Which utopia, whose future?

Gavin Miller considers science fiction and psychology.

Modern psychology begins in the late 19th century, with the work of Wilhelm Wundt and William James. The same period also sees the origins of modern science fiction: James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890) precedes by only a few years H.G. Wells’ pioneering science fiction novels (or ‘scientific romances’ as they were known), The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds (1898). This common point of origin is no coincidence…

Psychology promised to bring the human soul within the sphere of the sciences, where it could be observed, understood, and – ultimately – controlled for the benefit of society. Science fiction was stimulated by the rhetoric and ambition of the human sciences – which occasionally blossomed into explicit utopian manifestos, such as the behaviourist John B. Watson’s ‘Should a Child Have More than One Mother?’ (1929), which proposed that children should rotate to a different family every four weeks (Morawski, 1982). As science fiction flourished between the wars, such societal visions were critiqued by two now-canonical dystopian novels. Aldous Huxley’s satirical Brave New World (1932) offers a heady cocktail of behaviourism, psychoanalysis, and functionalism, in its vision of a global caste society in which hedonism and consumerism have become technologies of non-violent control. George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) presents a more brutal world of surveillance and control, to which again both psychoanalytic and behaviourist ideas are central: when sexual repression and neurosis prove ineffective in promoting fanaticism, then the Pavlovian conditioning of Room 101 steps in.

The prominence of 1984 and Brave New World obscures later science fiction utopias which promote, contest, satirise and bend to literary ends the claims and ambitions of psychology. These successors deserve attention because they were written in the post-war era of psychologisation, in which the discipline decisively permeated all nooks and crannies of Western life, from birth to death. Moreover, this is the period in which science fiction grew in literary respectability – partly by responding to psychological critiques of its pulpiest stories (Miller, 2020). Science fiction is now the genre through which utopias and dystopias are most clearly imagined – and its techniques shed light on psychology’s ongoing attempts to take charge of ‘the future’.

Psychological utopias and dystopias
The renowned behaviourist B.F. Skinner’s literary ambitions were fulfilled in his novel-cum-manifesto, Walden Two (1948), published in the same year as 1984, and written also in response to World War Two. A small group visit a rural utopian community which thrives through co-operation, sharing, and the careful allocation of individual members to necessary roles. The community’s leader is psychological expert T.E. Frazier – a mouthpiece for Skinner’s behaviourist theories and agendas. Frazier explains, for example, how the community’s children learn self-control through positive reinforcement: after a long walk, hungry children stand by bowls of steaming soup and must wait for five minutes before consuming it. In this way, they are psychologically immunised against the desires which fuel consumer capitalism: Walden Two ignores manufactured needs such as changes in clothing fashion, and only the most essential service industries remain. Skinner elaborates in a later 1970s foreword: ‘by reducing the amount of goods we consume, we can reduce the amount of time we spend in unpleasant labor’ (Skinner, 1976, p. xiv).

Walden Two reworks literary conventions from utopian writing, such as guided tours through the model society, lengthy Socratic dialogues, and an opportunity for the visitor (and by extension the reader) to join up (Roemer, 1983, p.128). Skinner, though, presents a high-handed ‘blueprint’: objections are dismissed, and problems diminished. Frazier argues that Walden Two has no need for democracy: in behaviourist terms, the operation (voting) has no secure relationship to the reinforcer (the candidate’s victory), so voting is either for the wrong reasons, or irrational (Skinner, 1976, pp.249-250). The unstated comparison is with Skinner’s account of ‘superstition’ in pigeons whose operant behaviour is reinforced by accidental environmental contingencies (Skinner, 1948, p.171). There are further sinister asides and silences. Frazier thinks women should bear children at 15 or 16 (a euphemism for puberty). And nobody in Walden Two has significant dependency needs apart from infants and small children; the elderly, disabled, and chronically ill are conspicuously absent.

