Fantasy, science fiction, and the future of derp.

I have read some stupid assertions about Science Fiction and Fantasy over the years.  As I have internet access, this is inevitable.  People say idiotic things occasionally.  Then I read this from the Daily Kos, and watched as the bullshit  reached such a density that the article collapsed through it’s own event horizon until the pull of the derp became so strong that not even a coherent thought could escape.

We start with a intro about the distinction between Science Fiction and Fantasy, which is admittedly difficult on the margins. We already know we’re in troubled waters because the referents used seem to consist entirely of Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings.

This is going to be fun.

There’s an easier way to define the two biggest categories of speculative fiction, and it has nothing to do with which one has pointy-eared people called elves and which one features equally mucronate Vulcans. Instead, it’s all about time. More specifically, it’s about Time’s Arrow.

We then get a slug from this Wikipedia article after an explanation of all the Google hits we’re not referring to.

Ok, Second Law of Thermodynamics, gotca.

It’s like this: fantasy works backward. That’s not to say that fantasy fiction is filled with self-assembling tea cups. In fantasy, what’s reversed is progress.

Progress is simply the idea that the world becomes better at making buildings, better at making gadgets, better at medicine, better at communicating, better at explaining the world, better at providing a decent life for everyone. Better … over time. And surely the future shall be better for thee than the past, etc., etc.

In fantasy worlds, that’s often not the case. In many fantasies, there was once a time of Great Ones, a category including Noble men, Stately Elves, Impressive Giants, Personally Involved Gods, Bearded Wizards, and Interstellar Mollusks of Ill-Defined Colors. In this past time Great Deeds were done. Great Deeds that include raising of Impregnable Castles that stand still on lonely peaks, the digging of Great Mines that delved deep into Unknown Depths, the weaving of Great Spells that worked Mighty Wonders, the construction of Darkly Towering Towers that shielded deeds of unforgivable self-aggrandizement, and the forging of Great Items that no artisan today can match (this paragraph brought to you by Fantasy Capitals. Fantasy Capitals, lending Terrible Significance to ordinary words for a Very Long Time).

And thus begins the spiraling collapse of any intellectual heft this argument might have had. The above assertion is so mindlessly reductive that I doubt the author even read Tolkien, and simply formed an opinion on the genre based on the trailers for the Hobbit movies. But that’s not even the worst of it. We are using the concept of “Time’s Arrow” as a metaphor for the idea of “Progress.” Really? I know quite a few libertarians that would probably equate ideas about historical materialism with societal entropy, but I doubt that was the author’s intent.

Needless to say, the view of science fiction is also insanely reductive.

Science fiction, that is proper science fiction according to this 100 percent not original definition, has its arrow firmly pointed toward progress. Yes, things may be worse than they once were due to war, famine, or alien invasion, but it’s perfectly possible for our spunky audience surrogates to match and exceed previous achievements. You can build that spaceship, plant that flag, go where no one has gone before without regard to pedantic protectors of infinitives. Star Trek is science fiction not only because it imagines a future world where things are better than today, but because that world is firmly anchored in the idea that things can be better still. Transporters will transport over greater distances. Warp drives will be warpier. And both captains and crew expect to end their lives in a world that is measurably better than the one they were born into.

So Science Fiction is defined, pretty explicitly, as “that fiction that buttresses the stupid argument I’m making here.” Forget H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine. Orwell’s 1984. Most of Phillip K. Dick’s oeuvre.

Lord of the Rings is fantasy because everything of import originated Long, Long Ago. Our characters move against a backdrop of awe-inspiring ruins toting swords, armor, and rings embued with power by people that Knew Stuff. Stuff the likes of us are unlikely to ever cipher.

Thus, so is every single space opera that uses the trope of the ancient progenitors.

From that solemnly pronounced idiocy, the author devolves into the real argument he is attempting to make.

But there’s a problem with our politics. Somehow, for reasons that are not at all clear, we doubt the existence of progress.

Too often we treat an 18th century quote as if it’s the final card in an argument. Too often we look at yellowing documents as if they came not from politicians as venal and self-important as anyone on the stage today, but from marble demigods. Too often we weigh the best possible data available today, discover the best possible course of action available today, then say to ourselves, “Now how would a guy in a powdered wig have handled this?”

Oh, progress happens. There’s a sweet relationship between Time’s Arrow and the Arc of the Moral Universe. Greater knowledge has brought not only increased acceptance, but increased freedom. Only the arc isn’t just long, it’s much, much longer than it need be. A big part of that all too often we live in fantasy democracy … Fantocracy.

