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.