Skinner’s technocratic approach assumes that government is best left to specialists who relieve citizens of their unwanted, unneeded and unreasonable democratic burden. William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974) pursues this line of thought to its dystopian conclusion. This short novel for young adults, set in a near-future authoritarian USA, concerns five teenage orphans who wake up in a mysterious featureless building composed largely of staircases and landings. Apart from rudimentary facilities for sleep, sanitation, and water, the only feature is a plastic hemisphere which dispenses food pellets as a reward. The teenagers are conditioned within this human-sized Skinner Box, at first learning a group dance, and then increasingly deceitful and humiliating aggression toward each other – while still maintaining enough co-operation to dance for their food. When the group are released, they encounter their experimenter, Dr Lawrence, a government psychologist who spouts Skinnerian rhetoric:
the conditioning most people receive from life, from the real world, is unplanned – haphazard and accidental. Is it surprising then that people are only rarely well adjusted? That only rarely do they find themselves in a life situation for which their conditioning has prepared them? No wonder that so many people are frustrated and dissatisfied (if not worse), and therefore do not perform with maximum efficiency. (Sleator, 2004, p.162)

Lawrence wants the teenagers to find maximal efficiency in their life situation as ‘a group of young people, an elite corps, who would be able to follow unquestioningly any order given to them’ (Sleator, 2004, p.162). Three of the group – Blossom, Abigail, and Oliver – are successfully trained, but two – Peter and Lola – are rejected, and sent back to the outside world. Sleator represents behaviourism as a dehumanising technology: the three who co-operate ‘no longer saw one another as people, but only as things to make use of’ (Sleator, 2004, p.140). This reduction of the person to an automaton is elaborated in the rebellious Lola’s perceptions of Blossom feasting at the pellet dispenser: she ‘leaned forward and stuck out her little red tongue automatically, reaching out her hand to catch the food without even looking at it’ (Sleator, 2004, p.23). Sleator also challenges behaviourism with rival psychological schools, such as psychoanalysis, which is invoked by his depiction of Peter as a fantasy-prone repressed gay youth. The reader, in making sense of Peter’s daydreams of unconscious sexual attraction, enters a meaningful interiority which behaviourism can’t access – and indeed the reader is thereby encouraged to practice an everyday form of psychoanalytic interpretation.

Despite their disagreement, Walden Two and House of Stairs take psychology seriously. However, Naomi Mitchison’s semi-utopian Solution Three (1975) shows that science fiction may use psychology as simply a convenient stockpile of ideas, or even just jargon, with which to prop up the pasteboard set of a make-believe society. Solution Three imagines a future Earth in which war and population growth have been curbed by the institution of normative homosexuality and by the use of cloning for human reproduction. Alongside hormone conditioning, various ‘hidden persuaders’ direct sexual desires away from reproductive heterosexuality: ‘social changes could be made through the ordinary advertisement channels, once one got hold of them. Persuasion was, after all, such an expert business; it had only to be applied, both subliminally and overtly, through the many media’ (Mitchison, 1995, p.23). Solution Three inverts real-world pseudo-technologies for the purported sexual reconditioning of gay men and women in order to distance and make strange our own world of majority heterosexual identity. The rhetoric and jargon of psychology are borrowed in order to position a topsy-turvy world within the genre of science fiction: science made all this happen… rather than a spell cast over the kingdom by a mischievous wizard. In a world where gay vegan politicians smoke cannabis at summits, the residual straight population are a legally tolerated but disreputable minority of ‘social misfits’ (Mitchison, 1995, p.13) and ‘deviants’ (Mitchison, 1995, p.118). They can openly express their sexual love only in a few straight-friendly locations; they are discriminated against in access to work and housing; and they are written out of culture and historiography. Solution Three, in giving the straights a taste of their own medicine, make strange the world of its 1970s readership – a world in which homosexuality is legally permitted, but where gay identity is marginalised and denigrated.

