Episode 12: Transcript

Episode 12: Why are Utopias so hard to imagine?

Transcribed by: Keffy Kehrli

Annalee: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about science fiction. I’m Annalee Newitz. I’m a science journalist who writes science fiction.

Charlie Jane: [00:00:08] And I’m Charlie Jane Anders. I’m a science fiction writer who pretty much obsesses all the time about science.

Annalee: [00:00:15] I mean, is it really all the time?

Charlie Jane: [00:00:16] All the time.

Annalee: [00:00:17] Like, you’re never not… thinking…

Charlie Jane: [00:00:17] In my sleep, I dream. I dream about science.

Annalee: [00:00:19] Really? You dream about… which… is a great segue to today’s topic.

Charlie Jane: [00:00:23] Yeah.

Annalee: [00:00:23] Which is a show that’s very much about dreaming of science and dreamy science. We’re going to be talking all about Sense 8 which we finally, along with a lot of other people got around to seeing the second season of. The first and second season are available on Netflix. And, it’s just an incredible show. I feel like it’s both under-rated and under-appreciated. And, we really wanted to talk about it, and talk about a lot of the issues that it raises about writing science fiction.

Charlie Jane: [00:00:53] Yeah, I’m excited to dig into it, and to talk about utopias in general.

[00:00:56] Theme music plays: Synth over upbeat drums followed by a guitar riff.

Charlie Jane: [00:01:01] So, before we get started, just spoiler warning, we are going to talk a little bit about the second season of Sense 8. We’re not gonna reveal how it ends, but we are gonna kind of give some hints about how things turn out, so… if you haven’t watched the whole thing yet, you might want to hold off.

So, Sense 8 is a show that has a really unique concept, which is that eight individuals are psychically linked, and this means that they can visit each other and kind of be in each other’s spaces, even when they’re on the other side of the planet because they’re from all over the world. But, also they can borrow each other’s skills and attributes and knowledge and there’s actually a great clip that we got which… where Jonas, who’s kind of the mentor figure explains how that works.

Sense 8 Clip: [00:01:45] Jonas: You all have to learn the difference between visiting and sharing. Visiting is what we’re doing now. Sharing is something you can only do inside your cluster. Accessing each other’s knowledge, language, skills.

What’s a cluster?

You have seven other selves now, but unless you hurry, there’s only going to be six.

Annalee: [00:02:01] I have to say, I just want to break in. I love this show, but I think this clip is a perfect example of everything great and terrible about this show at the same time. Because, on one hand, as you said, it’s an amazing concept. It kind of takes the premise of something like the show Heroes and brings it to a whole new place because it’s about people actually being connected empathetically with each other. They’re not just connected by some like Terrible Thing that happened in the sky, or because they want to save the cheerleader or whatever the fuck. It’s also incredibly incoherent.

Charlie Jane: [00:02:33] Thing about Sense 8 is that, you know, actually, the comparison to Heroes is super apt because Heroes really had that global feel and really had like, special people who are connected across the world. But, Sense 8 is much more ambitious because Heroes very quickly draws all of its characters into one story line, and by the end of the first season, definitely they’re all kind of all in on saving the cheerleader. Whereas Sense 8…

Annalee: [00:02:57] Which was very satisfying. Like, that was part of what I loved about the first season of Heroes, and then the rest of the show, let’s not even talk about it.

Charlie Jane: [00:03:03] Yeah, whereas Sense 8, you know, really never… like, I just watched the finale and that’s really when it starts to feel cohesive, and like they’re all in one plot. But Sense 8 really sticks super carefully to having all the characters have their separate storylines except a little bit like Will the Chicago Cub, and one or two other characters like Blue, the Icelandic DJ, are directly involved in the main storyline about the evil terrorist organization, and I guess, so is Nomi and her friends.

Annalee: [00:03:32] Are they… they’re not a terrorist organization… They’re like.

Charlie Jane: [00:03:33] Well, they’re kind of quasi-governmental.

Annalee: [00:03:35] Yeah, like their weird Black Bag kind of organization.

Charlie Jane: [00:03:39] They’re a semi-government… they’re an NGO. They’re an evil NGO.

Annalee: [00:03:42] I love that idea. They are basically an evil NGO. And in fact, they kind of masquerade as being out there to help people like the Homo sensoriums…sensoria? What the hell?

