• Rowan Fortune

Utopian Q&A: Greg Michaelson

Updated: Sep 9

Greg Michaelson is an Edinburgh based writer, whose fiction, mainly short stories, has been published since 2001. Venues include Scottish Book Collector, Textualities, New Writing Scotland, Valve Journal, Takahe, Free State, The Grind Journal, Firewords Quarterly, The Eildon Tree, unsafe space/Earlyworks, Citizens of Nowhere/Cinnamon, Blue Nib Literary Magazine and Postbox/Red Squirrel.

His novel The Wave Singer (Argyll, 2008) received decent reviews and was shortlisted for a Scottish Arts Council/Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust First Book Award. Subsequently he was awarded a Scottish Art Council Writer’s Bursary.

His conceit is that he likes to write about how things aren’t and how they might be. See Link.

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?

GM: Although raised as an atheist, I grew up in a 50s and 60s UK that was still very visibly Christian. So, my first encounters with utopia will have been the Old Testament paradise, which sounded relaxed, like the countries our West Indian and West African lodgers came from, and the New Testament heaven, which sounded very dull and hierarchical and rule bound, like school. Also public libraries were utopias, except they wanted the books back.

Are there facets of society you can imagine becoming utopian?

For me, utopia is a mix of communism in organisation, and anarchism in life, with strong solidarity and collectivity in both. And utopia should be realisable more or less now: an Earthly Paradise, not endlessly delayed for the last fight, or human perfectability.

Overall, utopia’s about fairness, and central to that is people not exploiting each other. So, yes, I can easily envisage a society where labour power is not for sale, everybody contributes as best they can, and resources are distributed equally, while compensating for disadvantage. This does all imply some transparent system for planning. I think all shit work should be shared, and I’m very enthusiastic about maximising automation to minimise how much everyone should work.

Everyone should be able to take part in all decisions that affect them, should they so wish. If that’s not feasible, then representatives should be chosen at random. Otherwise my utopia involves minimal regulation, leaving people to get on with it, but with strong sanctions against crimes against the person and to protect collective resources.

How is utopia most expressed in your life?

I try to be fair. And I try to promote fairness. I suppose this is partly informed by a 60’s sense of the personal being political. And it’s also being surrounded by, and subjected to, pettiness and opportunism.

I’ve lived in two communal households with indirect income sharing: people paid towards the mortgage according to their income and took a share of the property value when they left based on how long they’d been there. Over the years, this enabled 7 groups to eventually buy their own places. Both households had minimal rules, apart from shared cooking and cleaning, and never had meetings. Accounts were kept in a notebook. This worked well for leftist weekend hippies with decent jobs...

I was an academic manager for most of my career, mainly of postdoctoral researchers, but for 5 years of a Department. I tried to ensure that work loads were equitable, and that less experienced colleagues were cut more slack. I made work allocations public, and I tried to always involve everyone in decision making, if only to cover my back. My discipline is very male dominated, so I tried to encourage the appointment of women academics, and the recruitment of women students. I’ve also always been an active trade unionist, which in turn pissed off my managers who sought to further incorporate me.

If you had to live in a fictional utopia, which and why?

Maybe we could distinguish utopias of necessity and of whimsy.

Of necessity, in hard times I would live in Ursula Le Guinn’s Annares from The Dispossessed, tending to William Morris’s Nowherein times of plenty. Both are realistic, voluntary, anarcho-communist societies, of minimal rules yet well organised, that mostly accommodate complexity and difference.

Clifford Harper provides pleasing illustrations of contemporary societies in transition, in Class War Comix 1 and The Education Of Desire, as does Chad McCail in the Work Is Shared series.

Of whimsy, I would live in Ian M. Banks’s anarchist Culture of unlimited resource, or Tove Jansson’s Moominland.

Otherwise, Le Guinn’s Always Coming Home is an engaging blend of ethnographically informed primitive communism, with underlying high technology, but it would be a bit too spiritual for my taste. And I’d like to visit Herbert Read’s underground utopia from The Green Child, where people love, work, teach and contemplate in total equality, and eventually become one with the rocks. But I’d not like to settle there.

How has the idea of utopia influenced your writing?

My novels The Wave Singer (Argyll, 2008) and Singing About The Dark Times (Amazon Createspace, 2014), are set in a post apocalyptic, utopia-of-necessity, where people have access to the knowledge, but not the technologies, of our 21st century world. Society is based on farming the dry sea bed of the Moray Firth, and excavating the long-buried ruins of the cities. I try to explore the hard choices individuals face, when scarce resources are held in common, and there is no coercion to contribute but strong social pressure to conform.

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