August 2010

JC Hallman

features

Jurassic Park and the Utopia Wars

1.

When I started writing In Utopia, which appears this month from St. Martin’s Press, I pretty much realized that it was the kind of subject that would get some people’s backs up. There are two main reasons for this. For starters, utopian thought is a wide-ranging subject, picked over in detail by all kinds of scholars, and scholar-types often have a hard time shifting to the telescope when their eyes have become adjusted to the microscope. They can’t stomach a work that tries to represent the breadth of a subject rather than its depth. That’s fine -- all an author can do is hope that book review editors won’t ask a scholar to review a book that isn’t even trying to be scholarship. Another reason is that utopian ideas span the political spectrum -- so there’s a pretty good chance your work will be regarded either as too inclusive, in considering everything, or too narrow, in considering too little.

I need only point to the reader comments on two pieces I recently wrote for The Millions to demonstrate both these problems.

I anticipated these battles because that was actually part of In Utopia’s thesis: utopias are not merely elaborate plans that tend to go wrong, they are the calculated efforts to repair dystopias that are often the result of earlier utopian efforts. History is pretty much an endless battle of utopias becoming dystopias followed by more utopias. 

What surprised me was that I realized -- after I finished In Utopia -- that I had pretty much lifted this basic thesis from the guy who was the subject of my last nonfiction book, The Devil Is a Gentleman, philosopher William James. In “The Moral Equivalent of War,” James noted that then-current imperial tensions (echoed nicely today, by the way) pitted “peaceniks” against “warhawks” and was “but one utopia against another.” In reply, James set out to offer “what to my own very fallible mind seems like the best utopian hypothesis.” He then proceeded to describe the basic blueprint for the Peace Corps. 

Long story short: I had carried William James into In Utopia without even being aware of it. 

2. 

The modern mood is much more closely aligned with dystopia than utopia, and modern dystopias influence our thinking without our even being aware of it. 

By “modern” I mean the twentieth century and beyond. The only truly influential utopian novel of the twentieth century is B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1945). Many will bicker with this and cite well-known examples from both ends of that broad political span -- Ayn Rand and Ursula K. Le Guin, just for starters. But I’m talking about earnest utopian novels that translated to action, and in that regard Walden Two is all the twentieth century really has to offer. And it’s not much: the handful of social experiments inspired by Walden Two pales by comparison to the impact of the now nearly-forgotten Looking Backward (1888). Utopias have receded. 

In contrast, dystopias have thrived in the twentieth century. There’s We, Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale -- and an avalanche of movies ranging from Metropolis to Logan’s Run. There’s two basic reasons for the rise of dystopias, too. First, the metaphorical battle among utopias became not so metaphorical when the ideologies they helped produce found themselves in conflict in the World Wars and the Cold War. Utopias began to look like not such a great idea. Second, literature changed. As writers took up William James’s “stream of consciousness” (Henry James, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and so on), literature moved away from overt political agenda, from direct utility. Utopian novels were not particularly engaging outside their utilitarian function. They could be perceived as artful only by those who expected literature to serve as vehicle for political manifesto -- and maybe not even then. 

Utopias seemed to retreat to science fiction in the twentieth century. H.G. Wells announced this in 1905: “No less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia… Out beyond Sirius, far in the deeps of space… blazes the star that is our Utopia’s sun.” I say seemed because the roots of utopian thought stretch all the way back to the very roots of science fiction: the satires of proto-utopian Lucian. The Jason and the Argonauts-style adventure of True History includes a space voyage and intergalactic battle among millions of fantastic troops (the Saladbird Cavalry, Fleaborne Bowmen, gargantuan spiders and ant creatures… remember, it’s satire) who hail from the Big Dipper, the Milky Way, the Moon, and so on. 

In other words, Lucian is Star Wars. The “retreat” to science fiction is actually a return to a kind of science fiction that, once upon a time, was supposed to be funny. 

The retreat to science fiction only muffled the battle. Even within the constraints of twentieth century sci-fi it’s possible to measure the “utopia wars.” On the one hand, a utopian longing for a hopeful, progressive future is not hard to plumb from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and on the other hand you find the latent nostalgia and conservatism of the likes of L. Ron Hubbard and Michael Crichton.

Michael Crichton! Now the battle lines form! Isn’t Crichton responsible for Congo, TheAndromeda Strain, and E.R.? Didn’t he write Jurassic Park? Dude! I love Jurassic Park! There’s no frigging way that Jurassic Park is a conservative dystopia! 

3. 

But it is. And that’s the problem. The rise of dystopias has enabled what amounts to a new form of propaganda. And it’s a new form of propaganda that is particularly dangerous because we find ourselves so entertained by its message that we’re reluctant to give it up. The Devil’s greatest trick was not to convince us he didn’t exist; it was to make us enjoy the thing that would destroy us. Ask David Foster Wallace about that one. 

So how is Jurassic Park a conservative dystopia? Crichton himself left at least one hint in that regard.