Charlie Jane: Sensoriums. But yeah, and it feels at times like Sense 8 really wants to be a sprawling soap opera with millions of threads going in all different directions, but it kind of can’t always manage that, and you sort of wish that there had been more people in the writer’s room or whatever who had soap opera experience. But what the strength of that concept is that you can have these story lines where Lito is trying to get an audition. Lito the Mexican actor is trying to get an audition and meanwhile Sun is in prison…

Annalee: [00:04:21] We should step back for a second, though and say that like one of the many things that’s great about this show is that the range of characters is so diverse. Not just in terms of where they’re from, or their racial and ethnic background, but also just what they’re doing. Like, they’re not all standard sci-fi characters. Like, the fact that one of them is like an action actor, Lito. You know, one of them is like a martial arts entrepreneurial mogul, Sun. The character of Sun. We have one person who’s like a biologist. One person is a hacker. One person is like a thug. I don’t know what Wolfgang is.

Charlie Jane: [00:04:56] He’s a German gangster. Yeah, but what I was going to say is that the strength of this show is that you can have these storylines where everybody’s kind of off doing their own thing, and then all of the Sense 8s come together and help them achieve something and cope with a problem that they’re having. And, you know, it can be really beautiful and those are often the best moments of the show, but at the same time, you have parts where it just feels like everybody’s off doing their own thing and it kind of gets a little bit noodly because there’s no center to the show. There’s no there there, there’s no central thing that they’re all worried about. And until basically the very end of season two and then the kind of finale TV movie that they made, it feels as though the show kind of refuses to come together and refuses to kind of find a central concern that everybody’s going to worry about.

Annalee: [00:05:45] Yeah, I was thinking like, one of the things that was the hardest to take in this show was the fact that some of the characters really aren’t—they’re just off in this other location. Like, one character is in Africa. He’s a matatu driver in Nairobi…

Charlie Jane: [00:06:06] Capheus, yeah.

Annalee: [00:06:06] Capheus. And he’s… for a lot of the first season, like, we don’t understand what his connection is to any of the rest of the characters. Like, there is a great scene where Sun, who is like a total ninja helps him win a fight. And it’s a super awesome moment, because it makes him kind of a hero. And then later in the second season, he finally does become a really vital part of the plot, which is a thing I loved watching, because he becomes a politician, a reform politician who is trying to fight for people who live in the slums of Nairobi. And he is giving a big speech at the same time that Lito is giving a big speech about how he’s finally come out as a gay man, which is a very difficult thing to do as a Mexican actor, and as like a big leading man star. And, they’re kind of giving the speeches, and we see them giving the speeches at the same time and it’s like their empathy for each other is connecting them and you get this brief moment of… it’s a little bit cheesy, but it’s also like, wow. We’re joining hands in trying to make the world better. In one place, we’re trying to do it by promoting the idea of queer identity, and in another place it’s to fight for the poor, and like, it really… it’s kind of beautiful. You know, it’s a very… I want to say it’s a Star Trek moment, but it’s more than that, because Star Trek never had fighting for the poor and fighting for gay people, really.

Charlie Jane: [00:07:31] Yeah.

Annalee: [00:07:31] Not in a concerted way.

Charlie Jane: [00:07:33] Yeah, I mean Star Trek, you know, very clearly is concerned about eliminating poverty as one of the things that the federation has done. I should point out that actually, even in the United States, it’s really hard for an action movie star to come out. We haven’t really had any of those, yet.

Annalee: [00:07:46] Yeah, we… you and I, in fact, talked about that when we were watching the show, because one of the things that’s kind of, yeah, hinted in the show is that it’s rough for him because he’s in Mexico, but really any actor anywhere who’s making money being a macho action star, like coming out as gay would be a big deal. It would be a hard thing to do. It might be a career killer.

Charlie Jane: [00:08:07] It has never happened in the United States to my knowledge, and maybe somebody will pipe up with an example, but… the thing you said about that beautiful moment. There are a lot of beautiful moments like that, especially in the second season and the finale is full of beautiful moments like that, and basically the underlying idea of the show about radical connection and empathy and people kind of learning to understand each other and reaching across all these divisions is super beautiful. And I was thinking last night about another show that’s on Netflix, Altered Carbon, which plays with some of the same ambiguity that Sense 8 plays with, of like, who is this person is this scene. Like, often in Sense 8, you have multiple parts of the cluster in a scene together, but only one person is present—actually physically present, and you kind of… you have this ambiguity of who’s actually here physically, and who’s here spiritually.

