Clarke Stevenson
CivicSpark AmeriCorps Fellow

Rejecting Dystopia: How the Literary Realm May Guide us to Utopia (or something like it)

Recently the effects of the Anthropocene have demanded nearly all of our attention. In the Sierra Nevada we have been torn between runaway fires, increased rain over reduced snowpack, tree mortality, soil runoff, persistent drought impacts and of course the powder keg of more frequent, extreme weather patterns as witnessed throughout the country. The alarmist voice is a megaphone.

hikerIt’s easy to form a collage of today’s headlines to craft a dystopian profile, and it seems as if many authors are doing the same for their storyboards. The future’s paradise lost is their underlining theme, and human struggle on an earth ruined and harsh is the reoccurring image. As we collaborate to prepare for the potential social unrest and climate scenarios, what are our art communities revealing about the world? What will future generations call our literary moment in which we are battling with the Anthropocene’s totality?

Not surprisingly, a recent surge of dystopian fiction leads the polls, centering climate change as the main character, the conflict and setting to some of their novels. As if the authors themselves are elaborating on a diary entry of woe, we the readers buy into the catastrophic narrative. It’s just another cycle of news reporting mayhem, disaster and the frailty of human life. We believe the dire tone of best-laid plans gone wrong. We stew in the last chapters accepting a new world that has laid waste to the innovation of human collaboration. To quote Margret Atwood in the 1980s, “Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.”

However Jill Lepore, a Harvard History professor and contributor to The New Yorker, rejects this current batch of novels: “Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness.” In essence, these new dystopias ask us to do only one thing: despair more.

Lepore is among a group of individuals inciting a change in the literature community to inspire hope. Utopias, in other words, are not just rose-colored dreams for the media-detached, but rather, have the potential to excite the nation not from a place of fear but from a place of potential. Utopias are the very reasons to get out of bed, why we challenge ourselves to be better.

Utopias are all around us, layered between the dreary. Sparse at times, but still replenishing at the core; it is ambition and it looks like accomplishment. It can be as small as a delicious dinner and as grand as addressing climate change. “To think about the world only as it is, amounts to a formula for collective suicide,” Amitav Ghosh extolls in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Utopias are not only a call to action but are also a recipe for survival.

They are the coordinates to something greater, motivating us to slip out of the shoes that have been consumed by the mire and press forward. What dystopian novels help expose, utopian novels aim to stitch back together and improve upon.

In a moment where science seems to be our only salvation, where our thirst for facts seems to offer a reset button, it is easy to forget how the arts can unify and instigate a map for the future. Utopias reveal that history of the future. This is a call to separate ourselves from the dribble of misery, sometimes daily, and to enter a space of radical imagination to think of what could be, what should be. Here is a good place to start. We may begin with a list of some of the most important utopias to influence western society since 1888, featuring notable authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. LeGuin, Arthur C. Clarke and Aldous Huxley, then let us press forward.