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Why I Dislike Utopian Fiction but Love Stephen Lawhead's Fierri Utopia in Empyrion

A lot of Science Fiction stories deal with a Dystopian future and, for the most part, I'm alright with that because Dystpoian stories work well with my view of human nature and entropy. This is why I have trouble reading Utopian stories. To me the Universe in which these stories are set is as much a character as the Human and Alien characters and as such should have a believable back story (or history). The history of the Universe in which these Utopian society are set need to be well thought out and allow us, the reader, to suspend our disbelief.

The Cringe Factor

However many authors seem to brush off how this Utopian society came to be by just repeating the same old tropes. It's a lazy view 'we will just become better people because X'. Where X is normally some form of technological stimulation or a biological change (evolutionary jump) which make us nicer people. In my mind it's poorly thought out and not really fully considered. It's taken as a given that we will eventually work it out, however if you look over our recorded history you can see when the embers of a Utopia started forming, here or there, it ended up being kicked over like a sand castle, normally by human nature. Yet even though these stories say 'we worked it out' and now no longer know the meaning of greed, violence and other shifty behaviour etc. However the story line eventually moves along by showing these enlightened beings using all the traits that they said they eschewed to resolve the major plot conflict.

Why It Matters

Getting the reader to suspend disbelief is critical for the author and also critical for the reader to be able to enjoy the story, but when characters go against the ideals of their Utopian society for the greater good then it totally destroys it for me. A major part of Science Fiction is the exploration of what does it mean to be human, and where we are going. If an author says we moved on and became better and have now been able to develop a Utopian society, then these characters need to act like they have been soaked in that culture and respond to conflict accordingly. This then shows us, the readers, who are living in a not so enlightened culture, that there are other paths we can take which allow us to move towards a better life, Utopia. By having the Utopian characters going against their conditioning and resolving conflict as we would seems to be a lazy way out. This is why I loved Stephen Lawhead's depiction of the Fierri Utopia in Empyrion.
marco monetti/Flickr CC BY-ND

A Believable Utopia.

Lawhead's put a lot of thought into the Fierri culture and mindset and in my mind, was able to create a believable Utopian society without the 'cringe factor'. This was the first Utopian society that I felt was believable, maybe because Lawhead also showed and acknowledge the cracks in the system, but mainly because the citizens of Fierri didn't act incongruent to their cultural beliefs. Even over the past 20 years since I first picked up this novel, I've not been able to find another Utopian society that works for me as well and which doesn't pull me out of the story. All the others Utopian societies I've read about come across to me as sickly sweet, naive or just schizophrenic. The Fierri understood that others didn't share their point of view (not naive) and they understood that they weren't perfect and they acknowledged that. Even though they had been unjustly treated in the past they didn't seek revenge, but constantly worked toward living up to their guiding principles and also practiced mercy and compassion to those outside their culture. It was great to see that Lawhead doesn't use the tired old trope of a society that has just grows into perfection because of their technology or enlightened point of view. Instead he shows a society that clawed it's way into Utopia through adversity and in-spite of what our human nature should have been seeking, which in their case was revenge against those that wronged them, they forgive.
They knew the horror of war better than anyone else and had vowed that they would never increase that horror by participating in it.
Stephen Lawhead, Empyrion I: The Search for Fierra, loc. 7853-7855
The Fierri stay wary of danger, they don't forget the horrific incident which made them who they are, it actually becomes part of their culture psyche, but their focus is not on revenge it is elsewhere.

Where To From Here?

Even though it was originally published in 1986, Empyrion I: The Search for Fierra is still a good read today and I highly recommend it because it explores topics that we don't often see in Science Fiction, like religion both the good and bad side of if, and a caste system based on business hierarchy to name a few. Be aware that the start of the story moves a little slow if you're used to the modem novels which start in medias res (into the middle things) but it stick with it you'll be glad you did.

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