Annalee: [00:08:55] Or who’s controlling whose body…

Charlie Jane: [00:08:56] Who’s controlling whose body…

Annalee: [00:08:58] That’s the big question in Altered Carbon, is…

Charlie Jane: [00:09:00] And Altered Carbon plays with that same sense of ambiguity but form the opposite direction. Because in Altered Carbon, it’s all about the ego, it’s all about the individual who can be in one body or another body. It can be—I can be in your body, I can be in a hamster’s body, I can be in whatever, but it’s always one individual with their ego, kind of like getting to continue, and getting to be a solo individual in whatever body you’re in. And it’s about your self-hood being most important in the entire universe.

Annalee: [00:09:30] Yes, but sticking your brain into other people’s sleeves, and that—that is what they call bodies in Altered Carbon. That’s a really interesting parallel. I think that what’s really utopian about Sense 8, and it’s a really flagrantly utopian TV show, is that it is about empathy. It’s about the idea that collaborative action, collective identity, supporting each other are really these incredibly futuristic radical acts, and it’s true that you almost never see that in views of the future, or views of how humans are going to evolve. Because, essentially, at its core, Sense 8 is a little bit of an X Men story, because we know that there’s these Homo sensoriums that have been around… We don’t know how long. Maybe for a long time, maybe for a short time. But they’re some kind of off-shoot of Homo sapiens. Or maybe they just share a common ancestor with Homo sapiens, but the point is that it’s very rare that we see a super power which is basically the power of empathy. The power to reach out to someone and give them your strength and help them get through something.

And that’s… I mean, there’s all these great moments in Sense 8 where one character will lend their bad-ass ninja powers to someone who’s just a bus driver. Or the thug guy, Wolfgang, will help somebody like beat the crap out of someone else, and that’s great. But then there’s also these moments where they support each other emotionally. The character of Kala, who is going through problems in her marriage, and she’ll just have these girl-talk moments. And I don’t mean like, girl talk like everyone’s a girl. But like, there are these moments where she’s like, “I don’t know what I want to do about my husband,” and that’s actually a huge part about what’s delightful about the show is that it’s this kind of blend of heavy action and emotional connection.

Charlie Jane: [00:11:20] Early on in—I was watching some of the early episodes again last night, and there’s one part early on where Jonas, the kind of mentor figure actually says, “You are no longer just you.” Basically, you’re no longer just an individual. And one of the things that the show does is kind of throw in these little philosophical asides about identity, and person-hood and here’s actually one of those.

Sense 8 Clip: [00:11:39] I’ve always said that if all the world’s a stage, then identity is nothing more than a costume.

Charlie Jane: [00:11:45]  That was the costume guy, or possibly the director in Lito’s film, and it just feels like towards the end of the second season you get all of these moments where people kind of put in these little philosophical observations about what it means to be an individual and what it means to have an identity.

Annalee: [00:12:00]  Which should be really no surprise that we have that kind of commentary because of course this is the first TV show from the Wachowskis. Lana Wachowski was directing a lot of these episodes. She wrote a bunch of it, and then J. Michael Straczynski was also involved from the beginning working with the Wachowskis on the story and figuring out what it would be called and what the arc of the whole show would be.

Charlie Jane: [00:12:23] And Lilly Wachowski was also heavily involved in the first season and I think dropped out in the second season?

Annalee: [00:12:29] Yeah, there’s several scenes in the show which are delightful recreations of like Matrix fights but they’re also recreations of a lot of that philosophical stuff that you see in later Matrix films, but what you also see in Cloud Atlas. There’s actually some of the same actors from Cloud Atlas, the woman who plays Sun was in Cloud Atlas, also as a ninja. She’s just an all-purpose cute ninja lady. That’s kind of become the Wachowskis signature kind of narrative tone, right? Like a mix of heady philosophy which sometimes doesn’t totally work and great action.

Charlie Jane: [00:13:04] Yeah, and even one of their all-time great movies, Speed Racer, which is like super close to my heart.

Annalee: [00:13:09] Which I love.

Charlie Jane: [00:13:10] Contains some moments of real depth and real thoughtful philosophical stuff.

Annalee: [00:13:16] That is another hugely underrated Wachowski creation. And I feel like now, people are starting to be like, oh, Speed Racer was actually frickin’ awesome. It’s like this super anti-capitalist, really amazing fable wrapped in this beautiful Wachowski wrapper of just like crazy action, but candy-colored as opposed to The Matrix, which was like, Everything Is Black And Gray With A Few Green, like a few like sort of green characters raining down on the—CRT characters raining on our characters’ heads.

