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Blind in Utopia

Thinking anew about Utopia -- I wonder if there are Utopian schemes that can accommodate people with impairments.  I am sure there are Utopias where impairments are fixed; and there are dystopias where perfect bodies are required and those who don;t measure up are disposed of.  But what about Utopias where impairments are accepted and dealt wisely with?


( 41 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 9th, 2012 09:10 pm (UTC)
"The Persistence of Vision" by John Varley?
Feb. 9th, 2012 09:45 pm (UTC)
Re: ???
Ah yes. That was one I've considered before, but I couldn't remember the name or the other. Thanks. It's good except that it can't really offer a model of a good society for all -- or maybe it does.
Feb. 10th, 2012 02:11 am (UTC)
Re: ???
It thinks it offers a model.
Ted Chiang [myopenid.com]
Feb. 10th, 2012 06:41 pm (UTC)
Re: ???
But at the end of "Persistence of Vision," the protagonist loses his sight and hearing to more fully partake in the community. I think that might qualify it as a Utopian society where impairments -- sight and hearing -- are fixed.
Feb. 9th, 2012 10:29 pm (UTC)
Re: ???
beat me to it
Feb. 9th, 2012 09:48 pm (UTC)
I would consider your "Four Freedoms" to be in that category. Can't think of anything else.
Feb. 9th, 2012 10:51 pm (UTC)
Greg Egan Distress.

In which, if I recall correctly, - the wikip summary and reviews on Amazon are not helping, as they all seen to miss/don't mention this, which I thought pretty important/the main point of the whole thing -

It's not a utopia (as you said before, who writes them anymore), but in it autistic people are, in the background, rebelling against being 'disabled', happy to be 'otherwise-(and equally validly)-abled' and some are resisting 'treatment' for their condition (that the protagonist himself, while not autistic, may seem to be on the asberger's spectrum, to us the readers, is also there), and at the end, an event happens such that cognitive function for everyone is changed, which validates their point of view.

(If I recall correctly - I'm sort of worried now that the wikip summary and the reviews all seem to be about a different book from the one in my head. Looks like that one rather than any other Greg Egan, but to me this was an important thing about it, which they don't mention.)
Ted Chiang [myopenid.com]
Feb. 10th, 2012 06:46 pm (UTC)
You recollection is correct; there is a Voluntary Autist movement in the novel. There are also extra genders: ultra-male, ultra-female, infra-male, infra-female, and asexual.
Feb. 9th, 2012 11:29 pm (UTC)
"Woman On the Edge of Time" by Marge Piercy, some of the possible futures in that novel might fit your question, and now I need to go back and re-read it just to check...
Feb. 10th, 2012 01:11 am (UTC)
I liked that future's "madhouses".
Feb. 9th, 2012 11:30 pm (UTC)
"The Fifth Sacred Thing"?

I wish I had a good database of Sci-Fi short stories. I remember one where a psychopath was altered so he couldn't actually hurt people and he smelled bad so people could avoid him, then he was let free.

And another short story where "normal" people had incredible psychic powers and people without powers where kept in a home where they could pursue their lives without being victimized by people with powers.

And a story where everyone lead fulfilling lives of intellectual development, with some minor drudge work as a form of tax. The plot was that the family was assigned a "wife", who was not terribly bright, as way to pay their public service tax.
Feb. 10th, 2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
Author, title
1. Damon Knight, "The Country of the Kind"

2. ?

3. Joanna Russ, "Nobody's Home"
Feb. 14th, 2012 06:56 am (UTC)
Re: Author, title
The second one was Pamela Sargent, "Bond and Free"

A lot of Pamela Sargent's short stories deal with alternative forms of consciousness or other ways of defining and an advanced culture.
Feb. 10th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
The third is Joanna Russ's "Nobody's Home", but the new wife, Leslie Smith, isn't assigned to the family as public service. It's just a suggestion, from "the computer", which wants Leslie Smith to be happy and hopes the Komarovs might be able to make that happen.

