Utopian Q&A: Nina Fortune
Nina Fortune is a West London political activist and a writer. She has contributed various essays to Time To Mutiny!
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?
Nina Fortune: The Chronicles of Narnia, which might not be the standard idea of a utopia, but as a child, these books represented a utopic escape to a world of wonder. And the genres of fantasy and utopia sometimes blur in that way; for example, as can be found in one of the first utopia written by a woman, Margaret Cavendish’s Blazing World. Getting older, the first proper utopia I read was Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, which continues to influence my writing.
Are there facets of society you can imagine becoming utopian?
Many. The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the importance of care. The countries worst hit are those with poor health infrastructures, either through inaccessibility or underfunding. In a utopian society, the way we care for the vulnerable, and the value placed on such work, should be different. Care would be ubiquitous, being carried out in well-equipped, informal settings in the community, and people would recognise a general duty to care for others.
I also think the way we love would change dramatically. Currently, love or even relations are wrapped up in transactional, owner-oriented frameworks, as they certainly must be under capitalism. We possess, own, sequester and exclude as functions of love. In a context where property was not the fulcrum on which society was balanced, love would have many configurations, and would not be based on ownership and possession, and all the vices that attend to that.
How is utopia most expressed in your life?
I find utopias in the microcosms I sometimes have had opportunities to help shape in my life, whether in private existence or at work. An example has been among the teams I work within, introducing ways of operating that are more geared towards human flourishing, such as unstructured hierarchies and more socially open environments. Of course, I am mindful that constraints remain within our current societal setup.
If you had to live in a fictional utopia, which and why?
Star Trek, a world of boundless exploration and material abundances.
How has the idea of utopia influenced your writing?
Utopia as a genre has forced me to think in more detail about the challenging questions involved in building an ideal world, and what obstacles we would have to overcome to get there. It has therefore influenced how I approach all world-building. There is a level of detail required that disciplines your general approach, even when writing in other genres. And there are always ideals at play, even in dystopia.
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