How do you know you’re in Fantocracy? If you’ve ever cited Adam Smith or Benjamin Franklin as an authority in an economic debate, you’ve put a foot in Fantocracy. If you believe no politician today can match the erudition and political brilliance of Thomas Jefferson, you’re in at least knee-deep. If your philosophy of good governance is based on George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or even a Roosevelt to be named later, you’re fully in Fantocracy. If your argument for the Second Amendment is based on anything said by Noah Webster, James Madison, or anyone else who died before the invention of the rifled slug … well, Mr. Bilbo, let me see if I can rustle up some taters.

And there you go. The inane literary argument exists solely to reach a preordained conclusion.  To wit, if you reference prior philosophy in arguments about social policy then you politics wrong.

Not only do you have the arc of the moral universe’s descent into sweet sweet entropy, you have the ahistorical assumption that somehow continuing forward in time inevitably leads to more enlightened political thought. I mean, what the hell happened to the arc of the moral universe in Iran and Afghanistan between 1950 and now? The fact something is old or new has very little bearing on its worth. Especially since the “progressive” thought espoused herein is over a century old itself.

Really, this is just a case of whether you prefer 19th Century German political philosophers to 18th Century English ones.

Our knowledge is steadily increasing. That includes the knowledge in how to form and manage a stable government. That includes the knowledge in how to run an economy. That includes the knowledge of how to regulate business, how to manage the environment, how to provide the greatest freedom to the greatest number.

I got a book for you.

You. You. Yes, you. You can understand economics better than Adam Smith. You can grasp the relationship between church and state better than Washington, fathom the balance between legislative and executive branches better than Jefferson, and wrestle with a thousand, a million, ideas they never knew existed.

So, being able to Google stuff makes everyone smarter than those poor old white dudes that lived before iPhones. And someone who wrote an article as intellectually sloppy as this one understands the balance of powers better than the folks who designed the system.

Yeah.

I think this guy was the one in class who asked why Newton’s theory of motion still worked if Einstein disproved it all.

Utopias are scary

So SF Signal led me to a review of a rather odd play with the provocative title (review title, not play title) “Why Are So Many Fictional Utopias as Terrifying as Dystopias?

This is a subject I’ve touched on before.  But the review’s author hits on something I haven’t touched on, one that should be seriously considered by any writer who wants to tackle a real utopian setting:

The issue with the audience’s conditioned expectations:

In watching this play, we bring in all of our abundant, engrained ideas of what lurks behind the copacetic veneer of utopia. For that reason, when a character (played by Catherine Brookman, who composed and performs all the soaringly layered music) disappears, it doesn’t seem a stretch to wonder if she was murdered by the leader.

This is despite the fact that the intent, and text, of the play in question is utopian. However, as Moze Halperin points out, we just aren’t used to real utopias:

False utopias — art’s favorite variety — tend to be more sinister even than dystopias, because they initially present themselves as Solutions. The key difference — the thing that makes these communities seem utopian at first — is that they’re typically extra-societal. Their sylvan or generally remote settings start by providing a sense of beauty and a return to simplicity, of de-corporatization and a sort of society-wide re-personalization. But that woodsy setting also soon reveals its happy micro-society to be a smaller version of exactly what went wrong elsewhere: notably, leadership as pure megalomania. The “personalization” created by the smallness of most utopias means that tyrants can physically govern — they can actually oppress people with their own bare hands. (John Hawkes’ Patrick, the leader of the Catskills cult in Martha Marcy May Marlene, for example, uses rape as an initiation ritual for the titular character — whom he also named as another assertion of his authority.)

And the woodland promise — the optimism of the marriage between humans and nature, of a return to nature as a symbol for wiping the slate clean — soon reveals itself to be a trap. In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village and Lepucki’s California, the central communities have built spiky ramparts (The Village‘s in the form of a spiky “creature,” California‘s in the form of actual massive “Spikes” made from sharpened detritus of a former society) to keep residents in and the outside world out. The below-the-surface tyranny of “utopias” — insomuch as they’re often small and rural — is also in some ways more direct than in urban, bureaucratic dystopias. These two prevalent forms of nightmarish society in art are disheartening because they suggest that imagining anything better than the status quo will lead to one of two options: either living in an urban center controlled by labyrinthine forces (which represent extremes of the private of public sectors) put in place only to keep you oppressed, or moving to the woods, donning braids, and getting sexually assaulted.