"Miss Smith was stupid. Not even very stupid. It was too damned bad. They'd probably have enough of Leslie Smith in a week, the Komarovs; yes, we'll have enough of her (Jannina thought), never able to catch a joke or a tone of voice, always clumsy, however willing, but never happy, never at ease. You can get a job for her, but what else can you get for her? Jannina glanced down at the dossier, already bored. [....] Well, it *was* too damned bad! Jannina felt tears rise in her eyes. Nobody could take to Leslie Smith. She wasn't insane enough to stand for being hurt or exploited. She wasn't clever enough to interest anybody. She certainly wasn't feeble-minded; they couldn't very well put her in a hospital for the feeble-minded or the brain-injured; in fact (Jannina was looking at the dossier again), they had tried to get her to work there and she had taken a good, fast swing at the supervisor. She had said the people there were 'hideous' and 'revolting'. She had no particular mechanical aptitudes. She had no particular interests. There was not even anything for her to read or watch; how could there be?"

The sting in the tale is that Leslie Smith would have been comparatively very intelligent in our world; as intelligent as Joanna Russ, even.
Feb. 12th, 2012 06:33 am (UTC)
Iain M. Banks' "Culture" could be considered a bit like that Joanna Russ story, except that all humans are the mentally-disabled ones. The society is kept running by AIs with superhuman intelligence, and humans aren't really necessary at all; but this seems to be treated as an awkward topic everyone avoids, so the humans go about lives of either hedonism or exploration or public service, and the machines basically humor them and let them do their bit, the way we find the mentally-impaired jobs as janitors or toothpaste-cap-screwers. The weird thing is that this could be so easily portrayed as a dystopia, but Banks makes it seem a very attractive place to live (except in his first SF novel, "Consider Phlebas", which is written from an outside perspective.)
Feb. 9th, 2012 11:58 pm (UTC)
and of course there's _The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas_

which certainly implied that such things would be worked out...
Feb. 10th, 2012 01:22 am (UTC)
Tanith Lee's Don't Bite The Sun. One of the nameless heroine's friends insists on choosing an ugly body and is pretty well accepted by the rest of young citizens who change body type and shape at will. However, there is a bit of bias towards beauty as an ideal.
Feb. 10th, 2012 09:40 am (UTC)
Someone else there first with The Persistence of Vision which is utopian enough that someone offers to join it.

But what about Heinlein's Starship Troopers? A world in which *no-one* may be denied the right to serve in the military because it is the route to citizenship.
Feb. 10th, 2012 04:24 pm (UTC)
A utopia? Well, maybe so for some. As Pogo put it: One man's meat is another man's plate of cold kohlrabi.
Feb. 10th, 2012 05:22 pm (UTC)
Starship Troopers is a great example of what I was saying in my own response. Utopia's and Dystopia's are often so similar that any line of demarcation is barely visible. The word Dystopian itself is not it's own word in terms of linguistics but rather was coined to convey something that was not Utopian. If a Utopia means both a good place and a place that doesn't really exist then its opposite must mean a bad place or a place that really does exist (If I may play a little word play game). So in the real world we are far more likely to see a successful Dystopia.

Feb. 11th, 2012 01:39 am (UTC)
chelseagirl on another post related that when she asked her students to name a Utopia, all they could come up with was dystopias. Which are not only commoner now but I guess seem more likely.
Feb. 11th, 2012 03:29 pm (UTC)
I suppose entropy is easier to recognize. If you subscribe to circular philosophy utopia breeds its own dystopia which in term lead back to a new utopia. Most of the time spent living is in those intermediate periods
Feb. 13th, 2012 12:49 pm (UTC)
Did the students think they were dystopias ?
They might consider Brave New World a Utopia now given the enthusiasm for fully pneumatic breast implants (a description that conjures up a number of strange images)
Feb. 14th, 2012 07:26 am (UTC)
I think the problem is that ideal societies are boring. Conflict is what makes a story interesting. But we think an ideal society would be free of conflict. Dystopias are easier to write.

