By: Maggie Mayer
When people hear the words utopia and dystopia, what do they think of? Most people think that a utopia is an ideal society where everyone gets along with each other and all problems are fixed, while a dystopia is the complete destruction of society and no one has hope for the future. Some would say that they are completely different from each other. This is untrue, as there are utopias that contain more dystopian themes. A common theme found in what Tom Moylan coins as a “critical utopia” is that a utopia for one person is a dystopia for others within the same society (Claeys and Sargent 1). This theme is prevalent in multiple mediums of media and are extremely popular among modern audiences. Through this blog post, I hope to further explore this theme and why these narratives are deeply ingrained in our media.
A perfect example of this theme appearing in modern media is the 2018 Netflix Original “Altered Carbon.” The show is set in the year 2384 in Bay City, formerly San Francisco. Science has advanced to the point where a person’s memories and consciousness are kept in a “cortical stack,” a round disc, that is implanted in the vertebrae on the back of their necks. Human bodies, synthetic or organic, are called “sleeves” and the cortical stacks can be transferred from one body to another after death, as long as the stack is unharmed. The Meths have multiple clones of their sleeve and they keep their consciousness in satellites that remotely transmit it into their sleeve after they die. This means that, technically anyone can live forever, but only the rich can afford to keep multiple clones of their sleeves.
This disconnect between the Meths and the rest of the population is further shown through the obvious class system within this society. Meths have giant mansions that float in the clouds and they throw lavish parties that only other rich people can attend. They can afford to stay young, never get sick, and never have to worry about their actions having consequences. If they die in a car crash during a three-day bender, they can just switch to a new sleeve. Sounds like heaven, right? Living the good life without the fear of dying and having everything you could ever want. This lifestyle has actually made the Meths apathetic towards not only their lives, but also the lives of the lower classes. This theme is seen throughout the show, but especially in episode 2: “Fallen Angel” and episode 3: “In a Lonely Place.” In these episodes, a sex worker is choked to death multiple times by a Meth and a married couple must fight to the sleeve-death for the entertainment of the rich guests. Meths do not view the lower class as actual people, but as things to be used and they view life as just a commodity to be bought and sold. The lower class live a completely different life, as they live in extreme poverty and are forced to scrape together funds to afford any sleeve they can get. It often results in young children being put into sleeves that are seventy years old or a grown man being put into the body of a 10-year old. This system makes healthcare a luxury and is a commentary on our healthcare system in America today, as many people have to go without medication and put off getting medical help because of their inability to afford it. All of these examples directly tie into how the society in “Altered Carbon” is a utopia for Meths while it is a dystopia for those that live on the ground.
Having a better understanding of these themes and common tropes within these narratives, audiences can answer the question of “why are these narratives so popular?” Our society crumbling and giving way to organized chaos among the people is a relatable narrative because it addresses real life issues and our greatest fears by setting them in the future, often with elements from science fiction. This allows us to see how these issues, for example climate change, radicalized politics, or extreme war, might play out and how we as a society would survive and possibly reverse these extremes. This genre of entertainment provides commentary on our current society while allowing the audience to see their fears play out from a distance.
Claeys, Gregory, and Lyman Tower Sargent. The Utopia Reader. N.p.: New York UP, 2017. Print.
“Fallen Angel.” Altered Carbon season 1, episode 2, Netflix. 2018. Web.
“In a Lonely Place.” Altered Carbon, season 1, episode 3, Netflix. 2018. Web.
“Utopia.” Def. 1. Merriam-Webster.com. N.p., 2018. Web. 13 Nov. 2018.
“Utopia.” Def. 2. Merriam-Webster.com. N.p., 2018. Web. 13 Nov. 2018.