Charlie Jane: [00:13:50] Part of what we’re seeing on a lot of big TV right now is the Darkness and Sadness, and like, I’m trying to do my Lego Batman voice. You know, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the biggest shows on TV right now, or like on premiere online streaming, I guess. And, you know…

Annalee: [00:14:05] And Altered Carbon that we were just talking about just got renewed, and that’s another super grim-dark show.

Charlie Jane: [00:14:10] Dark… And like, Sense 8 is actually fundamentally a super-happy show, and I keep wondering what that show would have been like if they’d just left out whispers and the evil organization and all of the kind of boilerplate There’s An Evil Conspiracy stuff and just been like, gone with the concept as like a happy concept. But, there’s still tons of happiness in there, and actually, it’s interesting because I was thinking a lot about the novel More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon, which I was just re-reading for some reason.

Annalee: [00:14:38] That novel had a huge influence on me when I was a kid. I just… I loved it so much.

Charlie Jane: [00:14:42] Yeah, and it’s still a super great novel and much weirder than I remembered. And it’s about six individuals who come together to form a Homo gestalt, and it’s six people who have psychic powers. Some of them are telekinetic, some of them can teleport. There are these two twins who can teleport who are kind of creepy and kind of cute. There’s one telepathic dude. It’s kind of about how they’re all outcasts because of races, because of sexuality, because of gender, because of sexual repression, which is a thing that Theodore Sturgeon was really concerned about. And they find each other, and they create like both a unique family but also a new form of life that is a compound, a composite of the six of them working together, and it’s only when they find someone who can be their conscience that they become complete because it’s got that old-school science fiction thing about like the abuse of power. But at the same time, it is very much about how the future and progress, the progress of human evolution requires us to let go of individuality and become something other. And I wonder if that was an influence on Sense 8.

Annalee: [00:15:47] I mean, and also Octavia Butler’s series which includes the book Mind of My Mind, and a couple of others. I guess it’s the Patternmaster series is also about that same thing, and I suspect that she had read the Sturgeon novel because hers is also about outcasts who are psychic and they’re brought together by a person who becomes the patternmaster. And the patternmaster is a powerful psychic who can help all of the psychics work together kind of as one consciousness. And, in many cases, the people when they’re alone, are mentally ill. Like, they can’t really function, and a lot of them are living on the street, and as soon as they have the patternmaster uniting them, they’re restored to sanity, they’re able to lead happy lives. Or, in this case, they’re able to overthrow all the rich people in LA and take over their homes, which might not be the happiest outcome for everyone, but at least for those people. At least for the psychics.

But they are also represented as the next stage in human evolution, and Vernon Vinge plays with this idea too, in a lot of his novels. Iain M. Banks plays with this idea that as humans evolve as a civilization, eventually they’ll kind of all merge and sublime or have some kind of singularity which involves merging many individuals into one mind. And, in fact, Iain M. Banks’ last novel was kind of about a person who refuses to do that. Her civilization is about to merge into one hypermind and have the singularity and she’s like, “Eh, I think I’ll just stay here and play violin.” Or, she’s playing some crazy instrument that requires her to grow extra arms, and so she just does that instead. That’s The Hydrogen Sonata. It’s a beautiful book. I highly recommend it. But that’s kind of an anti-collective consciousness thing, I think. Or, story.

But I think to go back to what you were saying about the happy moments in Sense 8, one of the things I love about the Wachowskis is like, you can pretty much always rely on them to throw in a rave scene or an orgy scene. Not in every movie, but it’s common.

Charlie Jane: [00:17:53] There’s no orgy scene in Speed Racer for some reason. I don’t know why.

Annalee: [00:17:56] That’s true. That’s what I was thinking of. I was like, well, okay, with some exceptions, but, there’s a lot of orgies in Sense 8, which is not to—but they’re psychic, so it’s like when all the characters are like separately having sex or jacking off, or whatever. And it happens a lot. And there’s also dance scenes, which are very reminiscent of like the second Matrix movie where like Keanu was having a little rave and stuff and that was exciting. These are moments that are about the individual draining away and having an ecstatic experience with other people. They’re so hard to do well. I find myself, especially in Sense 8, where, like I said, there were a lot of orgies, like… And I’m like, pro orgy. Like, I am not an anti-orgy person. And, I would have these moments where I was like, oh, this is so cheesy, but it’s so great, but it’s so cheesy. And I feel like that’s just part of the fundamental difficulty of writing utopian fiction, and depicting utopia. Because, like, part of you is just cringing.

