Please Read Utopian Fiction!
Updated on 5 February, 2016
All meaningful and lasting change starts first in your imagination and then works its way out. Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Basically, if you’re not a utopianist, you’re a schmuck.
A good friend, someone who is working towards the transformation of our society into something resilient, equitable and beautiful, told me the other day that they can’t actually imagine what a transformed society would look like, and that they felt that that was impeding their ability to stay motivated. I couldn’t believe it. For me what we’re working towards is so vivid and real, and that’s part of what’s helped me to not just imagine a better future and stay motivated, but to share that vision with others and motivate them.
I think I got a lot of that concrete vision from reading utopian fiction over the years. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there are huge numbers of dystopian Hollywood movies, but literally zero utopian ones. Masses of people imagining a sane and amazing world is dangerous to the establishment. So please read utopian fiction and please lend it to friends, it’s inspiring and motivating. Utopian fiction helps us to aim for what we actually want – as Charles Eisenstein puts it, ‘the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’ – rather than aiming for something just slightly better than what we’ve got.
A transition to a simple resilient system is not something most people seem to want at the moment. Why would they when they’ve got all the creature comforts and distractions of consumer society and don’t even really have to think for themselves? The things people actually do want are community, beauty, equality and a sense of purpose to their lives. That’s the sort of stuff we need to be talking about when we’re promoting transition, and if you can’t even really imagine it, how can you inspire others to work towards it?
‘Another world is possible’, the slogan of the World Social Forum, is a direct response to Margaret Thatcher’s repeated catchcry ‘There is no alternative’. Most strangers I talk to don’t have any concept that an alternative is possible, and this is the biggest battle we have to fight. If people in general believed there was a much better alternative possible, changing the world wouldn’t be anywhere near as difficult as it is.
We have to have alternatives to show people, otherwise the dominant utopian narrative remains that of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (in 2009, just after the global financial crisis hit, it was the top-selling fiction novel on Amazon.com and had sold over 7 million copies since it was published in 1957). This extremely individualistic and capitalistic utopian novel was given to me by my dad when I was 16, and, like many others, I ended up thinking that capitalism was the most fantastic and ethical political and economic system ever dreamt up. While that book probably got me into the genre, it had a strong influence (as utopian novels do), taking me another five years to realise how bullshit it all was.
And of course, the idea of utopia itself is pretty much bullshit too. There’s no such thing as a world with no disease, heartbreak, death, conflict, or where we are not at the mercy of weather and other systems that are just much bigger than us. I do believe in the possibility of a world where life is organised in a fairer, freer, more resilient and more enjoyable way. But there’s no achieving of it – there will always be iterations, getting closer and closer (or further and further away). As Kim Stanley Robinson said, “Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.” I believe that the civilisational collapse that is ongoing around us gives us a good chance at turning the world around in a more utopian direction. Everything is changing. Which way it goes is up to us.
So I want to tell you about six of my favourite utopian novels. Everyone’s utopia would be different, with different people having different values and different focal points for change, so I’m hoping that at least one of these sounds exciting to you and you can get your hands on it and enjoy it. There will be some spoilers; it’s hard to say much about the books otherwise. If you don’t want any spoilers at all though, stop reading after the next paragraph, which is a brief list and description of each novel! I highly recommend all of these.
Entropia by Samuel Alexander is a story of an isolated society based on the principles of voluntary simplicity. The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk is a story of a non-violent, permaculture-based, spiritual society post-collapse. The Free by Mike Gilliland (only available as a free pdf) is a story of post-collapse transition towards an anarchist society. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercey is a permaculture-based, anarchistic, feminist society of the far future. The Dispossessed is Ursula Le Guin’s comparison of two societies, one a rich capitalist world and the other an imperfect and poor taoist and anarchist world. The Mars Trilogy by Kim Stephen Robinson is an epic series documenting the colonisation of Mars (and the concurrent collapse on Earth), and its three revolutions which, over two hundred years, turn it into a utopian society.
Entropia, written by Samuel Alexander, co-founder of the Simplicity Institute is written from the first person perspective of a character tasked with documenting their society. While many utopian novels have been criticised for being rote descriptions of what life is like (including an obligatory birth scene, death scene, school scene, relationships discussion, work discussion, etc.), and this one does follow that format, I couldn’t put Entropia down. It is the story of a society set up on a small island as the experiment of an extremely rich man who realised that true happiness could only be found in simplicity and community. This short novel really shows how simply we need to live if we’re to be resilient and live equitably. It also makes a great case for voluntary simplicity on the basis of happiness, and discusses why a change from today’s society was so badly needed. There’s a good twist at the end too, but there’s no need to spoil it for you here.
