Monday, July 14, 2008

An Annotated Utopia

So here's a list of utopian fiction. I've mostly annotated stuff I've read. Additions are welcome.

Some classic Utopias:

Plato, The Republic
Sir Thomas More, Utopia
Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward
William Morris, News from Nowhere
H. G. Wells, Men Like Gods
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland

Unfortunately, although these often come up on list of utopian novels, I haven't read any of these books. I probably should but I prefer to read more contemporary visions of a better society.

Late Twentieth Century Utopias:

BF Skinner, Walden Two
Okay, it's a behaviorist utopia, and, yes, it's from the same man who wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, but have you actually read it? It looks at work, and class, and sex roles, and creates a very egalitarian model--and Skinner wrote this in 1948. Also, Twin Oaks, the classic egalitarian intentional community, is based on this book.

Aldous Huxley, Island
From the author of Brave New World, an ecological and psychological paradise. Huxley elsewhere has pointed out that much of the same techniques and technologies are used in both works, but the intention is different. Do we want to control people or free them? Huxley shows how out how the same conditioning can be used to spread love and compassion or sell cigarettes and dictatorships. A bit heavy on the psychedelic substances, but Huxley was a pioneer user of these drugs in the early sixties.

Marge Piercy, Woman on the Edge of Time
An early classic of the feminist utopia. Her descriptions of psychiatric institutions seem bit exaggerated to me (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest meets Brave New World) but when Piercy describes Mouth of Mattapoisett, she makes me want to live there. After reading it I'm always tempted to start using 'person' as a pronoun.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia
The classic ecological utopia. For me, it's missing the depth of the feminist utopias, but it has lots of good ideas for a more ecological lifestyle--and some silly ones (the war games, for example). Probably the most influential of the utopian books. Joel Garreau, in his Nine Nations of North America named the coastal region from northern California to southern British Columbia 'Ecotopia', after this book.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia Emerging
The prequel. Callenbach creates a bridge between now and his utopian future, and sketches out one way to get there. It relies a bit too heavily on technological luck (a self taught young scientist figures out a cheap way to make solar cells) and worse, on nuclear blackmail, but it still gives some good ideas on social change.

Sally Miller Gearhart, The Wanderground
A feminist classic. It may push a lot of men's buttons, especially since she raises the question of whether women can trust men--and doesn't answer it. She does create a group of sympathetic gay men ('the Gentles') and sketches one scene where they push the women on disability issues. Unfortunately, this utopia is very dependent on psychic abilities, but there are a lot of good descriptions of consensus and feminist processes.

Larry Mitchell (with Ned Asta), The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions
More of a fable than a utopian novel, I think of this as the Gentles' (from The Wanderground--only here they're called 'the Faggots') version of things. A sweet parable with cute pictures, but it may disturb folks that are either homophobic or don't like gays to use terms like faggots and queers. Also sexually graphic. I like that it portrays some men moving away from gender roles and disavowing patriarchy. Unfortunately, it doesn't show what life is like after the revolution.

Joan Slonczewski, A Door Into Ocean
Well written but almost too simplistic, following the feminist formula of a planet of women meeting a planet run by militaristic men and defeating them by nonviolent witness. Some good description of how sharing information freely can convert those who oppose you. The ocean planet is interesting--sort of a Dune (for those familiar with the Frank Herbert science fiction book) in reverse. The point of not interfering with ecological processes even when they seem disastrous is well made--the consequences of stopping a rather scary phenomenon turns out to be even more horrendous.

Joan Slonczewski, Daughters of Elysium
A much more nuanced book than A Door Into Ocean. It takes place on the same planet but is set over a thousand years in the future. Here the intersection of many cultures (the Sharers from A Door Into Ocean, the Elsians who now also live on the planet, the Windclan family from Bronze Sky, the militant and patriarchal Urulans, and an emerging culture of sentient cyberbeings) raises fascinating questions and looks at issues of cultural diversity. While A Door Into Ocean remains Slonczewski's more popular book, I highly recommend this one.

