Fictional utopian languages: Part II – Speedtalk, Pravic

Ithkuil text

Part II of this three part series, in which Nathan Taylor-Gray explores fictional utopian languages and whether they reflect the utopian ideals of their speakers. If you missed it, you can catch up on Part I here.

A textual example of Ithkuil, utopian language based on Robert Heinlein's Speedtalk
Ithkuil, an invented language inspired by Robert Heinlein’s concept of Speedtalk in his novella Gulf.

Speedtalk

The two languages discussed in Part I – Utopian and Houyhnhnm were supposed to be native and natural to the cultures described. Speedtalk is different, as it is the first to be constructed within the fiction by a group with utopian aspirations.

The fictional language ‘Speedtalk’ features in Robert Heinlein’s 1949 novella, Gulf. It is the invention of a group called the ‘New Men’. Intellectually superior to normal humans, the New Men want to keep their technology separate. Ultimately, they plan to create a new species of humans like themselves. Our protagonist Joe, a secret agent, is introduced to the language by love interest Gail, who is one of the New Men [apparently they admit women, ed.*].

The New Men cite as inspiration the real life studies of C.K. Ogden and I. A. Richards and their 1923 book The Meaning of Meaning. “Ogden and Richards had shown that eight hundred and fifty words were sufficient vocabulary to express anything that could be expressed by ‘normal’ human vocabularies,” Heinlein has them say. These fictional New Men set about distilling these words into a “hundred-odd sounds, represented by the letters of a general phonetic alphabet.” Using variations in these sounds, including “length, stress, pitch, rising, falling,” the New Men create a language where “one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in the English language, one Speedtalk word was equal to an entire sentence.”

Black and white illustration from Gulf by Robert Heinlein showing a rocket blasting off from a crater marked moonscape

An ideal language?

Heinlein’s New Men have three main arguments for the ideal nature of their language:

  1. In Speedtalk it is difficult not to be logical, whereas supposedly “‘Normal’ languages, having their roots in days of superstition and ignorance, have in them inherently and inescapably wrong structures of mistaken ideas about the universe. One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad it is as a mental tool.”**
  2. The language is incapable of paradoxes because “it did not contain the unreal distinction between nouns and verbs,” and could more accurately express “space-time events and relationships between words.”***
  3. Its efficiency lengthened the mental life of those who spoke, read, wrote and thought in it. Or at least, compressed substantially more intellectual experience into the same amount of time. The New Men claim “Any man capable of learning Speedtalk had an association time at least three times as fast as an ordinary man.”
Black and white illustration from Gulf by Robert Heinlein showing a pair of hands holding and writing on what looks a cannister that will be sent along a pneumatic tube, with a skull floating behind on a black background. Sinister.

New language, new tech

Speedtalk didn’t just speed up thoughts in the human brain. It also required a special new bit of tech to keep up with reading and writing. A “dictaphone-typewriter-printing-press combination. The machine’s analysers recognized each of the thousand-odd phonetic symbols.” This was combined with “a ‘librarian’ machine that could ‘hear’ that portion of Speedtalk built into it as a filing system.” With these innovations, the New Men had no need of writing in the traditional sense at all.

But, for all the progressive aspirations of their language and technology, aspects of the New Men’s society seem backwards and even dystopian today.

Utopian or dystopian?

The New Men consider themselves a “different breed” and better form of humanity. They restrict information, keeping it to themselves rather than sharing it with the rest of the world. They deem the common man to be unready for the truth, including knowledge of the New Men’s existence: “As for keeping our existence secret, it is utterly necessary if we are to survive and increase. There is nothing so dangerous as being the Chosen People – and in the minority.” They argue the common man lacks the intelligence to make democratic decisions about their own futures. “[I]f the race is simply to stay alive, political decisions depend on real knowledge of such things as nuclear physics, planetary ecology, genetic theory, even system mechanics,” they assert.