Charlie Jane: [00:18:58] Yeah, and actually there were some orgy scenes in Sense 8 where I was like, okay. I could have done without five minutes of that. But, actually in the finale, spoiler alert, there’s an orgy scene that just made me cry like a baby because it’s so beautiful. And it’s just this vision of like, kind of just connectedness and people being together.

I wanted to talk about the queerness in Sense 8, and particularly the fact that it’s got this unapologetically beautiful relationship between a trans woman and a cis woman, Nomi and Amanita, and part of what I think is so subversive about that is both that—

Annalee: [00:19:30] Also, Nomi’s played by a trans woman, thank you very much.

Charlie Jane: [00:19:33] Yeah, which is super important and should be the gold standard, but for some reason still isn’t, I don’t know why. But it’s just—it’s so beautiful, and it’s so unlike any romance I’ve seen on television. Not just because Amanita is completely supportive of Nomi’s gender and will basically smack anybody who says anything about her, but also it’s one of those rare relationships where when we see them at the start of the show, they’re already an established couple. They’ve already been together for at least a while, and there’s—

Annalee: [00:20:05] Yeah, they’re living together, they’ve been through a lot.

Charlie Jane: [00:20:07] And there’s never a storyline where it’s like, “Are they gonna break up? Are they going to stay together?” They’re going to stay together. They might be broken apart by circumstances, but their relationship is solid and yet, it still feels like there’s a progression to their relationship, and in the end, it feels like they have gotten closer as a result of some of the stuff that’s happened. And it’s like—that’s hard to do and Sense 8 does it really well. It’s much easier to show people falling in love who—like meeting for the first time and then falling in love, or being friends and then falling in love, or being in love and having some crisis that almost breaks you up, and then reaffirming your love. But having a relationship where it’s just—we’re already in a relationship, we stay in the relationship, and things—we go through some hard times and then in the end we’re even stronger in our relationship. I feel like—

Annalee: [00:20:58] Well I’d point out that, well, so the other gay relationship in the show is Lito, the actor, and his boyfriend, and it’s the same thing. They’re together at the beginning of the story. They’ve been living together. They have a lot in common. Lito’s boyfriend is a playwright, and a professor who teaches drama, and they enjoy each other as people. They have been struggling with the fact that Lito can’t be out, and in a sense that means his boyfriend has to be closeted, too. And what ends up happening is that their relationship is revealed to the media, and Lito has to struggle with that, and that’s his big transformation as a character, is having to come out and come out in a way where he’s been outed. He’s been outed in the worst possible way, basically, with a picture of him and his boyfriend humping on social media. I mean, they’re not humping on social media, they’re humping, alone, in their house, and then it’s posted on social media.

So, their relationship, also, has a lot of adversity and they overcome it, and there’s this beautiful moment at the end where Lito finally is like, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna be gay, and I’m gonna be out.” And he becomes the marshall of the Gay Pride parade in, I guess São Paolo? It’s in Brazil. And, it’s this huge parade and he gives this beautiful speech where he’s like, “I am a gay man!” And he’s adorable, and his boyfriend is adorable, and he and his boyfriend kiss and then that becomes this huge YouTube sensation, which ends up helping him get a job, but also all of his Sense 8 buddies are helping him give this speech, and are supporting him and we see him up on stage and he’s with his boyfriend, but he’s also with all his cluster, and they’re like, “Dude, we love you!” and stuff. And so, it’s great, because we get two incredibly awesome queer relationships.

And, the other thing is, to go back to the issue of utopia, a little bit, we were talking about this earlier, how everybody in the show winds up with a loving partner or partners. This is another kind of signal that we’re looking at a utopian story, because it’s got this element of romance. And again, this is not really a spoiler, it ends with a marriage, which is the classic. That’s Jane Austen. Like, it ends with a marriage, and how often do you see that in science fiction? It’s usually—if it ends with a happy thing, it’s like, it ends with a medal. I mean, we don’t give the wookiee a medal, but we give everybody—you know, everybody gets, like—everybody gets a treat.

Charlie Jane: [00:23:38] Yeah, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of major science fiction things that kind of end with a romantic consummation. I think Matt Smith’s first season of Doctor Who ends with a wedding. There’s like, very few, and it’s not a common thing at all. It’s usually—usually the ending is that the—one of the people tells the other, “I have to go now. I have to go off and have adventures now. I have to leave you, I’m going to be thinking about you.”

Annalee: [00:24:04] It’s a western. That’s the end of the westerns, classic. And, I mean, of course, space operas are, and a lot of science fiction kind of grow out of the western. That’s it. You come into town and you leave town.

