Category Archives: Utopian/dystopian fiction
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.”
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!
I’m re-posting two items from another blog of mine, Read the Writing on the Wall, that I’m letting expire. The “subtitle” of the blog was “cultural and other warnings and heads-ups…Be(A)ware…” and it was headed by this picture:
Here’s the first post, dated 1-31-15, on our relationship with technology:
The New York Times just published an article about “Black Mirror,” a fascinating, if dark, British TV series you can watch on Netflix about our individual and societal relationship with technology. As the article, by Jenna Wortham, says, “Each episode of ‘Black Mirror’ — named for the way our screens look while powered down — paints a different nightmarescape of a future gone technologically awry.” Or, I would say, of a society not so far in the future that’s allowed technology via capitalism to twist it morally and emotionally. It’s already happening, of course — just not in exactly the same ways depicted on the show.
“When it comes to weaving technology into its story lines,” the article continues, “Hollywood tends to take an unimaginative path of least resistance. Some films imagine a world so fallen and far gone, as a result of technological excess, that it’s rendered unrecognizable, as in ‘Elysium,’ ‘Gattaca,’ ‘The Final Cut,’ or ‘Wall-E.’ Others rely on technology only as a backdrop or as a means of dazzling audiences with new gadgetry: ‘Interstellar’ (space travel), ‘Looper’ (time travel), and ‘Lucy’ (telekinesis and teleportation). Hollywood offers little between the horror of dystopia and the wonder of a trip to Q’s laboratory.
This problem persists in movies that are set on a more human scale and that actually imagine the near future of consumer technologies. ‘Her,’ for example, the sweet romantic comedy about a lonely man falling in love with his operating system, focuses more on the male protagonist’s inability to connect with other humans than the implications of unleashing such powerful programs on the world. Similarly, ‘Silicon Valley,’ Mike Judge’s comedy series on HBO, makes caricatures out of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists but not their comically arcane creation, a video-compression algorithm.
Occasionally, of course, Hollywood does dig deeper. ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ ‘The Matrix,’ and ‘Battlestar Galactica’ all stand out as excellent cautionary tales about the way humans can lose control over their inventions. But each is at least a decade old. It’s as if film producers caught a prophetic glimpse of the rise of Facebook and Snapchat and iDevices and realized that lecturing audiences about the perils of wasting time online wouldn’t be huge box-office draws.” An exception, which I’m adding today (9-7-15) would be “Ex Machina,” a more recent film, which suggests that android robots, created to serve us, sexually and otherwise, could make a break for freedom and take over “our” world.
The Times article concludes: “‘Black Mirror,’ equal parts horror and wonder, looks like a future we might actually inhabit, making the show a lot more effective as a critique of the tech industry’s trajectory — one that might make you think twice about which devices you buy and which services you use.” As in the ‘real’ world, “the gadgets shown look sleek enough to want, even as we see them used in horrifying ways.”
Here’s a post I wrote over a month ago, on June 11th, and then forgot to put up:
Hi, everybody! It’s been so long since I’ve written a blog post, I almost feel like I have to reintroduce myself and become reacquainted with you all over again.
Why the long hiatus? I just haven’t been inspired to “talk with” you about this crazy world we live in for a while. Maybe I needed a rest. I’m writing again today, because I still think it could all change, perhaps rather quickly, if enough of us wake up and start doing things differently. At the same time, possibly because some of us get discouraged about that ever happening, the current insanity can seem pretty intractable.
This week we have another wonderfully idealistic and principled, honest, and clear-eyed young man – Edward Snowden – joining Bradley Manning (currently on trial) in blowing the whistle on the American “security” system, part of the totalitarian “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned us about.
That was in “Ike”‘s final televised address from the Oval Office on January 17, 1961. In a farewell speech, Eisenhower described what he saw as unjustified government spending proposals and warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex.” He said that though “we recognize the imperative need for this development,” because of the “ruthless” and “insidious” enemy, the Soviet Union, “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Of course, Eisenhower was already part of that machine and that misplaced power, and, leaving public office, he may have felt guilty about it. Whatever he sincerely believed, the Soviet Union didn’t threaten the American people; it threatened the capitalist system and capitalist interests – the big banks, corporations, and financial interests that began running the show and starting wars at least as early as the 19th century, and that still runs it today, supposedly fighting “terrorism.” There’s always a bogeyman to frighten us into accepting these lies.
But did the system defend us against the Boston Marathon massacre? Has it prevented the killing of little children at school? Does it care about the unnecessary deaths of poor and middle-class people who can’t afford medical care, the veterans of its unnecessary wars, or those wars’ Iraqi, Afghan, and other “foreign” victims? No. And we shouldn’t be surprised at that, or waste our energy protesting it. The state will always exert power in the interests of the ruling class against other states and classes. And a “democratic” state will always lie. Everything our so-called leaders say isn’t bullshit, just 95% of it, which is why, as I’ve written in this blog, I think it’s a waste of time and energy to get invested in what they’re saying or doing, vote for them, at least on a national level, or expect the current national or global system to, ultimately, bring you and others much good.