I have a good collection of utopian literature because it interests me. There needs to be a conflict for there to be a story.

In "The City, Not Long After" by Pat Murphy, and "The Fifth Sacred Thing" by Starhawk, the conflict was with other societies.

"Herland", "Ecotopia", and "Looking Backward" were travelogs. The conflict was the narrator's personal journey.

Many 'utopian' stories, like Frederik Pohl's "JEM", deal with how to solve a problem the society has.

And then there are stories, like "Candide", "Gulliver's Travels", and "Erewhon", that are social commentaries. Which segue into dystopian literature.
Feb. 11th, 2012 09:03 am (UTC)
I don't think it's a Dystopia. Being at war is actually a perfectly acceptable condition for a utopia. Thomas More's Utopia is at war with its neighbours.
Feb. 11th, 2012 01:47 pm (UTC)
"Being at war" and "making military service the sole route to full citizenship" are not the same thing.
Feb. 12th, 2012 09:48 am (UTC)
The world of Starship Troopers would not suit me-- I am a Quaker-- but within its own terms it has resolved the issue of who gets to rule, and insists that everyone has access to that route. If they choose not to take it, that's their choice, but no one is preventing them.
Feb. 11th, 2012 03:22 pm (UTC)
And if you look at Moores Utopia you see perfection through oppression. It is In part because it views its world order as superior which is why my point is the difference between utopia and dystopia is relative and subjective. The most oppressed state can be utopic for those not directly oppressed. In the years after Americas Civil War the Lost cause myth arose and recast the South as a grand utopia. For slave owners its was like a land of milk and honey but for slaves and even poor whites it was far from it. In fact the term Utopia was often used to describe the South by writers including Joel Chandler Harris. His Uncle Remission stories are very utopic in the way they are presented.
Feb. 11th, 2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
Nice spellcheck oddity there.]

I think what Uncle Remus portrayed was not so much utopia as Eden. Utopia being the perfect soiciety we can build with foresight and wisdom ("where everybody wants to do what they should," W.H. Auden) and Eden the place we once lived in where everything was perfect till we lost it ("where everyone should do what they want," Auden.)
Feb. 14th, 2012 07:27 am (UTC)
I find the argument that "Dystopian itself is not it's own word in terms of linguistics but rather was coined to convey something that was not Utopian" amusing. As if 'utopia' was not also a made up word. Every word had to be made up by somebody at some point.
Feb. 14th, 2012 11:56 am (UTC)
And in the case of Utopia we know by whom -- Thomas More. Dystopia probaboy has a nameable author but I don't know it.
Feb. 10th, 2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
Utopian concepts are tricky. We tend to think of a utopian community in peaceful often new age terms and in literature we have the example of Plato and Thomas Moore which have served to further define what we mean by Utopia but it is worth noting that the very word has a double meaning. It means both good place and no place and both are perfectly correct because utopias are doomed to fail and fade from existence by virtue of their founding principles. They will become either democracies governed by the will of the people or Dictator states governed by the will of a select few "shepherds". Because we tend to think of Utopias as good places or as places confined to small experiments like Rugby Tennessee, Lily Dale, New York or Fourier and Alcott's short lived Fruitland's, or as places with metaphorical meaning such as Thomas Moor's Utopia we forget that the good underlying the founding of any utopia is subjective. We cant forget that Hitlers 1000 year Reich was a Utopia, a new world order of peace and prosperity and good health. Of course these would have been achieved through war, conquest and destruction that could be perfect only by eliminating anything seen as impure. The Nazi Utopia of a thousand year Reich was very different from the Jewish idea of utopiac Land of milk and Honey in all but one respect. Both were places that promised peace but provided only further conflict.