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed
An anarchist and, as Le Guin writes, 'An Ambiguous Utopia', describing a decentralized, anarchist (and far from perfect) world and contrasting it with a planet, very much like late-twentieth earth, that holds capitalist and dictatorial socialist societies. I particularly liked her depiction of the city Abbenay with its teeming, colorful neighborhoods, and vividly portrayed omnibuses. Ursula LeGuin also wrote The Left Hand of Darkness which looks at gender issues, The Word for World is Forest, a novel of war, oppression, and ecology, and another utopian book Always Coming Home which I haven't read yet--but intend to.

Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing
This is Ecotopia from a pagan, feminist perspective. It's centered on the conflict between an earth-based, decentralized northern California (and focuses mainly on San Francisco) and a militaristic, right-wing Christian nation in southern California. While it does have good examples of nonviolent resistance, it relies on magic to solve many of the dilemmas. Starhawk also wrote a prequel, Walking to Mercury which, while not utopian fiction, does give some insight into
Maya, a main character in The Fifth Sacred Thing, as well as giving Starhawk's take on events in the nineteen-sixties and nineteen-eighties.

Rob Brezsny, The Televisionary Oracle
Not quite a utopian work, but mostly fiction and pointing toward a very different kind of future. This is a zany take on subverting patriarchy and 'killing the apocalypse' and is quite entertaining. It reads the way that Tom Robbins would write if he decided he was a 'macho feminist' and wanted to change the world. It's not always politically correct, it often goes off the deep end, and it has lots of graphic heterosexual sex, but I'd recommend it if you want to read something completely different.

Other recent (mid-sixties to present) utopian works (that I either haven't read or forgotten):

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (On my list to read. I've seen it listed by some people as a 'dystopia'[horrible future] but apparently it contains elements of revolutionary struggle and alternative family culture. I'll let you know how useful it is after I've read it.)

Dorothy Bryant, The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You (I read this a long time ago and remember little about it)

Mary Staton, From the Legend of Biel (ditto)

Sheri Tepper, The Gate to Women's Country (A feminist utopian classic, I hear. I haven't read it but probably should.)

Kim Stanley Robinson, the Three Californias Trilogy (especially Pacific Edge) and the Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars) (I've only read Green Mars which was enjoyable but too interwoven with Red Mars to make an intelligent comment without reading them both--I really can't comment on either series--but they sound worthwhile.)

Mike Resnick, Kirinyaga (I just found out about this book--it's a collection of short stories and "A Fable of Utopia", but it looks interesting enough that I want to read it.)

Peter Hamilton, The Night's Dawn Trilogy (The Reality Dysfunction, The Neutronium Alchemist, and The Naked God) (These works appear massive and complex--I don't know if I'd tackle them, but it's nice to know that the writer cares about issues of creating egalitarian societies enough to write so much.)

Brian Aldiss, White Mars (Apparently, the long-time science fiction author's answer to Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.)

Harvey Wasserman, Solartopia (I haven't read it, but it looks like an updated version of Ecotopia, heavy on the alternative energy stuff, especially hydrogen power and, of course, solar energy.)

Heidi Wyss, Gormglaith (Written in 2007 by a Swiss/English author, it's available online. The piece is difficult to read and comes with it's own glossary. I started it but I'm not sure how much of it I'll read. It's described as hard science fiction with a witchy bent, set in a radical feminist separatist world of the future.)

Whew. So what did I leave out?

(And for those overwhelmed by this list, or someone who might just want a few choices to begin with, I'd recommend Ecotopia, Woman on the Edge of Time, and The Dispossessed as good starting books.)

Quote of the Day: "...vigorous utopian thinking sketches models of a peaceable kingdom, points us toward society's repressed possibilities, enables us to see more clearly actual tendencies, both positive and negative, strengthens our grounds for rejecting existing social forms, reactivates lost dreams and longings, and encourages political action." - Ronald Aronson
Word (or phrase) of the day: Complex Adaptive Systems
Hero(es) of the day: Julie and Michael Weisser and Larry Trapp

1 comment:

MoonRaven said...

A little late addendum:

I recently got an email from Tim Handorf with a link to his list of the “20 Essential Works of Utopian Fiction”. It's at

Thanks for the link Tim--I appreciate your thinking about this.