Friday, March 09, 2012

Searching for Utopia: The History of An Idea
by Gregory Claeys
Thames & Hudson

When I saw this book displayed at Northtown Books here in Arcata, it reminded me that while the once promising field of Future Studies has waned, there’s a curious new interest in Utopia Studies. In this era of dire predictions and popular fictions of apocalyptic futures it seems counter-intuitive, but it is precisely in dark times that utopian visions flourish.

This volume is one in a series of illustrated histories, but the pictures are less impressive than the prose. Claeys debunks several persistent mischaracterizations about the literature of utopia, first and foremost, that “utopia” necessarily means a perfect world. Most utopian stories are about a “radically improved” society. Like the story that gave the idea its name—Thomas More’s Utopia—it often responds to what we might call the tyranny of the 1%, and depicts a more egalitarian society.

But utopian stories vastly predate More’s 16th century work, and appear around the world, from indigenous cultures to Chinese, Hindu and Muslim civilizations.  Many have religious roots and hark back to a mythical Golden Age. That changes with H.G. Wells and other modern writers who begin locating utopia in the future, now the dominant notion.

Utopia was often located on an island or a hidden place, like Shangri-la. In Thomas More’s time, America was the hoped for place where utopia could happen, and utopian ideals drove many actual political and social experiments, from the founding documents of the United States to hundreds of communities organized on utopian lines in the 19th century.

Some utopias turned very dark, especially when linked with scientific pseudo-theories (like eugenics) and technology. When attempted by murderous dictatorships, the catastrophic results poisoned the very idea of utopia. And so psychology as well as politics enters the utopian story. External change is not enough; self-knowledge becomes a utopian endeavor.   This survey of course can't include everything, but it should be noted that among psychologist writers who addressed this matter of approaching a better society through individual self-knowledge were Carl Jung and his American successor, James Hillman.  From another point of view, the Dalai Lama has spoken and written about this subject specifically.

Claeys’ survey of science fiction—the chief generator of utopian fictions in modern times—is cursory and not particularly insightful.  It brushes by the particular contributions of Ursula LeGuin, George Zebrowski, Greg Bear, Bruce Sterling, William Gibson and other contemporary science fiction and fantasy writers, but in particular Kim Stanley Robinson, who is especially known for his utopian concerns, and who edited a volume of utopian stories.  But worst of all, the world’s most widely known utopian saga of the past half century isn't even mentioned: Star Trek. This is a glaring omission, even for a Brit.  Then again, he ignores the most recent incarnation of Doctor Who, which confronted this topic in a number of stories, including one which involved the quest for a mythical planet called Utopia.

The eloquent final chapter examines the present, when the response to onrushing ecological disaster caused by our civilization is to shop harder. He concludes: “The old ideal worlds can lend us hope, inspiration, a sense of what to aspire for as well as what to avoid. But our ideal world must be very much our own creation, and a serious reckoning with the fate we face if we fail to create it.”

Utopia, like hope, is an activity of the present.  Zebrowski and Kim Stanley Robinson are particularly insistent on utopia as a process, which is an analogue to President Obama's goal of a perfecting what can never be perfect, that "more perfect union."  Utopia is a process of imagination and effort, motivated by basic human impulses, including love for future generations and our planet.

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