For these reasons I tend to enjoy reading about Utopias that are failing, or that must be propped up through some means, often ritualistic (like Romes Gladiatorial arenas). Now I am no great fan of Stephen King but one of his early short stories, The Long Walk fits this bill nicely. Without giving too much away for those who might wish to read it for themselves the story is about a future dystopic America that has become governed by a man called the Major who keeps the people happy by an annual sport in which boy's from around the country walk non-stop until there is only one left standing. Whats more the boy's enter this contest with eagerness that is one part individual bravado and one part group think, not unusual for boy's in the real world. Many would not consider such a world a utopia but to me, a utopia is any world that seeks perfection by a collective of will. The means are almost irrelevant; you can destroy imperfections, you can refocus peoples attention away from imperfection or you can simply redefine value systems to make what was once morally bad seem to be morally good.
Feb. 10th, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC)
Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge, maybe> I don't recall much about disabilities in it, but it's a fairly sane and near future utopia (and based explicitly on California liberalism) so I would imagine so. I'd have to reread to be sure.
Feb. 11th, 2012 05:20 pm (UTC)
Since this thread has gone off into the topic of what constitutes a utopia, I may as well mention the faction (or non-fiction novel?) by Toby Green, Thomas More's Magician: A Novel Account of Utopia in Mexico, which starts off and ends as a historical study of the bishop Vasco de Quiroga who established a sixteenth-century community in Mexico modeled after More's utopia. Green presents the history in the form of his own utopian novel about his alter ego's visit to contemporary Mexico, in which his obviously fictional characters reproach him for the use he is making of them to work out his own utopian agenda.

I have the impression I have already written about this on my blog or in a previous comment but I can't find the reference.
Feb. 12th, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)
I do remember your writing about that book -- and since a new class I will be teaching at Yale allows me to ask students to each read one form a lost of Utopian books or novels, I will include this one. Thanks.
Feb. 13th, 2012 12:56 pm (UTC)
I had to read that twice though the idea of setting students the task of reading one lost novel does appeal (preferably before breakfast with the other 5 tasks to be assigned later)
Feb. 12th, 2012 06:43 am (UTC)
I find this a bit difficult to visualize because, having an SF/technological mindset, I think of a Utopia as being necessarily "advanced" enough to solve problems; so in that sense a Utopia that accommodates people with cerebral palsy or autism is less Utopian than one that's eliminated those conditions as we eliminated smallpox.

So to deconstruct that, a Utopia that accommodates impairments would be one that either
(a) doesn't have the ability to prevent or correct them, but is nevertheless a great society; or
(b) chooses to see them not as impairments but as differences — much like the way some people are arguing today that Asperger syndrome isn't a disorder but a different and valuable way of thinking that complements the 'normal' one (much like introversion vs extroversion).

I think "The Country Of The Kind" fits into (a), while "The Persistence Of Vision" is more like (b).
Feb. 12th, 2012 10:43 pm (UTC)
Very perspicuous -- a distinction I will use. Actually Bellamy's "Looking Backward" turns out (I just looked) to be of the a variety: they are proud of the accommodations they have made for physically less able people, who are full citizens with the full national salary everyone gets even though thy do less work (though they must do all the work they can, like everyone else).
Mar. 7th, 2012 07:48 pm (UTC)
One can disagree with Snej's statement: utopia or dystopia can deal with impairments only when they're perceived from our actual, axiological perspective. Posing a negation (im-) at once implies paradigmative judgement. For instance "Blindsight" by Peter Watts (which in fact is a science-fiction novel, with some utopian inclinations however) is a great example of how we can imagine potential "profits" from having a savant-like-syndrome (simplifying: seeing in spite of blindness), which in consequence provides a scheme for constructing utopian society that can ommit the problem of impairment via transforming it into a gift of fortune. In case of dystopia... well, it would be, definitely in a tricky way, satirised.
Feb. 12th, 2012 08:21 pm (UTC)
Wyndham's "The Chrysalids" is brilliant in showing that kohlrabi thing by turning the utopian city far away into a horrible society -from the reader's point of view- without changing anything at all.
Feb. 13th, 2012 12:53 am (UTC)
Perhaps Frank Herbert Santaroga Barrier? It might be closer to Omelas. I also glanced through Triton, but any impairments in that society are deliberate choices.
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