New Just Utopias Zine

New Just Utopias Zine Issue 1 cover icon

Issue #1 of the new Just Utopias Zine is now available to view and download at justutopias.com.

This issue includes:

  • A review of the Space Crone book launch event, celebrating all things Le Guin on the publication of this new collection of her essays
  • Three recommended utopian podcasts to wrap your ears around
  • Details of a free online dystopias course
  • Details of upcoming Utopian Book Collective events, including our inaugural film screening

If you have ideas, suggestions or submissions for future issues please get in touch.

That’s all for today’s announcement, I hope you enjoy the zine!

Jack Halberstam’s Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example one: Gordon Matta-Clark's Conical Intersect, 1975
Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example one: Conical Intersect by Gordon Matta-Clark
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975. Orginal artwork held by SFMOMA. Source of image: https://aestheticamagazine.com/gordon-matta-clark-anarchitecture/

Jack Halberstam’s keynote ‘Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse’ really was the absolute highlight of the Utopian Studies Society of Europe conference. But wait! You didn’t have to be there! A version of the lecture is available on YouTube so I wanted to share the details. It contains some real IDEAS about UTOPIA and I highly recommend checking it out.   

If you want to get to utopia, you can’t start from here

Halberstam opened with a huge challenge to the genre of utopia. We are limited in what we can imagine, he argued, bounded by what we know. Going forwards only carries over the problems of the present into the future. The necessary project, he suggested, is not worlding but unworlding.

The use value of utopia is often thought to be in prefiguring changes we would like to see in the real world. For Halberstam, this function is moot. There is no hope in bridging from here to the future. You must instead go back to dismantle the present.

Nothing matters

Halberstam used the art of Gordon Matta-Clark, shown above, to illustrate the creative potential of deconstruction. In carving a spiral through a building due to be demolished in Paris, Matta-Clark employed his architectural knowledge to create an absence of building. In this artwork, the artist’s material is nothing. It is art because of what has been taken away.

This work subverts the logic of capitalism, which demands things are made, possessed, consumed. As such, it also deconstructs the system we are caught in. Halberstam’s suggestion was this is a surer first step towards a new world than imagining a utopia.

Advocating for entropy

Moving ever further away from glossy utopian futures, Halberstam then set out his argument for embracing entropy. We will have to follow the logic of other lifeforms, he argued. Lifeforms that know what to do around ruination. Mushrooms, microbes, beetles all require decaying material as sustenance, and through processing what is rotten create the conditions for new life.

In discussing ruins and the marginalised lives that exist amongst, and may emerge from, them, he referenced the photography of Alvin Baltrop. Baltrop’s pictures captured the New York’s collapsing West Side Piers in the 1970s and 80s, and the gay men who cruised there.

Source of image: https://bronxmuseum.org/news/the-life-and-times-of-alvin-baltrop/

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding exampe two: pier photograph by Alvin Baltrop

Broken Earth

Jack Halberstam's Unworlding example three: The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

Drawing his final example from literature rather than art, Halberstam went on to discuss N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. His analysis centred the faction within the novel who want to see the end of the world, not save it. These characters are some of those who have been marginalised and exploited by the prevailing society. Halberstam drew parallels with Afro-pessimism, asserting the only way out of white supremacy is to destroy the world it has built. By implication, a utopianism that aims to repair the existing system would be a neo-colonial project.

After attending the lecture, I re-read the last two novels of the Broken Earth trilogy. I was left wondering whether the ending of the trilogy sustains the Afro-pessimist reading.

— SPOILER ALERT — Skip this section if you haven’t read The Stone Sky in its entirety!

Nassun, who had wanted to all-out destroy the world, in the end executes her mother’s plan to fix it. In the aftermath it is acknowledged that, despite the fix, the current Season will continue for some time. While it is hoped node maintainers will no longer be required, just exactly how things will work out remains uncertain.

The result is certainly an undoing, yet it isn’t total destruction. Is this a large repair job or are things are sufficiently unwound to start again?

Watch online

You can find a version of Jack Halberstam’s lecture Unworlding: An Aesthetics of Collapse online, see below.

Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two: Revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective

One of the best bits of news from 2022 is the revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective! UBC is up and running again.

We had seven great meetings in 2022. For a while we were the Bristol N. K. Jemisin fan club, when we read the Broken Earth trilogy one book at a time from July to October. (Hols in August, for the mathematically astute among you who will have spotted it took us four months.)

My favourite meeting of 2022 was in November, when about a dozen of us turned out for an animated discussion of Brave New World. Then, we headed through to the cinema for a screening of Neptune Frost. We meet in the cafe bar of the Watershed, an independent cinema in Bristol, UK. By fortunate coincidence the “exhilarating Afrofuturist anti-capitalist sci-fi-punk-musical” was screening at 9pm after our book group meeting at 7.

Utopias past and present

Brave New World is, of course, a classic. But would anyone still have anything to say about it, is it still relevant? Turns out yes, everyone had a lot to say. We could easily have done three or four discussions on this one book. Is it really a dystopia? Does it matter to not have free will if you’re happy? Why is art and culture better than centrifugal bumble puppy and electromagnetic golf? Who wouldn’t want to go to the feelies? Also, we got into some sticky stuff about eugenics, ableism and ageing.

I enjoyed going straight from Brave New World to Neptune Frost. It was like journeying from utopias past to utopias present. Neptune Frost defies easy explanation. To start off with my brain was furiously trying to work it all out as it went along but I had to let that go. I experienced the music and the action and the visuals. It is there now inside my mind and I get the feeling it may be changing things as yet unbeknownst to me in there. Unanimous goldmine!

Neptune Frost film poster, highlight since the revivial of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective

What a difference 198 days makes

The official relaunch or revival of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective after lockdown took place in April 2022 as part of the People’s Republic of Stoke’s Croft School of Activism. On that occasion, two people arrived to the meeting. We had a wonderful discussion centred around The Deep by Rivers Solomon. But given the low turnout for what was a relatively well publicised event, I wondered if there was any appetite for continuing the book group.

I was already mulling over ideas for an offline, meetings-free Utopias Club. It involved newsletters and badges and I might still do it one day. But thankfully Emma and Nathan, who had joined me that day, were full of enthusiasm for the book group. I felt somewhat obliged to arrange another meeting. On that great and successful November evening only six months later I was grateful to them that I did.

It’s brill to have the group up and running again. If you’d like to join us, check out our upcoming events here.

Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two (2022): Becoming a Spike Island Associate

Spike Island Associates banner

In the autumn of 2022 I was working on a book review. To get a bit of headspace and exercise, I was cycling or walking to work on it at the Spike Island Cafe.

Spike Island is an area of Bristol (UK) almost entirely surrounded by water. The name suggests it should be fully surrounded, I know, but it ain’t. It has the docks on one side and on the other the ‘New Cut’. New in a geological sense, but this channel to divert the River Avon was dug over 200 years ago. It takes the tidal waters of the Avon in and out of Bristol while a series of sluices and such keep the docks at a constant level. The New Cut, by the way, is an absolutely massive channel, which is has to be, because the Avon has the second highest tidal range in the world.

Spike Island is also a world class contemporary art gallery situated on Spike Island, the not-quite-island in Bristol. It recently staged (if that’s the word) Veronica Ryan’s exhibition Along a Spectrum, for which she won the Turner Prize.

Spike Island (the artspace) is housed in a former tea-packing warehouse. The industrial history of Bristol, like that of many British ports, is intricately connected with colonialism. Within the repurposed building there are artists studios and co-working spaces as well as exhibition spaces. Like all good art galleries, it also has a lovely cafe. That’s where I found myself reading ‘Dystopias and Utopias on Earth and Beyond‘ in preparation for writing my review. And it’s where I found out about the Associates programme.

Joining the Spike Island Associates programme

The Spike Island Associates programme is open to artists, curators, writers, designers and producers. There I was, writing notes in my book, preparing to write my review. I am genuinely writing something, I thought. I can tick the box that says I’m a writer. As I was writing an academic book review, I ticked the ‘academic’ box on the application too.

