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A Whole New World: the Case for Utopian Fiction

A Whole New World: the Case for Utopian Fiction

I want to read more utopian fiction–fiction that imagines that another, better world is possible, and considers the ways that we might get there. In literature and TV, dystopias abound, and I can see their appeal. I find them too often relatable, and regularly riveting. Our way of being so often feels imperiled. Climate change threatens to bring catastrophe within many of our lifetimes. We seem ever on the brink of global conflict and governmental instability. Quintessential rights are subject to repeal. Dystopias mirror our anxieties, and often depict strong individuals surviving in spite of the collapse of the world around them.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower feels like a guidebook for surviving the coming climate crisis. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, years after its publication, helped provide a vocabulary and a very poignant visual toolbox to communicate the fear and uncertainty many felt during the Trump era. Published in 1993 and 1985 respectively, both novels are often referred to as prophetic. I guess there is a certain comfort in believing the trials we are facing are not beyond the human imagination. If they were not previously unfathomable, maybe they are not beyond our capacity to understand or to fix.

But if we are looking for comfort, isn’t there just as much to be found in imagining better and expanded futures, in envisioning the solutions to our current and impending problems, instead of their disastrous ends? What if we spent more time with utopian fiction that imagines new possibilities and solutions, that inspires us to take concerted actions, that hints towards the future world we want to live in? 

These questions led me to Everything For Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune, 2052-2072 by M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi. Their book is the story of the New York Commune, told in the form of a series of interviews, composing an oral history to mark the 20th anniversary of the uprisings that led to the communization of New York.

In the wake of capitalism’s collapse, spawned by an un-winnable war in Iran, climate catastrophe, and increasingly desperate attempts at state control, mass unrest has led ordinary citizens to remake the world.

The economy is localized. The nuclear family has given way to a more communal, inclusive model, where family isn’t defined by blood and childcare is a group effort. Gender expression is freer and more varied. Academia and its accompanying specialization of knowledge is gone, replaced by a culture that encourages philosophical debate, and an educational curriculum that values ecological restoration.

This is a world vision very close to the one Gregory Claeys depicts in another recent book, Utopianism for a Dying Planet: Life After Consumerism. Drawing from a long line of Utopian thought and literature, Claeys proposes a post-consumerist society composed of cohesive communal units, whose priorities are public safety and service, and human relationships and dignity. 

Claeys suggests that we might make these changes willfully to prevent disaster. But in Everything for Everyone, they come at a great cost.

The interview subjects, save for a few of the youngest, who have grown up in the commune and benefited from its practices, display a large amount of trauma. They have experienced war, abuse of all kinds, unspeakable loss, massive upheaval, unrest, and uncertainty. They have flashbacks and ask to change the subject. They refer to the therapy they have undergone and the ways in which their losses linger.

Even Zhou, one of the fictional interviewers, referring to her own detainment, says, “There is so much trauma in this place, everywhere.”

The good that has come in this society was only possible after a series of crises dismantled the old systems, allowing for the emergence and construction of new ones. And this world was undeniably forged from violence—the violence of the state and capitalism, yes, but also of the violence of the revolutionaries who formed the communes.

Maybe it isn’t possible to disentangle utopia from dystopia in our imaginations. Or maybe what constitutes one or the other is more subjective.

Going back to Margaret Atwood, the dystopia in The Handmaid’s Tale is the realization of a group of zealot’s dreams in response to a fertility crisis. In her MaddAddam trilogy, a bioengineer who goes by Crake ends humanity as we know it and replaces it with a race of animal-human hybrids with characteristics he deems appealing–like breeding seasons and the ability to heal by purring. The world left in Crake’s wake has only a scattering of human survivors and society has collapsed. It is an apocalyptic dystopia that was formed by one person’s vision of a perfect future.

It is also true that disaster is the thing that consistently inspires the kind of ethos–one of mutual aid, interdependence, and focus on the community as opposed to the self–that utopian thinkers like Claeys, O’Brien, and Abdelhadi envision. Claeys cites Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. In it, Solnit looks at five historical disasters and the ways people banded together in their wake. I am thinking, more recently, about how this was seen on a massive scale during the height of the pandemic when mutual aid efforts ballooned in major cities.

In New York City, and across the US, groups sprang up to address their communities’ needs, providing grocery delivery, establishing community fridges, and creating other programs to address their neighbors’ needs. This kind of mutualism is the driving force behind Everything for Everyone, and, for that reason, it is not too hard to imagine the world it depicts.

Everything for Everyone is firmly rooted in a very long tradition of socialist utopian thought and fiction, but O’Brien and Abdelhadi’s take feels contemporary. The future they paint is a portrait of imagined responses to many of the most pressing issues of our time.

Utopian fiction lets us dream our way into a new, better world–even if it is an imperfect one– and, perhaps, in the process, it gives us greater space to imagine how we might get there. We have innumerable examples of the worlds we don’t want to live in, in the form of popular dystopian fiction. What if we created as many variations of the opposite? In showing us where we want to go, as opposed to where we hope to never end up, utopias might help us to find our way there.

Sam is a writer based in Brooklyn. An ex-bicycle messenger and a marathoner, she is a lover of adventure. She is an avid reader of literary fiction and nonfiction in all forms–but has a special love for the weird and the dystopian.

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