Charlie Jane: [00:24:14] Yeah. And it’s like? That’s kind of the standard thing. Captain Kirk is never gonna settle down. We know that Han and Leia get together, and have like a little psycho kid together, but we don’t really get to see their marriage, and we—

Annalee: [00:24:28] Also, like, obviously that’s terrible. Like, I love that that’s like, okay, if you do get married and you do have a happy marriage, you’re going to have a psycho kid who’s going to destroy democracy, so, don’t do that?

Charlie Jane: [00:24:43] And then the next time we see Han and Leia, they’ve broken up a long time ago, and it’s kind of like awkward, and it’s like we never get to see them really talk about their relationship.

Annalee: [00:24:51] There’s no, like, happy wedding where it’s like, “And now, we live in democracy and like, it’s all good.” It’s like, “No.” So, even in our most kind of happy utopian stories, and I think of Star Trek really being kind of the main one of those, yeah, it’s just predicated on the idea that there can’t really be lasting love and lasting relationships.

Charlie Jane: [00:25:12] So, let’s talk a little bit more about utopias. Which, you know, part of why Sense 8 stands out so much is it does feel like a utopian narrative in which people deserve to be happy and there’s like a better way.

Annalee: [00:25:25] One of the things about utopias is that they’re super hard to write as we’ve been talking about. One of our favorite writers, Nalo Hopkinson, talked about this a while ago on the solo flying show where she was talking about her second novel, Midnight Robber, and how she realized it was utopian and that was going to be a problem.

Nalo Hopkinson: [00:25:42] I remember, to my dismay, realizing that my second novel… what I was writing was a utopia. And the dismay was a writerly one, because fiction is about problems and overcoming them. A utopia kind of takes away a plot. The utopian fiction I have tried to read, the older utopian fiction, mostly feels like a not-very-imaginative travelogue of wandering around and going, “See, here is all this cool stuff we have that you don’t.” But, no plot.

Annalee: [00:26:17] So, even a fantastic writer like Nalo is flummoxed by this. She comes up against the same questions that really we’re asking about Sense 8. How do you have a story that is happy about nice things, and like, also add in the kind of conflicts that make narratives go. And you were saying earlier, like, uh, did we have to have Whispers and the whole evil NGO. That just felt so tacked on. And literally, like, every time we go—like, Darryl Hannah plays a character who I literally still do not understand who she was other than just like scary girl who shoots herself, and it’s like, she introduces the tension, and like, it is true, I do kind of understand what her role is supposed to be, but basically she’s there to create drama. And it feels, again, it feels tacked on. Partly because she’s mostly seen in flashbacks.

So, what are the ways that we see utopias working in fiction? Like, what do you think?

Charlie Jane: [00:27:17] I mean, I really liked the thing Nalo said, about how when you see a utopia in classic fiction, it’s generally a travelogue. Like, it’s not a story, it’s just like, and “Here’s over here where they churn the butter, and over here is like where they sleep, and blah blah blah. The end.”

Annalee: [00:27:32] Like Herland.

Charlie Jane: [00:27:32] Yeah, like Herland, like I guess More’s Utopia is basically a travelogue, and like—

Annalee: [00:27:37] Although, but More’s Utopia is also—I mean, a million smarter people than me have written about this, but it’s also kind of about—it’s also satirical, because it’s about how you can’t really have utopia. Whereas Herland, I feel like, which was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in the early 20th century, I think she was pretty serious about that. She was like, yeah, if women ruled an island, like, it would really—it would basically be Themiscyra. It pretty much is like, let’s tour Themiscyra. If you like Themiscyra, check out Herland.

Charlie Jane: [00:28:06] Yeah, and I guess coming back to Theodore Sturgeon. He tried to write utopias. Like, I think his novel, which I just read, Venus Plus X has elements of utopia. It’s like, someone from the 20th century, a man from the 20th century, visits a future world which, spoiler alert, isn’t actually the future. Where they’ve eliminated gender, they’ve eliminated sexual jealousy, they’ve eliminated violence, and everybody’s basically happy, but it’s kind of unpleasant. Partly because this 20th century man is a jerk, and partly because it just kind of feels kind of sterile and boring. And that’s kind of the failure mode is that a utopia often feels sterile and boring because you’ve eliminated the stuff that creates conflict, that makes people interesting, and really, you know, you can’t entirely just like throw out human nature. Like, Gene Roddenberry tried to do that in some of the early seasons of Next Generation and it doesn’t entirely work.

