"Recently I read an excellent book: The Soviet Novel
, by Katerina Clark. In
it she observed that the USSR’s socialist realism suffered from what she called
“modal schizophrenia,” because the writers were supposed to stay true to the
situations they described while also evoking the better world socialism would
bring. They were caught trying to bridge that gap between what is and what
ought to be.
Clark’s diagnosis made me laugh. I’ve been writing utopian novels for a long
time, and I recognized all too well the syndrome she described. The novel is
usually regarded as a realist art form, and I’d go even further: By telling the
stories we use to understand our lives, the novel helps create our reality. In
novels, things go wrong—that’s plot. People then cope. That’s realism.
Utopia, on the other hand, is famously “no place,” an idealized society
sometimes described right down to its sewage system. In utopia, everything
works well—maybe even perfectly, but for sure better than things work now. So
utopias are like blueprints, while novels are like soap operas. Crossing these
two genres gets you the hybrid called the utopian novel: soap operas put in a
blender with architectural blueprints. It doesn’t sound all that promising.
Then came Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed
. Published in 1975, this was
the first great utopian novel, and it demonstrated just how good the poor,
misbegotten hybrid can be. Of course, there’d been earlier utopian novels, like
William Morris’s News From Nowhere
, or H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland
, or Aldous Huxley’s Island
. These were
all interesting efforts. But Le Guin’s book was a triumph. What she showed is
that by describing a utopian society in a moment of historic danger, you create
for it all kinds of problems that its characters must solve. It will get
attacked from the outside, corrupted from the inside; things will go wrong, and
so you have your plot. Le Guin combined an intriguing utopia with a compelling
novel, and the result was superb. The people on her habitable moon, Annares,
have formed an alternative society to the imperial capitalist world, Urras.
They devised a system that is feminist for sure and either democratic socialist
or anarcho-syndicalist, but in any case in a state of flux, its people doing
everything they can to keep what’s best about their system while also fending
off impositions from the home world. It’s political fiction at its best."
Via Kenny Chaffin.
Share and enjoy,
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics