[Access article in PDF]
Scraps of the Untainted Sky:
Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia
Theory and Cultural Studies
Tom Moylan. Scraps of the Untainted Sky: Science Fiction, Utopia, Dystopia. Boulder, CO: Westview-Perseus, 2000. xix + 386 pp.
While the fictional utopia is a fairly distinctive genre, its opposition is more challenging to classify. Some works present societies so unspeakably nasty that they seem the direct inverse of utopias, while others depict supposedly utopian societies in which no sane person would wish to live. Each type of writing clearly represents a different impulse; pinning down the exact nature of these differences, however, has proven to be a difficult task, as the past fifty years of scholarly debate demonstrate. Tom Moylan's new book should finally put this debate to rest. In an impressive review of the relevant scholarship and primary materials, he crafts nuanced yet workable distinctions among utopia, anti-utopia and dystopia.
Scraps of the Untainted Sky is organized tidily into three sections of three chapters each, ending with a brief coda. The book opens by eloquently asserting the value of reading science fiction. Moylan approaches science fiction as a committed Marxist scholar, and he celebrates its ability to help readers think outside their ideology. The next two chapters provide a selective review of science fiction studies and a thorough historiography of utopian studies.
The second section turns to the dystopia and anti-utopia. The anti-utopia creates a world that lacks any site for effective resistance, any potential for a better place even as a possible future. The dystopia can lean toward either the anti-utopia or the utopia. While dystopias tend to set their protagonists in a tightly controlled and aversive state regime, or otherwise worse place than our own, many dystopias give their protagonists a chance to resist. In this sense, they express what Moylan terms a "utopian pessimism," in contrast to the "anti-utopian pessimism" of a dystopian narrative that leaves no room for hope. Moylan also distinguishes between "classical dystopias" (for example, Brave New World) and the recent science fiction dystopias, which he considers "critical dystopias."
The final section of the book offers careful readings of three critical dystopias: Kim Stanley Robinson's Gold Coast, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, and Marge Piercy's He, She and It. These works "tend to [End Page 1074] be less driven by extremes of celebrations and despair, more open to complexities and ambiguities" than the classical utopias and dystopias. The book closes with the popular demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, evidence for Moylan that our society's critical vision is still alive.
In recent years, conservatives have challenged utopian thinking, asserting that the status quo represents the best possible world. They base their anti-utopian argument on the contention that only a society with rigid control could maintain perfection, so that any utopian society would by definition be totalitarian. As Moylan points out, this is false reasoning, requiring the premise that utopias demand perfection. Utopia is not a perfect place, merely a better place than our own. It follows that utopian thinking is a prerequisite to meaningful social change. This brings me to an assumption that underpins the book: imagining utopia is actually a form of radical political praxis. With the end of the Cold War and the success of multinational corporate capitalism, utopian political theory now strikes many as a proven impossibility and utopian thinking may appear to be naïve. In this context, perhaps Moylan is right in seeing the critical dystopia as the more viable strategy for imagining new worlds.
Readers will be energized by Moylan's political optimism and his firm belief in scholarship as praxis. His clarified definitions are extremely productive. Some readers might have little need for his exhaustive historiography, but because of it each of the chapters can easily stand alone. (For instance, someone primarily interested in the dystopia as a genre might want to read the first chapter and then skip to chapter 6). Moylan's writing is...