Three Ways to Begin a Utopia
From reality breaking to strange visitors...
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias. ~ Oscar Wilde
Utopia is a genre with a lot of vitality, its alleged death an exaggeration. But it is nonetheless not at a high point of its over five century history. From Thomas More to Ursula K. Le Guin it’s experienced moments of revival and retreat, responding to the tensions and contradictions of class society, to new ideas about technology and always carried along and refashioned by developments and trends within literature (including the many subversive genres it’s parented, from the anti-utopia to the dystopia). It is needed again.
If you are a writer (new or veteran) looking for a challenge, the utopia presents many. Not only does this form put world building at the heart of its stories, but does so in a way that raises all kinds of obstacles. For a utopia to be a story, it must foremost have some hook, a dynamic or tension that provides a through-line and prompts the reader onwards. There is no shortage of these already explored by utopians of the past, and in this piece, I want to present three possible prompts to start off your utopia (be that a short story, narrative poem, full novel or something entirely other, as I will discuss in a bit).
Reality Under Threat. The science fiction, gnostic fables of Philip K. Dick familiarise us with the idea of realities within realities that are constantly doubted, that interplay with one another in often sinister ways. In Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, this convention is deployed in the scope of rival futures, dystopian and utopian, that battle out through the protagonist’s visitations. What is in fact going on in the strange experiences of the wrongly incarcerated Consuelo ‘Connie’ Ramos is ambiguous, but what cannot be questioned is that Piercy’s novel sustains a narrative tension that defies critics of the utopia as necessarily dull or purely didactic. Throughout the reader remains gripped as to Connie’s fate, and the fate of the world.
Utopian Visitor. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s all-women utopia Herland is one of the better-known utopian classics, but less well known is its sequel With Her in Ourland where one of the utopians explores the rest of the world, and applies her unique perspective to everything. The framing device that has someone from our reality visit utopia is very common, but this reversal remains under-used. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed arguably adopts this approach, albeit with a dose of science fiction estrangement, andRobert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land seems a mandatory reference. Still, there is so much room for new and interesting twists to be developed, as well as fresh creative ambiguities (e.g., does our utopian have proof of their origin).
What If Utopia. What if a utopian, steam punk alt history had developed in the Congo against Belgium’s horrifying process of colonization and succeeded in defeating King Leopold II? That is the question Nisi Shawl asks in their novel Everfair. Applying a what if parallel history to the utopian genre is such a brilliant notion it is difficult to resist kicking oneself for not thinking of it first, but Shawl’s wonderful undertaking is by no means the last possible word on this conceit. What if Germany had its Marxist revolutionary moment in the twentieth century, at one stroke obviating the need for the ultimate betrayal of Russia’s revolution and preventing the rise of Nazism? What if the Paris Commune, rather than being torn down, had sustained and inspired a wave of such emancipatory projects?
These are just three ways in which to write a utopia today. Although for each I have cited existing literary examples, I single them out (over the time travel utopia, the distant land utopia, etc.) because there are not many instances of these conventions being used, and therefore plenty of novelty remaining. Undoubtedly there are other, completely unthought ways to give a utopia its necessary pretext, and so as to provide everything a story requires to arrest its reader.
Moreover, utopia need not be a pure genre, the utopia in dystopia, or the utopian subplot, are perfectly valid ways to explore utopian themes. Finally, poetry and prose literature need not be the only way to explore the genre either. Planning to Dungeon Master a D&D group? Why not add a utopian interlude for your adventurers? Creating an indie computer game? It is high time the utopia was represented in that medium. There is plenty of life left in the utopia, which is all for the best when you consider with Wilde that any map, to be at all worthwhile, must include these wonderful nowheres.
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