41l+4UobkRL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgDystopias extrapolate the fears of the day while utopias project our dearest hopes and ideals.

Science fiction writers from the Golden Age of post-WW2, for example, often address the disastrous impact of the potential for nuclear powers to obliterate the planet. They were concerned about global and intergalactic peace and the trade-off in freedom resulting in a governing body with so much power. They recognized how population pressure and a shift toward manufacturing with machine rather than human power might dehumanize our future.

Huxley missed all that.

Brave New World was written at a time when the world economy was in the midst of a Great Depression and there was concern about finding the minimal 1000 calories necessary to maintain human life. Huxley addressed the need to stimulate the economy, reinforce social class and bigotry concerning gender, sexual orientation, race, and language. In a world rapidly opening to new ideas, Huxley maintains the status quo.   

Most languages are defunct, which is nice for the UK when English remains the lingua franca, but most languages from Polish to Spanish and French are so far extinct as to be gone from general consciousness. Women (always referred to as “girls”) exist as nothing more than inferior beings necessary for procreation. Sex. It is a white and male future. Casual lines about “negroes” within the first pages had my hackles up. There is ample evidence that he actually failed to notice that some of what he presents in his nightmare future, was already a nightmare. What Huxley knew was the rigid class system (which he then codifies here into biological law) and the need to regulate markets via absolute control of both production and consumption.

It is satire, with a lively and smug tone that reports in dizzying detail about a society that is irrational and repressive. Perhaps most societies are, but this is not a warning but arrogant. Not to mention how much he gets wrong.

What does he get wrong? Basics of biology, psychology, technology, communication, education, gender, race, nationalism, and the future importance of the British Empire. As one example, exhaustive detail about artificially breeding and rearing children is ridiculous. From specifics of harvesting eggs to programing children to be fearful of flowers, none of it is plausible. His story advances hundreds of years into the future, without considering how unimportant physical human labor is to society—a shifting paradigm evident in his day. He should have seen that coming.

What else does he miss? Dangers of post-WW2 pesticides and poisons, nuclear energy, wars, global warming, population pressure. These are the threats on which most science fiction of the 20th and 21st centuries focus. It is fair to note that Huxley could not have foreseen that the “War to End All Wars” was only the beginning, that military might would overtake social controls as a threat to world peace, that toxins such as DDT would create havoc on the natural environment, that global warming would alter climate and coastlines and food sources, that all these changes and the threat of nuclear war and a world population four times larger than the one he knew would threaten human existence.

Even Huxley recognized within a decade or so that his options of “Utopia or Savagery”/insanity or idiocy are inadequate, and he belatedly offers a third option, also inadequate.

Abuse of power is central to any dystopia, but Huxley’s book is hopelessly inaccurate in terms of science and fails to predict specific concerns nearly everyone in the world worries about today. His cheeky voice and sex-driven plot (in a future where the very word “father” is vulgar) may appeal to some. He can’t be faulted for most of his mistaken assumptions about the future, but the rampant nationalism, sexism, and racism in the novel do beg the question: Why is anyone still assigning this novel to high school students?

And I know the answer, surely I must. But still.

Utopias are harder. We do not accept them as a possibility. With a unique human determination to find fault, we grasp at the dystopia as representative of everything that might go wrong. But perfection? Oh, no, we cannot imagine that.

9636460.jpgAnd then most utopian novels I have read are no better at creating perfection than Huxley was at predicting disaster. Walden is utopia, but somewhat false as nonfiction since Thoreau did not actually live the life he writes about. The novel Walden Two, by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, on the other hand, does a a more honesty job by not pretending to be true.

“We are only just beginning to understand the power of love because we are just beginning to understand the weakness of force and aggression.”—Walden Two

B.F. Skinner asks if you knew how to manipulate people into living in an ideal society, wouldn’t you do it? We are all products of our experiences and responses to societal conditioning. Wouldn’t it be best if we deliberately created a society that conditioned us to live harmoniously and happily?

If readers are looking for a conventional novel, there is a plot here, a beginning and middle and end. But that story is mostly beside the point.

The story is a thought experiment first conceived immediately after WW2. Here an academic psychologist Burris visits another psychologist, Frazier, taking with him a pair of veterans, their “girls,” and a philosopher Castle, also an academic. The structure of visitors observing and interacting with members of a utopian community has been used many times. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1907) is an earlier example. The visitors argue against the workability of a society that clearly is working just fine.

herland-14.jpgIn 1970, my first term at the University of Washington, I took a psychology class taught by a recent retiree from the US Navy. The man was a behaviorist, of course, and had spent 20 years training porpoise to commit acts of war. I worked hard in that class, harder than was typical for an intro class. I read the novel and wrote a paper about Walden Two. Mostly what I remembered was the clever way work was set up in this imagined utopia. Everyone had to do at least a little manual labor, but all work was chosen. Payment was in credits and each member of the community had to earn 4 credits per day. Some jobs such as cleaning out sewers earned more than a credit/hour. Some, such as working in a flower garden, earned less than one credit/hour. “Payment” was adjusted if more or fewer workers were needed than takers. I loved that system.

