Posts Tagged ‘utopian literature’

On re-reading Ursula Le Guin

September 17, 2019

81yGpmCphML._AC_UY218_ML1_   We lost one of the greatest SF writers ever when Ursula Le Guin died earlier this year, and I promised myself I’d re-read some of her Hainish novels: I did this in a bit of a binge-read while I was on holiday in the Ardennes a week or so ago, and enjoyed Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed all over again. They are very thought-provoking, and you can see the influence of her family background and personal interest in anthropology.

I found myself trying to decide just how good she was, and what exactly she had achieved. The Library of America publications of her works which have come out recently are helpful because they contain her introductions, and also some interesting notes on the novels. Even in the earliest works, Le Guin manages to create very powerful and very moving characters, which, as many critics have noted, does not often happen in science fiction.

The idea that various Earth-like planets were ‘seeded’ with humanoid life at some point in the very distant past, and left to develop, gave Le Guin scope to explore a range of different aspects of human potential and societal organisation: never didactic, she leaves her reader to make comparisons with our own particular world, and way of living, leaves us to make judgements, too, if we have eyes to see.

The last two books I listed are those that most people would recognise as her best, I think. The Left Hand of Darkness puts our human sexuality under the microscope in a way no other writer has done, through the creation of the Gethenians who are truly androgynous: in a work of fiction, a writer can explore and invite a reader to imagine, in way that no textbook or academic work can. I found this idea so interesting that an analysis of this novel formed a major part of an academic thesis I wrote over 35 years ago now; I found myself wondering if I would write the same way now as I had then…

I also wrote about The Dispossessed in that thesis. Coming back to the novel again, I was taken aback to see how much bleaker her anarchist society was than I had remembered, how much more complex, too. Le Guin’s vision of the future of planet Earth, seen through the eyes of its ambassador on Urras, is truly grim, and chillingly recognisable in where we find ourselves heading now – yet Le Guin wrote over forty years ago. Powerful stuff, indeed.

I have pretty much moved on from my fascination with science fiction of forty years ago. I’ve kept a small number of books that I have come to regard as classics of the genre. But I still stand by what I felt all those years ago when doing my academic research at the Science Fiction Foundation, that the genre can make us think deeply about our world, and perhaps lead us to make it a better one, and I still have Ursula Le Guin up there among the very best writers.

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia

May 5, 2019

51i-FvQSB0L._AC_UL320_    A1pKb0cRToL._AC_UL320_    I’ve often written about utopias in posts, and I finally re-read Ecotopia, the most recent one I know of, after a long time. Callenbach wrote the novel in the late ‘70s, setting it 1999, with his hero visiting a country which had seceded from the US in 1980; he is the first American reporter to visit Ecotopia (the two countries do not have diplomatic relations) and the book takes the form of reports he sends back to his New York newspaper, interwoven with a more personal diary of his stay in Ecotopia.

In structure and presentation it’s no different from many other utopias: the visitor travels around the country, meeting people and learning how the place works and how good it is, comparing it with his native land, gradually being convinced of its advantages; it’s no surprise at the end of this novel that our visitor elects to stay… What interests is how close many of the concerns of the novel are to those which today’s world needs to address, and I’m somewhat mystified as to why this novel seems so rapidly to have faded into relative obscurity. There was a prequel a few years later – Ecotopia Emerging – which I once had a copy of, but seem to have mislaid or disposed of.

Ecotopia is basically hippyland – I oversimplify grossly, but anyone who was around in the 1970s and 1980s will know what I mean. The social cost of everything is taken into account, which our traveller finds hard to understand: who is ultimately responsible for the problems, issues, illnesses and other socially harmful consequences of a product or an action, – its producer or consumer? A question surely very relevant today. The economy aims for steady state, not growth, the country is decentralised, recycling, re-use and repairability are at the forefront of all consumer products, and the inhabitants of the country are committed to living in balance with nature… the only contemporary issue missing is climate change.

