As a society, we seem to be much more interested in dystopian fiction than in utopian fiction. What’s up with that?

While Philip K Dick has a niche audience as a novelist, his novels and stories have been made into multiple feature films (including Blade Runner from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Hardly anyone seems to know the work of Richard K Morgan, yet Altered Carbon has become a TV series.

Ursula K LeGuin has won virtually every award in the speculative fiction realm, but have you seen the film versions of The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness? You haven’t, because they don’t exist.

Why do we like dystopian fiction? Is it easier to see how we could slide into that world than into utopia? Do we feel superior because we’re not (yet) as bad as that world? Do we find it easier to root for the rebel fighting a dystopian world than to celebrate a world that works? Does dystopia feel more real, more possible to us? Less fantasy? Do all of these questions take on a different meaning in Donald Trump’s world?

These questions are prompted by my reading of Looking Backward, the 1888 novel by Edward Bellamy. In this novel the protagonist falls into a deep sleep in 1887, only to awaken to a wholly-unfamiliar Boston of the year 2000. His guides to the new world tell him, ” …buying and selling is essentially antisocial in all its tendencies. It is an education on self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.” (Bellamy, 1888)

Before we go any further, thanks are due to Martha Kennedy for introducing me to Bellamy’s book. Martha writes of her dogs, her garden, painting, and “The Big Empty” of Western Colorado where she lives.

Bellamy imagines what could have happened in the US as a response to the age of robber barons. America could have recognized the slide into monopoly capitalism and seen that, if ownership of the means of production is going to be centralized, it could be used for the good of society instead of the good of the few in the owning class. Instead we chose to worship the owning class and imagine that we could each (not all) be part of that class if we work hard enough and have the breaks go our way. We make “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” into a goal rather than recognize the origin of the term – that, no matter how hard you pull on your bootstraps, you only pull your boots on, you don’t lift yourself up. It was written as a metaphor for an impossible task.

Why is it that, when we see people behaving badly, we excuse it by saying “that’s human nature”, but we don’t say the same when we see people behaving well? Is it because, in this culture, we have been inculcated with the idea of “original sin”? We are taught that evil is our nature and we must struggle (unsuccessfully) to overcome it. What is the purpose of that doctrine? While we trace it to the Old Testament, it was cemented into church doctrine by the Council of Trent (1545-63). I won’t pretend to be a Catholic theologian, but it appears that the doctrine of original sin has the central purpose of coercing obeisance to authority, with a secondary purpose of stifling any attempt to better the world, as our guilt makes us undeserving of a better world and our rewards, if any, are to come in some afterlife. Monopoly capitalism is thus a completely rational and perhaps inevitable response.

We make selfishness into our nature and cooperation into an aberration. We structure our society to reward selfishness and denigrate cooperation. In 1971, the Youth International Party held its New Nation Conference in Madison WI, with the premise “Build a new society in the shell of the old”. Dorothy Day’s 1969 paper “Reiterates the need to build a new society in the shell of the old, using ‘neither capitalist, nor communist, nor totalitarian means, but accomplished through non-violence.’ (DDLW #895).*” The idea was that we would build a cooperative commonwealth, people would see the benefits, cooperatives and other community-centric organizations would grow, and capitalism would wither away. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Fifty years later, only a few of those co-ops remain.

Bellamy looks at what we call “menial labor” thusly: “Do you mean that you permitted people to do things for you which you despised them for doing, or that you accepted services from them which you would have been unwilling to render them?” “I should as soon expect our waiter today to look down on me because I served him as a doctor, as think of looking down on him because he serves me as a waiter.”

As for economic competition in the “old world”: “To deliberately enter a field of business and destroy the enterprises of those who occupied it previously, in order to plant one’s own enterprise on their ruins, was an achievement which never failed to command popular admiration.” Sounds absurd when viewed that way, eh?

In discussing this future society, Bellamy uses mostly male pronouns, though his protagonist lives among a family including a couple and their adult daughter. For 142 pages I waited to see if male pronouns were a convenience, or if the writer looked at this new world from an entirely male viewpoint. He finally addresses, however briefly, the role of women in this ideal society. Yes, they are in the workforce; but it appears to be a “separate but equal” workforce.

Bellamy’s book is a treatise on this new society. His protagonist reads a modern novel and says, ” The information Dr. Leete had imparted was indeed extensive as to facts, but they had affected my mind as so many separate impressions…[the novel] put them together for me in a picture.” And there we have the chief weakness of this novel. We don’t so much see the functioning of this new society as read an essay extolling its virtues. This is where LeGuin and others shine. We see a different world through the eyes of one living in it; we see its ambiguities and how it resolves conflict (or fails to do so), rather than just imagining it from a treatise, or pretending conflict never arises.

