Just Utopias New Year news!

As we start 2024 I have Just Utopias New Year news for you. News of a new publication, a new start behind the scenes for this website, and a new book of the month.

New publication

Just Utopias New Year News Item 1: Review of "Dystopias and Utopias on Earth and Beyond" (cover pictured)

My review of the essay collection Dystopias and Utopias on Earth and Beyond: Feminist Ecocriticism of Science Fiction has been published in sci fi journal Extrapolation. If you have institutional library access to Extrapolation check it out here. Otherwise, you can read all about it over here.

A little bit solarpunk…

Just Utopias has moved to a new server powered by renewable energy. Apologies if you noticed a couple of days of downtime during the move. We are now up and running and powered by the sun and wind.

Book of the month: Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

This month’s book choice is Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon. Solomon is author of The Deep and faer work often deals with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade and the treatment of Black bodies. This interests me because I think this is exactly what the genre of utopia needs to grapple with. There’s only so much good that can be done imagining cosy sci fi futures where discrimination no longer exists. (I’ve just finished reading Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild-Built, does it show?)

Solomon is working through it all and in Sorrowland it results in something gothic and dark. It’s not a lovely dream of utopia at all, and yet I think it is more utopian for it. It is doing the work of dismantling the way we think, examining how our world has been built on those thoughts to the detriment of Black, indigenous, queer, female and non-binary people, and considering how it could be otherwise.

By way of a plot synopsis… Vera, 15 years old and seven months pregnant, escapes a cult and births her twins in the woods. After a few years raising her children away from society, she can no longer deny her body is going through some strange transformations. It becomes time to leave the forest and face both the future and her past. Themes include the Gothic, queer writing, race, Black utopianism and magical realism.

If you would like to join an in person discussion of the book, you can do so with the Utopian Book Collective in Bristol, UK on Monday 5th February. Details here. Otherwise, the comments are open for discussion below.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Just Utopias New Year News, stay tuned for further updates.

Everyday Utopia: Book of the Month November 2023

UK cover art for Kristen Ghodsee's Everyday Utopia
UK cover art for Kristen Ghodsee's Everyday Utopia

This month’s book of the month is Kristen Ghodsee’s Everyday Utopia.

First, let’s address the subtitles of this book. For the UK edition it’s ‘In praise of radical alternatives to the traditional family home’. This is good and representative of the content. In the US it’s ‘What 2,000 years of wild experiments can tell us about the good life’. This is bizarre and meaningless. The US publishers seem afraid to state on the cover what the book is actually about.

The book’s central premise is that the single family home is not serving us particularly well. It talks through examples of what we might call ‘intentional communities’ from, yes, the past 2,000 years. But it also challenges the notion that we consider single family homes ‘normal’ and alternatives ‘wild’ at all, given the variety of arrangements found across the globe and over time. And, despite alluding to ‘the good life,’ this isn’t a book about self-sufficiency or sustainability. Although these are common aspirations to some of the communities discussed, this book is mainly about who brings up the kids and where.

Putting the everyday into utopias

I’m intrigued by this book precisely because it doesn’t take a top-down view on transforming society. Instead, it looks at our domestic arrangements and considers how we might live differently from the bottom up. While I usually prefer fictional utopias for the way they fire up my imagination to consider different ways of being, this book excites me because of the sense of agency it provides. It offers the possibility of changing our everyday home lives so that our daily existence better aligns with our ideals.

These ideals might be feminist and socialist like those of the author, but they do not have to be. Some of the communities discussed are organised around more traditionally conservative religious and/or patriarchal values. The common thread is that these communities have broken away from the convention of living in single family homes. In many cases, they also diverge from the notion of living as nuclear families.

Words from the author of Everyday Utopia

For more on the book, you can read an interview with the author in Current Affairs magazine of politics and culture here.

There is also a review in The Nation here.

If you are in or near Bristol, UK and want to join an in person discussion of the book, come along to our next Utopian Book Collective meeting on 4 December 2023.

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: Book of the Month October 2023

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress cover art against a bold geometrical background
The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress cover art against a bold geometrical background

This month’s book of the month is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein.

Many of us are drawn to utopia because of problems we see with the prevailing consumer capitalist culture. As a result, many utopias (and utopians) are left-leaning. They explore societies that function without capital, without traditional family structures and within ecological boundaries. This bias has been noted, and as a corrective this month’s book is a right wing utopia.