The two different perspectives the reporter offers us: ‘official’ newspaper articles and a ‘personal’ diary, complement each other and we are able to see him unwillingly seduced into accepting the attractiveness of the alternative model. Ecotopians have gone a long way towards equalising gender roles (though there is absolutely no mention of homosexuality or gay rights, and interracial issues are sidelined by the idea of separate development and decentralisation) and I found myself perceiving some similarities between this society and that of Anarres in Ursula LeGuin’s better and rather better-known novel The Dispossessed. The main difference is that there is no outsider in the same way in her novel; rather the hero from the utopia visits the non-utopian outside, in a sort of reversal. Women played a major role in the original revolt which led to the independence of Ecotopia, and have a leading role in its government. Decisions are made through consensus.

It is still ‘America’ and so Ecotopians have not given up on guns… and with an American author and American setting, none of the solutions are socialist or communist: at the most there is vigorous state direction or control of some aspects of the economy, and this is explained and justified in American terms. But there is a national health service, though it’s not called that. There is a little background to the origin of the new nation and the transition to it, including the inevitable economic dislocation, although this material was clearly the subject matter for the prequel mentioned above.

Utopias, and indeed all SF novels set in the future, date quickly, and the most glaring example in this novel is the absence of the internet. I was also struck by the absence of what I would call ordinary people – we never meet any working-class Ecotopians, and ugly, elderly or uneducated ones, and I cannot believe that everyone in the nation was hippified, beautified and educated in only twenty years… it’s a lovely but very bourgeois, middle-class future society.

Most novels fade into well-deserved obscurity quite rapidly, but here is one that raises questions and issues still salient today, that chimes with many of the things being challenged at this moment, and yet it already in some ways appears as quaint as Edward Bellamy’s socialist utopia of 1887 set in the United States of the year 2000: Looking Backward. Perhaps every generation needs its utopia, in which case, what is today’s?

On intelligence

February 17, 2019

I know I’m not the only person deeply concerned by the growing evidence that human activity is irreversibly altering the planet’s climate, and not in a good way. Similarly, the growing evidence of the extinction of species, particularly of insects, is very worrying. Fairly well on in years myself, I perhaps have little to worry about in my lifetime, but I have children and grandchildren, as well as having friends and acquaintances among those who I used to teach not that long ago, and who in theory have the best part of a lifetime ahead of them: the future may not be very kind to them.

In my thinking about what is wrong with the world, I reached the conclusion long ago that a combination of greed and scarcity was at the root of most of our problems: greed on the part of relatively few, and scarcity, or many different kinds, for far more of the planet’s inhabitants, short of food, water, shelter, freedom, affection…

I’ve read widely in the literature of utopias, and have encountered many visions of how humans might do it all differently. Some of these visions are more attractive than others, but what the writers have in common is daring to dream of humanity living more harmoniously, as a species and with the rest of creation. Unfortunately – or inevitably? – the writers mostly fail to tell how we get there, and that’s the biggest problem. The visitor from our world to the utopia represents us and our collective failings, and is wowed by the alternative future s/he encounters. About thirty-five years ago, Ernest Callenbach, in two novels, Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging, attempted to show how the California of his own time gradually separated itself and seceded from the United States, and founded a nation based on true ecological principles. I remember thinking what a brave and wild idea it was, and almost plausible too, way back then when I read it. It hasn’t happened.

So here is the real issue: there are many possible maps out there. We can have the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, the rural idyll of William MorrisNews From Nowhere or W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, we can have the feminist utopias of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time – if someone can show us how we get there.

Back in the real world, the forces of wealth and greed are firmly embedded, and are not about to give up without a struggle. Logically, one might argue that nobody needs an income of, say, more than £100k per year; anything in excess could be taxed away at 99%. Nobody needs more than a single residence, or a single vehicle. The Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos of the world will never spend all those shedloads of money, but they aren’t going to give them up either. And don’t kid yourself about their being philanthropic: they still retain power and control.