The Fifth Sacred Thing
The Fifth Sacred Thing is written by Starhawk, who is an activist, a psychologist and a pagan. These days she teaches permaculture and is organising for the book to hopefully be made into a feature film. It’s an epic story of a post-collapse utopian society in San Francisco which clashes with the totalitarian society dominating the rest of the United States. There’s a bit more of a focus on magic and supernatural forces than I would have liked, but otherwise the book is brilliant. San Francisco has basically been transformed into a food forest, with all the buildings covered in murals and polyamoury, the norm. The story goes into the participatory democracy the society uses, including with people acting as representatives of the environmental elements, fire, earth, water and air. Oh and they manage to win a war against the fascists using only non-violence in a way that’s largely believable.
The Free by Mike Gilliland is a very believable mid-collapse revolution story. I’ve never read anything quite like it, particularly the way the characters and the subculture remind me of the activist community I’m a part of. It’s set in England, beginning further along into a societal collapse than where we are now. The story follows the life of some of the key organisers of the revolution who live in a commune together in polyamorous relationships, taking in orphans they find. Fascism is on the rise, particularly at the schoolyard and street level, but people are both taking anti-fascist action and organising to build alternatives. They build amazing suburb-wide co-operatives which, if you get a job in one, meet all your basic needs. The police force and army aren’t getting paid well enough by the government any longer, and end up taking jobs in the co-operatives. After the revolution, the expected happens, with the Americans invading, but a similar strategy is employed to that presented by Starhawk in The Fifth Sacred Thing, with the invading army joining the revolution because the lifestyle is just that much better than life in the army. The society they build is a little more technological than I think is likely or desirable environmentally, but otherwise this novel was great – it really tells the story of how a mid-collapse revolution could potentially go. It’s only available online.
Woman on the Edge of Time
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercey is set in the distant future, and told through the eyes of a time-travelling character who has been unfairly condemned to life in an insane asylum in the present time. The future society is permacultural, polyamourous, extremely feminist and largely androgynous. While being extremely low tech in most ways, they selectively use high technology where they deem it important. This includes growing babies in brooders so that women are no longer responsible for childbearing, and both men and women breastfeed. They use the pronoun person instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’, and ‘per’, ‘pers’ and ‘perself’ instead of ‘her’, ‘hers’ and ‘herself’. Everyone is expected to do part of the work of growing food and other domestic chores, regardless of how brilliant they are at whatever else they specialise in. And again, there is a totalitarian society that this utopian society is at war with. I highly recommend this novel for changing the way you think about work, gender and relationships.
The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia
Ursula Le Guin has written several great utopian novels, including Always Coming Home, Eye of the Heron, and her most famous work, The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia. All three share a theme arguing that utopia is always ambiguous or fragile. In The Dispossessed, the first major critique of the utopian society is that social power, a sense of obligation, and manipulation are still used to gain power over others, even in an otherwise anarchist society. The main characters start a printing co-operative in order to expose this fact, and meet with much disdain from the supposed non-government. Really the book ends when this is just about to get interesting, and it is implied that there will be a revolution to deal with this issue. I tend to agree that social power created through manipulation and aggression tends not to be taken as seriously as it should be by anarchists, so I think this critique is really useful. The second major critique of the utopian society implies that there cannot be true anarchism when scarcity is involved, since everyone’s freedom is restricted by being forced to act in the public interest (even if out of a sense of obligation). Which is really just to say even utopian life won’t be perfect. We will always have responsibilities and constraints, no matter how much freedom we have. It’s quite thought-provoking and un-put-down-able.
The Mars Trilogy
Kim Stephen Robinson’s The Mars Trilogy is an epic science fiction story of the colonisation of Mars and the collapse on Earth. I almost didn’t include it here since it’s so techno-utopian as to be unbelievable, but the politics are just great, and the way collapse goes on Earth is really interesting as well. I do think it odd that if they’re capable of terraforming Mars to make it liveable they would surely also have been capable of geo-engineering Earth’s climate so as to avoid environmental collapse, but oh well, it’s fiction.
The Mars Trilogy is made up of Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars; each has a revolution at the end which improves upon the last. One of the things that makes this work so well is that they’ve developed longevity treatments which allow people to live for 250 years or more, so the people who were instrumental in the first revolution remember their mistakes well and are able to influence the second and third revolutions so as to improve on them each time. If only mass movements could learn from history quite as well! The fight is against domination by the Terran metanationals (and their host countries). The first revolution is extremely violent, and wins them some concessions (less migration from the overpopulated earth and less exporting of raw materials to earth) for some time, though the metanational influence slowly creeps back in. The second revolution is based on building an alternative economy which is capable of replacing the metanational one (more along the lines of what could hopefully happen in our own mid-collapse ‘revolution’). And the third is completely non-violent, with the metanationals having totally lost their legitimacy. Another interesting theme in the novels is the political fight between the Reds who want to keep Mars as it is, and the Greens who want to terraform the planet for human habitation. Overall the books are a little difficult to read and very heavy on the science, but really well worth it for the politics.