I also recall that the founder, Frazier, was not liked much but was tolerated in his utopia, and was actually not very good at following his own utopian guidelines.

There was a great deal I did not recall after all this time, and mostly that is because Skinner got so much wrong. Like Huxley, he even got the science wrong. He is wrong to remove children from one-on-one care by parents. He is wrong in the way he describes “teaching” young children to withstand frustration, and ironically he is wrong to underestimate the impact of “delayed gratification” as a necessary skill for adolescents and teenagers. I would have recognized some of this at the time since I was aware that group-raising infants in the USSR had proven unsuccessful. Promoting childbearing by age 15 or 16 is not “much better” than waiting to have children when the body is mature. Child-bearing is not something to be got out of the way while still a child. And since Skinner is squeamish about religion and extra-marital sex, he fails to address the issues that come with promoting marriage among very young teenagers.

“In a cooperative society there’s no jealousy because there’s no need for jealousy.”

He insists there are no laws in Walden Two, yet there is a Code and violating the Code has consequences. That is law. His Managers and other officials are not government because government is irrelevant unless it is local. Citizens of Walden Two are told how to vote in local elections.

“The majority of people don’t want to plan,” the novel’s protagonist insists. “They want to be free of the responsibility of planning. What they ask for is merely some assurance that they will be decently provided for. The rest is a day-to-day enjoyment of life. That’s the explanation for your Father Divines; people naturally flock to anyone they can trust for the necessities of life… They are the backbone of a community—solid, trust-worthy, essential.”

Skinner argues hard for his scientific approach and claims that his invented society is egalitarian about race and gender. What he refers to as “Girls” and women are supposed to be on an even footing, yet we have mostly all men everywhere in charge in this novel. There is a cheerful woman dentist. All the childcare givers are women, though he insists men help too. All the characters seem to be white, and all the girls are pretty—this is actually remarked upon early. Men are “caught” by women—an out-of-date notion about marriage. (“The man chases the woman until she catches him.”) The character Castle is said to be a strong debater, but he is a peevish straw man opponent here, often failing to make his point in arguing with Frazier. Frazier himself is set up as a failure to his own cause, which is probably the most compelling and realistic detail.

There is a great deal to argue with in the specifics of this imagined utopia. I might wish he knew more about biology and anthropology, especially the latter. I am sorry he demeans history repeatedly as mere “entertainment”, while freely referencing [Western European white] history to make his case. He is actively hostile to every other scientific field. That last is particularly unfortunate.

Yet I am still intrigued by his underlying question about a perfectible society, by his approach to labor, and his emphasis on cooperation rather than competition. He might have made a stronger case had he focused less on specifics such as his tea carrier and more on how humans have cooperated for millennia, for all time. He failed to see the population bomb coming and his setting this confrontation in an agrarian society during summer is a sort of naïve cheat that repeats in many discussions and debates between characters. Remove the favoritism of parents and their poor knowledge of scientific method, remove competition, use behavioral principles and there will be no envy or jealousy? Snap! Problem solved. (I can hear the whining from here.) I found myself repeatedly thinking that Skinner’s daughter was fortunate that it was her mother who was the primary caregiver.

I still contend that Skinner’s task was more difficult than Huxley’s, and neither accomplished it very well.

“In the summer of 1945, B. F. Skinner wrote The Sun Is But a Morning Star, a utopian novel he published in 1948 as Walden Two (Skinner, 1948). An impetus for the book arose over the course of a dinner conversation in the spring of 1945 with a friend whose son-in-law was stationed in the South Pacific as World War II was coming to an end. Skinner mused about what young people would do when the war was over. “What a shame,” he said, “that they would abandon their crusading spirit and come back only to fall into the old lockstep American life—getting a job, marrying, renting an apartment, making a down payment on a car, having a child or two” (Skinner, 1979, p. 292).
. . .
“Skinner’s utopian vision, then, was not about any of Walden Two’s practices, except one: experimentation. His vision was to search for and discover practices that maximized social justice and human well-being. This was Skinner’s unique contribution to the utopian genre; it distinguishes Walden Two from all the others. As he later exhorted, “Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment” (Skinner, 1979, p. 346).—B. F. “Skinner’s Utopian Vision: Behind and Beyond Walden Two” by Deborah E Altus and Edward K Morris

And then there is Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” She knows we find it hard to believe in perfection—how certain we are that someone else must pay for our pleasure.

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