When the Bolsheviks seized power after the Russian revolution, they eliminated the wealthy and the aristocracy and commandeered their assets: that was one way of tackling the forces of wealth and power decisively. And yet, we see that ultimately what happened was that one wealthy and powerful group was replaced by another… and so it goes on. However hard I try to visualise the transition to a better world, I cannot see beyond the powerful digging in their heels and using their power and wealth brutally to hang on to it, at horrendous cost to everyone else, or else another group replacing them. Can you visualise anything different?

Is there something deeply rooted in the human psyche which drives us to seek power over our fellows and to accumulate surplus just in case we ever go short? And can we never forego this desire, or educate ourselves out of it? Is there time? We live on a very bountiful planet, capable of supporting large numbers in comfort and sufficiency. Digging more deeply, when, in the millennia of our development and progress as a species, was the tipping point? Clearly, hunting and foraging was not enough: we craved more and had the brainpower to pursue more, with the results we see today. Are we a highly intelligent species that is unable to use that intelligence in our own best interests? So many questions, so little time.

My father used to say, ‘you can’t learn everything from books!’ He was right: sixty years of reading have not shown me the answers to the questions above. I would be very interested to know if any of my readers can cast any light on them for me…

On happiness (or contentment)

March 9, 2017

51s1OWZlFDL._AC_US218_One of the things that I find myself thinking quite a bit about as I grow older is happiness. Or perhaps I mean contentment, I’m not completely sure. And for me it’s quite a simple thing, a lot of the time. It involves lying comfortably on the sofa, reading a good book. There’s a glass of good beer on the table, and music playing, probably Bach, Beethoven or Chopin. The iPad is next to me, should I need to check something, or look something up about what I’m reading.

And that’s it. Except, not really, because being here in this state of contentment comprehends the people, the family and the achievements and satisfactions that have accompanied me to this place where I am today, and the feelings and loyalties they inspire, too.

The idea of contentment doesn’t seem to figure that prominently in fiction, at least not what I’ve come across. Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha is an interesting case, a fictional narrative that imagines the life and spiritual journey long ago, of a man – is he the Buddha? I don’t know; perhaps; it doesn’t actually matter. In his story we see him achieving what he thinks is happiness or contentment a number of times, and subsequently realising that it was not, that something was still lacking and it was time to move on to the next part of the search. It’s a short, tenuous book which is actually better listened to in the librivox recording, if you have the time.

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One of my all-time favourite novels, to which I return every few years, is Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life. A sailor returns from the Great War to Germany, and quickly realises that he cannot fit back into the life he is expected to. So he ups sticks and leaves everyone and everything behind, and disappears into the forested depths of East Prussia, where he comes to find peace and contentment totally cut off from the world, living on a small island in a lake in the middle of nowhere. He makes no demands on anyone or anything, but he’s not a hermit, for he has a loyal companion and is tolerated by the owner of the estate in whose lands the island and lake lie. It’s a slow and lyrical novel – how I wish I could read it in the original German: I’ve tried but it is beyond me – and it’s gradually pervaded by the sense of a man at peace with himself and the world, genuinely happy. And yet, we know and can sense that lurking in the distant background is the gathering storm that will shatter and destroy everything. I find the novel astonishingly powerful.

When I think about the various utopian novels I’ve hunted out and read, I’m quite struck by the fact that I don’t recall much happiness or contentment in them, despite the genre and my expectations of it. If I feel anything about William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, or more recently, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, I have a sense of worlds which strive to be fair to everyone, which provide a sufficiency for everyone, and there is a general sense of satisfaction about them, but it doesn’t really go any further or deeper than that. Maybe a utopia is inevitably general because it has to convince us that the whole world is perfect; what I want to read is an interesting story set in a utopia, but I suspect that here is where the stasis of utopia might let down the necessary dynamics of a good story. And coming back to happiness and/or contentment, which was where I set out from, I also feel that is an individual matter, rather than a general one.

HG Wells: A Modern Utopia

December 28, 2014

31jXQnYp8HL._AA160_I’d meant to read this utopian vision for a long while; finally got round to it, and admit it was interesting but that’s about it. In many ways, it’s a curiosity from almost a century ago, but Wells was a socialist and it was interesting to see how he elaborated his vision.

