Utopian writers and the creation of the America West

O, my America, my Newfoundland, My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d

John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed, (1654)

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Engraving of Amerigo Vespucci awakening a Native American from her hammock slumber (Johannes Stradanus, circa 1615)

The future of America had often been writ into the imagination of frontier settlers long before their emigration. In fact, Utopian writers used America as a stage for their writings so frequently that the land’s history is often conflated with the stories of its fictional pasts (and futures) — as a palimpsest from which multiple visions of futures are derived.

After the Civil War, these fictions took on a near fervent ideological bent; from Edward Everett Hale’s Sybarist and Other Homes (1869), and William Dean Howell’s A Traveler from Altruria (1894), to perhaps the most profoundly influential novel — Edward Bellemy’s Looking Backwards: 2000-1887 (1887).

This last novel spurred a revolution of sorts in American politics. By the early 1890’s the adherents of the novel, those who worked to realize the future-America envisioned in the science fiction book, had formed a network of Nationalist Clubs that spanned the American continent — and poured resources into the formation of a new third party on the national stage, the People’s Party (or Populist Party). By the 1892 Presidential Election, the People’s Party had garnered the electoral votes from six western states — fully carrying Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho. In fact, Idaho had a Governor from the People’s Party, a U.S. Senator, and two U.S. congressmen (James Gunn and Thomas Glenn 12). In 1898, Idaho itself had become the subject of another Utopian work of fiction, Francis H. Clark’s The co-opolitan: A Story of the Co-operative Commonwealth of Idaho (writing under the masculine pen name Zebina Forbush). In this novel Ms. Clark borrowed heavily from the actual settlement history of the, then, four year old community of New Plymouth, Idaho (which she renamed Co-opolis in the novel). Her story is set thirty years in the future (1927) — and it recounts how the cooperative commonwealth idea found its highest and best expression in Idaho, leading to a nation-wide socialist revolution.

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Still from Fritz Lang’s silent film, Metropolis (Model-maker/Set-designer Walter Schuzle-Mittendorf, 1927)

By 1975, a nearly dormant world of Utopian Science Fiction once-again emerged with a seminal work once-again written on the pages of Western America; with Ernst Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. The novel is set in the year 1999, and is a compilation of newspaper reports and personal diary entries of the hard-nosed New York reporter William Weston (a character whose name serves as an homage to the protagonist in Bellemy’s Looking BackwardsJulian West). Weston is the first American reporter permitted to enter the break-away nation of Ecotopia in the 25 years since its succession from the Union (it being composed of the former states of Washington, Oregon, and the area of Northern California — with the city of San Francisco serving as its capitol). Callenbach uses the novel to introduce the somewhat radical notion of an entire country whose economy and urban forms are based off the principals of ecological sustainability. The book has been cited as profoundly influential to both the Green Movement and the advent of Eco-socialism.

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Concept painting of San Francisco in 2048 as an Ecotopia for the film, “The Fifth Sacred Thing” (Jessica Perlstein, 2012)

“Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge

Perhaps the most significant Utopian Science Fiction writer today is Kim Stanley Robinson, starting with his wonderfully written set of novels covering three separate possible futures for the same spot of western America — Orange County, California. In the first novel, The Wild Shore (1984), Robinson explores the oddly Eden-like world of a quiet fishing village in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Then, in a jujitsu-like move, Robinson introduces a radically different future in his second book, The Gold Coast (1988), where the area’s economy is mired in defense industry contracts and the urban landscape is dominated by automobile-centered autotopia. In his third book, Pacific Edge (1990), Robinson returns to a type of ecotopian future envisioned by Callenbach. In this novel, although the protagonist (Kevin Clairborne) is an architect/builder who converts old “dead” buildings into communal homes with integrated biological components and heuristic control systems, the primary focus is on the problems the character faces as he steps onto the local city council and is faced with a potentially environmentally damaging development proposal.

“We are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

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The Return to Abalakin: Part 1 (Alexander Preuss, 2006)

More recently, Robinson has written another Utopian work of fiction, 2312 (2012). In this novel humanity has spread throughout the solar system, bringing with it every conceivable type of settlement pattern. Not only has Mars been terraformed (part of the same universe created by Robinson in his Mars Trilogy), but Venus is in the middle of a monumental conversion — and a great number of asteroids have been converted into Space Habitats; which have been given differential orbits through the inner planetary system allowing them to be used as a type of interplanetary mass transit system. Many of these asteroids carry within their hollowed out cores entire biomes: African Savannas, Amazonian Jungles, Alpine ecosystems — each carrying their unique animal and plant species; flora and fauna now extinct on a future polluted and radically climate changed Earth.

I think cities are important because they are so densely populated…and I think that a lot of city life is fairly paleolithic in a strange way because it gets away from the automobile. Cities encourage face-to-face interactions with other individuals, so I like it for that. And I think that rooftops need to be used for urban gardens and that cities need to be greened, less for the auto and more for people and public transit.

Kim Stanley Robinson

As part of a lecture series for the Museum of Modern Art (“Speculations: The Future is___.”), Robinson has been pulling together the various strands of his Utopian writings and launching into a public discussion about climate change and the unique role cities, and urban planning, will play in reversing the environmental degradation associated with such apocalyptic shifts. He has also been speaking out about economic shifts, at least as tectonic as the climatic shifts we’re experiencing. In particular, he’s been musing over the inherent flaws of Capitalism and what a post-capitalist world might look like. Here Robinson traces Capitalism to its Feudal roots and in so doing, brings its connection back to the American West — with its dominant European settlers having striven so valiantly to free themselves from political and economic serfdom.

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Boise Skyline at Dusk (Talo Pinto, 2011)

As an American writer whose novels are often set in the American West, Robinson knows we are not oblivious to the deep connections between our imaginations and our communities. As a Science Fiction writer he is surprisingly open about the limitations of technology, and about how we often abuse our intelligent manipulation of energy and material to craft far too unreal fantasies.

We see these contortions in our western world every day; from large-scale gated communities (where the wealthy residents attempt to sequester themselves from the vagaries of poverty) to the squirrelly activities of Doomsday Preppers (who seem to be rooting for the collapse of society itself). In the midst of this, Robinson strikes an amazing balance between hopefulness and caution — about our common past and our shared future.

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