I joined the programme for the following reasons:

  • 24/7 access to a workspace. This means whenever I can escape for an evening, or whatever time in the morning I manage to make it in, I can work without needing the cafe to be open
  • The money I would save in the cafe would more than pay for the membership fee. (There are kitchen facilities available by the workspace for making a cuppa or putting lunch in the mee-crow-wah-vay)
  • To be part of a community of artistically-minded people and all the potential cross-fertilisation of ideas that could bring
  • Some of the events open to Associates looked cool, including gallery tours and workshops

So those were my practical reasons for joining. But the biggest benefit to me so far, I think, has been that moment where I self-identified as a ‘writer’.

Like university, but for utopians

Previously, the structure that confirmed the validity of my work was university. Doing a Master’s degree brought a kind of legitimacy to my endeavours. What are you doing? Oh, it’s my MA research. However, I’ve continued to work long beyond finishing my degree. And while I have considered a PhD, lately I’m turning against university as a focus and locus for my work.

Becoming a Spike Island Associate has given me confidence to see myself as a practising thinker and writer. It has also been a way of securing some of the benefits I previously associated with university: a library-like workspace, a set of cohorts, mentors. As a utopian, I’m always pleased when I can find my own way of doing things when I’m uncertain about the system I’m working within. And becoming a Spike Island Associate has been one of those utopian moves for me this year.

Review of Twoty-Twoty-Two (2022): Utopian Studies Conference

Photograph of utopian studies conference venue at University of Brighton
Conference venue: University of Brighton

The thing that took me farthest out of my comfort zone in 2022 was attending the Utopian Studies Society conference. I thought it would be nice to have a few days away to discuss all things utopian but I was wrong. I stretched my elastic too far just to get there. It was my first time travelling on my own and travelling much at all since the pandemic and having a child (both things that have tied me to home over the past few years). Having to then leave my room and attend events was so hard. This is despite my room (in student halls) being unbearably hot and depressing.

Yes, this was another USS conference in a heatwave, like the previous one in Prato, Italy in 2019 where we discussed utopia, dystopia and climate change in 40 degree heat (Celcius, folks). Just the thing to make discussions feel urgent and hopeless at the same time.

Utopia and the Plantationocene

My talk was deliberately provocative, which is something I like to do. We’re all in a room together so let’s provoke a bit of conversation. I stood up and argued that the logic of utopia is the same as the logic of the plantation. I said:

  • The foundation story for Utopia (the place) in Thomas More’s Utopia (the genre-founding book of 1516) is settler-colonist fantasy. King Utopus conquered the land of Abraxa, named it after himself, and ‘brought the rude and uncivilized inhabitants into such good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind’
  • More was not only inspired by the colonisation of North America by his fellow Europeans but contributed to the ongoing settlement of the continent. In Karl Hardy’s words, ‘Utopia clearly articulates the settler colonial doctrines of terra nullius [no man’s land], vacuum domicilium [unoccupied home], and inane ac vacuum [idle and waste] which were used by European powers to establish legalistic grounds […] for expropriating the supposedly unhabited land’
  • Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing describe how the Plantationocene – the era of the plantation and its transformative effects upon our planet – started at the same point in history. Plantations were a new form of agriculture designed by Europeans specifically for slave labour in the New World
  • More’s Utopia reflects and expresses plantation logic, just as surely as it is inseparable from the colonisation of America. Utopia (the place, the book and the genre) is about establishing systems of control to obtain a perfect outcome. Further, it imagines the means of enforcing the ways of being required to perpetuate said perfect state. The logic of utopia is the logic of the plantation

And the response? No-one challenged me. No-one even batted an eyelid. They nodded, apparently agreed, and carried on with the utopian studies conference.

Decolonising Utopian Studies

The colonialism at the heart of utopia is an open secret in utopian studies. Some scholars do, however, address it directly. On a panel titled ‘The Past and Future of Utopian Studies’, Caroline Edwards spoke on ‘Decolonising Utopian Studies’. It was undoubtedly one of the most important contributions to the conference.