The New Men’s belief in their own importance isn’t limited to their “supernormal intelligence” either. They alter their bodies and faces through plastic surgery to fit their ideals, too. And their eugenic beliefs would be seen today as racist. They engage in selective breeding to avoid “diffusing their talents through the racial organism,” as they conclude past geniuses had done.

These sentiments are reflected in their invented language, which with its in-built exclusivity is effectively an elite code. Yet Heinlein’s concept of Speedtalk has been adapted by others, such as in the constructed language of Ithkuil, which was invented with the purpose of constructing a logical, unambiguous mode of communication.

Pravic

The fictional utopian language of Pravic appears in Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 novel, The Dispossessed. This is another language intentionally constructed to achieve certain goals. In this case, not of exclusive super humans but instead a society based on egalitarian ideals.

Pravic seeks to influence the way its speakers understand concepts such as non-hierarchical relationships of people to property, possessions, and other people. Unlike Speedtalk there are no special or difficult means of expression, just single words explaining concepts like we do in English.

The fictional creator of the language Pravic is mentioned only once in The Dispossessed as ‘Farigv’. We learn nothing about him except his aversion to curse words and his reliance on computers for creating the vocabulary: “Farigv didn’t provide any swear words when he invested the language, or if he did his computers didn’t understand the necessity.” The ideals of their society also make swearing difficult, as “it is hard to swear when sex is not dirty and blasphemy does not exist.”

Retro cover art for Le Guin's The Dispossessed, the novel in which the utopian language of Pravic is invented.

Computers still influence the vocabulary, as well as other organisational and distributional processes in society, at least where proper nouns are concerned. Names are assigned by computer at birth, usually following a two syllable pattern: Shevek, Takver, Rulag, Bedap etc.

Founding principles

Pravic is the language of the Anarresti, an anarchist society living on the moon Anarres.**** They live in exhile, having left their Earth, Urras, in order to be able to live according to their ideals. The population on Urras continue to live in a capitalist, consumerist society.

The ideological concepts of Pravic go back to the founder of Anarresti society, Laia Odo.***** Odo was already an influence on how language was used among her comrades before they felt an entirely new language was necessary to convey their ideals. Odo’s ideals are what we would call anarcho-communist as they reject the state, money, property and class. Life is instead organised communally, work is voluntary, and access to the necessities in life is shared freely.

Pravic embodies these ideals in notable ways. As a people who believe property is theft, the way they speak about possessions is entirely different to societies in which private property is the norm. Two of the worst curse words to them are “propertarian” and “profiteer.” The Anarresti don’t assert “this one is mine and that’s yours.” Instead, they say “I use this one and you use that.”

Work and play

The Anarresti lack of possessiveness is not limited to objects but applies to people, too. Even in romantic relationships, although feelings of intense attachment still exist, they ultimately recognise they do not own or have claim on each other.****** Likewise, there is no sense of hierachy in work or civic relationships. Everyone calls each other “Ammar,” a word which could be translated as ‘sibling’ or ‘comrade.’ Work is voluntary, and the same word is used for work and play: “kleggich”. Those with specialist skills might be given assignments in areas where they are needed, but can refuse. Although, such refusal would not come without reputational consequence. The lazy are called “nuchnibi,” a word describing those able to work who refuse to do so. Yet, no-one is denied food or shelter even if they don’t participate or contribute to the rest of society.

The role of language in forming thoughts

Pravic is designed to help form the thoughts of its speakers. As the protagonist Shevek comments, “Nobody’s born an Odonian any more than he’s born civilised!” A child starts out saying “my Mother,” but in time learns to say “our mother” (“mamme” in Pravic). Children are also taught to speak only about matters that interest others; anything else is “egoizing.”

Pravic has four different categories of vocabulary. These seem to correspond to Dante’s four modes of allegory: the literal (physical, technical, verbal), the allegorical, (symbolic, economic), the moral (ethical), and the anagogical (or religious). It comes as a surprise to those Shevek visits on Urras that there is a spiritual aspect to the Pravic language at all, as the Anarresti are atheists. But he chides his hosts for not thinking his people capable of loftier thoughts: “you could not seriously believe that we had no religious capacity? That we could do physics while we were cut off from the profoundest relationship man has with the cosmos?”

