guest post by Tracie Welser
Part 1 of 3 guest posts on Utopian Narrative
Utopia is an obsession of mine. I find literature that explores notions of a perfect place very appealing. People living peacefully and work together in harmony, who wouldn’t want to live in a place like that? Who wouldn’t want to read about that?
Apparently, lots of people. It’s a “no-place,” they say. Or “it could never work, it always fails in the real world, so why bother with it?” For some (and I’m basing this on discussions I’ve had), talk of egalitarian society causes a sort of anxiety about political correctness, or liberal guilt, or anger/concerns about the evils of Socialism.
As Pandora says to her niece in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, “I never did like smart-ass utopians. Always so much healthier and saner and sounder and fitter and kinder and tougher and wiser and righter than me and my family and friends. People who have the answers are boring, niece. Boring, boring, boring.”
The first big question seems to be, what constitutes the “perfect place,” and for whom? Is it a beautiful, unspoiled place very far from anywhere else, where perfectible dreams are possible? To Thomas More, credited with coining the word “utopia” in the 16th century, the perfect place meant a land with no unemployment, no overpopulation, no religious bigotry, and the elimination of private property (although, oddly enough, slavery was okay).
The dream of a perfect place depends on where you’re standing, the historical or cultural moment from which the dream arises. That perfect place may exist in a possible future, or in a place, or even in a past “Golden Age.”
In the U.S., the utopian ideal could be considered a founding principle of the nation and the driving force behind colonialism and westward expansion. The New World was New Eden, a collective fantasy, a dream of a better world. Never mind that the land was already occupied.
In fiction, these worlds exist as thought experiments. Narratives encourage the reader to reflect on social problems and possibly even solutions. Speculative fiction, science fiction and fantasy have a way of doing that.
Utopia, then, is dreaming, yearning, for something that doesn’t quite exist and never exactly will. But is it problematic that these worlds don’t, won’t or can’t exist?
Fast-forward to modern ideas of the perfect place. Let’s dream a little bit.
What would your ideal society look like, your perfect place?
How about a society where equality is the norm for people of all races and genders and ableness of body, where inequity and violence have been eliminated?
What problems or tensions do you foresee?
Ivana Milojevic and Sohail Inayatullah, "Futures Dreaming: Challenges from Outside and on the Margins of the Western World."
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Sultana’s Dream (A non-Western utopia)
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed
(Next month: Feminist Utopias: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?)