Dr Caroline Edwards presenting at the utopian studies conference

She started out with a list of sources, including:

She asked why these texts and authors are not being talked about in utopian studies. And why black speculative imaginaries are not coming to utopian studies. Why are we not citing them and why should they bother citing us?

Funding Utopia

I suspect this might come down to studying an essentially colonialist genre within a colonialist institution – the university. Why would anyone exploring anti-colonial ways of being want to come towards that? Later on the same panel, Adam Stock highlighted a key obstacle for going the other way: funding. Anyone working within utopian studies on this area is trying to get funding from the very institutions that the research will criticise.

As someone on the periphery of academia, the poolside if you will, this conference made me think twice about jumping back in. Especially when Caroline Edwards talked about how adrienne maree brown (idol) could not do what she does if she was working within academia. She could not do her critical writing and thinking alongside being a doula and a poet plus do teaching and research in the form that academia demands. It made me think about what the real, important work is and where it happens. And those thoughts are ongoing.

An ecofeminist and utopian perspective on The Word For World Is Forest

Detail of The Word for World is Forest cover art showing night sky through trees
Detail from The Word for World Is Forest cover art showing a night sky through trees

My presentation from the The Word for World is Forest symposium is now available online! Find it on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, anchor.fm, PlayerFM and more. Wherever you get your podcasts, as they say.

The title of the presentation is ‘The Word For World Is Forest as Ecofeminist and Utopian Text’. It was recorded live in October 2022 during a one day symposium organised by The Anarres Project.

The symposium was a celebration of the 50 year anniversary of the publication of Ursula Le Guin’s novella The Word for World is Forest. Its particular aim was to consider how the novella might continue to inform social justice movements today.

My argument centres around how the structure of The Word for World is Forest is inconsistent with the ecofeminist ideas within the text. I suggest the lesson to draw from this is we need to consider the structure as well as the content of our thoughts around social justice, along with that of whatever media we use to convey our ideas. This is something I think Le Guin goes on to do in later essays and novels, particularly Always Coming Home.*

*I’ve written a separate essay on Always Coming Home, which you can find here.

“Academic-wise, I do literary criticism”

I haven’t watched the video back yet, because cringe. But I saw the first two minutes and it’s a beaut. Hear me explain that my area ‘academic-wise’ is something called “lit-er-ary crit-i-cism”? In my defence it was a multi-disciplinary symposium. Also, I don’t know whether I’m even in academia or not at this stage. I also do the classic thing of not being able to get my slides to work. But again, forgive me, for this was my first time presenting over Zoom.

I believe the presentation gets better as I get into the swing of it so do stick with it if you can bear it. If not, I’m going to be writing it up into something respectable soon so you could always hang on and wait for that. (Possible publication date could be before the end of 2023? Who knows.)

Videos of the other presentations at the symposium should be appearing soon so be sure to subscribe to The Annares Project on YouTube to catch them all.

Recommended utopian books for kids

Group photo of attendees of the Oscar's Tower of Flowers utopia for kids event
Group photo from utopian books for kids event, with author Lauren Tobia holding copies of her picture book Oscar's Tower of Flowers
Bristol Utopian Book Collective co-founder Rob Bryher, author and illustrator Lauren Tobia, and participants in our kids’ book event.

Bristol Utopian Book Collective recently hosted a children’s book group as part of the PRSC School of Activism. I selected Oscar’s Tower of Flowers by local Bristol author and illustrator Lauren Tobia as our book to discuss. Being up for a bit of activism, Tobia joined us for the event and talked us through the story of her beautiful wordless book.

As mother to a young child and a critic of literary eco-utopias, the two sometimes crossover when reading bedtime stories. Some seemingly innocent books are horrendous when seen through an ecocritical lens (I’m looking at you, Babar). Oscar’s Tower of Flowers, however, has so many reasons to recommend it.

Cover art and review for Oscar's Tower of Flowers

Here are my reasons for recommending Oscar’s Tower of Flowers, plus more utopian book recommendations for kids.