The book is full of philosophy, often repeated from Odo’s texts (one of which is even called “Analogy”), but sometimes from Shevek himself, such as “You cannot keep doors open. You will never be free.” This shows the vocabulary is not purely functional, although it may have begun that way. Yet, theatre was always an important part of their society, and, it wasn’t long before they were composing verse too:

“O child Anarchia, infinite promise
infinite carefulness
I listen, listen in the night
by the cradle deep as the night
is it well with the child”

An unregulated language

Unlike other constructed languages (e.g. Esperanto), Pravic is not a regulated language. This is due to the nature of Anneresti society lacking structures of hierarchy. There is a dictionary, probably compiled by a commitee with the help of computers, but no-one is obliged to use it. However, new compound words are possible to get across unfamiliar concepts, as in this example.

The word he used was not ‘wallowing,’ there being no animals on Anarres to make wallows; it was a compound meaning literally ‘coating continually and thickly with excrement.’ The flexibility and precision of Pravic lent itself to the creation of vivid metaphors quite unforeseen by its inventors.”

The Annaresti people are also not averse to using some of the Iotic language spoken on Urras when needed. This is usually in the form of curse words, such as “hell” and “damn,” the meaning of which are now devoid of their religous references. Other words refer to alien concepts such as betting. Shevek explains “It’s an Iotic verb[…]. A game the Urrasti play with probabilities. The one who guesses right gets the other one’s property.”

Despite the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the anarchist Anarres and capitalist Urras, in the end Shevek is able to find others on Urras who share the same ideals and hopes. He even discovers that across different languages some concepts remain unchanged: “‘We are the children of time,’ Shevek said, in Pravic. The younger man looked at him a moment, and then repeated the words in Iotic: ‘We are the children of time.’”

Uses of Pravic

Perhaps no science fiction book better embodies anarcho-communist ideals than The Dispossessed. Although these principles existed long before it was written, it has helped inspire many to accept and share the same outlook. In 2016, as part of events marking the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, the linguist Martin Edwardes taught around 270 pupils the language concepts of Pravic and applied them to English in the form of “Pravlish.” He found that within a couple days students were able to adapt to speaking without pronouns and possessiveness. This supports the theory that if we change the way we speak about the world, we can change the way we understand and live within it too.*******

Pronominal nouns in the utopian language of Pravic

Footnotes

*Probably helps with breeding.
**Although whether logical consistency itself is an ideal is arguable, as it is possible to be consistently logical in a competely incorrect closed system.
***One wonders about their ability to deceive, which they would still seem to require as they have spies. Perhaps they would rely on ‘normal’ languages at such times, while remaining honest with each other.
****The Anarresti refer to themselves as “Anarchists.” A Urrasti commentator refers to Anarres as practising “non-authoritarian communism” and then being “socialists” and “libertarian,” which meant the same thing as anarcho-communism until liberal capitalists co-opted it in the mid-1970s.
*****The word ‘founder’ isn’t used in The Dispossessed, but those sharing Odo’s ideas were initially called Odonians by outsiders then reappropriated the term for themselves.
******Sex is one of the few acts that takes place in private rooms, although they would not consider it their room, just “the bed I sleep in.” They lack any “proprietary idioms for the sexual act.” Their word for sex translates as ‘copulation;’ “It meant something two people did, not something one person did, or had.”
*******In linguistics, this is expressed in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and is also known as linguistic relativity. Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf suggest that the structure and content of a language influences the way its speakers perceive and think about the world.

Look out for:

Part III – Asa’Pili, Láadan

Nathan Taylor-Gray writes as The Peaceful Revolutionary and is a member of the Utopian Book Collective.

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.

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.

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.

North America: a failing colonialist utopia?

Pandemic. Wild fires. Climate crisis. Biodiversity crisis. Rise of the far right. Sometimes, it seems like things aren’t going so well.