Since he wrote several SF novels, it wasn’t too surprising to see him use the parallel universe trope as the vehicle for his perfect world, another Earth somewhere on the other side of the universe, that had developed oh so much more logically and sensibly compared with our own, and Wells as narrator, and his scientist companion found themselves transported there inexplicably, possibly through some wish-fulfilment fantasy…

Any utopia reflects the time and place of its origin, and these reflections usually provide the most interesting glimpses, to my mind. Wells does realise that the problem with most utopias to his date was that they were static rather than dynamic, and for him, this will not do: stasis means regression, and so his ideal world must always be striving to advance and develop. There is, of course, a contradiction in terms here, but we will let that pass. Wells is right that a static world would be unremittingly tedious, and Huxley was to try and address this issue in Brave New World, though not in ways to the liking of his readers.

Wells also recognises that not everyone will be willingly dragged into the perfect future: there will be the idle, the reluctant and the downright awkward, and he thinks about how these may be dealt with; Huxley steals his ideas. He writes at some length about how dull many utopias are because they remain on the general level, hectoring and didactic, and proceeds to do pretty much the same himself; the bringing to life of the utopia by presenting real individuals enjoying it just does not happen.

I was probably most astonished to find that religion persists in Wells’ utopia; not because I am anti-religion, but because I had imagined he would wish it away as a relic of a superstitious past. Not so – a belief in a deity and spiritual forces helping to raise the quality of life is very much part of the future, although not along the specifically Christian lines we might recognise. Race, racism and the betterment of the species, through selective breeding and eugenics, are all addressed, as they needed to be in the innocent days of the early twentieth century, and Wells reflects quite casually on ideas such as the extermination of inferior and undesirable races…

Somewhere in an earlier post you will find my thoughts on Ursula LeGuin‘s utopia, The Dispossessed, which speaks most strongly and powerfully to me of all the utopias I have read, though I suppose I must also admit that it will come to be seen as a product of its time in due course. Utopian literature is a necessary recognition of the real imperfections of our actually-existing world, a desire for it to be better, usually derived from the imagination of someone who will never be in a position to bring it about. Deep in the psyche of our species is the ability to dream of a better world, accompanied by the inability practically to do anything about it…

Utopia

July 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking about utopias for a few days, partly in preparation for a possible writing project in the autumn, partly because utopia is a genre to which I regularly return.

When teaching, I occasionally found myself asking a class what they would do if they became world dictator; I would usually throw in a few off-the-wall ideas of my own. It struck me that this is what an utopian vision is, in essence: a writer creates and describes her or his idea of a perfect world – it’s often deathly dull and boring, because it lacks the dynamics imperfection creates in our own, really-existing world.

Why do they do it? Obviously it’s an act of the imagination, wishful thinking, magical thinking in the face of the awfulness of the world we live in. How we get from here to there is almost always where the sticking point is; I have come to see that as an actual impossibility, rather than any of the societies and worlds described in fiction. A world of wars, of inequality, of racism is replaced by one of peace, harmony, equality. And we would all like to live there. Or not.

Democracy is clearly a flawed concept, in our multinational and highly complex world, but of all the options it is the least worst, it seems. But many utopias are based on coercion of some kind, perhaps not physical, but emotional or even chemical, and we need to ask ourselves whether the inhabitants are happy, or sometimes, are they human.

Let’s consider a few examples. An attempt at a taxonomy might slot them into categories such as religious, political, ecological, feminist… Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World is an interesting place to start: is it a utopia or a dystopia (see next post)? Everyone has their allotted place, there is unlimited sex and drugs, even misfits and people who want to be unhappy are catered for. The society was imagined as a response to the chaos of the early twentieth century; Michel Houellebecq in Atomised points out that we now have the technological capacity to realise Brave New World if we choose to. And the people are happy. Yet, in my classes when I taught the novel, although some students decided they would be perfectly happy to live there, we also ended up deciding that the inhabitants of Brave New World were not human as we understood it.

