The Death (and Re-Birth) of Utopia

Want to know why our times feel so perilous?  It’s called a failure of imagination.

As some of you know, I’ve been writing “The Chronicles of the Upheavals”, a work of speculative fiction, for the past couple of years.  (Almost finished!)  As my first (and perhaps only) foray into the world of fiction-writing, I’ve been asked about where my writing fits into the world of science fiction/ speculative fiction.

For quite awhile, I’ve been saying that 80-90% of science fiction is “dystopian” – writings about dysfunctional, failed and/or toxic human societies.  I pulled that number off the top of my head, assuming (quite wrongly, it turns out) that there must be some writers that are promoting positive, inclusive, healthy, desirable societies.

So, I recently did a quick search of my own sci-fi library and movie collection, then some research on the Web on utopias and dystopias.  Based on my research, it seems that 99% of future writing is dystopian.  In fact, I’ve unearthed only ONE book/movie that qualifies as clearly “utopian” or positive in message.

(Hint:  It’s a book (then movie) from the 1930’s.  In its day, it was one of the most successful, well-read books in history.  So popular, they couldn’t keep up with printing hardcover copies of the book.  They created a whole new technology for disseminating the writing: the paperback book.  (Know what it is?  Don’t Google it… more hints to follow.))

Outside of this 1930’s example, what are the books and movies that point us to the world we all can live in?  As it turns out, there are… virtually none.  There are “elitist” fantasies, from “Blade Runner” (the megastructures of the Tyrell Corporation) to “Demolition Man” (the antiseptic sterility of Cocteau’s “San Angeles”).  These are not utopias, but bastions of elitism, living oblivious to the sacrifice and suffering of others in the societies below.  (H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and the earlier “Metropolis” were also examples of two-tiered “utopian/dystopian” societies.)

(Your next hint:  President Roosevelt was so taken by the 1930’s utopian movie that he named the Presidential Retreat after the movie… which was later renamed “Camp David” by President Eisenhower.  Your guess?)

By “utopia”, I don’t mean a “techno-fantasy”, with lots of gizmos but with no resolution of the human failings that created our problems in the first place.  The literature and cinemas abound with what I would call “triumphs of technology”: jet packs, flying cars, levitating trains, faster computers… the world made better by ever-increasing levels of technology.  “Minority Report”, with self-driving cars and no homicides… but a police chief with a serious drug habit, and large sections of the city poor, depressed and abandoned.  “Tomorrowland”, with a “tomorrow” that looks a lot like “today”, but with a couple of techno-tweaks (levitating trains and the tiredly-ubiquitous flying jet pack).  In this view of the future, we are living our current status quo, but with cooler hardware.

(Okay, here’s the answer:  The first name of Camp David was… Shangri-La, from the movie (and book) “Lost Horizon”.  If you haven’t seen the restored version of this Hollywood classic, I strongly recommend it.  I think it really bears the test of time and wears its 75 years well!)

The Revolution to Utopia

What about a story where the way out of dysfunction is utopia?  How about a story where, instead of creating robots or androids or faster-than-light spaceships, we re-create what it means to be “human”?  (Yes, there have been sci-fi attempts at re-engineering humans, from “Big Brother” in “1984”, to the genetically endowed of “Gattaca” and “Elysium”.  None of them were involved in building a world for all.)

The premise of “The Chronicles of the Upheavals” starts with a radical, even revolutionary premise: all of the challenges that we see looming ahead of us are not “problems” to be “fixed”, but are incentives for us to change how we encounter the world.  The failure of agri-business?  Learn how to grow your own food.  Global climate change?  Build more responsive, adaptive, ecologically resilient communities.  Bad education?  Educate yourself and your community.  Brain-dead politicians?  Create your own governance systems.  Violence?  Create alternatives that increase real security and lower the necessity to resort to violence.  Religious and ideological failures and tensions?  Transcend them.

The path to an inclusive revolution does not lie in violence.  It definitely does not involve waiting patiently for the next techno-tweak to come our way.  The path to revolution comes from a fundamental change in how we interact with each other… a change from the infancy of individuality and violence to the maturity of aligning ourselves with each other and with all life.

In “Chronicles”, there is nothing easy about this transformation.  From chapter to chapter, the participants are confronted with choices that test their values against the harsh reality of a society that is unraveling around them.  I believe it is the very backdrop of a reality based on our current understanding of our problems that makes the solutions in “Chronicles” seem credible.

“Chronicles” is written in a style that will (hopefully) invite you to dream your own solutions.  Don’t like what I propose?  Come up with your own solution!  (There will be an interactive version of the book, to encourage inclusive visionaries around the world to share their challenges and their solutions.)  Instead of passively accepting the next techno-tweak (like self-driving cars… a “solution” that solves no problem of society), we can develop the imagination to envision a world that works for all beings… and the courage to make it so.

Peace,

Shariff

[Note 1:  Interested in getting a preview of the first few chapters of the book?  Just let me know and I’ll send you a PDF of the first chapters.]

[Note 2:  Stay tuned for the crowdfunding campaign to develop and publish “The Chronicles of the Upheavals”, in both interactive (web) and static (book) formats. What kind of book needs you as a contributing producer?  One that could change the world!]

[Note 3:  Some of you may offer the book “Ecotopia”, by my friend, the late Ernest Callenbach, as an example of a utopian society.  While it is a book that has definitely influenced the thinking of an entire generation, it is focused on one challenge/solution (ecology) and therefore does not (in my opinion) create the broad-based and inclusive society that is envisioned in “Chronicles”.]

 

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6 Responses to The Death (and Re-Birth) of Utopia

  1. Catherine Thomas says:

    Please send me a preview of the first few chapters of your book.

  2. Carol says:

    I would love to preview the first chapters. Mahalo!

  3. Kathleen Anderson says:

    Have you heard of Michael Tellenger and the Ubuntu Movement in South Africa? I just became aware of him a few days ago, have ordered his book and have started watching him on Youtube. So far he seems to be talking about a world that works for everyone. He envisions a moneyless society where everyone contributes there special skills and talents for the good of the community. His website is at http://www.ubuntuparty.org.za/. I am very intrigued with what I have heard so far and am eager to learn more.

    Yes, please do send me your preview chapters.

    • Shariff says:

      Yes, Ubuntu flickers on and off of my radar screen from time to time. Perhaps I need to pay some focused attention to it…

      Shariff

  4. Tim Rouse says:

    I would enjoy reading your first few chapters.

  5. Laurel Crissman says:

    I am interested in getting a preview of the first few chapters of your book.

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