1. The love of plants

Oscar cares for the plants and the plants care for him, making him feel better while his Mum is away. That we can have mutual loving relationships with plants and thrive when we live alongside nature is shown in a way that even the youngest readers can understand.

2. Nature without the capital ‘N’

Not every kid has access to capital ‘N’ Nature: kingfishers and otters and woodpeckers and whatnot. Oscar’s Tower of Flowers shows you can plant a seed in a yoghurt pot in a flat in a towerblock and notice your connection to nature. Just like that, nature is everywhere.

3. Inclusivity

Based on some (most) books you might think nature is for white middle class people. It’s a joy that Oscar’s Tower of Flowers shows a diverse range of people, all having their lives enriched by plants.

4. Community

Connecting with nature for self-care could seem individualistic, but not in Oscar’s Tower of Flowers. ‘Spot the difference’ illustrations inside the front and back covers show the whole community transformed, literally and figuratively growing together.

5. Activism

When Oscar’s flat is overrun with plants, he shares them with his neighbours. He doesn’t set up a plant sale and make a bit of pocket money for himself. He knocks on doors and gives plants away as gifts. The change he’s made at home spills out beyond the borders of his flat and changes the lives of others.

More utopian books for kids…

Utopian books for kids: Change Sings by Amanda Gorman

My son’s school have recently read Amanda Gorman’s Change Sings and written poems about the changes they want to see in the world. Their responses focused a lot on not dropping litter, keeping plastics out of the ocean and driving electric instead of petrol or diesel cars.

It’s sobering that we need to teach our kids they are inheriting a world that’s messed up and in need of a lot of change. But we also need to confront the magnitude of the changes they need to imagine, beyond doing the recycling.

Change Sings covers a much wider range of concerns than pollution, despite these not all being teased out at school. The student body is mostly white and affluent and presumably the kids were responding to the world they see around them, most obviously litter in the streets and cars on the roads.

To help my son see beyond his own experience and maybe understand Change Sings more deeply, my next book purchase for him is going to be Usborne’s lift the flap book What Is Racism?

Mr Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown

My personal interpretation of Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is it challenges the separation of culture and nature in Western ideology. Bear with me.

Mr. Tiger lives in a town house and wears formal attire, right up to the top hat. But he has wilder instincts he needs to express. He starts going about on all fours, roaring, and eventually takes off his clothes and swims in the fountain. His neighbours banish him to the wilderness.

However, his place isn’t in the wilderness either. He gets lonely and misses civilisation. So he comes back. And he finds that people in the town have wilded up a bit. Some animals do choose to go on all fours. Some aren’t fully clothed. Things are loosening up and he can be his own mix of wild and civilised.

There could be many other alternate readings of this book. Maybe it’s about someone who wants to express their gender or sexuality and still be accepted by their community. Perhaps it’s about neurodivergence and the struggle to flourish when you have a hard time fitting in with society’s ‘rules’. To me, it’s about the false separation of humanity and nature, and understanding ourselves best as a part of nature, not apart from it. Very eco-utopian.

From lemon balm tea in a Martian house to lemon verbena in the woods

Exterior shot of the Martian house in situ in Bristol, UK, September 2022
Exterior shot of the Martian house in situ in Bristol, UK, September 2022
The Martian House in Bristol, UK, September 2022

Sometimes you don’t know how you feel about something until the morning after. Yesterday I visited a prototype Martian house, learnt about growing plants hydroponically and participated in a ‘plant-bathing’ meditation and tea ceremony. We picked lemon balm leaves from the indoor garden to make our tea.

Over tea, we talked about how extraordinary growing plants would be for the wellbeing of anyone living on Mars.

How the plants would be the only green thing they would see on that planet.

About ‘viriditas’, a term coined by Hildegard von Bingen (everyone’s favourite C12th abbess and also a musical genius) to refer to the life force and vitality of green leaves and also within us.

How witnessing a plant grow would be a measure of time in an alien environment, where days, years and seasons are unlike those on Earth. How the plants would become companions, and how one Russian cosmonaut became particularly attached to an onion he grew in space, effectively keeping it as a pet.

