What Is Utopia? the Science Fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and the Road Ahead

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 16:00
Location: Seminar 34 (Juridicum)
Oral Presentation
Ashley DOANE, University of Hartford, USA
Historically, sociologists have devoted attention to unraveling the nature of human society, most typically in the present, but also routinely turning our gaze to the past. We have probed the “patterns,” “structures,” and “systems” of social groups and societies. When we study social change, we examine the tensions and other social forces that effect change, as well as the dynamics that shape how society evolves. 

In other words, sociologists generally seek to understand what was and what is, as opposed to what will be. We are better at social criticism than social planning. When we have turned our attention to the future, it has been to make relatively short-term predictions based upon our assessment of current trends and conflicts. What sociologists have not done, to any substantial degree, is to describe what could be, or even what “ought” to be. And those sociologists who do focus on more humanistic or emancipatory alternatives—e.g., Erik Olin Wright’s “real utopias”—use the present as a point of departure in moving towards a better future.

Writers of fiction, on the other hand, are not constrained by sociological realities. In this presentation, I propose to use the utopian vision of Arthur C. Clarke (one of the most prolific and scientifically grounded authors of science fiction), as outlined in his four volume “space odyssey” series, to explore questions related to visions of a “non-alienated” utopia. How does Clarke’s vision, which extends out over a millennium, inform our understanding of the road ahead? Can this shape our analysis of more short-term “utopias” such as those envisioned by Wright? And—going forward—what does this mean for sociologists? Beyond our normal calls for greater equality and social justice, are there more ways in which we can help humanity on the path to a less alienating and more “utopian” future?