Posts Tagged ‘utopias’

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia Emerging

October 21, 2021

         One of the problems with many utopian novels is that they are very good at showing us a much better, an ideal world even, but not so good at leading the reader there: how does one get from the horrendous present to the wonderful future? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) portrays a secessionist state on the West Coast of America, running along green/ecological principles; it’s set in the late 1990s, as I recall. And in the prequel here, he sets out to show how it all came about. This book has sat on my shelves for many years; I’ve read it before, but forgotten from whom I must have borrowed it and failed to return it, as it does not bear any of my library accession information…mea culpa.

Although there are characters who are well-developed and to whom the reader may warm, it does strike me first and foremost as a didactic novel: there’s an awful lot of 1980s ecological information spliced into the narrative at almost every turn, reflecting the concerns of all those years ago: dangers of nuclear power, chemical pollution, power of big oil and car corporations. The only thing missing from our present-day world is global heating and climate change. I found myself wondering, well, if the situation was that dire back then – and having lived through those years, yes it was – why didn’t anything actually get done about it all?

Callenbach is under no illusions about the opposition that there would be to any threat to the integrity of the United States. And in the back of my mind there’s the thought that, depending on what happens when that country tries to have its next presidential election, the threat to the unity of the nation may actually never been greater than it currently is…

So here’s a novel firmly rooted in its time and place – 1980s USA – and yet in some ways never more relevant than it is now. An idealist environmentalist party may perhaps have been a plausible prospect back then; forty much more cynical years later, it sadly feels much less so. Its political programme still makes eminent sense today, but the odds are far more strongly stacked against success.

Arguments for degrowth are carefully presented and evidenced, but depend on a large enough audience willing to pay attention for long enough to take in, process and accept those arguments, and this seems far less likely in the reduced attention-spans of the current social media era: divide et impera has never been more fully implemented. Seeing the car as the ultimate enemy was logical in the US of the 1980s, and it was possible to consider rejigging transportation, workplaces and living spaces to accommodate alternative ways of being and doing; now we are told to think that electric cars will be the solution to everything…

I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of ecology over half a century ago, as a schoolboy, though reading Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1970 polemic The Doomsday Book. Now there’s an awful lot more sound and fury about what we have done to the planet, but still precious little effective action, I fear. The culprit is capitalism, pure and simple: money still has to be made so that the rich can accumulate it; governments are in hock to business and we are told it’s up to us as individuals to save the planet. Quick, buy that bamboo toothbrush…

Callenbach’s two novels are an addition to dreams, prompts to think about the future, instances of the ‘what if?’ that good science fiction can do. But why hasn’t anything happened?

Reflections on utopias (2)

August 21, 2018

Boring

There are other problems with utopian novels, in terms of their structure; certainly the novel which started me off raises a number of them. Utopian novels are often rather, or very dull. Rarely do they have more than the most basic of linear plots; there’s very little character development, almost no suspense or excitement; lots is left unexplained because it cannot be explained. What you have is a didactic text, not a novel as we know it, Jim. There’s almost no subtlety. Thus, it cannot be explained how our hero is escaped from the Paris blockade; he’s conveniently hypnotised to sleep while it all happens, after having promised he will never ask about it. When the author thinks we may have had enough of the Oxford student telling his linear story, he shifts to having his Cornwall vicar continue the same linear story. And then, in the mysteriously appearing manuscript, Aleriel himself continues his linear narrative. Subtle it isn’t, dull it becomes. We are never told why it’s so important that the Venusian doesn’t reveal himself to the Martians when he travels around their world…

Two exceptions

If you’re going to describe a perfect world, then what ought to have been a novel soon becomes a geography or history or sociology textbook. Some writers – better writers – realise that a real plot is going to make their novel rather more interesting. I’ll mention two examples. Austen Tappan Wright’s tour-de-force (over a thousand pages) Islandia has a wide range of characters including someone from our world who explores and comes to feel that the utopian society he visits is preferable to his own; he develops real, and romantic relationships with characters from that world, which is under threat in various ways, and he offers his help and skills in various ways as these plot strands beyond his own are played out… in other words there are plots and people to interest us

Ursula Le Guin takes a similar approach in her anarchist utopia The Dispossessed: the home planet Urras is our capitalist earth and Anarres its moon is the breakaway would-be utopia, here a work-in-progress rather than something complete, where everyone, and particularly anyone dissatisfied can see and if they choose reach the glittering alternative: there is a complex dynamic between the two worlds which moves the story along. Do you want the gritty, poor and hard-won utopia or the flesh-pots of capitalism? (I oversimplify, grossly); if you are living in one, does the other seem more attractive? Is it really? What can and should you do about it? Le Guin’s novel is possibly the supreme achievement in the genre, raising, as it does, so many real questions that pertain to us and our society, and making us think deeply about them. Furthermore both these authors succeed in creating a range of fully developed and convincing characters with whom the reader engages: their fates matter to us, played out against the backdrop of their fascinating worlds.

What is the point?

Many writers, including a fair number of cranks, have pictured their visions of a perfect society. As a form, the utopian novel often does not work, at least as a novel, for reasons I’ve listed above. They are of academic interest, perhaps. Some writers do better – see the last two examples. But ultimately, the visions are unachievable, it seems to me, without our giving up a great deal of what we cherish dearly as part of our human nature. Equally, though, we find it very difficult to imagine our species in any way radically different: Brave New World faces us with that possibility very forcefully: the inhabitants of that society are almost all completely happy. Why, then, do we recoil?

There is the issue of transition: whilst writers can imagine a utopia, to convince us that it’s possible to get to it from where we are now, is a much taller order, which fewer writers attempt. Instead we are parachuted into a new world. And no matter how desirable a new world might be, is it achievable without great violence, upheaval and bloodshed? Look at what happened with the Russian Revolution. That’s not to say that to make an attempt is not worth it, merely to underline the difficulties. My utopia will be someone else’s dystopia.

Finally there is the problem of stasis. For better or worse, so far in human history we have known intellectual and material progress, as our minds, understanding and knowledge have developed. There is a dynamism, a power in this which cannot exist in a utopia, which is by nature perfect: there is no further progress to be made. Venusians are eternal. Would we not then be faced with the problem of entropy? Would things not inevitably but slowly disintegrate? Can utopia only ever be a dream?

Further musings and reflections available here and here.

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