Human nature is not gonna radically change to the point where we no longer have conflict or jealousy or anguish. The best you can hope for is more communication and I think an interesting utopia would be one in which communication does actually happen and we kind of see people painfully working through their issues rather than just being like, oh, we got rid of all the bad feelings. It’s like, no. We have the bad feelings. We’re gonna work through them and it’s going to be frickin’ hard.

Annalee: [00:29:27] Yeah, I wanted to mention Marge Piercy’s novel, Woman on the Edge of Time, which has some of the same problems as Sense 8, where there’s like these beautiful utopian moments that will also make you kind of roll your eyes and be like, “Ugh, feminist hippies of the ‘70s.” But, it’s one of my favorite books and it’s about a possible utopia where racism and sexism are being dealt with in a way that’s progressive. People are living in harmony with the environment, and they still have tons of conflicts. They still have romantic jealousy. They still have loneliness. They still have people dying unexpectedly. And a lot of the images and scenes from this possible utopian future are about people dealing with those conflicts and talking about how messy it still is. And yet, also showing a better way that people could get out of them.

And I was also going to mention Ursula LeGuin’s Dispossessed, which is I think the subtitle is: An Ambiguous Utopia. And she’s also dealing with a kind of a feminist utopia on a moon that has very scarce resources so the government has to very carefully allocate resources and labor, but of course they’re not doing it completely fairly, and some people are getting dessert and some people aren’t. Literally, like that’s one of the things that the main character discovers is that, “Oh, if you’re a fancy person, you get dessert.” And you can have an extra lunch. So, I think it is that that’s the temptation and that’s kind of the need when you’re writing about utopias, to find that fringe where the utopia’s not working, or where you can find conflict somehow and still deal with that, while also showing people actually, you could live better. Like, you don’t have to have capitalism to organize everything. You could have another system maybe.

Charlie Jane: [00:31:21] Yeah, and one of the classic modes of utopia is the false utopia, where it looks like a utopia at first, like Logan’s Run, or Brave New World. And often the false utopia, there’s a lot of sex. It’s like, well, you can get laid, but when you turn thirty—

Annalee: [00:31:36] And drugs.

Charlie Jane: [00:31:38] Sex and drugs. You can get laid and high but when you’re thirty they kill you, or you know. They’re genetically engineering children to be workers or whatever.

Annalee: [00:31:47] Wait, I just wanted to add one more thing when you were talking about false utopia, because I feel like we’re on the cusp now of a whole new type of false utopia, which is the social media false utopia where all your friends are like, yeah, I love you. And then it turns out that they’re all evil and they’re trying to get social points and stuff. There’s already been a bunch of stories including Ingrid Goes West, which I realize is a comedy and not sci-fi, but it’s in that same genre of like, it seems like utopia on Instagram, but actually it’s a horrible den of awfulness. And capitalist sellouts.

Charlie Jane: [00:32:21] Yeah, and actually the social media thing kind of ties in with what I was going to say, which is—One of the paradigms that I feel like we use a lot to think about what would be utopia, is we would have more empathy. But social media has really taught me in the last few years that empathy can be really horrible. Like that too much empathy, too much just like realizing that everybody in the world is in pain, everybody’s miserable, everybody’s suffering, everybody’s scared… it could just be overwhelming. It can make you want to shut down. It can be exhausting.

Annalee: [00:32:51] But is that really empathy? Because I think at a certain point, I mean there is this tipping point where it goes from empathy to just being like overload and paralysis and so—and I think that’s part of why it is a false utopia. Because it seems like it’s going to be empathy and then instead it’s just this barrage, and it’s not even from real people. I love the statistic that we now have that a quarter of the profiles on Facebook were fake. A quarter. That means that a quarter of the bullshit that you’e getting on Facebook is from bots. From fake people. So, that’s a false utopia right there.

Charlie Jane: [00:33:33] So, screw it, I’m just going back to Ashley Madison where at least they were flirty.

Annalee: [00:33:36] Yeah, right?

Charlie Jane: [00:33:38] At least the bots were friendlier.

Annalee: [00:33:38] At least the bots are like trying to get laid. Yeah. We can have bot orgies, imaginary bot orgies. Yeah, so to close out our episode, we’re gonna have a segment called, “What I’m obsessed with right now.” I’m going to talk about something from the world of science and Charlie’s going to talk about something from the world of science fiction, which is kind of how it works when we’re talking anyway. So, now you’ll get to hear us having a private conversation.

So, what are you excited about in the world of science fiction, Charlie?

