Of course they are!) The diversity is extraordinary, and parasites can even parasitise parasites, as I explored here.

Mutualism is another form of symbiosis. Here, both parties benefit from the association. An example is a bee pollinating a flower. The bee obtains nutrients, the plant obtains help in reproduction. Every species on earth is thought to be in a mutualistic relationship with at least one other species. Such relationships are vital to life on earth and have been a function of evolution since life began.

The third class of symbiosis is commensalism, where only one of the participants benefits, but unlike in parasitism, the other party is unaffected. There is a line of biological thought that this form doesn't actually exist, and that the benefit or loss to one species simply hasn't been identified. 

Symbioses can take place at arm's length, as in brood parasitism (where a cuckoo lays her eggs in the nest of another bird species), or it can be deeply intimate, with a microbe making its home inside another species -- endosymbiosis. (The latter is crucial to the evolution of complex organisms like plants and animals, and I investigated an aspect of it in this blog post.)

Now one of the fascinating things about symbioses is that they can change over evolutionary time. A twist in environment, a change in selection pressure, a genetic mutation, and what was once a mutually beneficial association can become exploitative. And vice versa. A parasite might also change the cost to the host. It might even start killing the host (becoming parasitoid) and the species will thrive, providing it is able to reproduce before its victim dies. 

The relationship between the species is one of constant tension. It is an arms race, with each trying to obtain the most from the other without being abandoned. Exploit too much, and the other will find a way to fight back or resist. Give too much without getting a fair return will lead to a loss of fitness. The pressure to cheat on a symbiotic partner can be overwhelming, but it can come at great cost. Some years ago I wrote a literature review on the theories devised in biology to characterise this stand-off and its potential destabilisation, including market-based ideas, sanctions, and game theory. I've put it up on my other blog, "My Growing Passion", if you're interested in reading it. 

Just like politics, with its polar extremes of utopia and dystopia, symbiosis is about power. It is about the distribution of resources, about sharing or stealing, about autonomy and dominance. 

And as with politics, the power dynamics of the interaction between species evolve.

There is no stasis.

What do you think? As always, your thoughts are encouraged. Please comment below. 


  1. This is really interesting...

    I just realised that one of the interesting things about the book I'm working on is that it explores what happens when a utopian society intersects with a dystopian society...

    The irony being that human sexual slavery is considered perfectly normal and necessary in the utopian society, but democracy and equality are valued in the utopian society...

    What happens when they intersect? Well, you'll have to wait and read it...


    1. Thanks for commenting, JJ. I do love that paradox in your novel (and yes, I realise that you meant "democracy and equality are valued in the DYStopian society"). That is what is so liberating about your genre. You can throw up such unexpected juxtapositions and see how they play out. And I AM looking forward to reading it!

  2. I looking forward to people reading it to... I really want to see how it all holds together. :)

  3. It might be the zeitgeist.

    Fifty years ago, apparent utopias were the norm in a lot of sci-fi. But so was big government liberalism. [Huge ventures, like going to the moon, or establishing space colonies required bigness. Since the generation in power at the time had just concluded a massive venture -- winning WW2 -- with the aid of Big Government, it was assumed that they would be involved in whatever big adventures we would be going on.]

    Today, the mood is anti-Big Government, and thus, most of the sci-fi seems to be dystopic. [Even before our latest problems vis-a-vis climate change, we had a plethora of dystopic blockbuster movies coming out of Hollywood that expressed that tune. "Terminator" and "The Matrix" are but two that likely wouldn't have been big hits had they come out in the '60s; that was the time of "Star Trek" and "2001:ASO".]

  4. Finally found time to read, Margaret. Brilliant post - you said it 'There is no stasis'. That sums it all up. In fiction and life, change is constant and the status quo never lasts. And in general, humans aren't that keen on change. A great source of narrative tension. Either characters are resisting change, or can't cope with it when it happens.