A previous month’s blog featured the best of post-apocalyptic fiction, and in order to limit myself to ten on that occasion, I had to hold back some fantastic books which are not, strictly speaking, post-apocalyptic, but feature several nasty possibilities waiting for us if we don’t change our ways.
It’s interesting though, isn’t it, that authors tend to warn us about our actions through showing us the worst possible outcomes? What about best possible outcomes? What about showing us things we could strive for? Maybe those ideas are better offered up in non fiction. There are not many utopian novels out there, probably because it would be hard to have jeopardy in the narrative, but there are a few; the ones I’m aware of were often written in the oh so optimistic 70s, or even earlier, and most seem to be imagining how the world could be a better place for women. It seems to me, that with this modern wave of feminism, we are crying out for some new imaginings, so If anyone knows of any modern utopian novels, I’d love to hear about them.
- Ecotopia – Ernest Callenbach.You can still get hold of this book; a fortieth year edition has just been published. The logline on my original 1978 copy is “a novel about ecology, people and politics in 1999”. Back in good old 1978, global warming wasn’t even a thing, but this book was full of examples of how we could live more sustainably. It features an American journalist who is the first to visit the breakaway state of Ecotopia – formerly west coast America. A lovely, optimistic book, and the only one which focuses on environmental issues as far as I’m aware.
- Woman On The Edge of Time – Marge Piercy. A novel from 1976, and one which I read over and over again. What gives it jeopardy and therefore makes it a gripping read, is that this future feminist utopia is under threat from events in our own lifetime, which our protagonist has to try to prevent.
- Herland – Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This feminist utopia hails from 1915. A women only society without class, war, money, disease etc, as described by three incredulous male explorers. It’s light, funny and yet full of amazing ideas inspired by the feminism and socialism of the day.
- Ursula Le Guin is surely one of the master story tellers when it comes to utopias. The Dispossessed imagined an anarchist society, while The Left Hand of Darkness explores a society where gender doesn’t exist. These books hail from 1969 and 1974, and as with all Le Guin, the story telling is unique and beautiful.
- Doris Lessing – where to begin? There is the dystopian novel Memoirs of a Survivor (made into a beautiful film starring Julie Christie), but I adore her science fiction series: Canopus in Argus. The second book in the series The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (published in 1980) is a utopian novel. If you’re interested in reading it, I advise you start with the first book, Shikasta, an allegory of Earth published in 1979.
- If you’re interested in utopias/dystopias or speculative fiction generally, and you haven’t read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, then get thee to a bookshop or library. This book, written in 1932, could be called utopian or dystopian depending entirely on your own viewpoint. This Brave New World has no unhappiness, no hang ups, guilt free sex, and yet John who has been brought up outside this society on a diet of Christianity, is appalled by it. Who is right? It’s a book so ahead of its time. Margaret Atwood found it incredibly influential growing up. To my mind, after Herland it is one of the earliest books thinking about sexual politics. And yet maybe its message is that any form of totalitarianism, no matter how benign, is ultimately frightening.
- That was clearly George Orwell’s message in 1984. Written in 1949, this dystopian novel is quite absolutely a warning to its readers of the dangers of totalitarianism. This book never dates, which is one of the things which makes it so scary.
- Speaking of Margaret Atwood – The Handmaids Tale and its recent sequel, Booker winning The Testaments feature a totalitarian society arising as a result of whatever we’ve done to the world so that many women can no longer have babies. Gilead is imagined in terrible but believable detail.
- The idea of reducing fertility is also explored in Ken McLeod’s near future, evolving, dystopian London: Intrusion. Read this if you want to see how quickly the gains we have made could slip away. Female infertility is also at the heart of the brilliant Children of Men by PD James. Better known for her crime fiction, this one off speculative novel is atmospheric and pacy (as was the film adaptation starring Clive Owen). I’ll just mention, while we’re on the subject, Patrick Ness’s brilliant Chaos Walking Trilogy, where women have disappeared leaving men in rather a nasty mess.
- I’m not sure this is utopian fiction, but it is a classic exploration of sexual politics from the 1970s, and although some of the concepts are now dated and some are frankly a bit suspect, it’s still worth a read. The Female Man by Joanna Russ has four parallel narratives from women in four parallel/alternative universes.