[Author’s note: I wrote this for a module on utopian fiction in my third year of university. It’s a little different to the stuff I normally post, so enjoy!]
Uniformity and Utopia – comparing More’s utopian vision to Mass Effect’s most misunderstood race
Thomas More’s Utopia functions as a society because it has no inner conflict. The utopians do not know what it is to desire the possessions of another. They do not envy, they do not fight, because all is held in common. The trade of agriculture is “so universally understood among them that no person, man or woman, is ignorant of it.”1 Their clothes are “without any other distinction except what is necessary to distinguish the sexes and the married and unmarried,”(pp. 80) and their buildings are “so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house.”(pp. 77) Are you sensing a pattern yet?
The key to the civility of Utopia is uniformity, in all that is possible to make uniform. If there is nothing different there can be no conflict since the definition of conflict is for things to be incompatible, to clash. But More, or rather Hythloday, depicts a society which functions because of its lack of conflict.
However, the lack of conflict in Utopia only extends to utopians. It does not extend to their slaves. Now, it may seem odd that a place which is an apparent ‘utopia’ has a custom of enslavement. The fact that it exists at all forces us to ask ourselves to what extent it can be called a utopia at all. The reasons for the enslavement of its former citizens is explained by Hythloday:
They do not make slaves of prisoners of war, except those that are taken in battle, nor of those of other nations: slaves among them are only such as are condemned to that state of life for the commission of some crime… They are kept at perpetual labour, and are always chained, but with this difference, that their own natives are treated much worse than others: they are considered more profligate than the rest, and since they could by the advantages of so excellent an education, are judged worthy of harder uses. (pp. 118)
Slavery is reserved for the members of the utopian society who have transgressed against the utopian ideal. It is seen in the wider context of the text as a moral solution to the death penalty, which was seen as unfair and immoral recourse by More, and many humanitarian thinkers of this time. Enslavement ensures the maintaining of life whilst benefitting the state with labour. It is a penal method with questionable morals but undeniable efficiency.
The efficiency by which utopians function is almost automaton-like, and reminds me very heavily of the geth in the video game series Mass Effect.
Geth and utopians make easy bedfellows. Geth “know each other’s minds” and operate as a unified entity. They are personified in Mass Effect 2 by Legion, who becomes the players companion. ‘He’ is made up of 1,183 individual programs (bodiless geth), hence his moniker, taken from the biblical verse “I am Legion, for we are many.” When asked by Commander Shepherd what the individual in front of him is called, Legion replies with: “There is no individual. We are geth.” This exchange is emblematic of the geth as a civilisation, as well as being symbolic for all utopias, in my opinion. The uniformity expressed here is a requirement for the geth to maintain their existence, just as uniformity in the utopian’s society maintains their civility.
The utopians build their society in an automaton-like way, requiring all minds to unanimously agree to its conditions in order to maintain civility. It is no surprise that the geth embody similar principles, albeit in a rather different context. The minds of the geth as individual ‘programs’ are literally inferior to their combined intelligence, which grows according to local population. The geth literally have strength in numbers, and it benefits them by several orders of magnitude to build a society on consensus.
It would seem that this violence which has ensued is antithetical to the maintaining of order. However, in ME2 you encounter Legion, an individual unit possessing the consciousness of 1,183 geth programs, meaning “he” is merely an appearance, and is in fact a representative of individuals contained within “him”. He provides the player with a great deal of insight into the type of existence desired by the geth, which also sheds a great deal of light on to utopian thought.
Another common trait between the geth and utopians is their efficiency. I have stated how the utopian’s forced labour is brutally efficient. They also do not adorn themselves decoratively, nor do they have use for gold since they do not value it:
The folly of men has enhanced the value of gold and silver because of their scarcity; whereas, on the contrary, it is their opinion that Nature, as an indulgent parent, has freely given us all the best things in great abundance, such as water and earth, but has laid up and hid for us the things that are useless. (pp. 96)
The antithetical attitude towards precious metals they possess propels their virtue for pragmatism and diminishes their complex for greed. They are able to make great use of iron and stone, and freely trade to neighbouring nations the gold they foolishly desire, resulting in the huge amount of wealth the state possesses. This is comparable to the geth’s dispensing of windows on their battleships. Legion reveals that they are “structural weaknesses. Geth do not use them.” Organics such as humans do use them and are immediately at a disadvantage due to the geth not requiring the organic sense of “sight”. Both utopians and geth have machine-like efficiency.
The geth’s attitude to other life forms, other societies, is one of cooperation and mutual respect. When asked if anyone else will be affected by the geth’s actions, Legion simply responds; “if they involve themselves, they will.”
This appears in keeping with Hythloday’s description of the attitude utopians have towards external bodies. He states that the “only design of utopians in war is to obtain that by force which, if it had been granted them in time, would have prevented war.” (pp. 130)
This can be seen in effect when looking at the violent revolution the geth undertook and claimed their freedom. The meaning of “geth” means “servant of the people” in Khelish, the language of their creators. A slave race, they were made for labour and feats of war. Their revolution is justified in that they were not in charge of their own destiny. Post revolution, another divide led to the creation of the heretics; “Geth build our own future. Heretics ask the Old Machines to give them a future. They are no longer a part of us… Geth believe all intelligent life should self-determinate. The Heretics no longer share this belief.” Since they did not conform, the geth committed to destroying the heretics. This compares with the utopian ethic of uniformity, and the inability to coexist with those ideologically opposed.
The utopian’s despise war. They are isolationist in nature. Their geography makes them an island, which has significance in that they are inaccessible to their surrounding nations, but more symbolically they are separate from reality. “Utopia” literally means “nowhere” in Greek. This makes their isolationism even more significant. In the context of Utopia, they are a real place, however, and “do not rashly engage in war, unless it be either to defend themselves or their friends from any unjust aggressors.” (pp. 128) The geth are similar in that they seek mutual respect from other civilisations, and do not seek to interfere with organics. When asked if anyone will be affected by their actions, Legion states that if “they involve themselves, they will.” I have already stated that geth were created and have the capabilities for war, but Legion makes it clear that the geth only want a peaceful existence, and like the utopians they simply wish to be left to their own devices unless operating in a mutually respectful, cooperative manner.
It is clear to me that the utopians and the geth both exercise uniformity and maintain their society through mass consensus. They do not have the inner conflicts of other societies who bicker over all manner of things, because they do not share the uniformity. They do not share one identity, but a multitude, and this breeds conflict. However, I think the geth are a more realistic version of More’s utopians, because they are inorganic. They think in terms of pure reason and mathematics. I feel that no matter how “civilised” humanity gets, it will never be able to fully cooperate in the way the geth do with one another. More appears to share this concern:
When Raphael had thus made an end of speaking, though many things occurred to me, both concerning the manners and laws of that people, that seemed very absurd, as well in their way of making war, as in their notions of religion and divine matters – together with several other particulars, but chiefly what seemed the foundation of all the rest, their living in common, without the use of money, by which all nobility, magnificence, splendour and majesty, which, according to common opinion, are the true ornaments of a nation, would be taken away… (pp. 160)
More’s character in the text finds the ways of the utopians incompatible with reality, hence his use of “absurd”. Hearing of this faraway place with customs so wildly alien to his own is so ridiculous he remains unconvinced any human could live like it. This is because they are not truly how humans behave. Perhaps it could be, and More certainly would welcome some elements of utopian living. But I feel that, due to the shortcomings of ‘organics’, utopia will always remain ‘nowhere’.