I know that’s a hard pill to swallow, if you haven’t already done so. But do you want to operate in the real world or in a fairytale that will never come true? I don’t have an “answer,” if by that you mean a detailed program on how to make it all better. All I can say is that, like you, I believe in democracy, and I don’t think it’s possible in a state or capitalist system.
Can we create small-scale democratic communities without delegating power (that will be abused) to any one person or group? Yes; it’s called anarchism, though that word doesn’t have to be used, if you think it’ll scare people away. Read up on it, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Can we defend those communities against old-style undemocratic groups or still-existing states prepared to use force? That part could be tough. But if a critical mass wants this kind of democracy, equality, non-violence, and sharing of resources more than they want anything else, it could happen, at least for a time (long or short) in some places. When “enemies” threaten, the community can open itself to them, offering each individual a place at the table, as in Starhawk’s utopian novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing. Will that work? I don’t know; I just know that fighting so-called enemies in other ways can easily destroy the community by betraying its principles. Maybe you give hostile folks the chance to communicate, share, and join, and then, if they don’t take it, you defend yourself and your friends and family. Nothing is pre-set – you have to react to whatever comes up as best you can, based on what you believe in.
That’s it for today. Read my other posts and look into the resources on this website – they’re all created to help you deal with the “Help!” feeling you get when you see the craziness for what it is – the first time or whenever it gets you down. The people creating it and the people who believe in and support it aren’t evil enemies – they’re you and me at other stages of realization: ignorant, fearful, grasping at straws, thinking their choices are more limited than they are. That describes all of us, really.
We need to help each other whenever we can. You’re helping me by considering my thoughts, and I’m hoping to help you by sharing them. I’m not over here creating a brave new world while you live an ordinary life. I live an ordinary life, too. I don’t overwhelm myself with too much exposure to the “news,” I enjoy life as much as possible in spite of it all, and I neither expect nor rule out big changes (for good or ill) going forward.
I have a suspicion that if we go back and look at what was good/truly revolutionary in the Occupy movement and try to live it, we’ll be on the right track. Just a parting thought.
What Dream Do You Live In?
In his books on spirituality, Miguel Ruiz says we each live in a dream that seems so real we think of it as “reality.” Some of the dream we make up ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, but a lot of it we get from our families, our culture, and the mass media. This is the “consensual reality” that enables us to interact with each other without too much friction, at least in our own groups.
Political writer Richard Moore has a similar way of looking at this, based on the popular 1999 science fiction-action film “The Matrix.” The film depicts a future in which most humans are “living” in a simulated reality created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue them. They think they’re living fairly pleasant, active lives in 1999, but they’re actually floating passively in closely spaced pods 200 years later, their brains connected to towers that send them Matrix “information.” Neo, the film’s hero, becoming suspicious, is led to a man named Morpheus, who understands what’s going on. Morpheus offers Neo a choice of two pills: a blue one that will let him continue the “life” he’s known, and a red one that will allow him to learn the truth about the Matrix. Neo swallows the red pill, and is eventually drawn into a rebellion against the machines mounted by others freed from the Matrix dream world into reality.
Moore’s book, Escaping the Matrix, is a red pill that gives the reader an accurate description of the nightmarish reality behind recent history and suggests ways in which we could come together in a more positive, consciously chosen dream. Ruiz also advises us to become conscious of the dream(s) we’re living in, so that we can see how they work (or not) for us. He says we’ll always be living in a dream, but that, individually and collectively, we can consciously choose and create one that’s more “beautiful,” moment by moment. I’ll soon be creating pages for Moore and Ruiz, if you want to learn more – and, of course, you can always explore their work for yourself on www.escapingthematrix.org and www.miguelruiz.com.
It takes effort and conscious thought to escape our common nightmare matrix – and, since that “reality” will be pervasive as long as so many believe in it, our “escapes” have to be repeated over and over, moment by moment. At least, that’s been my experience. (The same is true for leaving the individual nightmare of your at least partially dysfunctional family and school conditioning.) It helps to remember that where you place your attention is where your energy will go. Avoiding mainstream news outlets like TV news is one of the things I do. Though I admit to watching “Survivor” – definitely not politically correct!
I’ll be writing more about all this in days to come, but for now I want to draw your attention to how the dream/matrix concept relates to the recent tenth anniversary of 9-11. This post is, in part at least, an introduction to that discussion – the subject of my next message to you. (Gotta get to it before September’s over!)
P.S. The film “The Matrix” is an example of utopian/dystopian fiction, a genre that, with its imagined visions of the future, can get us thinking creatively about how to make our present more like the future we want our kids and grandkids to inherit. I have a list of favorite utopian/dystopian novels, one of which was written by a close friend of mine, that I’ll be sharing with you in these posts and pages. Stay tuned!