While this only refers to one particular type of utopia (there are as many kinds of utopia as there are political philosophies philosophers) the point holds for all of them.  How often, outside Star Trek, have you seen any fictional utopia and unconsciously primed yourself for the other shoe to drop, for the ugly secret to be revealed?  So, if you make the attempt, remember that I’m not the only reader who’ll poke around your utopian society looking for the mass graves.

A random thought about SFF and sexual politics

Two things converged in my head recently.

I didn’t comment about the whole Game of Thrones rape kerfuffle last month.  Mostly because I don’t watch Game of Thrones. But the controversy about it seemed (to me) to spring from a deep conflict between the contemporary ethos of sexual morality and a fiction portraying a world that does not share that ethos. (In my mind, such arguments tend to sound similar to those who wish to ban or censor Huckleberry Finn because Twain wrote “nigger” too much.) I won’t argue the particulars here when others have done so much better and are familiar with the source material.

But today I read a post about children’s author Enid Blyton that referenced a post about gender roles in SF by John C. Wright (in addition to Eric Raymond’s post about “Literary Status Envy,” which is outside the point of this post, but of interest to understand the current puppyish Hugo divisions.)

Now Mr. Wright is very Catholic. He is also persona non grata in much of fandom for reasons that should be clear upon reading the above link, reasons largely similar to the reasons many folks in fandom despise Orson Scott Card. Both are shunned and derided because they do not share the same ethos of sexual morality as those doing the shunning.  Some might argue that this is not why they dislike Mr. Card, or Mr. Wright. They’d argue that their dislike stems from the “hate” ascribed to such views.  That, I think, is simply rebranding the source of the disagreement, since those who call the views of Wright and Card hateful would feel likewise about any moral framework that defined homosexuality as wrong.

Mr. Wright has a religious view of sexual morality that historically was developed around procreation and preservation of the family unit. The exemplar sin here would be homosexuality, the epitome of the non-procreative sexual act.

Those that dislike Mr. Wright have a secular view of sexual morality that is based on mutual consent. The exemplar sin here would be rape, the epitome of the non-consensual sexual act.

Circling back to Game of Thrones then. The current secular western view of sexual morality is a relatively recent invention. If one writes about different times and places, the sexual mores of that time and place will not duplicate those of the current era. It strikes me then that those who cannot understand John C. Wright’s point of view on these matters (not share them, mind you, simply understand them) will not be able to convincingly imagine a society significantly different then the one they happen to inhabit.  It also strikes me that those responding so viscerally to the Game of Thrones might be having the same internal moral panic that John C. Wright experienced watching Legend of Koraa

Utopias again

So Charlie Stross has posted a lament about the dearth of Utopias in SF of late.  If you follow my blog, you may already have a good idea of what I think about that.  There are several issues I have with his post. (Probably all having to do with us being so politically opposed to each other that if we collaborated on a story, the manuscript would annihilate itself in a burst of gamma radiation.)  I mean, when I read the following:

Burkean conservativism tends to be skeptical of change, always asking first, “will it make things worse?” This isn’t a bad question to ask in and of itself, but we’re immured a period of change unprecedented in human history (it kicked off around the 1650s; its end is not yet in sight) and basing your policies on what you can see in your rear-view mirror leaves you open to driving over unforseen pot-holes.

I tend to see the false dilemma created by assuming that conservative policies are the only ones that fail to forsee potholes. I mean, look at all the great centralized economies of the 20th Century. But that’s neither here nor there.  What Stross would like to see is an attempt to deal with the future in a positive manner:

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Ok, I can see that.  But even that paragraph starts radiating the inherent bias that gives the lie to the final clause.  All Utopias, since they ARE the solution, are synthetic monocultures that accept no dissent.  The above essentially tells us in this particular “Utopian” vision, we all must adapt to densely-packed urban living.  Those who much prefer to live in a small town or rural environment would be SOL when it comes to peruse their happiness.  But we can fix that, by controlling the population…  Ooops, now we have China.