In Heinlein’s novel, the moon is a penal colony. Its inhabitants mine ice from below the surface and grow grain in underground farms, which is exported back to Earth. The prices are fixed by the Authority, a kind of worldwide mega-State, and paid in Authority scrip. The ‘Loonies’ (lunar colony) want the freedom to set the price of their grain exports and use a more valuable currency.

The book tells the story of the lunar rebellion in retrospect. The rebels are assisted greatly by a sentient computer, who is probably the most interesting character in the book. Another point of interest is the marriage customs on the moon. Due mostly to a shortage of women, polygamy is common. The protagonist is member of a multi-generational marriage going back over a 100 years since the original husband and wife. New spouses, both male and female, are ‘opted-in’ to the family with the agreement of the existing husbands and wives. However, within this structure heteronormative values prevail, with straight partnerships and traditional gender roles.

Why read The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?

The objective of choosing The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is twofold. Firstly, to mix things up for the left-leaning utopians and give us something different to talk about. Secondly, to invite along any utopians who have been put off by all the queer, socialist stuff to give us someone different to talk to. The idea of utopia is to challenge our ways of thinking and confront us with different ways of being. So perhaps if we’re too happy with our utopias, we need to at least consider someone else’s.

If you’re free on Monday 6th November, and in Bristol, UK, join the Bristol Utopian Book Collective to discuss this book in person. Find out more here.

Triton: Book of the Month September 2023

Bartleby, the co-op member who had been there the longest, loaned him books, weird books he had never heard of, that spoke of other realities, other times, stranger than this one. Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler’

‘And The World Was New’, Chana Porter

This month we are following a trail from The Seep, last month’s book of the month. In a short story appended to The Seep in most publications, Porter tells the tale of the boy Aki. He has grown up in ‘the Compound’, isolated from the rest of the world. The world as we know it, and Aki doesn’t, has been transformed by The Seep, an alien invader. Through contact with The Seep, humanity has achieved enlightenment and is living in a conscious, connected utopia. To help him navigate the new world, another member of his co-operative loans him books by Joanna Russ, Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler.

These three authors are all famous writers of seminal late 20th century utopias. These are Russ’s The Female Man, Delany’s Triton and Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. We can probably safely assume these texts had a strong influence on Porter. Another not-so-subtle clue is in the name of the project she co-founded, The Octavia Project. This project support girls and non-binary young people to write SF (science/speculative fiction) stories.

Taking this as a reading list, the Utopian Book Collective has only thus far read one of these texts, Butler’s Parable of the Sower. We decided to address this and chose Triton for our next book of the month.

Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia

Originally published under the title Triton, in later publications it achieved its full title of Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia. I think we’re OK to still call it Triton for short.

The subtitle puts Triton in dialogue with Ursula K. Le Guin, another great utopian author of the era. Her classic novel The Dispossessed has the subtitle ‘An Ambiguous Utopia’.

Heterotopia is a term coined and described by Michel Foucault. My understanding of it is that heterotopias are places with their own hierarchy and codes of conduct, such as ships, hospitals or prisons. They’re a part of wider society, but have their own rules and structure. They are real places, not ‘no-places’ as in the literal translation of the word ‘utopia’ as ‘no place’. But they are still other to or outside the rest of society.

If you would like to read Foucault’s ‘Of Other Spaces – Utopias and Heterotopias’ yourself you can find it here.

How this translates to a literary form is something I am intrigued to see. If you, too, are curious about this, join us in reading Triton. And if you are local to Bristol, UK, join us in discussing it too! See our Upcoming Events page for details.

On a bright yellow background the author's name SAMUEL R. DELANY and book title TRITON are shown in block capitals.

The Seep: Book of the Month August 2023

Cover art from The Seep: a still life painting of flowers against a dark background that distorts and smears at the bottom of the picture

In The Seep by Chana Porter, utopia has been brought about by means of an alien invasion. What follows in this novella is a loving pastiche of contemporary utopian tropes. The emotional processing, sensitivity to ecological connections, and community-mindedness. Its diversity in terms of race, gender and sexuality. The abolition of money and the police. And the complete mitigation of human-induced climate change.

Porter’s novella has a wry sense of humour. There’s a cafe called ‘My Attitude is Gratitude’. The alien communicates with our protagonist through an electronic pamphlet. The words magically change depending on her predicament, offering wisdom whenever she might go astray.

