Utopia is an idea that has plagued the dreams and nightmares of many humans. The ideals which constitute ‘utopia’ mostly fail when we try to apply them. Most would argue that the ideals themselves are inherently flawed, and that is not a far fetched claim. Just look at the satirist novel from George Orwell, Animal Farm, and the historical events it mirrored; The Russian Revolution and the tyrannies of communism which followed.
Recently, I’ve been re-reading a speculative fiction series named the Arc of a Scythe. It’s set in a utopian world in which humans have mastered nanotechnology and genetic engineering, and are able to “turn back the corner,” which means they can become young again, or whatever age they want. Immortality. They’ve also fixed all problems like pollution, world hunger, and politics, by handing over the reins of humanity to a benevolent AI named Thunderhead. The world is a pretty great place. But there’s a max population of 10 billion, because the planet can’t support anymore than that, even with the A.I. So there’s a group of people called Scythes. They “glean” (kill) people for a living to keep the population down. It’s really one of the most fascinating speculative fiction settings I’ve ever explored.
I’m finishing up the first book of three, the third of which only came out a few days ago. One thing really struck me while reading through the first book again. The Scythes are obliged to keep a “gleaning journal” as part of their jobs. One of the Scythes that the story focuses on has been around for almost 200 years; her grandmother lived in the Age of Mortality. Her journal entries really fascinate me, as they comment on the state of civilization. Putting the specifics aside, let’s take a look at what she has to say.
“I wonder what life will be like a millennium from now, when the average age will be nearer to one thousand. Will we all be renaissance children, skilled at every art and science, because we’ve had time to master them? Or will boredom and slavish routine plague us even more than it does today, giving us less of a reason to live limitless lives? I dream of the former, but I suspect the latter.”
And a second, longer thought;
“Was there ever a time when people weren’t plagued with boredom? A time when motivation wasn’t so hard to come by? When I look at the news archives from the Age of Mortality, it seems people had more reasons to do the things they did. Life was about forging time, not passing time.
Perhaps this is why the Thunderhead allows a measured amount of economic inequality. It could certainly make sure that everyone had equal wealth – but that would just add to the plague of boredom that afflicts the immortal. Although we all have what we need, we’re still allowed to strive for the things we want. Of course, no one strives like they did in mortal days.”
I found this to be a fascinating paradox. You can see it right throughout the series. This utopian future isn’t the place of dreams, it’s the place where no dreams exist. By having the “freedom” from suffering and hard work, society simultaneously took away its purpose to live or do anything. If everything has been fixed, everything has been learned, and everyone has all their material needs satisfied, then what more is there to do? Only the Scythes have a purpose, but even then, that purpose only exists because of the utopia.
Immortality is not good. Tolkien had a very firm grasp on this idea with the elves of his legendarium. There’s a piece of his called the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. It’s the fourth part of the book Morgoth’s Ring, and consists of a discussion between two characters, Finrod Felagund, an Elven King, and Andreth, a mortal woman, that took place during the Siege of Angband and deals with the metaphysical differences between Elves and Men and the imbalances between their fates. The premise of the debate is that the Edain (Elves) do not understand the strange gift of Ilúvatar (the gift of men; death), death which brings them beyond the bounds of the world, for this gift was marred by Melkor and instead of hope it brings fear. But in that idea comes the meaning of the gift. When men die in Middle-earth, their hröa, body, would stay on earth, while their fëar, souls, would leave the bounds of the earth. This is a release from the chains of the material world. We can see the burdens of immortality not only in Scythe, but in the solemnity and sorrow of the last Elves to live in Middle-earth.
This shows us one vital idea. Jordan Peterson says that being is suffering. To be able to live and function properly, you need a justification for that suffering. That is what it means to be human. In the world of Scythe, where suffering is removed, it is almost impossible to find any inherent meaning in existence.