The problem is inherent in one of Stross’ premises:

[…] we should be able to create a new golden age of utopian visions. A global civilization appears to be emerging for the first time. It’s unstable, unevenly distributed, and blindly fumbling its way forward. But we have unprecedented tools for sharing information; slowly developing theories of behavioural economics, cognitive bias, and communications that move beyond the crudely simplistic (and wrong) 19th century models of perfectly rational market actors […]

There is the assumption that some universal global order is inevitable and in some sense desirable. It’s neither. It is not inevitable because the cultural and societal norms across the entire planet are divergent enough that a truly universal social order is only going to be possible by either making it so diffuse as to be largely irrelevant, or so powerful that it can crush the outlying populations into a thin paste. It is not desirable because you are giving your whole social order a single point of failure. With a single global order, you insure that when things finally go pear-shaped (and the one immutable rule of history is that things will) it takes down the whole planet with it. Our current series of crises are a demonstration of the principle: If Greece had bankrupted itself fifty years ago, no one would have cared.

So one answer to Stross’ final lament:

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Is to say, “don’t put all your eggs in that particular basket.”

Two Bloggers twig onto the dark side of Utopianism

So Scalzi opines on Atlas Shrugged (which I’m currently reading for the first time, via a 64-hour long audiobook.  If you’re curious, the book that filled the Atlas Shrugged slot in my teenage-reader political awakening was the Illuminatus! Trilogy.  Yeah, I’m weird that way.) and while I don’t have a lot to say about his analysis of the book itself, since I’m just reading it for the first time, I know enough of the plot I haven’t read to come up with a bit of a meta-commentary.  Quoth Scalzi:

All of this is fine, if one recognizes that the idealized world Ayn Rand has created to facilitate her wishful theorizing has no more logical connection to our real one than a world in which an author has imagined humanity ruled by intelligent cups of yogurt.  This is most obviously revealed by the fact that in Ayn Rand’s world, a man who self-righteously instigates the collapse of society, thereby inevitably killing millions if not billions of people, is portrayed as a messiah figure rather than as a genocidal prick, which is what he’d be anywhere else. Yes, he’s a genocidal prick with excellent engineering skills. Good for him. He’s still a genocidal prick.

Which is quite right. The dystopia in Atlas Shrugged is as frighteningly plausible as the one in 1984 and Brave New World, since it is based, in large part, on applying Soviet-classic modes of thinking to the US political system. If Rand had written a dystopia like Orwell and had Dagny Taggart broken by the system ala Winston Smith, I doubt Scalzi would have found the premise nearly as ridiculous. The problem comes when we place a set of characters into the crapsack world who know exactly what to do to fix it.

In a novel, that can work. John Galt can shut off production to the rest of the world (in an ironic echo of Stalin and Mao inducing famines through state control of agriculture) because he is RIGHT! He has the revealed knowledge that millions of people must die in order for the world to be saved from disaster.

That brings us to blog number two, which was inspired by this horrid little video:

From Shannon Love’s reaction on Chicago Boyz:

However, these kinds of thought experiments do demonstrate how absolute certitude makes it easy for anyone, no matter how humane and compassionate, to calmly rationalize the deaths of billions. At the extremities of events and the associated moral choices, the ends do definitely justify the means.

As a corollary, ideas that claim to predict extreme events with great certainty create the justifications for associated extreme acts. These types of ideas turn abstract moral thought experiments into concrete realities on which people feel compelled to act.

Notice a theme? Maybe we can make it a little more specific:

Those early members of the French Revolution who created The Declaration of the Rights of Man believed that reason could absolutely replace tradition They would never have believed their ideas could possibly lead to the Great Terror, Empire and contienent wide war.

The geneticists who created the idea of eugenics used the best available science of their day. With the imprimatur of science, eugenics became widely accepted by all educated, secular individuals across the political spectrum. It was considered “settled science”. No eugenist envisioned their idea would justify the greatest of wars and the Holocaust.

Marxists the world over who rushed to join the newly formed Communist party in 1917 sincerely believed they were contributing to a world free of want, ignorance, oppression and inequality. They did not imagine in the least that the ideas they promulgated would create totalitarian, megacidal regimes that would push humanity to the precipice of extinction more than once.

Or, to put a fine point on it, as soon as some ideology decides that an abstraction is more important than an individual human life, you have established a moral framework for mass murder on an industrial scale.  All Utopias are based on the idea of eliminating the undesirables.

Elizabeth Moon and the Category Problem of Extremist Islam

Elizabeth Moon upset a lot of people over the week and a half by posting about citizenship, the 9/11 attacks, and the proposed Cordoba cultural center a few blocks from Ground Zero. As she said about building the cultural center, she “should have been able to predict that this would upset a lot of people.” There were many folks condemning the perceived nativism and bigotry of her comments, and calls to boot her off her GoH spot at Wiscon. (Wiscon’s statement about it here.)

