Recently I read an excellent book: The Soviet Novel, by Katerina Clark. In it she observed that the USSR’s socialist realism suffered from what she called “modal schizophrenia,” because the writers were supposed to stay true to the situations they described while also evoking the better world socialism would bring. They were caught trying to bridge that gap between what is and what ought to be.
Clark’s diagnosis made me laugh. I’ve been writing utopian novels for a long time, and I recognized all too well the syndrome she described. The novel is usually regarded as a realist art form, and I’d go even further: By telling the stories we use to understand our lives, the novel helps create our reality. In novels, things go wrong—that’s plot. People then cope. That’s realism.
Utopia, on the other hand, is famously “no place,” an idealized society sometimes described right down to its sewage system. In utopia, everything works well—maybe even perfectly, but for sure better than things work now. So utopias are like blueprints, while novels are like soap operas. Crossing these two genres gets you the hybrid called the utopian novel: soap operas put in a blender with architectural blueprints. It doesn’t sound all that promising.
Then came Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Published in 1975, this was the first great utopian novel, and it demonstrated just how good the poor, misbegotten hybrid can be. Of course, there’d been earlier utopian novels, like William Morris’s News From Nowhere, or H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, or Aldous Huxley’s Island. These were all interesting efforts. But Le Guin’s book was a triumph. What she showed is that by describing a utopian society in a moment of historic danger, you create for it all kinds of problems that its characters must solve. It will get attacked from the outside, corrupted from the inside; things will go wrong, and so you have your plot. Le Guin combined an intriguing utopia with a compelling novel, and the result was superb. The people on her habitable moon, Annares, have formed an alternative society to the imperial capitalist world, Urras. They devised a system that is feminist for sure and either democratic socialist or anarcho-syndicalist, but in any case in a state of flux, its people doing everything they can to keep what’s best about their system while also fending off impositions from the home world. It’s political fiction at its best.
Inspired by Le Guin’s example, I’ve often tried this hybrid form, and been stymied by its problems and spurred by its potential. One weakness I’ve become aware of is how often the authors of utopias set them after a break in history that allows their societies to start from scratch. In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More began the use of this device with a physical symbol: His utopia’s founders dug a Great Trench, cutting a peninsula in two and creating a defensible island. Other kinds of fresh start appear in utopias throughout the centuries, always clearing space for a new social order. Even Le Guin’s Annares is founded by exiles from Urras.
But in this world, we are never going to get the chance to start over. This was one of the reasons Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels objected to 19th-century utopias like that of Charles Fourier, the French designer of small communes living in perfect harmony: They were fantasy solutions that served only to distract people from the real work of politics and revolution. They were also in competition with Marx and Engels’s own ideas, so there was the usual left infighting. But it was a legitimate complaint: If utopia isn’t a political program, then what is it for?
The answer should be obvious. Utopias exist to remind us that there could be a better social order than the one we are in. Our present system is the result of a centuries-old power struggle, and it is devastating people and the biosphere. We must change it—and fast. But to what?
Utopias are thought experiments. Imagine if things ran like this: Wouldn’t that be good? Well, maybe…let’s live in it fictionally for a while. What problems crop up in this system? Can we solve them? What if we tweak things this way, or that? Let’s tell this story and then that story, and see how plausible they feel after we spend some imaginative time in them.
The problems that might develop in a proposed better system both propel the novel’s plot and give you things to think about. Then, hopefully, you can apply what you’ve learned to your current political situation. Having glimpsed a destination you like, you can then consider the actions available in your own time to get there. The great feminist utopias of Joanna Russ (The Female Man) and Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time) gave life to the experience of women’s political solidarity, and readers were then encouraged to change their present situation in those directions.
Now the onrush of catastrophic climate change has forced a reckoning. We either invent and institute a better way, or a mass extinction will take us down with it. Necessity has thus jammed utopia into history and turned it from a minor literary genre into an important tool of human thought. We need it like never before, and as the need has become acute, the bar has in effect been lowered: If we manage to dodge a mass extinction event, then we can call that utopia. People in any non-catastrophic future can heave a sigh of relief, grateful for such a stupendous effort by our generation. A healthy relationship to nature will create and require lots of good work as well as a commitment to justice for all Earth’s creatures—humans very much included. That may be as close to utopia as we’ll ever get, and it would be close enough. After all, you don’t want to deprive future people of their plots.