So, you’re thinking of going on a vengeful quest! We applaud your passion and your conviction, and we recognize that you have a lot to be hurt and angry about. […] But consider your end goal here. Hurting someone who’s hurt you will only create more hurt. How can we help you feel better in a more productive fashion?”

The Seep

The Seep – a fun guy to be around?

The alien in question, known as The Seep, is a fungal kind of presence. And I don’t believe I’m saying that just because I read The Seep immediately after reading Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. (The subtitle of Sheldrake’s book on fungi is ‘How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures’.) The Seep is in the air and the water, from which it enters the body and alters the mind of the human it arrives in. They experience enlightenment, a sense of being part of a great whole, and the feeling that everything is going to be OK.

The Seep also does more wacky stuff, like allowing transformations such as growing antlers or becoming a newborn baby to start out all over again. It can also heal both people and the Earth. It can cure cancer by persuading cancer cells ‘to die gracefully, to let go and become something new’.

So, your planet is under the control of a benevolent utopian overlord!

The Seep is a benevolent presence that makes you wonder what it’s getting out of this arrangement. What’s the grand plan? Is The Seep using humans in pursuit of some greater goal? Do humans still have any free will?

Humans are almost always under the influence of The Seep. When ‘seeped’, they make decisions that benefit themselves, society and the planet as a whole. While the outcome is in their best interests, their minds, and hence their actions, are ultimately controlled by The Seep.

As such, The Seep is a typical utopian overlord. To create and then enforce a utopia, there has to be some kind of coercive control. This is a common feature, or problem, with utopias and The Seep offers a new way of approaching it. The Seep makes everyone of one mind, and it’s very helpful and everyone’s happy… But… Are they free? Is this utopia? Is utopia ever utopian at all?

If you are in the vicinity of Bristol, UK and you would like to discuss this book in person, come along to our next Utopian Book Collective meeting on 4 September.

Walden: Book of the Month July 2023

A photograph of a replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden pond
Photograph of a replica of Thoreau's cabin near Walden pond
A replica of Thoreau’s cabin near Walden Pond in Massachussets, US.

Back in the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau was finding modern life a bit too much. He wanted a simple life, and to be in touch with nature. So, he decided to cut himself off from society and live in the woods. He set up home by Walden Pond, just outside of Concord, Massachussets, the town in which he lived.

Thoreau spent two years, two months and two days in the woods. Walden is his account of this time. The book is a condensed version of events, retold over the span of one year, going through each of the seasons.

When I first read Walden, I thought it was this obscure, anarchy-for-one book of ideas. Thoreau refuses to pay taxes for instance, as he’s going it alone so doesn’t think he should pay towards society. I later found out it’s a classic in the US, where you’re basically not allowed to get through school or college without reading it. I still find it odd that such an anti-establishment book is endorsed in the same country where at the start of each school day you have to pledge allegiance to the flag.

In Walden, Thoreau is clearly in search of a better way of being. But whether or not the book is utopian is up for debate, because it’s so individualistic. Plus it’s impractical: we can’t all go and find a pond to live by. And Thoreau didn’t even want people to copy him. The utopian scholar Owen Holland notes:

Thoreau […] cautioned against the suggestion that Walden might be read as a prescription for how to live, asserting, ‘I would have each one be very careful to find and pursue his own way.‘”

Spectatorship and Entanglement in Thoreau, Hawthorne, Morris and Wells

Is it utopian to disappear off into the woods?

Re-visiting it now, it’s striking that Thoreau was extemporising on ‘getting back’ to nature and a simpler time while, at the same time, his countrymen were exterminating indigenous people living presumably not too far away. If he wanted to look for a nature-attuned way of life, he hardly had to look back in time. Especially when his misty-eyed, pastoral version of the past probably never even existed.

I’m aware that Thoreau opposed the enslavement of Africans, and this was part of why he distanced himself from society. He argued that if he was to participate in society (and pay his taxes) he would be endorsing the slave trade. I don’t know if he took a similar view on the treatment of indigenous people. But I think that, ultimately, going it alone in the woods instead is a self-indulgent response.

So that’s something to consider if we, in the twenty-first century, are tempted to run away and live off-grid.

Walden – what do you think?

Who wants to live by Walden Pond? Share your thoughts in the comments or, if you’re in Bristol, come along to the next meeting of the Utopian Book Collective to discuss.

P.S. This text is out of copyright and freely available online.

Everything for Everyone: Book of the Month June 2023

So I had to abbreviate the title for this one, it’s on the long side. To give it its full due, June’s book of the month is ‘Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 2052-2072’ by M. E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi.

