I recently read an excellent book: The Soviet novel, by Katarina Clark. There she observed that the socialist realism of the USSR suffered from what she called “modal schizophrenia”, as writers were expected to stick to the situations they described while evoking the better world that socialism would bring. They were caught trying to bridge this gap between what is and what should be.
Clark’s diagnosis made me laugh. I have been writing utopian novels for a long time and I recognize all too well the syndrome she describes. The novel is generally considered a realistic art form, and I would go even further: by telling the stories we use to understand our lives, the novel helps create our reality. In the novels, things go wrong, it’s the plot. People get by then. It is realism.
Utopia, on the other hand, is famed for “no place,” an idealized society sometimes described even in its sewage system. In utopia everything works fine, maybe even perfectly, but certainly better than things are working now. So utopias are like plans, while novels are like soap operas. By crossing these two genres, you get the hybrid called utopian novel: soap operas put in a blender with architectural plans. It doesn’t look so promising.
Then came that of Ursula K. Le Guin The dispossessed. Published in 1975, it was the first great utopian novel, and it showed just how good the poor, ill-bred hybrid can be. Of course, there had been utopian novels earlier, like that of William Morris. News from nowhere, or HG Wells A modern utopia, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, or that of Aldous Huxley Isle. These are all interesting efforts. But Le Guin’s book was a triumph. What she has shown is that by describing a utopian society in a moment of historical danger, you create all kinds of problems for it that its characters have to solve. He will be attacked from without, corrupted from within; things will go wrong, and so you have your plot. Le Guin combined an intriguing utopia with a gripping novel, and the result was superb. The inhabitants of its habitable moon, Annares, formed an alternative society to the imperial capitalist world, Urras. They have designed a system that is unmistakably feminist and either democratic socialist or anarcho-syndicalist, but in any case in a state of flux its people are doing all they can to keep the best in their minds. system while pushing back the impositions of the world of origin. . This is political fiction at its best.
Inspired by Le Guin’s example, I have tried this hybrid form many times, and have been blocked by its issues and stimulated by its potential. One weakness that I have become aware of is the frequency with which the authors of utopias pose them after a break in history that allows their societies to start from scratch. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More began to use this device with a physical symbol: the founders of his utopia dug a large trench, cutting a peninsula in half and creating a defensible island. Other forms of new beginnings appear in utopias throughout the centuries, always opening up the way to a new social order. Even Annares de Le Guin was founded by exiles from Urras.
But in this world, we will never have the chance to start over. This was one of the reasons Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels opposed 19th-century utopias like that of Charles Fourier, the French creator of small towns living in perfect harmony: they were fanciful solutions that were not useful. only to distract people from the real work of politics. and revolution. They were also in competition with Marx and Engels’ own ideas, so there were the usual internal squabbles of the left. But it was a legitimate complaint: if utopia is not a political program, then what is it for?
The answer should be obvious. Utopias exist to remind us that there could be a better social order than the one in which we find ourselves. Our current system is the result of a centuries-old power struggle, and it is devastating people and the biosphere. We have to change it and quickly. But to what?
Utopias are thought experiments. Imagine if things turned out like this: Wouldn’t that be good? Well, maybe… let’s live in it fictitiously for a while. What problems arise in this system? Can we solve them? What if we changed things that way or that? Let’s tell this story, then this story, and see how plausible they feel after spending imaginative time inside them.
The issues that might develop in a better proposed system both propel the plot of the novel and give you food for thought. Then, hopefully, you can apply what you have learned to your current political situation. After you’ve glimpsed a destination you love, you can then consider what actions are available at your own pace to get there. The great feminist utopias of Joanna Russ (The female man) and Marge Piercy (Woman on the edge of time) brought the experience of women’s political solidarity to life, and readers were then encouraged to change their current situation in these directions.
Now the wave of catastrophic climate change has forced a calculation. Either we invent and institute a better way, or mass extinction will drag us with it. Necessity has thus driven utopia into history and transformed it from a minor literary genre into an important tool of human thought. We need it like never before, and as the need has grown so acute, the bar has actually been lowered: if we manage to dodge a mass extinction event, then we can call it a utopia. People in any non-catastrophic future can breathe a sigh of relief, grateful for such a tremendous effort by our generation. A healthy relationship with nature will create and require a lot of good work and a commitment to justice for all creatures on Earth, humans included. It might be as close to utopia as we will ever get, and it would be close enough. After all, you don’t want to deprive future people of their plots.