Charlie Jane: [00:34:11] I mean, I just finished reading Maria Dahvana Headley—And I hope I’m pronouncing her name right—The Mere Wife, which is—

Annalee: [00:34:18] I’m so excited about that novel.

Charlie Jane: [00:34:22] It’s so awesome. It’s basically kind of a feminist retelling of Beowulf in which both Beowulf and Grendel are kind of sidelined and instead it’s about Beowulf’s wife and Grendel’s mom. I mean, it’s kind of a spoiler because at the start of the book she’s not Beowulf’s but it’s about these two women, and you know, instead of Grendel just being some kind of ancient monstery monster, he’s the son of this woman who came back from some kind of Gulf War. I think it may actually have been The Gulf War. But, she comes back and she’s somehow been impregnated, she’s not even sure how. And she has this kid who she thinks is a monster, and so she hides away, and her old home where she used to live has been torn down and turned into a super super upscale gated community where this other woman lives. And the other woman’s son becomes obsessed with Grendel and starts playing with him, and they kind of form this deep friendship bond, and these two women have to deal with the fact that their sons, who neither of the women want to be friends, are becoming friends. And, it kind of goes from there and it gets really dark and ugly and weird, and it’s all about displacement and kind of gentrification and how we build these kind of shiny palaces, literally in this case, over the bones of people that we’ve replaced. And the idea of who gets to be a monster and what makes you a monster. And it’s so beautifully written and haunting, but also just dark and brutal. It’s like, it’s the Beowulf retelling I really needed right now.

What are you excited about?

Annalee: [00:35:55] So, I’m really excited about this article that came out recently in Science Robotics which is itself something I’m excited about because science just started this new journal about robotics, but this is an article by a couple of researchers from Japan, Christian Penaloza and Shuichi Nishio. They are doing experiments in helping people have a third arm. And, basically they’re using what in the media is being called a bionic arm, which is just a prosthetic that is controlled by neural inputs so you can think about it and the arm will move, and you can learn to use it. It’s pretty easy to train up on it. So, what they did was they had this question, which is, all right. We’ve got these bionic arms for people who are missing an arm, or who are disabled in some way. What if we just gave people an extra arm? People who already have two arms. Would they be able to use it?

Well, the answer is, yeah, and the experiments they did were great because what they did was, they would sit people down in this chair that had the robotic arm attached to it, and then that would attach to their neck. So, basically it’s people who have a third arm coming out of their neck. And they would learn to control the arm by thinking about it, and then they would multi-task. So, this is what the researchers were really interested in, was like, could you actually use your three arms to do, like, different things simultaneously. The test was you had to balance a bunch of balls with your regular arms, your bio arms, balance these balls on a plate. So, it’s kind of like a balancing exercise. It’s not that easy. And, at the same time, you have to hold onto a bottle with the robotic arm.

One of the things—one of the many delightful things that I love about this is that first of all, it worked really well. They were able to—eight out of the fifteen people who participated in this study were successfully able to grasp a bottle with their robot arm and also balance the balls. So, more than half the people doing this—and this is after them training for a pretty short time learning how to do it. The other thing that I love about this study is, I did not realize this, but there is a technical term for a third robotic arm. Or an extra robotic arm, and it is a super-numerary robotic limb, or SRL. So fans of Survival Research Laboratories, which is also called SRL now have this other thing they can be confused with, which I’m sure they will be delighted to hear, because I feel like SRL already uses SRLs. So, the super-numerary robotic limb is something that we can start seeing pretty soon. Especially in factories where people are doing assembly and we might want workers to be able to do assembly with, like, four hands and so you could actually have a rig with two extra arms, and actually be putting something together that’s very sophisticated very quickly.

So, I just love this study because it’s—there’s no reason to do this study other than just for sheer Doc Ock science fictional weirdness. Like, nobody needs a third arm, really. But now we know, we can have one if we need it, or a fourth arm. Or however many you want. So, it’s a great example of science becoming science fiction. And, like I said, I will not be surprised to see this used in an industrial context pretty soon.

Charlie Jane: [00:39:33] Yay. Thank you so much for listening to our show. You can find us on Apple Podcast and Google Play and Stitcher and every place else that people listen to podcasts. And please, if you like us, please leave a review on Apple and tweet about it, we’re @OOACpod on Twitter.

And thanks so much to Veronica Simonetti, for the production, and Chris Palmer for the music, and thanks to you for listening.

[00:39:56] Outro music plays: Synth over drums followed by a guitar riff.

Annalee Newitz