Psychology’s utopian projects
Science fiction can draw on psychology for its utopian scenarios, whether the psychology is taken seriously or not. But the cultural traffic may run from science fiction into psychology, where writers can state or imply extrapolated futures, such as that found in Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s contentious A Natural History of Rape (2000), which received withering scrutiny from within psychology and the human sciences (Travis, 2003). Thornhill and Palmer envisage a future society modelled in light of their evolutionary-cognitive account of a supposed ‘rape module’ in the human male. This society will revive ‘patterns of movement that keep females – especially at the ages when they are most sexually attractive – out of isolated areas’ (Thornhill & Palmer, 2000, p.185). Young women will be educated in the male’s natural disposition to rape them, alongside ‘some instruction in self-defence’ (Thornhill & Palmer, 2000, p.180), supplemented by a further sex-specific program thataddress[es] how other elements of attractiveness (including health, symmetry, and hormone markers such as waist size), and clothing and makeup that enhance them, may influence the likelihood of rape […]. This is not to say that young women should constantly attempt to look ill and infertile; it is simply to say that they should be made aware of the costs associated with attractiveness. (Thornhill & Palmer, 2000, p.181)

Even if Thornhill and Palmer were correct, one could imagine an entirely different societal response: young males might be chemically castrated at puberty, with their sexual desires gradually restored if they show compliance to a programme of respect for women – with full sexual rights restored to those whose supposed ‘rape module’ is most effectively curbed. This extrapolation may sound like a dystopian matriarchy, but then what do we make of Thornhill and Palmer’s alternative vision, and the interests which underpin it?

Such narrative constructions of the future within psychology is theorised by the so-called ‘sociology of expectations’, which proceeds from ‘the difference between looking into the future and looking at the future’ (Borup et al., 2006, p.206). Researchers investigate the scientific construction of ‘the future’ as a persuasive device in the here-and-now:
[n]ovel technologies and fundamental changes in scientific principle do not substantively pre-exist themselves, except and only in terms of the imaginings, expectations and visions that have shaped their potential. […] Such expectations can be seen to be fundamentally ‘generative’, they guide activities, provide structure and legitimation, attract interest and foster investment. (Borup et al., 2006, pp.285-286)

Feminist psychology has perhaps been most willing to talk frankly about the generation of its research programme within concrete visions for a better future. Hilary M. Lips remarks that ‘[w]hen teaching about the psychology of sex and gender, I use science fiction to increase students’ awareness of this nonconscious ideology’; in this way, she can ‘jolt’ her students ‘into thinking about how much they take gender for granted and to help them imagine how things could be different’ (Lips, 1990, p.197). Sandra L. Bem shares this explicit commitment to a political programme as she elaborates potential strategies for ‘raising a gender-aschematic child in the midst of a gender-schematic society’ (Bem, 1983, p.609). As with Walden Two, this utopian aspiration requires the psychological immunisation of children against the snares of the wider world, via  ‘alternative schemata [that] “build up one’s resistance” to the lessons of the dominant culture and thereby enable one to remain gender-aschematic’ (Bem, 1983, p.610).

Beyond accuracy and distortion
The examples above, from both science fiction and psychology, challenge any simplistic model of the relationship between the two. It may be tempting to think in terms of a tightly-patrolled one-way border from psychology into science fiction – where the expert’s job is to check for ‘accurate’ rather than ‘distorted’ representation of the scientific content. Indeed, this model is a popular professional mythology in the public understanding of science (Hilgartner, 1990).

The reality is far more complex: both psychology and science fiction engage in utopian and dystopian storytelling, and the validity of the science may be questionable (clearly so in science fiction – and even in psychology). But science fiction asks us to consciously address questions that may be only implicit in psychology’s utopian forecasts: whose make-believe future is this, what does it presume, and should I agree?

- Gavin Miller, Senior Lecturer in Medical Humanities, University of Glasgow.
Author of Science Fiction and Psychology (Liverpool University Press, 2020).
[email protected]


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