A quick recap: Jurassic Park is the story of a plan to create a massive San Diego Wild Animal Park-style exhibit for cloned dinosaurs on a remote island in the Pacific. The plan goes terribly wrong because -- and chaos theory should have warned us of this -- you simply can’t take nature by the reins like that. Before the park even opens, predictable chaos erupts: thus, the action narrative whose underlying message seems to have slipped right by Steven Spielberg. 

The clue to what’s really going on in Jurassic Park is the island itself. 

First, note that islands are more or less central to the history of utopia, from Plato’s Atlantis, the topographical description of which (pre-sink) served as the model for Thomas More’s island Utopia, all the way down to Aldous Huxley’s utopian effort, Island. (Huxley seems to have waged his own private “utopian war,” internally.) And what’s Crichton’s island called? 

Isla Nubar. Cloud Island. 

Is this like “living with one’s head in the clouds,” perhaps? Let’s give Crichton a bit more credit than that. We now know that Crichton was pretty right-wing in his politics -- the kerfuffle over his climate change-denying book State of Fear firmly established his wingnut street cred -- but we also know that he spent a lot of time researching things, the science he exploited for his books and even some early literature: Eaters of the Dead, for example, is supposed to derive from a tenth century translation of Beowulf. So is it too crazy to suggest that Crichton was aware of Lucian’s fellow proto-utopian satirist Aristophanes, whose play The Clouds skewered the “New Learning”? Aristophanes’s caricature of Socrates as an old manipulative sophist curiously resembles the caricature we get of an earnest utopian in Jurassic Park, the Scottish billionaire who claims access to another kind of “New Learning” and who bankrolls the whole project. (Incidentally, Plato suggests that the The Clouds contributed to the condemnation of Socrates.) 

In another century, that character would have been the hero of the story. And we’d now be trying to figure out how to make Jurassic Park happen. 

And that’s kind of the whole point -- because Crichton isn’t blindly flailing away at a void. He’s launching a salvo in a utopian war, criticizing a valid, progressive science that was at that point little known. It didn’t jibe with his politics. (And it’s pretty much the same thing his book Disclosure tried to do sexual harassment legislation.) 

And that’s about where I come back into the story. In Utopia begins with an examination of Pleistocene Rewilding, a utopian idea from conservation biology that wants to battle back against the dystopian scourge of suburban sprawl and industrial civilization. 

Most simply put, Jurassic Park is at war with Pleistocene Rewilding. 

Here’s some background: about forty years ago biologists began to debate the precipitous die-off of large North American mammals at the end of the Pleistocene, twelve thousand years ago. Climate change had long been held up as the likely culprit for this extinction event, but now some scientists called attention to the fact that the die-off occurred at just about the same time man arrived on the continent. Sound familiar? Just as with global warming, scientists had begun to wonder whether the extinction crisis might actually be our fault, a cascade effect of over-hunting. A few brave, progressive scientists proposed action: returning animals to the wild. There has since been measurable, repeatable success with returning wolves to nature in Yellowstone, muskoxen in Alaska, birds on island chains, horses in Mongolia, and so on. 

No one’s unrealistic about the dangers of this -- but at the same time simply returning animals to where we know they’ve been doesn’t adequately address the scope of the crisis we face. So even bolder plans have been proposed: “surrogate” species filling the ecological “niche” of extinct animals. The science has shown that overall biodiversity can be increased and evolution triggered with aggressive action. The “Pleistocene Rewilders” proposed a San Diego Wild Animal Park-style experiment to test the theory on a large scale.

And that’s basically what Crichton -- who was famous for trolling through the scientific literature for plots -- set his sights on in Jurassic Park. 

I’m messing with the dates here a bit, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. The closest anyone has come to something actually like Jurassic Park is a vague plan for a rewilded range in Russia for cloned mammoths. But that’s pretty far afield from the actual science. For Crichton, though, getting away from the actual science was the whole point. He messed with dates, too. I’m shifting things around by ten or twelve years; Crichton moved things millions of years. The Pleistocene Rewilders want to restore nature to a period twelve thousand years back. The Jurassic was 145 million years ago. 

And why does Jurassic Park go wrong? “Chaos theory.” Except the version of it in the story is completely crap. Crichton plays a shrewd tactic here. He borrows the authority of science (his books often included fictionalized scientific documents -- which, amazingly, was labeled a “literary technique”), but delivers a junk version of it so he can undermine the actual science that will lead to a progressive plan he simply doesn’t like. Even Al Gore smacked him down when he attempted this with State of Fear. 

The maddening thing is not that presumed liberals like Spielberg and Jeff Goldblum permit themselves to become ventriloquist’s dummies for a heinous ideology. No. The maddening thing is that when you try to explain something like Pleistocene Rewilding to someone who’s never even heard of it, you discover that before your utopian vision is complete, the dystopian retort is already in place: “Sounds like Jurassic Park to me.” That Jurassic Park might veil an ideology is a fact that many, it seems, would prefer their grave to accepting. 

4. 

The utopia wars rage on. 

Jurassic Park is a new kind of dystopia -- a stealth dystopia. 

From whence shall come the stealth utopia to battle it back to where it belongs?