Detail from cover of Everything For Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 2052-2072 by M. E. O'Brien and Eman Abdelhadi

Nathan, a member of the Utopian Book Collective, has recommended this one. I think there will be much to discover and talk about through reading this book.

First interesting point – two authors. Utopias are often the singular vision of a sole author. Is a co-authored utopia better for being collective, or is the vision compromised?

Second, the authors themselves. They aren’t fiction writers. O’Brien is a theorist and has worked on real life oral history projects. Abdelhadi is an academic who also creates performance art and writes poetry. They are both activists. So how does a utopia written by activists differ from a utopia by, say, a sci-fi author?

Third, the form of the book. It’s written as a series of interviews with the (fictional) revolutionaries who made the (fictional) commune. Are the various voices believable? Is it a convincing way to write a utopia, and is it enjoyable to read?

And then, of course, there’s the content of the utopia itself. Is the New York Commune an ideal world and could it really come about?

If you’re in Bristol, UK, come along to book group and join in the discussion! Enjoy a drink from the bar and maybe even, like Carolyn at last month’s meeting, you will find utopia at the bottom of your glass.

Utopia engraved on the bottom of a drinking glass

Are you further afield? That’s what the comments section is for. Let us know your thoughts on this month’s book below.

Walkaway: Book of the Month May 2023

Walkaway by Cory Doctorow cover art
Walkaway by Cory Doctorow cover art

There is a history of walking away in utopia, think The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Le Guin) or Thoreau leaving civilisation behind for Walden Pond. So what does Cory Doctorow bring to the table?

Well, it includes 3D printed guesthouses with inbuilt Japanese-style onsens, enzymes that turn water into beer and oh yeah uploading your brain so you never ever die. But if life’s that good for the walkaways that’s obviously going to threaten the ‘zottas’* who lord over ‘default’**.

*the more-than-mega rich

**the default ultra-capitalist world from which one might decide to walk away

The novel follows the walkaways through a generation as they struggle to bring about their revolution. They negotiate utopia-building and the possibilities of a new post-human existence amongst themselves and in conflict with the zottas, who want to hang onto control and grab that immortalising new tech for themselves.

Walkaway is now the best contemporary example I know of, its utopia glimpsed after fascinatingly-extrapolated revolutionary struggle.”

William Gibson

Example of what? Who knows. If Gibson means to imply this is the best contemporary utopia out there, there’s much to debate on that point.

Cory Doctorow vs Jenny Odell

I read this in tandem with previous book of the month How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. One of the movements Odell traces in her book is ‘a dropping out, not dissimilar from the “dropping out” of the 1960s’ (xi). This led me to think the two might be thematically similar. In fact, they stand in stark contrast to each other.

I’m suggesting that we fiercely protect our human animality against all technologies that actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.”

Odell, How to Do Nothing, p.28

Doctorow’s tech-dependent vision of a never-ending good life is in direct opposition to what Odell suggests. It gives off Futurama vibes.

“In the future, we’ll all be heads in jars,” said Groening. “But right now we can live this utopian fantasy in cartoon form.”

Source: Cartoon Brew

In Doctorow’s utopia it’s not even heads in jars, it’s minds in boxes. His seeming disdain for human animality is also reflected in a hostile landscape. Walkaways must continually be protected by buildings, vehicles or suits. Food is 3D printed not farmed. Despite the amount of sex in the book, he seems to consider embodied existence inessential.

Oh no Doctorow, it’s not eco

Where Odell asserts ‘it may only be among the most elaborate web of the nonhuman that we can most fully experience our own humanity’ (148), for Doctorow the more-than-human world hardly seems to exist. Which is unsurprising, considering the body and its biome are also apparently optional for humanity in his utopia.

This is certainly not an eco-utopia, and it is not in tune with current ecological thinking. Odell argues ‘What’s especially tragic about a mind that imagines itself as something separate, defensible, and capable of “efficiency” is […] it’s based on a complete fallacy about the constitution of the self as something separate from others and from the world’ (139). Borrowing the words of writer Alan Watts she lambasts our culture for ‘a completely false conception of ourselves as an ego inside a bag of skin’ (140). Does it burn, Doctorow?

This utopia isn’t a departure. It doesn’t depict a fundamental change in the way we perceive ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. Despite a shift to communal ownership of assets, it remains human-centred and materialistic. It is a tech-saviour story, which distances humans from the matter of the world. For all its differences, it’s same-old, same-old.

