Category Archives: Resources

Utopian/dystopian novels, part 2

I’ve now created a section under “Resources” in the top menu bar for fiction books, including utopian/dystopian novels. There you’ll find a list of my favorites and notes on Octavia Butler’s two Parable novels, Starhawk’s The Fifth Sacred Thing, and Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The notes will give you a flavor of these great fiction works, and are better than nothing if you can’t read them in their entirety, but I hope at some point you will, since they function so well as positive, alternative visions for us as we live into our (currently) dystopian future. Such visions, especially so vividly expressed in fiction, also act as healing balms when we’re discouraged by what’s going on around us – which for me is most of the time.

You will see that Butler’s novels detail what the further extension of our dystopia could be like, that Starhawk’s trilogy, including the prequel Walking to Mercury and sequel, The City of Refuge, is a communal vision, and that Le Guin’s book is both a detailed description of an ideal future agrarian society and the individual story of someone born into that society who also lived in its mirror opposite for a time.

I find it interesting that all of these novels are set in northern California, though they also range a bit further afield. Perhaps the Cascadia of another visionary novelist, Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging) will actually emerge as the seedbed for a better world.

As noted on Wikipedia, “Cascadia is a bioregion and proposed country that would consist of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the US states of Washington and Oregon. At its maximum extent, Cascadia would stretch from coastal Alaska in the north into northern California in the south, and inland to include parts of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, as far southeast as Colorado, and the Yukon. More conservative advocates propose borders that include the land west of the crest of Cascade Range, and the western side of British Columbia. As measured only by the combination of present Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia statistics, Cascadia would be home to slightly more than 16 million people, and by land area would be the 20th largest country in the world.

There are several reasons why the Cascadia movement aims to foster connections and a sense of place within the Pacific Northwest region and strive toward independence. The main reasons stated by the movement include environmentalism, bioregionalism, privacy, civil liberties, and freedom, increased regional integration, and local food networks and economies. The designer of the Doug flag, Alexander Baretich, claims that Cascadia is not necessarily about secession but is rather about survival of peak oil, global warming, and other pending environmental and socioeconomic problems.

In 1956, groups from Cave Junction, Oregon and Dunsmuir, California threatened to tear southern Oregon and northern California from their respective state rulers to form the State of Jefferson.

Ernest Callenbach’s environmental utopian novel Ecotopia (1975) follows an American reporter, William Weston, on his tour through a secretive republic (the former Washington, Oregon, and northern California) 20 years after their secession from the U.S. Weston is shown a society that has been centrally planned, scaled down, and readapted to fit within the constraints of environmental sustainability.

A research study by the Western Standard in 2005 found that support for exploring secession from Canada was at 35.7% in British Columbia, and 42% in Alberta. While difficult to gauge support specifically in Washington and Oregon, because no research has been done for those states, a nationwide poll by Zogby International in 2008 found that 22% of Americans support a state’s or region’s right to peacefully secede from the United States, the highest rate since the American Civil War. However, none of these studies are specifically about forming an independent Cascadia. The movement saw much discussion in the 1990s, and while the increase in security and American nationalism after the September 11 attacks set back the movement’s momentum for some time, the concept has continued to become more ingrained into society and the public consciousness. In January 2011, Time magazine included Cascadia number eight on a list of ‘Top 10 Aspiring Nations,’ noting it ‘has little chance of ever becoming a reality.’

Also making this list is the Second Vermont Republic, a secessionist group within the U.S. state of Vermont which seeks to restore the formerly independent status of the Vermont Republic (1777–91). It describes itself as ‘a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank opposed to the tyranny of corporate America and the U.S. government, and committed to the peaceful return of Vermont to its status as an independent republic and more broadly the dissolution of the Union.’ The organization was founded in 2003 by Thomas Naylor (1936–2012), a former Duke University economics professor and co-author of the 1997 book Downsizing the U.S.A.”

 

Getting inspiration from utopian/dystopian fiction

I’ve been meaning to write a post about this for a long time, and reading Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Ytasha L. Womack (2013) has gotten me to actually do it! Womack says that in 2011 she “attended the Think Galacticon conference. Unlike the typical science fiction conference, its creators hoped to use science fiction as a platform for broader changes in society. Held at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, the conference brought activists, science fiction writers, and fans together to share perspectives on social change and privilege. Panels included talks on classism in fantasy novels (why don’t the paupers ever challenge the prince for power?), the growing black independent comic book scene, and personal growth tools for revolution.