Reading Moon’s post, and some of the other responses on the internet, and even more widely about the controversy about the Cordoba Initiative’s community center in Manhattan in general, I am struck at a rather unfortunate blurring between Islam in general, and politicized extremist Islam. We have, at the moment, Islam the religion as a whole, and within it a movement of wackos who probably have their closest Christian analogs being the Christian Identity movement.  The main difference is that the Christian Identity wackos have never gained enough political power to gain control of a whole country and start hanging gay people.  The Islamic wackos have.  And all sides of the debate seem to contribute to this unhealthy identification of extremists with the whole in a sick sort of codependent symbiosis where Muslim voices who critique politicized extremist Islam are marginalized by the left in the name of tolerance and the right subsequently decries the lack of “moderate” Muslim voices condemning the acts of the extremists, and where a sick pastor on the right can threaten to burn a Koran to protest the violence of Islam and the administration on the left can successfully shut him down primarily by pleading fears of the violence this would provoke in the Islamic world.

So, while it’s fine using this as a teachable moment, I wonder if all the calls for tolerance whenever 9/11 comes up is not, in fact, helping to blur the line.  It is sort of like responding to an anti-Christan rant about Fred Phelps by calling for more understanding and tolerance of Christians in general.  You may have a good point, but by ignoring the fact the original person was reacting to a subset of crazy people and identifying them with the whole, you end up tacitly going along with identifying the crazy people with the whole.

Keep Your Laws off my Starship

I tend to write libertarian-themed Space Opera, which means that when I read this recent blog post by Charlie Stross, I had a bit of a reaction.  Here’s the money quote:

“In other words: space colonization is implicitly incompatible with both libertarian ideology and the myth of the American frontier.”

Okay then.  I guess it should come as no surprise that I think he’s wrong.  Or, should I say, half wrong.

I think I’ll first address the point wherein I think he’s got it right.  He points out, correctly, that space colonization is horrendously expensive in time and resources, the infrastructure needed to independently maintain a technological civilization is pretty damn huge, and the nature of a space borne environment means that voting with one’s feet is pretty much off the table.  Thus he’s quite correct that any analogies to the American frontier are waaaaaay off the mark.  Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a strawman there because this also means the same thing about analogies with the Australian frontier, or the Age of Exploration, or any other historical migration/invasion/colonization you might want to name ever since our Australopithecus ancestors walked out of Africa.  This is for two reasons, one he mentions and one he doesn’t.  Every other historical migration of humans from point A to point B involved a point B that was largely habitable and could support a population on its own.  The point he doesn’t mention is that every human migration also had a motive of somehow exploiting point B for the profit of those migrating: be it better farmland, more slaves, gold, oil, or just some real estate to put between them and the folks who wanted to steal their stuff.

Where he gets it wrong is the following:

I postulate that the organization required for such exploration is utterly anathema to the ideology of the space cadets, because the political roots of the space colonization movement in the United States rise from taproots of nostalgia for the open frontier that give rise to a false consciousness of the problem of space colonization. In particular, the fetishization of autonomy, self-reliance, and progress through mechanical engineering — echoing the desire to escape the suffocating social conditions back east by simply running away — utterly undermine the program itself and are incompatible with life in a space colony (which is likely to be at a minimum somewhat more constrained than life in one of the more bureaucratically obsessive-compulsive European social democracies, and at worst will tend towards the state of North Korea in Space).

This is where he makes a mistake that I fear is endemic in popular political thought on the left; the idea that since libertarianism cannot abide collectivism and believes in a minimal State, it must therefore be a philosophy of social nihilism that opposes any and all collective action, organization, or rules.  (How often I hear, “But don’t you approve of traffic laws?” in a self-congratulatory tone.)  This, to put it mildly, is bullshit.  The libertarian ideology is NOT incompatible with life in a space colony, however draconian the rules of survival need be, as long as the colony is a privately run enterprise and the inhabitants were all there by their own choice, and aren’t living off the threat of force to appropriate the resources needed for their survival. But that scenario runs counter to the unstated assumption that it is impossible to have a massive organized effort of people and resources of the kind required to build a space colony without a State-run effort appropriating, by force, the resources and manpower to do it.  That is also bullshit.  If there is a significant enough return to be had on the investment, a private entity can act with the resources and organization of a State.  (Though, given the corporatist post-fascist globalized world we all live in, the most likely scenario is the corporate hijacking of the State’s monopoly on force to have the State appropriate the resources to invest in space exploration adventures on their behalf, therefore minimizing their own risks by spreading it among the entire taxpaying population, sort of like the banking industry— of course someone will use that as a critique of capitalism and call for more State control of the effort, giving yet more power to the symbiotic State-corporate entity, which is so completely missing the fucking point my head wants to explode…)

