Five top tips for imagining climate fiction utopias

Climate fiction utopias could be enormously important. We all know by now the horrors that await if we carry on as we are. This knowledge can be paralysing and depressing. What we need to envision are alternative ways of being where we are on the right track. We need to believe that alternative futures are possible.

This is where climate fiction utopias come in. I recently participated in a workshop on this subject organised by Green New Deal UK – Bristol and hosted by Sophia Cheng of Cli-Fi For Beginners and Deborah Tomkins of Bristol Climate Writers. The writing prompt was to imagine Bristol in 2040: “Bristol is a city transformed through its citizens’ collective vision and committed action. What do you see?”

What I want to share with you from the workshop isn’t a piece of creative writing, because I didn’t come up with anything (let alone anything good). But I certainly thought a lot about the genre of climate fiction and what a climate fiction utopia needs to do in order to achieve its radical potential.

Keep it radical

If you imagine a near future climate fiction utopia you might think of a family who have solar panels to generate all the electricity they need to power their home and electric car, and who grow their own veg according to organic principles. This seems uncontroversial enough, right? But stop and ask yourself, are they a nuclear family unit living in a privately owned home with a private car? Are they white, able-bodied, straight, cisgender?

What I’ve outlined above isn’t a utopia, it’s an aspirational middle class lifestyle within the already existing status quo. What a climate fiction utopia needs to do is think differently, to be based on a different system of thought, where different ways of living and being are in action, are being enacted. When it does this, it might achieve its radical potential of teaching us to imagine alternative and better ways of being. And, bearing in mind that whatever we want we have to imagine first, if climate fiction utopias can teach us how to imagine better ways of being they can give us hope. Hope that we will end up somewhere other than in climate catastrophe.

With that in mind, these are my five top tips for harnessing the radical potential of climate fiction utopias.

1. Imagine the future, not the present

Here in Bristol, UK in 2021 you can already have organic oat milk delivered to your door, cycle to work and eat local, seasonal food for lunch. Sometimes it’s nice to realise there are choices you can already make to feel better about the future. But to imagine climate fiction utopias, we need to go beyond what already exists.

Climate fiction is a subgenre of science fiction. There should be some sort of novum – a technological or societal innovation that has enabled a significant change in the way we live. And as we’re talking about utopias, it should be something that has brought about a better way of being.

2. Don’t just write a shopping list

In the city of the future maybe you can buy honey made in hives on the roofs of skyscrapers clad in living walls of bee-friendly flowers. Maybe on the high street there’s a weaver’s workshop next door to a tailor and you can commission them to make you bespoke cruelty-free clothes from organic, regional materials. They sound like lovely things to buy. And there’s the rub. This is a dream of buying lovely things. Dreamt by a dreamer who lives in a consumer capitalist society. We need to think of a future that we make, not one that we buy. We need our climate fiction utopias to think beyond capitalism.

3. Climate fiction should be more than marketing for green tech

Scientists and technologists need artists and writers to help communicate the climate emergency. But art is needed for emotional engagement, not advertorials. The greatest power of fiction is not to showcase green tech. Far far far greater is its power to drive change by fostering new ways of thinking.

New types of home insulation might feature in a climate fiction utopia, but featuring a new type of home insulation shouldn’t be the purpose of a climate fiction utopia.

4. Borrow this technique from the genre of utopia

Setting out a new world can involve a lot of exposition. Asking the inhabitants of a climate fiction utopia to volunteer it in private musings or even in conversation with each other can get clunky. People don’t tend to wake up in the morning and think about where their electricity comes from (even if they should), they check their phone and put the kettle on. So if a character in a climate fiction starts the day thinking about how their utilities work this can undermine our belief in the plausibility of the utopia.

Luckily, there’s a tried and tested solution used in literary utopias. Get some sort of guest or visitor in to question what everyone’s up to.

GUEST: Cor it's toasty in here, don't you worry about your gas bill?
UTOPIAN: What? No, no-one's used gas for years, decades now. Here, do you want a cup of tea?
GUEST: Yes please. I suppose it's nuclear?
UTOPIAN: Um, I've got camomile if you want decaff?
GUEST: No the heating, is it nuclear?
UTOPIAN: Er no, it's from the ground source heat pump.

Now you’re seeing why I stick to essays rather than creative writing. Hopefully I’ve not disproved my point that having an outsider prompt the utopians to talk can be a more naturalistic way of imparting information about an imagined society.

5. Think about who is in the future

This is sci-fi. You can imagine anything. So don’t just imagine a slightly different bunch of white blokes (or even white women) running the world, please.

Added value of my five top tips

Here’s an added bonus for you – you can also critique any climate fiction utopias you happen to be reading using the five points above. Ask of the text, does it enable you to imagine a reality that does not currently exist? Is the world it portrays organised according to a system other than consumer capitalism? Does it engage you emotionally and make you re-examine your feelings about the climate emergency? Is it well written? Finally, does it imagine a future that empowers a diverse range of people?

Alrighty, I hope we’re all nicely equipped to go out and change the world through the medium of climate fiction utopias.

Peaceful Portway, Bristol 2015. Photo by the author.