About shinrin-yoku, the Japanese practice of forest-bathing (like sun-bathing but under the trees) and the discovery of phytoncides. These chemicals, emitted by plants, affect our mood and health, offering a rational explanation for why being amongst plants can make us feel better.

From a Martian house back to Earth…

A poster reading 'CAN DESIGNING FOR MARS GIVE US THE PERSPECTIVE WE NEED FOR LIVING ON EARTH?'

The Martian house has been created by artists Ella Good and Nicki Kent in collaboration with Hugh Broughton Architects and Pearce+, with Katy Connor bringing the plants. Its purpose is not an earnest attempt to get us to Mars. It’s more a thought project in what we really need and how we can fulfil our needs sustainably, which is most immediately applicable to our lives on Earth.

It’s fascinating, and a credit to the impact of the project, that the day after visiting I find myself in the woods. It wasn’t my plan for the day; my usual luxury is to go to a cafe to write and enjoy some form of rainbow latte (matcha, tumeric, yet to try beetroot but intrigued).

Today I woke up and felt like walking to the woods. This was fairly impractical because I had work to do. But I looked at the weather forecast, and it looked dry. I considered how we’re getting towards the end of September and there won’t be many more decent days before winter. So I packed my writing things and prepared to endure weird looks from dog-walkers for sitting using a laptop in the woods.

All those things we talked about being valuable on Mars: the green, the viriditas, the seasons, the companionship of plants, the phytoncides… they’re valuable here too. And I woke up wanting them here on Earth. I took lemon verbena leaves grown at home, brewed them into tea, and took it with me into the woods.

And it was an apt place to work on my The Word for World is Forest presentation!

The Word for World is Forest symposium

The Word for World is Forest symposium image of woman holding space helment in the forest
Photo Credit: Maksim Isotomin, Unsplash

This morning brought news I have had a proposal accepted to present at an online symposium dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella The Word for World is Forest.

The symposium is being organised by The Anarres Project for Alternative Futures on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Forest.

Their intention is that, rather than being strictly academic, discussions should foreground “how the tale might help us develop strategies for mutual aid and community organizing against injustice today”.

I certainly have thoughts on that so of course I stuck in a proposal. Now it’s been accepted it’s the usual ‘wtf did past me do, what did I promise?’ moment of realising I have a presentation to write.

Last time I wrote a paper I trialled a ‘devised theatre’ style approach that I’m thinking of employing again. This involves quite a lot of talking to myself: improvising to start off with then refining it down to what I really want to say. This was no easier than sitting down with pen and paper/laptop but I enjoyed how when it came to presenting I was able to do so without notes.

As for what I’m going to talk about, this, incidentally, is what past me promised:

My presentation will consider the lessons The Word for World is Forest offers for environmental and social justice movements as both an ecofeminist text and a utopian one. I suggest it is utopian to the extent it presents a critique of contemporary society while also suggesting the possibility of other ways of being that would be more perfect than our own.

The ecofeminist themes of the novel are evident in the characterisation of the Terran leader Captain Davidson who in his sexism, racism, colonialism, speciesism and general disregard for nature single-handedly demonstrates how various types of exploitation can be connected and how the masculinist, master figure can be the architect of ecological destruction.

But while the text highlights the dangers of such a dualistic worldview, which separates man/woman, self/other, man/nature and considers the former of each pair superior, it does not escape dualistic logic within its own structure. It is impossible to escape the binary form of the text, which opposes the ‘good’ Athsheans and the ‘bad’ Terrans.

I will discuss the necessity of escaping binary thought (which incidentally I believe Le Guin achieves in later works) in order to:

– Avoid essentialism, where we attempt to flip the hierarchy instead of flattening it and continue to assume that women and ‘others’ (effectively anyone not a white male) are intrinsically connected to ‘nature’

– Avoid eco-authoritarianism, where we perpetuate the logic of mastery over others by attempting to wrest control in order to impose environmental ways of being

– Avoid colonial logic, where we fantasise about colonising either a place or time (i.e. the future) according to our own ideals, no matter how well-meant

The symposium will be held online on 14 October 2022.