In her workshop, noted activist Adrienne Maree Brown said, ‘It’s amazing to change the world, but it’s heartbreaking, bone-cracking work, and you don’t often see the change in real time. For me as an organizer, what gets me through has been immersing myself in certain sci-fi worlds.’ She uses sci-fi to frame an inspirational perspective for youth that she works with too. ‘Your life is science fiction,’ she tells them. ‘You’re Luke Skywalker, but way cooler; you’re trans and black and you’re surviving the world of Detroit.’

Brown began her activism work in college. She’s a former executive director of the Ruckus Socity, a nonprofit that specializes in environmental activism and guerilla communication, and is heavily involved with the League of Pissed Off Voters. A Detroit resident, she describes herself as an organizational healer, pleasure activist, and artist, obsessed with developing models for action and community transformation.

She’s also a sci-fi fan. After discovering Octavia Butler’s work, she was inspired to develop new work of her own. Brown is using Butler’s pivotal Parables series and its post-apocalyptic tale as a template for change agency in desperate communities. Her workshop at Galacticon was titled ‘Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategies.’ The workshop description read as follows: ‘“All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” These words of Octavia Butler’s have impacted people seriously on a personal level, but how do we apply her wisdom on a political organizing level? How would accepting and coming to love the emergent power of changing conditions affect our strategic planning? This session will be half popular organizational development training and half inquiry into what the future of organizational development and strategic planning will look like.’

As far as Brown is concerned, many abandoned urban communities in New York City, New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, Cincinnati, and Detroit are post-apocalyptic and ripe for community-borne transformation. Seeing supports and humanity in Detroit, her new home town, made Brown look at other cities with blighted communities differently. ‘There are people living in places that we associate with the end of the world, but it’s not the end of the world – it’s the beginning of something else. An economy based on relationships and not the monetary value you can place on someone else.’

Brown now teaches activists how to use strategies from Butler’s books (like community farming, building relationships with neighbors, and essential survival skills) to build communities in areas where resources are scarce. She emphasizes that people in troubled areas need to have self-determination over their food supply, harking back to the Acorn communities in the Parables – intentional communities, ‘places where people come in an intentional way to build a life together. They’re farming with accountability to one another. They have a spiritual community. This is a strategy that could enable people to survive a future where our resources are unsure. Another is door-to-door relationship building that’s nonjudgmental. After the Acorn community is trashed, the main character goes door-to-door and starts to build a community of believers who aren’t rooted in one place, but in a shared ideology. It’s very similar to the Zapatista ideology. They went around for ten years building relationships one by one. Now a lot of organizing is done around the internet and tweeting each other. If we weren’t able to do that, what would we do? We would work with whoever is there with us.’

Brown is also a big advocate of teaching basic survival skills, including gardening, care for the sick and wounded, and midwifery. ‘I’m also looking at building homes and bathrooms. How do you make a bathroom where there is none?’ Her main point is to generate solutions. ‘We shouldn’t spend the majority of our time trying to get someone else to be accountable for what happens in our communities. Don’t wait for someone to do it for you; provide the solutions yourself…

What is the biggest story we can imagine telling ourselves about our future? It can be a utopia or a dystopia, but we want to get a perspective from people who are actually trying to change the world today. What do they think will happen? What’s the best-case scenario? How do we get people to think of themselves as the creators of tomorrow’s story?’”

I’ve been inspired by Butler’s Parable novels too, and many others, including Starhawk’s Fifth Sacred Thing trilogy. In the next few days, I’ll put notes on these books and a list of utopian/dystopian fiction in the Resources section (see top menu bar).

Let’s get inspired!

Looking into the Iranian and North Korean nuclear threats

Want to know whether the US should withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran or what’s involved in the upcoming negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons? Check out “War Games,” the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s “Intercepted” podcast, available on in the iTunes store or wherever you get your podcasts. You’ll learn a ton — all critical information in understanding today’s (and yesterday’s) world…Like which country or countries are currently the biggest threats to world peace?

