Utopian Q&A: Dr Harrison Solow
Dr Harrison Solow is an author, literature and writing professor, former nun, Star Trek authority, and overall polymath. MFA, PhD. Pushcart Prize.
Rowan Fortune: It has been over half a millennium since Thomas More wrote Utopia, coining the name of a genre that applied literary wit to the dream of a better world. This conversation of texts played a pivotal role in shaping the narratives of modernity, as well as the novel, modern prose fiction’s most distinctive medium. However, the utopian imagination has also been read back into the earliest human stories.
Humanity is at a crisis point, beset by systemic catastrophes of ecology, economy and political legitimacy, the basis of which can be found in the upheavals of More’s period—the land enclosures and earliest intimations of industrial revolution. Utopia is often said to be at a low point, relatively dormant since its flowering in the 1970s. And yet, even discounting other mediums, novelists continue to explore utopia; for example, in the work of Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, Alan Jaccobs, Robert Llewellyn, Ada Palmer, Nisi Shawl, and Cory Doctorow.
Even in dystopian times, this imaginative leap makes its simple demand on artists.
What is your earliest memory of utopia?
“My literary life began as did that of the Western World – with oral stories and fables, and then moved on to tales of daily life and very quickly thereafter to Lives of the Saints and the rigours of the Baltimore Catechismm, all of which (absorbed as it was, at a very young age) inculcated a deep affinity with imaginary heavens and hells and the rich portent with which earthly life is endowed: Biblical parables, medieval pedagogy, Arthurian quests, Bunyanesque allegory, Chaucerian pilgrimages and Apologias of all kinds. This literature comes naturally to me. Or rather, as it was clearly imposed on me, it was not a resisted imposition and comes naturally to me now. And all of these literatures are both fiction and non-fiction depending on which side of belief one lives.” Most of them are utopian in intent if not in execution.
- Dr Harrison Solow, The Bendithion Chronicles (PhD Thesis)
Are there facets of society you can imagine becoming utopian?
Other than spiritual communities and personal creeds, no—not fully executed traditional Utopian societies. But many facets of society have utopian elements, some of which are addressed in my next response, and I can see those continuing.
How is utopia most expressed in your life?
Utopia has been most expressed in my life (or more properly in the lives I’ve lived) by enclosures. A Utopian society, though it may be open to qualified aspirants who desire to join a community with which they share a vision, a philosophy, a vocation (or even some kinds of occupations, that, given their singular goals might be called vocations) is defined by its boundaries. What is central and common to the kinds of semi, actual, aspirational and/or self-defined utopian communities of my experience is separation: retreat, cloister, sanctuary, selectivity. From the studio gates and red lights on set, to monastery walls, to the language-based cultures open only to native or near native speakers—to the identification cards imperative in top secret tech, political or cultural communities, those groups that can be called Utopian, or even partly so, are all characterised by insularity, even if only temporary.
I once said in an interview: “I’ve spent a lot of time in [been a member or an inhabitant of] what can appear to others to be fictive worlds, ‘closed-to-the-public’ worlds: convents, monasteries, Hassidic communities, the very tightly guarded world(s) of Hollywood, NASA and JPL, astronauts’ associations, the clans and tribes from which my families came, lonely insular communities in the backwoods of Canada, girls’ schools, private clubs—and green rooms, the hermetic enclosures of the famous. Even our house in Malibu was closed off from the world by ten- foot high walls with locked gates on three sides and the Pacific Ocean on the fourth, constituting a little family utopia within it—and then, of course, Welsh-speaking Wales. All closed worlds. Nothing significant within these worlds can be adequately portrayed by an outsider. These are cultures to which you have to belong in order to understand, in order to verify the messages you think you are being given—and because the codes and secrets, values and rituals, attitudes and assessments of these enclosures are not available to the outsider, when outsiders write about them, they inevitably get them wrong.”
What is common to these widely disparate communities of my experience that made them utopian or partially utopian (if such a concept can be considered), is singularity of purpose, a cloistered world, and an ideal end, whether spiritual, aesthetic, cultural, personal, technological or political. Utopias need not be morally exacting or even moral places. They need only: 1) be separate from the mainstream; 2) unite their members in a common pursuit; 3) be considered by their adherents to be eu-topos—a good place—a better place for them—than any alternative.
This is not to say that these communities do not interact with and/or contribute to the greater society or the world at large—just that their members live their lives in a certain way, within a specific, like-minded group from which they draw their strength and ability to complete their purpose—or their life’s work in the world.
If you had to live in a fictional utopia, which and why?
If the question includes all of fiction and not just literary fiction, then the Starship Enterprise. This fictional universe (Star Trek) was constructed (by my husband Herbert F. Solow and by Gene Roddenberry) to operate as an ideal (enclosed) society committed to particular principles of respect, character, intelligence, inclusiveness of diversity in all aspects of origin and culture—and dedicated to bettering oneself, one’s fellow crew, and the worlds encountered on their mission. To be able to join that fleet (society) required an exacting process that very few mastered, but those who mastered its requirements became part of an ideal, if not a Utopian universe.
How has the idea of utopia influenced your writing?
My entire life has been led in the wake of the extensive and sometimes gruelling philosophical and religious education of my youth and in the literature I have read for decades. I have also been privileged to be an inhabitant of many disparate worlds, in which to create a cohesiveness for myself, I connected my experiences into religious or spiritual theme so, again, quoting from my PhD thesis seems the best way to answer this question:
“Religious literature is characterised by parables, exempla, midrashim, folk tales and fables—all fictions, created to reveal perceived truths. Those who wish to perpetuate these ‘truths’ must map out the spaces between recorded events and fill them in: populate deserts with saints and stone tablets, spin fairy stories, anecdotes and whispers into cohesive allegorical histories, weave tapestries, paint ceilings and write eternal tales: a Canticle of Canticles, a pilgrimage to Canterbury, a Genesis, a Narnia, a Chad Gadya. And, in other eras, an Inferno, a Pilgrim’s Progress, an Iliad, A Space Odyssey.
Inside this literature lies a history of ideas, my history of ideas and thus my relationship to literature, art and science; to revelation, philosophy, and rhetoric; to astronomy, music, and law – to all the codes of my culture; and outside it lies the one lone nation of Wales.
Those ideas flavour all of my writing
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