Three quick-fire utopian book recommendations

Utopian book recommendations - cover art for The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wore my Just Utopias badge to a school event recently and it proved a conversation starter. On the spot, I was asked for utopian book recommendations. I can’t believe I didn’t have an answer prepared for this scenario, but there you go.

So, what would I recommend to someone completely new to the genre? Where is the ideal starting point for utopia?

This is highly subjective and I would love to hear other people’s suggestions (pop them in the comments below!). But these were my quick-fire utopian book recommendations, and I stand by them.

1. & 2. – Ursula K. Le Guin

I think the best introduction to utopia is through Ursula K. Le Guin. For Le Guin, utopia isn’t about building a colony on Mars or even seizing control and doing a better job of running things here on Earth. Her utopias are about finding a dynamic balance, where everything is always mindfully changing, shifting and compensating, but not striving towards anyone’s fixed idea of progress or perfection.

Le Guin’s books suggest we can think outside of whatever structures we happen to be living within. She’s the author behind the much-shared quote:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

So, my first utopian book recommendation is to read Ursula K. Le Guin. And, without apology, my second utopian book recommendation is… to read Ursula K. Le Guin.

The Dispossessed

Shevek lives in an anarchist-communist community on Anarres, a barren moon-like planet. His community separated itself from the rest of civilisation living on Urras, Anarres’s capitalist sister planet. However, Shevek is a brilliant physicist and in order to see his most important ideas come to fruition he needs to travel and work between the two worlds. To do so he must challenge the dogma surrounding the foundation of his own community and avoid being used by both sides as a political pawn.

The Dispossessed is interplanetary, extraterrestrial and undoubtedly sci-fi. However, for readers new to utopia (a subgenre of sci fi) there’s nothing too weird to get your head around. Unlike, say, Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, where everyone shifts between genders and being genderless. It is also a traditional novel, unlike Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, which is a collection of snippets about a fictional society, including stories, plays, poems, recipes, drawings and music. Both The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home come highly recommended but I think The Dispossessed is the best starting point.

A Wizard of Earthsea

The first in the Earthsea cycle, this book follows Ged, a young magician. He is incredibly powerful but is yet to learn how to control his magic powers, and his ego. In attempting to prove himself superior to another, older, student of magic, he accidentally releases a shadow-creature. It’s then up to him to travel across Earthsea and destroy the beast he set loose.

A Wizard of Earthsea isn’t a utopia at all but it is an introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin, who is a utopian. The book is suitable for children (probably about 11+ to read alone, a little younger if being read to). It has proved formational to many, including other writers including Neil Gaiman and David Mitchell. Bearing in mind I was asked for recommendations at a school event, I had promote this one. The more minds, young and otherwise, that discover Earthsea, the more hope there is for us all.

3. The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

In a world seemingly ironically called The Stillness, earthquakes are commonplace. Occasionally there will be a quake strong enough to set off a ‘fifth season’, a kind of nuclear winter outside of the usual spring, summer, autumn, winter.

Amongst the inhabitants of The Stillness are people known as orogenes, who have the power to both quell and start quakes. They are feared and, if not killed on discovery, ostracised to an educational facility where they are trained to be of use to society.

The Broken Earth trilogy follows one such orogene as she questions and relearns her place in society during a fifth season, and grapples with whether the world needs to be destroyed before it can accommodate everyone fairly, including orogenes.

The trilogy is a fantastic read, and it’s not just me that thinks so. Each instalment won the Hugo Award for Best Novel (voted for by readers) in the year it was published. It’s full of utopian themes and ideas, including the notion that the status quo is not inevitable. The way things are is not the way they’ve always been, and it isn’t the way they always will be either. Everything is subject to change, and that brings about the utopian possibility of things being different, and better.

In our own world where the climate is breaking down, racism is systemic and the far right seems to be on the rise, it’s increasingly obvious that tinkering around the edges is insufficient. As such, The Broken Earth trilogy is a utopia for our times. We may need to relearn our history, and allow our current world to be destroyed. But when a world is rotten, why save it? The best thing to do might be to start again.