Ursula LeGuin imagines an anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed. It’s one of the best I know. And it’s also grim, constant hard work, and when faced with the temptations a more unequal society can tempt you with, sometimes people opt out. But it’s very good for getting one thinking about the real issues involved in striving for perfection. Ivan Yefremov jumps hundred of years into a future where the whole world in now the Soviet Union: Andromeda portrays a utopia which might perhaps be liveable in – but how would we ever get there? Ernest Callenbach imagined an ecological utopia springing up in 1980s California in Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging; he tries to suggest how people got there, but looking back on the novels, this aspect seems naive in the extreme: the system would not allow it, full stop.

I must return to Austin Tappan Wright‘s monumental 1940s utopia Islandia which I love. As I recall, his focus is also on how one sustains a perfect society against an imperfect and therefore attractive outside world.

Various feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s imagined utopias. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, much earlier, had created Herland, a society without men, as did Suzy McKee Charnas in Motherlines; Marge Piercy creates an attractive feminist utopia in Woman On The Edge Of Time, in which women and men do manage to co-exist on a rather different basis, but then we learn that they execute misfits… a measure of how difficult it is to deal with those who do not want to be part of your perfect world.

There are lot more which I haven’t mentioned: the ur-text, More’s Utopia from 1516, W H Hudson‘s strange and haunting A Crystal Age, and the satirical Erewhon, by Samuel Butler… it is a fascinating genre, which pushes us to reflect on our own world and its imperfections, and ought to make more of us realise that a good life, a good world has to be striven for, and is very hard work. it’s probably called heaven, probably a figment of our imagination, and when you reach a certain age, you choose to cultivate your garden instead.

Ivan Yefremov: Andromeda

June 2, 2014

A communist utopia!

This Soviet SF/ utopian novel was published in 1956, only three years after Stalin’s death. It’s set several hundred years in the future, when contact has been made with alien worlds and civilisations, and the frontiers of space exploration are being advanced. In this respect it resembles Asimov’s Foundation series of novels, but from a totally different perspective.

In Yefremov’s future, the world has realised the errors of its ways, and communism has triumphed, ruling, organising and developing the planet for the benefit of all its citizens. There is some attempt to visualise the details of the transition to and workings of a world-wide communist society, but this is not the mainstay of the book; rather it is consistently part of the background, which the reader is never allowed to forget. Our ‘Age of Disunity’, its warfare and destructiveness of the planet, is long gone, and archaeologists are uncovering some of its artefacts…

The science of Andromeda is very dated, as is pretty much all SF from that period; perhaps the most astonishing gap, to a contemporary reader, is the total failure to imagine any kind of miniaturisation and digitisation, which has made so much of our current technology possible and so widely available.

The biggest surprise, given that it goes without saying that a communist society as visualised in the 1950s has totally eradicated that ‘opium of the people’ which was religion, is Yefremov’s major focus on alternative kinds of spirirual and emotional flowering and fulfilment, which he and his future society seem to recognise as essential to human well-being; psychology, and balance in the personality are to strive for, and it is clear that the mental make-up of future citizens is quite different from our times.

As in most utopian novels, characters and plot are somewhat under-developed: it’s hard to have the kind of clashes and creative tensions we are familiar with in a world that is supposed to be an ideal future. Work is organised and allocated centrally, though recognising individuals’ talents and needs; there is a form of consultative democracy and a sense of collective duty that resembles a more humane form of  the old ‘peoples’ democracies’. Here I felt Yefremov’s future resembled that of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed

The novel is a fascinating glimpse of a future that can almost certainly never be, not because it wouldn’t necessarily work, but because there currently is no possible mechanism for getting from now to then. Yefremov gradually develops a powerful picture of the collective will to explore and discover and push forward the boundaries of our knowledge, a human trait that I have always felt is one of the best in our otherwise rather limited species. I couldn’t help but admire the crew of the spaceship at the end, setting out on a mission so lengthy that they would never again return to Earth, or see their friends and familiar places and faces again… and they went willingly.

Interested readers may find this novel rather hard to track down; my copy is in the Moscow Progress Publishers series and I am unaware of any other edition.

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