“The Death of Stalin”

As a student of history, particularly Russian history, I was curious about the new film “The Death of Stalin,” then appalled when I did some online research and found out that it’s a slapstick comedy about officials grasping for power after Stalin died in 1953. What’s funny about something like this? Nothing. Also shocking is the way the film gives absolutely no context about Stalin, one of the key historical figures, for good or ill, of the 20th century. As Peter Hitchens, a London reader of The Guardian wrote in that paper’s letters section on 10-27-17, “As far as I know, this is the first time a mass-market film has dealt with this event. We may be saturated with serious drama and documentary material on the Nazis and the end of Hitler, but the equivalent evils of the Stalin nightmare haven’t received anything like the same treatment. For most who see the film, it will be the first time they’ve ever heard of these strange events. And what do they see? An intensely serious moment in human history played for laughs, with lavatory humor and plentiful use of the failed comedian’s standby, the F-word. We’re so free and safe that we can hardly begin to imagine a despot so terrifying that his subordinates are even afraid of his corpse. This trivial and inaccurate squib doesn’t help us to do so. Perhaps it’s the comedians who need to be satirized, by some fitting seriousness about a serious subject.”

The only critical review I found of the film online was one posted on the World Socialist website (www.wsws.org) on 3-9-18. David Walsh describes it as “a fatally ill-conceived ‘black comedy’ about the demise of the gravedigger of the Russian Revolution, Joseph Stalin, in March 1953. The film is not so much maliciously anticommunist as it is, above all, historically clueless. Iannucci presents the various surviving Stalinist officials, Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan, Nikolai Bulganin, and the rest, all of whom had gallons of blood on their hands, as a largely ineffectual bunch of bunglers and toadies, jockeying ‘comically’ for position. The betrayal of the Russian Revolution was one of the greatest tragedies in world history [not to mention the planned famine in Ukraine and Stalin’s purges, which together killed more people than Hitler]. Iannucci’s film doesn’t begin to confront the vast significance of events in the Soviet Union.

Taken in and of themselves, there are amusing lines and moments, until one remembers the general context and the historical stakes, and the laughter freezes in one’s throat. All the actors are fine at doing what they’re asked to do, but what they’re asked to do is terribly off the mark. It’s impossible to make sense of a film like ‘The Death of Stalin’ except in the context of the disastrously low level of historical knowledge or interest that exists in the arts at present.

Iannucci is a Scottish-born television, film and radio writer and director, responsible for ‘I’m Alan Partridge’ (along with Steve Coogan), ‘The Thick of It,’ ‘In the Loop,’ and ‘Veep,’ among other efforts, and under the right circumstances, he’s capable of creating funny, pointed satire. When it comes to bringing out the dishonesty, careerist opportunism, and stupidity of garden-variety politicians, media personalities, and other establishment figures, he probably has few equals today. However, when the writer-director steps outside the fairly narrow confines of parliamentary and entertainment industry backroom shenanigans, he falters badly. The second half of ‘In the Loop,’ which satirized the British government’s complicity in the Bush administration’s drive to war in Iraq, is politically blunted and largely unfunny. HBO’s ‘Veep,’ too, about a fictional female US vice president, finds Iannucci over his head. For all its coarseness, it’s quite timid in its portrayal of the ugliness of American politics, with little mention of war policy, drone strikes, and other things that surely consume a great deal of a real president’s focus and attention.

Art and comedy have to rise to – or at least approach – the level of the events or personalities they’re treating. That is, there needs to be some artistic and intellectual correspondence between subject and object. Iannucci’s film is based on a [non-comic] French graphic novel series by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Iannucci has undoubtedly added his own touch. And it’s simply inappropriate and, at times, grotesque.”

I believe history, as the backstory to current and future events, is the key to understanding where we are and where we could go, and I’m more than saddened by the preponderant lack of knowledge of or interest in it today – probably because of the boring, textbook-centered way it’s taught in high school. Good historical novels and films can make up for some of this, but bad ones, like “The Death of Stalin” just deepen the ignorance. Take the time to be curious about your world, and how it came to be the way it currently is. Find important history books by reading reviews on Amazon, then buy or borrow and read them!

 

Notes on two new books added to Resources

Hi, all — just wanted to let you know that I’ve added my notes on two new books to “Resources, Non-fiction Books.” They are No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Want by Naomi Klein (2017) and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2016). The notes on Nothing Ever Dies also include my notes on Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winning 2016 novel about the Vietnam War, The Sympathizer. Look for “Resources” in the top bar of the web page.

As always, I heartily recommend that you read these books in their entirety yourself, but in case you don’t have the time, money, or interest to do that, these notes may be helpful to you. Share any and all widely.