Ten Essential Utopias

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Humans have always dreamed of a perfect world, free from the cares, controversies, confusions, crimes, and cancers of daily existence. At first, such a paradise seemed impossible to secure in terrestrial territory, and its only possible location had to be consigned to the afterlife. I’m certain that our Neanderthal ancestors told tales of a Valhalla where mammoths lay down and cooked themselves, the sun always shone, the air was balmy, and no one cut their fingers while knapping flints.

But during the progress of civilization, three developments began to illuminate the possibility that paradise, or a rough semblance thereof, might with some heroic efforts be attained on this earth, in a mortal’s lifetime.

The first development was the realization that the systems whereby masses of people lived together cooperatively could be engineered, tweaked to achieve desired ends, with or without the consent of the masses. Rules of government were not immutable, divine laws.

The second development was a belief in the constancy of change and the existence of the future. In a static view of existence, where the future was more or less identical to the eternal past, no new alternatives existed. But a future that was undetermined, subject to speculation and visionary plans, could hold anything.

Third, science and technology offered a massive lever for lifting humans out of whatever current bad fix they found themselves in. It opened up vast new territories in both the intellectual and corporeal realms. Housing could be perfected, diseases eliminated with these heretofore unavailable tools. More important, we could formulate ways of thinking that were better aligned with the newly discovered principles on which the universe actually worked.

These revelations were certainly present as far back as the era of classical Greece, leading to such quasi-literary thought experiments as Plato’s Republic. As civilization advanced and retreated through peaks and valleys, the utopian mode of speculating became codified, a natural, accepted kind of narrative for conveying the author’s notions of how human existence could be improved. The utopian vision became almost synonymous, with greater or lesser prominence from novel to novel, with science fiction itself. By the end of the twentieth century there existed an immense and growing catalogue of such books, as detailed in the relevant entry at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia. The schemes for creating heaven on earth ranged from the bland and bureaucratic to the mad and capricious. One of my own favorites at the loony end of the spectrum is The World a Department Store, wherein a happy humanity was fated to inhabit a kind of global Macy’s. And who knows if consumerism is not leading us there in reality?

But of course, nowadays the utopian mode is out of favor. Why?  Because we have lost faith in the three pillars of the utopia. We do not believe that political and social systems can be successfully engineered; we do not believe that the future will bring anything better than the present; and we mistrust science and technology. Hence, dystopias rule shelves and screens.

But a small subset of authors such as Neal Stephenson, whose Project Hieroglyph is determined to foster upbeat science fiction, is reopening the genre to utopian visions. To help remind these new writers and readers of the possibilities inherent in the mode, here are ten landmarks in the genre.

A Modern Utopia, H. G. Wells, 1905
Coming as the culmination of much previous published thinking on the topic, Wells’s book presents a remarkably sophisticated and comprehensive roadmap of his ideal state, the first recognizably non-classical utopia. Hardly a slam-bang thriller, it is cast in a discursive yet surprisingly readable mode (there’s even a mild-mannered love story). Wells tellingly notes at the outset that all modern utopias must represent a fluid set of ideals, strategies not set in stone but changing in response to individuals and circumstances. He also insists that utopias cannot any longer be isolated Shangri-las but should encompass an entire planet. Journeying to an imaginary world across the galaxy that is nonetheless identical to our own, Wells charts relations between the sexes and different races, and plumps for poetry to flourish right alongside what today we call the STEM disciplines.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915
Best known for her short feminist fable “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Gilman proves herself clever and capable at novel length as well. Her provocative fantasia about an isolated contemporary land inhabited solely by females starts out with a pulp brio utterly antithetical to Wells’s novel. Three male explorers deliberately seek out the rumored Herland and are captured with gentle firmness by the parthenogenic citizens. After picking up the mellifluous language, they are given the standard educational tour that such visitors to hidden enclaves always receive, but with an intimate, domestic particularity that does not exclude macroeconomics. Gilman varies the reactions of the three men in clever ways as they find themselves seduced by the sanity and peacefulness of Herland. The book ends on a quavering note of uncertainty: can Herland and the outside world coexist, or is female-centric society doomed in the face of the heterogenous world?

Venus Plus X, Theodore Sturgeon, 1960
This novel is probably the most underrated work in the canon of SF’s master poet, Theodore Sturgeon. Gorgeously written in the patented Sturgeon manner — looking back to Ray Bradbury, forward to Samuel Delany — it remains utterly provocative and relevant today, fifty-plus years after its debut. Two tracks run side by side: in the world of 1960, a young husband confronts all the unconscious and explicit bile and prejudice clustered around gender roles, while in an unspecified future era, a time-traveling peer, Charlie Johns, gets to experience the society of the Ledom, functioning hermaphrodites with a super-science technology. The two narratives refract each other beautifully, and Sturgeon pulls the rug out from under both in a masterful endgame move.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin, 1974
Having delivered in 1969 her quasi-utopian masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness — a book that seems a lineal descendant of Venus Plus X — Ursula K. Le Guin took the next few years to perfect a full-fledged foray into that subgenre, climaxing with The Dispossessed. Two worlds lie in close orbital conjunction, Urras and Anarres. The former is well populated, powerful, rich — a First World place, if you will — while the latter is sparsely inhabited, humble, poor: a typical Third World venue. But Annares has the enlightened philosophy of Odo to govern its society, and the inhabitants exist in a kind of liberté, égalité,  fraternité unknown to the “possessed” souls of Urras. With its parallel threads — the realtime exploits of exiled physicist Shevek on Urras and his back-story on Annares — the book limns its utopia not only by what it has but by what its companion lacks.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ, 1975
About halfway through Joanna Russ’s polemical, impassioned part-utopia, The Female Man, comes the sentence, “This book is written in blood.” And so must the honest, resonant reader affirm, for the living stream of the book still runs crimson today. No mere cerebral disquisition — though it is bursting with ideas — Russ’s mosaic, surreal, hallucinatory book reflects the “all politics is personal” chaotic era of its composition, when all ancient standards were up for reinterpretation or educational explosion. A bevy of J-named female avatars exist on several timelines, in a kind of Moorcockian existential welter. The utopian continuum is Whileaway, an updated version, conscious or not, of Herland, where ultra-competent women fill every lifestyle niche. As in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the released potential of the Whileawayans assumes greater vividness, thanks to the contrast with the stifled lives of the other characters.

Trouble on Triton, Samuel R. Delany, 1976
The Dispossessed is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia. And in explicit dialectic with that, as part of the great perpetual dialogue of science fiction, Samuel Delany’s book is subtitled An Ambiguous Heterotopia. Set in the force-bubbled city of Tethys on Triton, moon of Neptune, a pocket utopia of “forty or fifty sexes and twice as many religions,” the novel follows the cack-handed life of Bron Helstrom, former male prostitute, emigrant from Mars. His clumsy navigation of his own feelings and the labyrinthine interpersonal rituals of the city, against a backdrop of interplanetary war, illustrate the truism that even paradise cannot solace all misfits. Echoing both the Russ and Sturgeon entries, Delany’s parable of rubes and cosmopolitans also forecasts something very much like today’s Internet, chalking up a seminal insight into how utopias might benefit by being wired for smoother functioning.

Pacific Edge, Kim Stanley Robinson, 1990
Having reached its twenty-fifth anniversary, Pacific Edge remains as lucid and relevant a blueprint for a stable, expansive future as it brightly betokened upon its debut. Robinson has been concerned with utopias since the dawn of his career, from his famous Mars Trilogy (which envisioned creating the best possible society for a virgin planet) right up to one of his most recent forays, 2312. His work — and this novel in particular — display a buoyant California optimism and a flair for what might be termed “infrastructure and zoning law” fiction. The Beach Boys vibe of the opening line — “Despair could never touch a morning like this” — is counterbalanced with savvy dialogue on water resources and urban development. Diary entries from one of the cast conduct a meta-discussion on the nature of literary utopias that reflects Robinson’s deep, fruitful thinking on this mode.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow, 2003
The utopia dream factory entered the twenty-first century in the capable hands of a new generation of writers, chief among whom was Cory Doctorow, who was born just around the time Le Guin was writing The Dispossessed. His very first novel,  Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, ushered the utopia into the wired, digital age. In a future where sprightly “adhocracies” have replaced conventional corporations; where money is superseded by a kind of social media status known as “whuffie”; and where even mortality itself is circumvented by brain uploads into fresh clones, ambition, passion, and playfulness continue to create emotional dramas for our hero, Julius, a fellow enamored of the great Walt Disney and his legacy. No prior utopia on this list can accurately be described as “comedic.” Doctorow’s greatest contribution — following perhaps in the footsteps of Rudy Rucker — might arguably be said to be investing utopia with a sense of humor and the absurd. In 2012, Doctorow would later team up with Charles Stross for The Rapture of the Nerds, an even more rollicking and outrageous trans-human jaunt.

Accelerando, Charles Stross, 2005
As with many classics of the SF field, Stross’s Accelerando (Singularity, Book 3) is a “fix-up,” a novel-like narrative whose components first appeared separately, and to instant acclaim, as nine stories that reveal their overall arc and purpose only when assembled under one cover. The book deploys the famous dictate of editor John W. Campbell — write science fiction as if it were the mimetic fiction from the future of its setting — to the max. No longer is a Wellsian stand-in led by a native lecturer holding his hand through the complexities of the imaginary land. Information overload is both a tool and an effect. The reader must get up to speed fast or be left behind in this “one new idea per paragraph” style of fiction. Opening on the edge of the Singularity, with the wacky exploits of “venture altruist” Manfred Macx, the book charts the hockey-stick graph of technological acceleration: “Most of the thinking power on the planet is now manufactured rather than born; there are ten microprocessors for every human being, and the number is doubling every fourteen months . . . ”  By the opening of Part Three, after a series of dramatic saltations, “eleven billion future-shocked humans” find themselves just one faction in an Oz-like landscape where anything that can be imagined can be accomplished.

The Hydrogen Sonata, Iain M. Banks, 2012
The entire nine-book Culture series of Iain Banks is generally acknowledged as the finest extant exploration of a “post-scarcity” era that permits the kind of multivalent, myriad ,and mutable utopias first envisioned by Wells and, later, by Delany. As the ultimate book from Banks — whose death in 2013, at the age of fifty-nine, curtailed further exploration of his imagined future — this novel stands well for the whole. Once again, by moving up and down a scale of social and technological complexity, and even into the virtual realm known as the Sublime, Banks proves that utopias do not have to be devoid of traditional narrative engines of conflict.  His diverse cast exhibits a kind of postmodern aversion to reductionist methods of government, of thinking, of living, of interpersonal relationships. The multiplicity of lifestyles, of societal systems, of fleshly incarnations (changed as easily as clothing) bespeaks a desire for maximum freedom of thought and society — ultimately, the polestar of all utopias.



Image of “Utopien 04” by Makis E. Warlamis via Wikimedia Commons.