The Case For Utopian Entertainment / by Jefferson Geiger

Planet Earth 2.jpg

If I had to choose of favorite genre of fiction, I’d probably pick dystopian. It’s not the most uplifting media to consume, but the thought of how bad life could be refreshes my perspective of my current circumstances.

For the unfamiliar, the genre describes a near-perfect society, yet one or two things are slightly…off. In Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” it’s that all books are banned. Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We” describes a word that abides by formulas and people have numbers instead of names.

I don’t know exactly what the first dystopian piece of literature I read was, but I’d hazard a guess it was Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” in elementary school. In the novel life is peaceful, but people don’t see in color and have no memories of past hardships. The most recent I’ve read is Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in High Castle,” which tells an alternative history of Germany winning World War II.

There’s no way I’ll be able to read or see everything dystopian, especially since the resurgence thanks to Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy, but I’ll try. In college I’ve even wrote a term paper on the genre because I can’t get enough of it.

But when George Orwell’s “1984” becomes an Amazon bestseller after it becomes truth because of the rise of “alternative facts,” it's too late.

 The novel was published in 1949 as a warning of mass surveillance conducted by a totalitarian state. Dystopian works aren’t created after the fact because it doesn’t do the public any good and they wouldn’t be allowed to exist. 

Even if they don’t describe a better life, I read books to escape. It’s a pastime meant to distract me from current events. I have Margaret Atwood's “The Handmaiden’s Tale” loaded on my e-reader to read before I watch its television adaptation, but I'm in no rush to read it.

I can’t stomach reading about a totalitarian government overthrowing the United States when our current government is under investigation for ties with Russia.

What we need now is utopian fiction. Of course, the subgenre is lacking since it doesn’t have the same drama and emotional stakes. 

So we’ll have to make due with BBC’s “Planet Earth II.” A sequel to award-winning 2006 nature documentary series, the show focuses on a different biome with each episode.

When the first aired in the U.S. we had Sigourney Weaver as a narrator but Sir David Attenborough's soothing voice is rightfully back. Also returning are the stunning visuals that push the limits of cinematography. I remember when I first got a high-definition TV I immediately put on “Planet Earth” to run the gamut and stare at the pixels. In a few years I’ll be doing it again with part two when 4K televisions become mainstream.

The show isn’t 100% utopian because unfortunately the natural world is a rough one. If it wasn't, it would be Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” That’s not good either.

One episode features baby iguanas running to avoided snakes and rarely surviving. The camera operators do what most documentarians do and refrain from interfering, meaning not all newborns make it to the ocean. In another scene crows stealing carrion from an eagle in the Alps. Eventually more eagles arrive and it becomes an all out brawl. The scraps of flesh are the only protein the birds will see for weeks.

Yet the show doesn’t linger on the positives or negatives too long. There's a balance, a circle of life, if you will. The episode all about islands explains how a sloth is a walking ecosystem. Algae grow in fur that’s eaten by moths, bugs and other organisms. 

My muscles relax when the show is on. For a blissful hour I can watch something where there's no autocratic ruler taking advantage of the downtrodden. However, there is a tinge of fear. Like in the first one, Attenborough's script focuses on the dangers of global warming. The winters are getting shorter and less snow sits atop the Himalayas.

If we take out heads out of the sand we can plainly see that our actions are affecting every living thing on the planet. If we stop lying, scheming and harming one another we can realize what needs to be done.

Maybe we can learn a thing or two about coexistence from those we share the planet with. Be more like the sloth, less like the crow.

This column was originally published in the March 22, 2017 edition of the Valley Courier.