Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, November 21, 2016

the asymptote of utopia

I just re-read Kim Stanley Robinson’s magnificent Mars trilogy — about which I hope to teach a class someday — and every time I go back to those books I find myself responding differently, and to different elements of the story. Which is a sign of how good they are, I think.

Some have described the Mars trilogy as a kind of utopia, but I don't think that’s right. Even at the end Mars remains a world with problems, though it must be said that most of them come from Earth. Mars itself has become a pretty stable social order, and even the strongest opponent within the book of how it got that way thinks, in the last paragraph of the final volume, that “Nowhere on this world were people killing each other, nowhere were they desperate for shelter or food, nowhere were they scared for their kids. There was that to be said.” There’s no guarantee that the social order will remain so beneficent, but I think KSR wants us to believe that as time goes by stable harmony becomes more and more strongly established, more difficult to displace. Thus one of his minor characters, Charlotte Dorsa Brevia, is a “metahistorian” who argues for a

broad general movement in history which commentators called her Big Seesaw, a movement from the deep residuals of the dominance hierarchies of our primate ancestors on the savanna, toward the very slow, uncertain, difficult, unpredetermined, free emergence of a pure harmony and equality which would then characterize the very truest democracy. Both of these long-term clashing elements had always existed, Charlotte maintained, creating the big seesaw, with the balance between them slowly and irregularly shifting, over all human history: dominance hierarchies had underlain every system ever realized so far, but at the same time democratic values had been always a hope and a goal, expressed in every primate’s sense of self, and resentment of hierarchies that after all had to be imposed, by force. And so as the seesaw of this meta-metahistory had shifted balance over the centuries, the noticeably imperfect attempts to institute democracy had slowly gained power.

This increasingly stable harmony happens, I think it’s clear, primarily because the First Hundred who colonized Mars are almost all scientists, and as scientists take a rational, empirical approach to solving political problems. That is, the initial conditions of human habitation on Mars are rooted in the practices of science — which is one of the things that leads, much later on, to the first President of Mars being an engineer, which is to say, a pragmatic problem-solver. The politics of solutionism is the best politics, it appears.

However: it’s noteworthy that the people who do the most to shape the ultimate formation of Mars — political, social, and physical — are three characters who are almost invisible in the story, interacting very little with the story’s protagonists (who happen to be the most famous, not just on Mars but also on Earth). Vlad Taneev, Ursula Kohl, and Marina Tokareva work together on a variety of projects: Vlad and Ursula develop the longevity treatments that enable humans to dramatically increase their lifespans; Vlad and Marina work on “areobotany,” that is, adapting plants to the Martian environment; and the three of them together develop an “eco-economics,” that is, a political economy keyed to ecological health — a kind of systematically worked-out version of what KSR refers to in other contexts as the flourishing-of-the-land ethos of Aldo Leopold.

We hear almost nothing directly from this triumvirate during the course of the story, because they basically stay in their lab and work all the time. This is sometimes frustrating for the story’s protagonists, who are always directly involved in politcal events, risking life and limb, giving up their scientific projects in order to serve the common good (or, in the case of Sax Russell, applying technological solutions directly, and sometimes recklessly, to political and social problems). But while KSR makes it clear to us that the protagonists’ work is supremely valuable, he makes it equally clear that they could achieve far less without the isolated, ascetic, constant labor of Vlad, Ursula, and Marina.

So: scientists in the lab + scientists in the public arena = if not quite Utopia something asymptotically approaching it. A Big Seesaw, yes, but the amplitude of its oscillations grows ever smaller, almost to the point, as the story comes to an end, that they’re impossible to discern. In short, an epistocracy. It’s not a simplistic model, like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s proposed Rationalia: KSR understands the massive complexities of human interaction, and one of the best elements of the book is his portrayal of how the paradigmatically socially inept lab-rat Sax Russell comes to understand them as well. But the story really does display a great deal of confidence that if we put the scientists in charge things are going to get much better.

In his superb history of science fiction — now in a fancy new second edition — Adam Roberts writes,

With a few exceptions all [KSR’s] characters are decent human beings, with functional quantities of empathy and a general desire to make things work for the whole. Robinson’s position seems to be that, statistical outliers aside, we all basically want to get along, to not hurt other people, to live in balance.... That niceness — the capacity for collective work towards a common goal, the tendency not to oppress or exploit — is common to almost all the characters Robinson has written. His creations almost always lack inner cruelty, or mere unmotivated spitefulness, which may be a good thing. I’m not saying he’s wrong about human nature, either — although it is more my wish than my belief. What it does mean is that Robinson writes novels that tend to the asymptote of utopia, without actually attempting to represent that impossible goal.

(When I decided to insert that passage in this post, I didn't remember that Adam had used the language of the asymptote, which I also employ above. Great minds do think alike, after all. I shall acknowledge the probably unconscious influence of Adam’s thinking on my own in my title.)

So I have two questions:

1) Are natural scientists the true epistoi?

2) How might the case for epistocracy of any kind be altered if we take the position that human beings are not nearly as nice as KSR thinks they are?


  • I think this pleasant idea would be disputed by anyone who's ever attended a physics department committee meeting.

  • A very wise man once told me, if you educate and thief as an engineer, he's not going to stop being a thief. He just becomes a much more effective one.

  • To me, the antithesis to KSR's scientist is Margaret Atwood's Crake, who, being so pessimistic about the violent traits that have evolved in humanity, initiates "The Waterless Flood," kills himself, and creates a new and improved human species devoid of the deleterious traits that he had identified. I don't think most biologists (of which I am one) are as optimistic about human-kind as KSR, but they're probably not as Crakian either.

    If the truth is somewhere in between those two models, this has implications for both questions. 1) It means that if we indeed setup life scientists as the epistoi , then they are unlikely to be as gracious and charitable and compassionate and loving as is necessary - they are more like Crake than KSR imagines - and 2) while the presence of those sins doesn't necessarily indicate that life scientists aren't the best epistoi available to us, it does mean that their rule would be more difficult than KSR posits, because humanity is more similar to Crake's perspective than KSR allows.

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