Now you, of course, may disagree. You can air your views in the comments below. Or, if you are local to Bristol, UK, come along to our next Utopian Book Collective meeting to discuss in person.

The Fifth Sacred Thing: Book of the Month April 2023

Detail from The Fifth Sacred Thing cover art

The Four Sacred Things are earth, air, fire, and water. Nobody can own them or profit from them, and it’s our responsibility to heal them and take care of them. That’s the basis of our politics and our economy.”

Such is the basis of this New Age-y eco-utopia set in the near future in San Francisco. The fifth sacred thing of the title is”spirit”, and it can only flourish when the first four sacred things are taken care of.

However, there’s more to this novel than flower power and free love (although it doesn’t scrimp on either of these). The utopia is an enclave in a hostile world, “a green island in a toxic sea”. The planet is polluted. North America is ruled by religious fundamentalists and cut off from the rest of the world. Outside of our utopia, drinking water is scarce and expensive. Stewards control the water, and by doing so control and coerce the population at large.

This utopia was hard-won and inevitably will not remain unchallenged. Traditionally, a utopia is a static, perfect ideal that is explored over the course of the book. This example is a precarious paradise. The subject matter of The Fifth Sacred Thing is more about the response to external threat.

The inhabitants of the utopia are pacifists, whereas the Stewards with their armies very much are not. The book explores what happens when a non-violent society is confronted by a violent one. Can principles of non-violence be sustained when you are under attack?

The question of what pacifist and/or non-violent utopians should do in times of physical threat seems timely. Whether it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the policing of protests, putting pacifist principles into practise in the face of violence is not at all straightforward.

To join an in-person discussion of the book, and more generally how to be pacifist and/or non-violent in the face of conflict (and the difference between the two), come along to the next meeting of the Bristol Utopian Book Collective on Monday 1st May.

Player Piano: Book of the Month March 2023

Player Piano cover art

 

Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, was published in 1952. It’s a dystopia with a wry sense of humour, which is atypical for the genre. But dystopia and farce both extrapolate events to disastrous and absurd degrees. Vonnegut makes highly effective use of this point of crossover.

Player Piano is set in an alternate 1950s. Technological advances in machinery have led the US to victory in an horrific World War III. The logic of machine-does-best is now being applied to peacetime society.  

An elite few go to college and become engineers and managers. They oversee the machines that do the labour men used to do. (Noting it’s men who work outside the home in this society – it’s the 1950s, remember). With no work, the men are offered 25 years either in the army or a maintenance crew called the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, or ‘Reeks and Wrecks’.

From the position of the engineer and manager classes, the former working man has everything he needs. He has food, ‘a place to live and warm clothes. He has what he’d have if he were running a stupid machine, swearing at it, making mistakes, striking every year, fighting with the foreman, coming in with hangovers’ (37). And yet, things don’t come off as seeming entirely ideal…

A dystopia for our times?

Despite being over 70 years old, a dystopia where the robots take our jobs reads as timely. It’s relevant when ChatGPT is threatening the livelihood of copywriters, self-checkouts are replacing supermarket cashiers and you’re more likely to buy your train ticket from a machine than a ticket office. You can see why Vintage saw fit to republish it last year.

This is an examination of the nature of work in the utopian tradition of William Morris. Morris differentiated between ‘useful work’ and ‘useless toil’, and in his utopia News from Nowhere there was none of the latter. It has been a theme with our other recent book choices too: How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell and Walden Two by B.F. Skinner.

Vonnegut’s redundant workers put it like this:

Man has survived Armageddon in order to enter the Eden of eternal peace, only to discover that everything he had looked forward to enjoying there, pride, dignity, self-resect, work worth doing, has been condemned as unfit for human consumption.

Player Piano, p.300

To modern readers, the automation in Player Piano is delightfully analogue. A master machinist’s movements are recorded onto tape in the same way a piano roll is recorded. The resulting tape loop is run through a machine, which can repeat the machinist’s actions as often as required. However, the principle transfers easily to our digital age. Vonnegut’s description of his protagonist Paul arriving at a train station late at night to find no cabs available to take him home reads as somewhat prescient:

He looked helplessly at the automatic ticket vendor, the automatic nylon vender, the automatic coffee vendor, the automatic gum vendor, the automatic book vendor, the automatic newspaper vendor, the automatic toothbrush vendor, the automatic Coke vendor, the automatic shoeshine machine, the automatic photo studio, and walked out into the deserted streets.