Utopian fiction
A list only of books I have read and can remember right now. For example, I have not read Lost Horizon by James Hilton, nor Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. An interesting side note: Wikipedia’s list of dystopian literature is arranged by decade, while its list of utopian literature is arranged by century.

The Dispossessed (An Ambiguous Utopia) Ursula K LeGuin – What if anarchists posed a risk to the ruling class in a struggle that no one was winning, so the ruling class offered to help the anarchists set up their own world off of earth (or an authoritarian world kinda like earth)? What would that look like a few generations removed?

The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K LeGuin – What if people were not gendered and were asexual except when we came into heat, at which time we might take on either sex? LeGuin looks at a world in which any human could potentially bear children. (And it happens to be on a planet where the tropical regions are like our arctic, and the polar regions are colder yet.)

Always Coming Home Ursula K LeGuin – How might we structure society in a post-apocalyptic world? LeGuin writes a novel, an anthropological treatise, and records the music and poetry of this fictional society. (Her parents were actual anthropologists.)

Island Aldous Huxley -What if someone landed on an isolated utopian island with the intent to co-opt/exploit it, and things didn’t go as he planned? Also looks at the use of plants to expand consciousness. In some ways, the anti-Brave New World.

Sylviron Joel David Welty – A scholar of co-operatives imagines a co-operative commonwealth.

Looking Backward Edward Bellamy – What if we had no commerce and no money? What portion of our laws are devoted to private ownership of property? What laws would we still need?

Woman on the Edge of Time Marge Piercy – What are mental illness and mental wellness? What might a future society look like if they defined and treated those differently?

Some of these I read a long time ago so take my synopses with a grain of salt. Feel free to add to this list in the comments. I’m always looking for a good read.

Half-fast Fall Ride

In this strange bike racing season, the Tour de France was barely over when the World Championships were held. Now we’re in the midst of the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España will overlap with that, beginning October 20, while the Giro ends on the 25th.

For those who missed the Tour, it was an exciting race, won in the final time trial by Tadej Pogačar, who also won the King of the Mountains jersey in that same time trial, after easily having sewn up the Best Young Rider competition earlier. Pogačar came back from almost a minute down to win by almost a minute over his Slovenian countryman, but not teammate, Primož Roglič. Not often do you get a time trial on the last day of real racing, with a categorized climb to boot.

A beautiful day for the Half-fast Fall Ride. Low-lying frost greeted us on the way to the meet-up. The usual breakfast place has gone out of business ( a COVID casualty) so we all ate our own breakfast at home. We tried a new morning route, bypassing the ferry crossing in exchange for exploring Sauk Prairie – the former Badger Army Ordnance Works now being restored by 4 owners – the Ho-Chunk Nation, WI Dept of Natural Resources, USDA Dairy Forage Research Center, and Bluffview Sanitary District. Less than half of the land is open to the public, but that leaves >3000 acres to explore via rustic roads and trails. The land formerly produced ammunition for WW II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. That left a lot to clean up when it was decommissioned. Part of the Badger Army Ordnance Works’ claim to infamy is that at the turn of the new year 1969-70, the New Year’s Gang “borrowed” a plane from a nearby airfield and attempted to bomb the site to stop them from building munitions for the war in Vietnam. While the bombing failed, it is alleged that the same group bombed the Army Mathematics Research Center later in 1970.

Much of the land was and will be prairie, but it runs up into the bluffs just south of Devil’s Lake with some steep climbs up narrow roads, as well as some areas not open to the public. There is a beautiful and lightly-traveled (at least today) bike trail running through it. The climb up through Devil’s Lake was gorgeous as usual and a brisk tailwind pushed us for most of the morning. You know what that means for the afternoon.

We were able to eat lunch outside in Baraboo before our leisurely return to Sauk City. We earned the name half-fast today, this being the slowest 55 miles I’ve ridden in some time.

The ride was a perfect sendoff as I begin my two week tour of duty in the COVID-19 unit. Our Fearless Leader is home from his brief stint. On the way out he tweeted that we should not be afraid of COVID, because “we have developed, under the Trump administration, some great drugs…” What he didn’t mention is that you and I would not receive the treatment or the medication he received. Nor will we discharge to round-the-clock care with a staff of nurses and doctors. And he also neglected to mention that we paid for his treatment, since he paid $750 in taxes for the most recent year we know about, and his care may well have cost that much per hour, not counting his helicopter rides. He has no co-pays, co-insurance, nor worry that one of his care team might have been out of network and not covered at all. Lest we forget, the bulk of his taxes actually go to the War Department (now known, in one of the earliest examples of newspeak, as the Department of Defense) and debt service, so maybe his taxes didn’t pay for a whole hour. And, by the way, it has been reported that Dear Leader holds stock in the company that developed the “COVID-cocktail” and said stock price has gone through the roof since his treatment. So ask Dear Leader if he will pay for your care as you have paid for his. If so, have no fear.