Utopia in Modern Fiction

Freehold and Manna

I’ve read two interesting books recently, Freehold, by Michael Z. Williamson, and Manna, by Marshall Brain. Both are sci-fi, by the old sense of the phrase: They describe life in as it has been changed by science, not simply using science as a way to suspend disbelief for fantasy.

Both follow in the tradition of Thomas More’s original work in a lot of ways. They’re written in the tone of strangers trying to comprehend the world they’ve been thrust into. This sets up the debate: The newcomers cannot comprehend how the utopian society functions, while the utopians cannot understand how the newcomer’s society functions. The simple case of culture shock sets up the conflict that drives the discussion.

Manna is very blunt in it’s setup for discussion: it starts in the near future, and follows an everyman through the changes to society by the advancements made in AI. The creation of an automated management system for low-level work, like fast food, starts the United States on a downward spiral as more and more people lose their jobs to “Efficiency” of Manna (the AI software). The protagonist loses his job, is placed in a government sponsored shelter run by robots, and then is rescued by workers from “The Australia Project”, whom he has an invite to via his father. Upon arrival in Australia, he finds a semi communist utopia, with each person getting a stipend weekly to spend on whatever they may wish, and robots doing all the work.

Freehold is much closer to the more modern sci-fi action genre, with the main character instead being on the run from her (obviously corrupt) government. She escapes to the libertarian state of Freehold, the only colony world that is not under UN control and therefore out to capture her. She finds that guns are common, crime isn’t, and free market capitalism makes her most dull skills hot commodities. She has trouble adjusting, though, to the laissez-faire method of government.

The problem with both stories is the assumptions they make: Their Utopian methods of society simply work. On Freehold, guns are common, but they’re never raised in anger. In Monna, software prevents people from acting rashly, but it never malfunctions and it never misses. Both works critical flaw is that their societies function, as unrealistic as they are. Why isn’t the Australia project ruled by a succession of very good hackers who use the neural implants to enforce their rule? Everyone’s body can be remote controlled by software. Why isn’t Freehold particularly prone to desperate or depressed people on shooting rampages? Guns are common and there’s no state sponsored charity to help those who fall on their face. Assumptions are made about human nature that, while I would like to believe, have little basis in reality.

Monna’s Australia Project is a Communist society at it’s core: Robots do all the work, and everyone shares equally of their bounty. Freehold is the very definition of capitalist: Everyone is engaged in a constant money struggle. Both, however, rely on humans being fundamentally good as their core premise, and technology is simply a catalyst for humans to reach their full potential for good.

And, as optimistic as I am, I’m not sure of such. But good, evil, or neutral, both Freehold and Monna lay out an interesting debate over societal ideals and the nature of mankind.