Player Piano, p.257

Then and now

As can be expected for a 70 year old novel, aspects of the book are dated. Labour is divided strictly by gender. Women are would-be homemakers and men are would-be machinists. The domestic work too is done in seconds by machines, leaving everyone ill at ease. In the middle classes, women are still homemakers but also do the prep for their engineer manager husbands. Anita, Paul’s wife, chooses and sets out his clothes for every occasion. She even writes a script ahead of an important meeting with his boss to ensure he’s briefed with all the best possible answers. Unfortunately for Anita, her goal of advancement within society doesn’t find a match in misfit Paul. He would rather get his hands dirty on a farm, until he discovers farms smell of manure, which spoils the idyll.

Then there is the possibly Orientalist depiction of the ‘Shah of Bratpuhr, spiritual leader of 6,000,000 members of the Kohouri sect’ (18). The Shah and his nephew-interpreter are given a tour of America. They serve as naïve outside observers, much like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes. The Shah calls out American citizens as slaves and their machines as false idols, to the eye-rolling of his tour guide who assumes he is too backwards to grasp the greatness of what he is seeing.

Anti-colonialist themes

Yet, Vonnegut clearly maps out how the prevailing American logic follows on from the colonisation of the continent and suppression of its indigenous people. He starts with something akin to a land acknowledgement:

Here in the basin of the river bend, the Mohawks had overpowered the Algonquins, the Dutch the Mohawks, the British the Dutch, the Americans the British. Now, over bones and rotten palings and cannon balls and arrowheads, there lay a triangle of steel and masonry buildings, a half-mile on each side – the Ilium Works.

Player Piano, p.3

The revolutionaries against the system align themselves with the indigenous people who suffered at the same hands before them. The preacher Lasher says ‘It had become a white man’s world, and Indian ways were irrelevant. It was impossible to hold the old Indian values in the changed world. The only thing they could do in the changed world was to become second-rate white men or wards of the white men’ (288). The revolutionaries name themselves after an indigenous religious movement that made an analogous ‘one last fight for the old values’ (also 288).

While this might be construed as cultural appropriation, it highlights that the logic of progress in contemporary US is a continuation of the colonial project. This progress-driven logic is under critique in Player Piano. Paul, finding his calling as the revolutionaries’ figurehead, declares ‘a step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction’ (312). This appears ahead of its time when the fields of literary criticism and utopian studies are only just starting to get their heads around decolonisation.

Toxic work culture

As for the all-American spirit under critique, this is epitomised at the Meadows, a corporate getaway for engineers and managers. The teambuilding bullshit on display is horrible and horribly familiar. Workers are hurried from one bonding activity to another by a loudspeaker urging ‘Lunch! Remember the rule: get to know somebody new at each meal’ (193). ‘Five minutes to make new contacts, then the bonfire’ (219).

Central to the proceedings is an allegorical play, transparent and didactic as the worst of utopian novels.

Civilisation has reached the dizziest heights of all time!

(Music swells a little in volume.)

Thirty-one point seven times as many television sets as all the rest of the world put together!

(Music gets louder still.)

Ninety-three per cent of all the world’s electrostatic dust precipitators! Seventy-seven per cent of all the world’s automobiles! Ninety-eight per cent of its helicopters! Eighty-one percent of its refrigerators!

Player Piano, p.218

But what’s wrong with technology?

Player Piano is more than a treatise against technology. Vonnegut satirises the wholescale destruction of machines as well as the wholescale use of them. In the end, the revolutionaries get drunk and over-zealous:

Lou, boy – we forgot the bakery. Still poopin’ out bread like nobody’s business.”

“Can’t have it doin’ that,” said Lou. “Le’sh go knock the crap out of it.” […] “And, by God, here’sh ol’ Al to go with us. Where you been, y’ol’ horse-thief?”

“Blew up the goddam sewage ‘sposal plant,” said Al proudly.

Player Piano, p.326

Vonnegut’s argument is for nuance, in contrast to ‘the old Meadows team spirit’ where ‘the object of competition was total victory, with mortifying defeat the only alternative imaginable’ (309). This all-or-nothing logic is binary thought, ones and zeros. A language for machines, Vonnegut suggests, but not for humanity.

If you’re in Bristol, UK, you can join an in person discussion of this book! Come along to the next Bristol Utopian Book Collective meeting on 3 April 2023.