Utopia Season

What a week it’s been. I generally add press news to the link page (see menu tab above), tweet once or twice and move on, but there’ve been a couple of things that deserve a bit more bigging up than that (and not just because I’m in them).

It’s Utopia season on BBC Radio 4; it kicked off with a documentary commemorating the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia (which is well worth a listen). Last year the BBC and acclaimed SF author Geoff Ryman approached me to participate in another documentary for the series: a retrospective on the proto-SF feminist utopian novel Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which would also examine how gender evolves – or doesn’t – in the futurist fiction we write now. I’d written a short post on the fictional possibilities of utopia; an approach I’ve taken in my own books, and not unrelated to the fact that they are subtly but thoroughly egalitarian when it comes to gender. Geoff and I had a long chat about the intersection of these issues at Nine Worlds in August, recorded by BBC producer Nicola Swords. Rather more than I expected made it into the final cut of the Herland documentary – along with wonderful insights from Laurie Penny, Sarah le Fanu, Dr Sari Edelstein, Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Sarah Hall and of course Geoff himself. The result is an elegant combination of a respectful look back and a provocative look forward, and though I do say so myself, it’s well worth thirty minutes of your time.

Do spend another fifteen with No Point Talking, the short story Geoff wrote while working on Herland. It’s a fantastic portrayal (and performance!) of a conservative alpha male protagonist in a near-future America in which his traditional views about gender and society are shaken to the core. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating and funny – often all at the same time.

My ideas about utopia have a lot to do with being collaborative and collegiate as opposed to hierarchical or exclusionary – so it’s particularly serendipitous  that the week started with Tricia Sullivan’s article in The Independent on how SF authors negotiate the boundaries between fact and fiction. What’s remarkable about Trish’s approach is that she got the gig as part of the promotional push for her new novel Occupy Me – and then went about it by interviewing myself, Karen Lord, Anne Charnock and Emma Newman and quoting us liberally in her piece. I’m humbled by her generosity. I’m also impressed by her publisher, Gollancz, which will be posting all four interviews in full on their website in the coming weeks.

The world, we are often told, is going to hell in a handcart. Spend half an hour watching any news programme and it’s hard to disagree. But somewhere among the embers, the flame of utopia flickers on.

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Utopia: a usable definition

The question of what constitutes a utopia vs. a dystopia keeps coming up online and in conversation, along with what I think is a reflexive dismissal of the narrative possibilities of utopia. That’s because utopia is presumed to preclude any kind of distress or conflict – and how can you write an engaging story that doesn’t have some sort of strife?

Don’t ask me; I need upheaval as much as the next novelist. However I don’t think that “nothing bad can ever happen” is a particularly helpful definition of a utopia. I’m also annoyed by how easily virtually any science fictional scenario in which there is discord and the risk of things going badly – which is to say pretty much all of them – is labelled a dystopia. I’ve already grumbled about that here, with respect to my own books. This post is a slight expansion of a contribution I made elsewhere earlier today, on the subject of dystopia’s opposite.

A useful concept of utopia is not one in which there is never any crisis or conflict – not least because that sounds to me a lot like being dead (somewhat ironically, the ultimate result of a dystopian state). Instead a practical, achievable and narratively interesting utopia would be a system in which there are clear, legitimate and accessible methods of addressing crises or resolving conflicts. Given that the generally accepted understanding of dystopia (political/ environmental/ economic etc.) is of a state in which there are no legitimate or generally available means of redress, and in which the protagonists have to somehow overthrow, subvert or completely escape the system in order to fix what’s wrong with it or even to survive, its logical opposite would be a state in which problems can be solved without resorting to such measures. But because there’s no guarantee that the problems will be solved, it does not inherently lack the potential for narrative tension. There can still be untold dangers and conflicts; the distinction is not in whether they exist, but in the means available for dealing with them.

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