Category Archives: Books

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!

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.

A novel about the sexual abuse of children in a religious community

Here’s another book review for you. As always with my reviews, if you hate spoilers, read no further until you’ve gotten ahold of “Hush” by Eishes Chayil (Judy Brown) and read it for yourself — or decided not to read it.

Judy Brown first published “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil (“Woman of Valor”) because of her novel’s subject: the near impossibility of discussing — and, thus, trying to heal from — child sexual abuse in her ultraorthodox Jewish community. Like her second book, “This Is Not A Love Story,” “Hush” is semi-autobiographical, very expressively written, and told from the point of view of a child, then teenager, then young woman. Gittel, age 9, saw her best friend Devory being sexually abused by her older brother. Devory acts out her pain and desperation, since her parents and teachers refuse to listen to her, and finally hangs herself with a jump rope in Gittel’s bathroom. Gittel feels terrible pain and guilt over this, and can receive no help for it until, as a young married woman, she breaks with tradition by naming her first child after her friend and demanding that the issue of child sexual abuse be addressed by the community.

In the novel’s afterword Brown writes, “We didn’t need the outside world. We had our own…We built walls, and built them high. The walls would keep the gentiles and their terrifying world far away. The walls would protect us and shelter us — and as we built them higher, thicker, wider, we forgot to look inside. We forgot that the greatest enemies always grow from within…This is a story I wrote about life in the ultra-Orthodox Chassidic world — about our joy, about our warmth, and about our deep denial of anything that didn’t follow tradition, law, or our deeply ingrained delusions. It’s a story told through the eyes of children, those who need to learn to understand how and why it happened to them, and those who need to find a way to survive it. This is for all the children — past and present — who still suffer. I have used a fictitious name, Yushive, for the main sect in Hush, because I refuse to point a finger at one group, when the crime was [is] endemic to all.”

Indeed, the sexual abuse of children occurs in almost all human groups, especially, it seems those that for religious reasons impose unnatural strictures on sexuality. Unfortunately, these are also societies in which the discussion of such a problem tends to be taboo.

Three novels about early man

Shaman is one of several novels I’ve been reading about early man and the interaction between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens (more about the others below). It follows the early adulthood of Loon, a young Homo sapiens man training with Thorn, a cranky shaman. [Don’t read any further if you’re strict about “spoilers.”) I loved the description of Loon’s coming-of-age “wander,” in which he must fend for himself naked, without tools or clothing. Robinson also gives us a vivid sense of Loon’s sexuality, culminating in an ideal relationship with a woman-of-no-“pack” who gains acceptance in Loon’s group. The character of Heather, Thorn’s partner-yet-antagonist, an older wise woman herbalist who functions as Loon’s mother, is also interesting. Robinson describes Neanderthals as simpler, lesser beings who wander around as displaced individuals, but one of them, a man Heather has healed, ends up saving Loon, his woman, and Thorn when the woman is stolen by slave-keeping, wolf-taming northerners. Significantly (and inexplicably), the Neanderthal dies in the middle of the night on their return home, and is then eaten – and used as a frozen sled! – by the three survivors, thus saving their lives. In this way, it seems Robinson is suggesting that the survival of our species rests on the help of an earlier one, our older “brothers and sisters.”

Another thing I liked about Shaman was the beautiful description of the cave paintings made by Thorn, his predecessor Pika, and, ultimately, Loon. This is similar to the art made by Tiger in Bjorn Kurten’s earlier novel, Dance of the Tiger. Both authors suggest that only Homo sapiens made art, as does William Goldman in his novel The Inheritors. Kurten is (was?) a paleontologist, who uses Dance of the Tiger to give us a picture of how Neanderthals and Homo sapiens may have interacted and interbred. He imagines that the offspring of the two species would have been infertile, but there are other explanations for the fact that many descendants of European or Asian ancestors have a tiny percentage of Neanderthal genes (they could have come from more distant ancestors). Kurten explains more than Robinson does about the different perspectives and cultures of the two species, and in his book only some of the Homo sapiens “gods” think Neanderthals are inferior.

I almost stopped reading Golding’s book after the first chapter – it’s hard to read, because he’s taking the point of view of the Neanderthals, who don’t depend on language to communicate as much as Homo sapiens does. It isn’t even obvious until the end that these characters are Neanderthals. Now that I’ve done a little online research, I understand better what’s going on, and am going back to the book, which apparently even more than Kurten’s shows the good side, perhaps even spiritual “superiority” of the Neanderthals.

To clarify a bit more, all three authors seem to depict Homo sapiens as much more capable of evil (cruelty to others) than were the Neanderthals. They may even believe the Neanderthals to have been free of this kind of stuff.

I find all of this quite fascinating!

After finishing The Inheritors: Golding portrays the Neanderthals not as inferior at all, just different is their way of perceiving and thinking (they actually spend more time just being). They’re very group-oriented, as opposed to the homo sapiens group, which contains some individuals who are greedy and violent and some who are more thoughtful about what’s going on. Contact doesn’t turn out super-well for the Neanderthals, but I felt that there could be more to the story, since some of them survive – an epilogue or even a sequel.