Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Bad Place Is Always Present

Apropos of last week's post concerning language and definitions, and also to some extent my continued immersement in Asimov's ouevre (currently making the acquaintance of one Dr Hari Seldon), I've been thinking of dystopian fiction, and in particular science fiction where the concept of dystopia has deep roots. Not because Asimov's work reads as dystopian (though one could argue that the whole concept of Asimov's Foundation seems to fluctuate between notions of dystopia and utopia, never fully landing in the one or the other), but more because his visions of the future have made me think of other such visions which I have enjoyed. Many of which undeniably are dystopian in nature. One needs only consider H. G. Wells, Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, all of whom I rate highly, or films like Blade Runner, The Terminator and The Matrix.

It is interesting to note that the latter film (which I personally would count as the first truly succesful film to adapt the cyberpunk genre fully from literature to film) contains a quote which has always fascinated me from the time when I first saw the movie back in the late 90s. Agent Smith, while interrogating Morpheus, says the following:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. There was a disaster. No one would except the program, entire crops were lost. Some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that as a species human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world were a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the matrix was redesigned to this. The peak of your civilisation. (transcription mine)
The quote, to my mind, describes not only something within the context of the movie itself, but also to some extent a general human fascination with dystopian fiction.

Why is that so, you might wonder. After all, the concept of utopia is not absent from fiction in general, or science fiction in particular for that matter (where it too has deep roots; the world of classic Star Trek perhaps being one of the most clear cut and well-known examples to leap to mind). The answer is simple. It all comes down to etymology and definitions (yet again). After all, the term utopia first made its entrance on the scene, as it were, in Thomas Moore's Utopia from 1516. There it referred to the eponymous country Moore presented to his readers, a country both imaginary and ideal, and while the word has since come to mean such an ideal place in a more general sense, it is still firmly based in its Greek roots. That is, in the Greek words topos, meaning place, and ou, meaning not or no; literally giving us the meaning ”no-place”. In short, the concept of perfect world is revealed to be perceived, much as Agent Smith tells Morpheus, as a place of dreams and unreality; a place always and ever distant in time and place. And it is the very roots of the word used to describe the concept which reveals this to us.

By contrast, the word dystopia, while much younger as a word (Merriam-Webster dates it at about 1950) though not necessarily a younger concept as such, is a word set up as to be the antonym of utopia, its opposing principle as it were. But the roots of the word dystopia in contrast to the roots of utopia do not easily generate a logical set of antonyms. Dystopia in a literal sense, simply means ”bad place”. Yet the imperfect, nightmarish world of a dystopia (or ”bad place”, if you will) is not a good place (with would presumably be something along the line of agathostopos) but rather a utopia or ”no-place”.

Put differently this means that the perfect world can only ever be out of reach, even in the terms in which we imagine it, whereas the bad place is always (at least imaginatively and linguistically speaking) present.

1 comment: