Dystopia Love

Check out the goodie-loaded post on dystopia at SFSignal’s Mind Meld, wherein Mary Robinette Kowal and Paolo Bacigalupi point to Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (my favorite) as one of their favs, and Jeremiah Tolbert shows some love of the dystopian Half-Life 2. Plus, John Joseph Adams, editor of of recently-released Brave New Worlds anthology, shares his picks.

What’s Utopia Got to Do With It?

I’ll give all the talk-talk-talk about utopia a rest after this, I swear.

A busy few days here. In the main, I went camping for the weekend with my son’s newly formed Earth Scouts troop, and on Monday gave my first lecture on women’s utopian narrative at Florida Southern College.

Related, how?

Earth Scouts is kind of like Boy/Girl Scouts, except instead of fundraising, its program is designed to further the goals of the Earth Charter; namely, social justice, sustainability, and peace. The program doesn’t just educate about these ideas; kids are encouraged to take specific action to change the world for the better. Lofty vision, to be sure, and it sounds worthwhile.

However, at the parents’ meeting I found myself wondering how to teach these values to young, squirming kids (who spent the larger part of the weekend running full-tilt until they dropped instead of, say, playing video games). I know there are ways, but overall I was skeptical. Creating meaningful change in the world is a big charge to put on tiny shoulders. Plus, I find these concepts are synonymous with a Unitarian Universalist education, which most of them are getting already.

Heck, I just wanted to go camping, watch kids roast marshmallows, bang some drums around the campfire, and we did all those things, too. But it got me thinking.

The campground itself is an experiment in peace, sustainability and justice, rooted in a cooperative tradition that may seem a little hippy to the rest of the world. My favorite part is the bathhouse, built several years ago and covered with constantly updated art and slogans promoting peace and pagan culture.

The campground was a good space for me to think about what brings me peace, how I can cultivate joy in my life, how I can be true to my ideals. But it’s not enough to contemplate, to wish and dream. Like the Earth Scouts, I have to take action to reach those goals knowing they may be just beyond my grasp. I may have to accept that my dreams are too big, my aspirations too lofty. I may have to accept failure while acknowledging the attempt as worthwhile, even vital.

To me, striving is the essence of utopia, not reaching a state of perfection. It’s the “no-place,” after all. If it was easy to get there, it wouldn’t be so fascinating, so tantalizing there on the horizon. It wouldn’t be worth the risk.

On Monday, I tried explaining this to a bunch of sleepy undergrads. Some of them grasped the idea, went along with me for the ride. I had carefully prepared notes that I essentially ignored, and plowed right into explicating the thrills of speculation and world-building, the social ramifications of utopian dreaming, the influence of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics, the fuzzy line demarcating the boundaries of utopia and dystopia…

Until the brightest bulbs began to glaze over, and I released them into the world. I can hope they took some of my dreamy utopian striving along with them.

Defining Utopia, part 1

Jill Dolan, professor of English and Theatre at Princeton University, defines utopia in this way:

“Utopia,” she says, “is always a metaphor, always a wish, a desire, a no-place that performance can sometimes help us map if not find. But a performative is not a metaphor; it’s a doing, and it’s in the performative’s gesture that hope adheres, that communitas happens, that the not-yet-conscious is glimpsed and felt and strained toward.”

On Utopia and Dystopia

Utopian narrative is one passion of mine. Any casual mention of this topic, and I’m forced to exercise restraint. I tighten my lips and fold my arms to choke down the urge to launch into a one-woman animated jabberfest, complete with arm-waving.

During these displays, unwitting participants attempt to interject, sometimes to complain, that utopia is overly idealistic and ultimately dystopian because utopian equality depends on sameness and social control. Kinda like communism. It looks good on paper. This happens to be true, in my opinion, but more on that later.

I also hear that utopias, what Bruce McAllister has characterized as “those perfect societies we keep making in fiction that never quite ring true,” are no fun to read about because they make the reader feel inferior (shocked and dismayed expression) or they are too perfect to be relevant to our chaotic world. Readers would much rather chow down on a gritty but hearty dystopia, sprinkled with a bit of violence, that shows our current chaos to be comfortable.

Pandora, a character in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, feels similarly. “I never did like smart-ass utopians,” she says. “Always so much healthier and saner and sounder and fitter and kinder and tougher and wiser and righter than me and my family and friends. People who have the answers are boring, niece. Boring, boring, boring.”

I’ll admit that I enjoy dystopian tales (and right about here I start waving my arms around), but always dig for the utopian heart. The two are in tension, you see, not in opposition, kissing cousins that illuminate the impulse towards utopia and the tricky business of the endeavor. They reflect one another.

Take, for example, Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. This novel of the near future, captured in Butler’s characteristically sparse prose, is a landscape of fear, survival, and social collapse (dystopia) and longing (utopia). The narrator, Lauren Oya Olamina, is a young woman who leads a motley collection of survivors out of post-apocalyptic suburbia in search of a place to call home. Along the journey, Lauren, daughter of a Christian preacher, cultivates the seed of a new religion based on the acceptance of change rather than pre-determination.

This is a novel about the longing for utopia rather than the realization of it. In that way, it’s still about utopia. It utilizes a quest thematic to do a special something very well: it problematizes more traditional notions of utopia as a goal of human social and political life.

The social order is constantly shifting, and engagement with problematic elements happens at the borders of difference. We aren’t all the same, and there’s no one perfect society that we can point to as the answer. The goal, a safe home for everyone, is a moving target that must be sought out, occupied, examined, and then, re-negotiated. It can’t become stagnant or entrenched, or it replicates the old order, builds new barriers.

And then, I probably explain that this book is such a favorite of mine that I named one of my cats after the main character, Olamina.

It’s a somewhat embarrassing level of passion.