Without getting into depressing (and obvious) specifics, I’ve been thinking about fascism lately—specifically the concept of “utopian fascism”. As is often the case when grappling with such issues, I turned to science fiction for a guide. Fortunately, there is a fictional government perfectly suited to explore the question “can democracy and universal prosperity ever be successfully combined with fascism?”: Star Trek’s Federation.
The Federation’s exact political structure is sometimes difficult to pin down, but it seems to be a combination of a democratic interplanetary parliament, a massive military alliance, and a totalitarian bureaucracy.
This isn’t what it looks like.
Now don’t panic! This isn’t going to be super depressing nor is it going to be about space Nazis (unless you count the above-pictured episode TOS episode “Patterns of Force”). When I talk about fascism, I’m talking about the philosophical concept as it dates back to Rome, not the actual horrific reality of modern-day fascism. I am not about to ruin all of our moods by writing some anti-Starfleet propaganda… at least, not too much of it. What I will do is take a look at how the Federation is utopian, how it’s fascist, how (and if) the two can be combined, and what that all says about our vision of a perfect government.
There aren’t many shows on television anymore that I enjoy as much as CW’s The 100. Ace has been following the series here since it began, and I’m only just getting caught up. The 100 offers a kind of teenage/YA dystopian escapism that my preteen self would have obsessed over, plus an imaginary boyfriend to boot (Hello, Nurse Bellamy!). Who cares if we never figure out how the characters maintain their never-ending supply of mascara when we have issues to tackle like turf wars and privilege and racism and sexuality? Among these, I had hoped that religion would be handled thoughtfully, but the result is pretty meh. Nevertheless, The 100 gives us a pretty good example of some typical science fiction religion tropes, and how religion can function in ways that help (and hurt) the quality of the story.
Spoilers for The 100 through Season 3 Episode 8, “Thirteen.”
A lot of sci-fi and fantasy stories like to delve into alternate realities at some point—and why wouldn’t they? Alternate realities can be a lot of fun. They allow writers to discuss characters from multiple perspectives and explore “what if” scenarios, which can certainly be interesting. After all, a character in one dimension may have completely different motivations and personal history to their counterpart in another dimension.
I love alternate realities. I love seeing how the same character reacts to different situations and upbringing, and I love how seeing these differences presented in an alternate reality helps to inform that same character in the main reality. Thankfully for me, alternate reality storylines are everywhere, from Charmed, to Stargate SG-1, and now even in Shadowhunters. These storylines are interesting character studies and an effective way to teach both the characters and the audience the consequences of bad decisions. Because this is often the purpose they serve, alternate realities are almost always dystopias compared to the main reality. Very rarely are they used for the opposite purpose—to be utopias compared to a main dystopian world. So I found myself pleasantly surprised when Shadowhunters did just that in its latest episode.
A while back, Lady Geek Girl and I got to talking about how most worlds we read about in sci-fi and fantasy are dystopias. Other than maybe Narnia, I can’t think of a single fictional world that’s utopian. And even then, when Lucy first travels through the wardrobe, Narnia is blanketed in an eternal winter and ruled by a malicious ice queen. It doesn’t surprise me that fantasy worlds are often dystopias. After all, our characters need some powerful evil force to fight against, and many of the issues our heroes come across in dystopian worlds are things we can relate to—sickness, prejudice, racism, sexism, extreme poverty, so on and so forth. Yet, despite how horrible a fictional world may seem, we as consumers still use these worlds as a form of escapism.
Teen Wolf writer Jeff Davis has explained before that in the Teen Wolf universe, there is no racism, sexism, or homophobia. Instead, supernatural creatures occasionally fill in as the group being discriminated against. He said:
I’m trying to create a world where there’s no racism, there’s no sexism, there’s no homophobia. And I know it’s not real life, but I kind of don’t care. I’d like to create a world where none of that matters: you have the supernatural creatures for that to work as an analogy. In my mind, if you can create a world like that on TV, maybe life starts to imitate it.—writer and creator Jeff Davis discussing Teen Wolf (x)
Saika, not too long ago, did a post on just this issue. Does the utopia erase the struggles of minority groups or portray them as having been overcome or even nonexistent? It’s true that creating a world without discrimination could affect people enough to change things. It’s the whole “be the change you want to see in the world” thing. I agree with Saika that both portraying discrimination and portraying a utopia can have its ups and downs depending on the narrative, but there is still something that has always bothered me about the utopia, and I couldn’t put my finger on it until very recently.