The primary reason that neither State nor corporation has built anything remotely like the space colonies envisioned in SF is because there’s absolutely no compelling reason for them to do so.  So far the only profitable uses we’ve found for space is communicating long distances and spying on the enemy.  Neither of which requires a manned presence.  As I said above, every human migration from point A to point B also had a motive of somehow exploiting point B for the profit of those migrating.  So one might as well just say that such colonization— at least until there is some substantial profit in the enterprise— is anathema to human nature.

Meta Politics

Thought that, instead of my normal rant on current events, I’d go and post a little bit about some first principles.  This is by way of explaining why my friend Maureen calls my politics “weird.”  Usually, a preface like that leads to some moral calculation of why this system is good and that system is evil, but I’m going to abstract a little further than that; I want to explain how I believe groups of human beings work.  In fact, I think the central flaw in libertarianism (the philosophy I ascribe to) is its difficulty in accounting for group action.  The best way I think I can describe this is in a little list of axioms:

  • Axiom 1:  All self-organized groups of human beings are fundamentally identical in nature. (i.e. The Post Office, The U.N., Microsoft, The Local School Board, the SEIU, the Catholic Church, all have a set of common characteristics and  behaviors just by being a group of people acting collectively.  The reason for the organization, and the context of the organization, make no difference.)
  • Axiom 2:  Morality is a characteristic of individual human beings, not groups.  All self-organized groups are amoral and behave without regard to the moral context of the culture they reside in.
  • Axiom 3: Any self-organized group will act to preserve its existence with any and all tools available to it.
  • Axiom 4: Any self-organized group will act to increase its status, power, money and influence with any and all tools available to it. (Non-profits and NGOs are as hungry for money as your average evil multinational corporation.  Governments even more so.)
  • Axiom 5: No self-organized group will willingly act to cede any of its status, power, money and influence. (Note: Admitting error is ceding status and influence.)
  • Axiom 6: Axioms 3, 4 & 5 all apply to sufficiently powerful members of the organization.
  • Axiom 7: These axioms generally override any other laws, principles, codes of conduct, or written charters both internal and external to the organization except in those cases where failure to follow those laws, principles, codes of conduct, or written charters would inevitably lead to a loss of status, power, money and influence.  (i.e. don’t get caught.)

Running away from Utopia

Anyone following my blog should realize I have a strong libertarian streak, which may in fact confuse some people who’ve read my Hostile Takeover books and/or Prophets. The planet Bakunin plays a central role throughout, and while it has a functioning anarcho-capitalist society, its not portrayed as a shining Heinleinesque utopia of the competent man, I’ve described it more a Somalia with venture capital.

So why would I take a world embodying some of my deeply held ideals and portray it in an, at best, ambiguous light?

There are two reasons.

First reason, utopias are boring places to write about. We have the perfect society, now what? In order to have any conflict the story has to turn into soap opera dealing with nothing larger than the character’s personal interrelationships, or you have to pull elements from outside the story into the “perfection,” or throw your characters outside their perfect world (see: Star Trek TOS). In all three cases, the “utopia” is relegated into the background.

Second reason, a utopia requires one of two prerequisites. The first possibility is the idea that human society is somehow perfectible and everyone will realize the perfection once its glory is made manifest, a belief I find naive and somewhat creepy. The second possibility is much more sinister; that those forming the utopian order insure that everyone realizes and accepts the perfect order. Human history is painted red with the blood of those who didn’t accept the latest vision of the perfect society.  Utopia, in practice, is synonymous with totalitarianism.

Every time I see a perfect society in SF; orderly, clean, free of acrimony or dissent, I have to wonder what happened to the oddballs, the assholes, and the people that didn’t fit in to this perfect realm. Where are the asylums, the prisons, the re-education camps, the mass graves. . .

(And in a truly amazing coincidence, after I wrote this, I ran across a video that perfectly encapsulates this thought, and ties it into our beliefs about the nature of man.)