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“Maybe You Can’t Get There From Here, But Definitely Try” by Andrew Biscontini

There’s been a lot of conversation in the SF community over the past few years about the need for more positive, “utopian” stories rather than those set in the bleak “dystopian” worlds that have been predominant for the past couple decades.

Discussions about the function of the genre in society, and its context in the greater culture, are nearly always interesting to me, and there’s been a lot of worthwhile discussion on the subject. But I think it’s often a fundamentally flawed debate in that it’s generally conducted as if there’s a hard binary distinction between the two, and it shouldn’t be.

As a qualifier, I’m generally wary of the compulsion to define stories by rigid subgenre classifications (must we add a –core or a –punk onto everything?). It can be a useful tool for marketers and streaming-service algorithms, but it can also be stiflingly restrictive. One of my favorite things about reading genre fiction is experiencing different writers’ approaches and interpretations of classic tropes and parameters in new ways that make them feel alive and relevant, refracting the times in which they were written through the authors’ psyches. When I find myself feeling like boxes are being checked, and my expectations are being met rather than challenged, I tend to get bored pretty quick.

The utopia-dystopia debate jumped to the forefront of my mind recently when I caught a screening of the movie Aniara (2018, dir. Pella Kagerman and Hugo Lilja), based on a 1956 SF poem by Swedish poet Harry Martinson.

The Aniara is a luxury space liner designed to ferry people in comfort from a catastrophe-ridden Earth to a growing colony on Mars in only two weeks of travel time. A collision with space debris causes it to change course and jettison its fuel, preventing it from correcting its course and sending it at full velocity on a fixed course out into the cosmos. This isn’t the Enterprise: there are engineers and technicians aboard, but for the most part, the crew is that of a cruise ship, more oriented to passenger relations that space exploration. The passengers are regular people who shelled out for a quick trip with all the convenient shopping, restaurants and entertainments to which they were accustomed. The authority on which the operations of the ship depend is an arrogant captain profoundly ill-suited to managing the calamity at hand.

There’s a lot a liked about the movie, but what I appreciated most, and what got me thinking about the utopia-dystopia debate, was the way that it implicitly examines the problem of hope.

After the maintenance of the life support systems and food supply (algae, yum!), the most pressing issue to deal with is that of morale, as the prospect of rescue fades and the reality of never actually getting anywhere sets in.

There’s a telepathic device onboard called Mimas, which projects customized images of bygone natural beauty into its users’ minds. At first, it’s a largely ignored entertainment option, but soon becomes a quasi-religious fixation, and is ultimately burned out by the underlying anxieties of its desperate users. Weird religious-sex-cults start cropping up. Apparently, the algae can be fermented into something like ergot, because there seems to be a lot of recreational acid use. And, fatally, in the name of maintaining hope, the voices of the most pragmatic scientists are silenced.

Hence the central dilemma: without hope, societies risk falling apart in despair, but when hope is prioritized over science, societies tend to die out.

In the false-binary arguments with which I take issue, “utopian” SF is seen as being optimistic: the plucky humans will Figure It Out. (Frankly, I think any fiction that imagines the long-term prospects of the human race is fundamentally optimistic.)

Consider two popular exemplars of the strain (full-disclosure, I’m super into both of these): Star Trek, and Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels.

In both, future humans have Figured It Out. Starfleet is a model of integrity and cooperation, the Culture a paradigm of libertine technological enlightenment. Yet both manage to get into tricky, fascinating, interesting conflicts. The conflict comes when those entities are forced to apply and maintain their ethos in contexts where those values don’t apply.

I would argue that the most compelling “dystopian” SF, be it the many dystopias of Philip K. Dick, Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, or George Miller’s Mad Max movies, frame the same fundamental questions differently: when we Get It Wrong, how do individuals (organic or replicant) survive a dehumanizing system with their humanity intact?

Whether or not that proves to be possible is specific to the stories, the characters and the writer’s point of view.

I would argue that when a work exists to conform to categorizations is when it starts to fall into hollow escapism, fatalism, or ideological aggrandizement and agitprop. If the answer feels like “because utopia,” or “because dystopia,” you can find my eyes rolled back in my head.

Aniara, to its credit, steers clear of easy answers, but definitely goes full-on into pretty heavy bummer territory. Of course, that’s not out of place for a movie about a doomed ship lost in deep space, and the theme that becomes explicit in its coda is both relevant and powerful, I just found myself wishing that maybe the poor doomed crew of the Aniara had Figured Something Out to better stave off their despair…

Of course, judging a work on the basis of what I wish it had been rather than what it is would be as foolish as the captain of the Aniara pitching a slingshot maneuver around a planet that isn’t there.

And it definitely stayed with me over the last month or so strongly enough to write an essay around it so, hey, yeah, fifteen bucks well spent at the IFC Center.


Andrew Biscontini is the author of Nu Luna and on Instagram as @atomichouseplant. He is a new potential team member for Sci-Fi & Scary.

“This is the Colony. The better your ideas, the more people want you dead.”

After 400 years of colonization, the moon is home to nearly a billion people living in a crowded, stagnant and steeply stratified industrial police state on the verge of collapse for nearly a century.

But underneath the rigid, totalitarian grasp of the Colonial Authority, it’s also home to the vibrant, ambitious, diverse and irrepressibly competitive indigenous population of the Moonborn, for whom life is a constant struggle for survival under the often cruel, sometimes insane, and generally shortsighted and misguided CA administration.

At the collapse of this society, the life of Sanjit Ramirez, truck driver, will intersect with those of the Sister Doctor, racked with guilt over causing an accidental genocide, and her adolescent android assistant, who hates her for it; Demetrius Wei, a genetically engineered genius with Oppositional Defiance Disorder and a catastrophic grudge; Sanjit’s ex-girlfriend Naeemah, a pinup-queen-turned-avenging –cyborg-army; and Sel, a teenaged Moonborn musician who, whether she likes it or not, may be the catalyst that changes the course of humanity.

Andrew Biscontini’s nu luna is a deeply personal matinee space-adventure deftly spun through a vividly imagined, improbably plausible future history in which tyranny, no matter how technologically advanced, cannot suppress the decisions of individuals to do the right thing. 

The future is beautiful and dangerous.

Published inGuest Posts


  1. Following up on the previous comment, James Blish once described most sci-fi utopias with the comment, “I always thought it would be hell to live in a place like this. And now I know it.” (Actually, one of his characters says in while in Hell, but a Hell that looks like a sci-fi utopia.)

    • Andy Biscontini

      That’s great. I haven’t read Blish but his Cities books have been on my list for a while. Any recs on where to jump in?

      • The Cities books are a lot of fun, although sometimes Blish portrays decades of events as if they happened in a single afternoon. “Earthman, Come Home” is probably the dramatically tightest; “They Shall Have Stars” the most philosophical; “A Life For the Stars” the most space-opera.

        I’m a fan of the “Black Easter/Day After Judgment” pair, but if you don’t like the first, don’t read the second! And “A Case of Conscience” works only if you like your sci-fi with theology.

        Finally, the old Ballantine collection of his shorter fiction was good, too.

  2. Great analysis. I think one problem of Utopias are that they are seen as stagnant rather than progressive.

    • Thank you, Jemima! I agree — and I wonder if, rather than a society in which everything functions perfectly, the more correct definition of a utopia might be a society that can adapt to solve problems before they lead to breakdowns or system failures?

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