I heard an Indigenous viewpoint on the multiple crises facing North America (and the world) from scholar Dr Kim TallBear at the ASLE (Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) Nearly Carbon Neutral virtual conference in July 2020. It was enlightening, perspective-shifting stuff. I want to share with you some of the thoughts that have stayed with me ever since.

What TallBear believes she is witnessing in the US is “the implosion of the western colonial project”. In other words, the current crises can be seen as catastrophic consequences of settler-colonialism. Consequences of disrespecting and destroying the land and its peoples: humans, plants, animals, minerals and water. Consequences of arriving on an already occupied continent and perceiving it as an empty page on which one is entitled to design a new world.

Rutkauskas – Burned Hill. Source: http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/?page_id=20002

Colonialism as a utopian project

Before hearing TallBear’s talk, I hadn’t recognised the utopian impulse within colonialism. But it doesn’t take much examination of the concept of “the western colonial project” to recognise it as a utopian project.

There is a dark side to utopia, and that is when one person or group’s vision of an ideal world is enforced upon others. The history of Europe in the 20th Century gives us two clear examples: Stalinism and Nazism. Through these I already understood there can be a fine line between utopianism and authoritarianism. Now I see another terrible example of utopian world-building in the violence of settler-colonialism.

For Indigenous People across the American continents, mortality rates due to disease, starvation, forced assimilation and war resulted in estimated 90% mortality rates. For my own people, the Dakota, we now have seven and eight generations of Dakota people who have lived in a Dakota post-apocalyptic world. Indigenous Peoples are still mourning, still living in scarcity, still rebuilding from the quieting of our ancestors’ worlds.

Dr Kim Tallbear

When utopian thinking can lead to genocide and apocalypse, is it only right to give up on utopia?

Utopia as a decolonial project

The realisation that colonialism is a utopian project led me to wonder whether utopia is always a colonial project. I think there are certainly many examples of utopias with colonial logic at their heart whether they realise it or not – many most probably not. These include green utopias with benevolent creators, who nevertheless want to impose their idea of the optimum way to live upon whole cities, countries, continents, planets.

However, there is more than one way to be utopian. There is the being an architect of a superior world way, which is the potentially authoritarian, colonialist, troubling way. Then there is another way where you simply refuse to accept the conventional limits of what is possible and dare to imagine otherwise. This second way is, I think, too important to give up. In fact, it could be crucial to decolonisation.

In her address, TallBear explained

As a Dakota, who has always struggled in a world where an anti-settler state ethic seemed unspeakable, privileging the Dakota Oyate – the people and worldview – was deemed impossible throughout much of my life. Unrealistic, mythological.

Dr Kim TallBear

It is this kind of deemed impossibility that can be undermined by the second type of utopian thinking. Being utopian in this way means being alive to the possibility of things being different from how they currently are. Knowing that things could be different then puts you in a position to ask critical questions. Is this, which my society tells me is impossible, really impossible, or could it be possible after all? Is that a real boundary, or will my hand go right through it? Can I think differently to how I thought I had to think?

Radical hope

TallBear senses a “radical hope” within the multitude of crises facing the US and Canada.

I’m not celebrating what’s happening to the planet and to our non-human relatives and some of the most vulnerable humans […] but I think there are opportunities for us to think about the demise of certain intellectual systems that are incredibly violent as we are reckoning with earthly systems agitations against anthropogenic change.

Dr Kim TallBear

I agree there is hope where the demise of one worldview allows room for others, and I see the thrilling potential for decolonised utopias to rush into the intellectual space left behind.

Dr Kim TallBear is enrolled Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and descended from the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma. She is Associate Professor, Faculty of Native Studies, University of Alberta. You can see her address in full below.

INVASION documentary

Elsewhere at the same conference, I attended an online watch party of the short film INVASION. This documentary follows members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation as they protest against the Canadian government permitting oil companies to lay pipelines across their land. The land in question has never been ceded to Canadian settlers. This film brought it home to me that colonialism is not an historical event or a time period that has passed. Colonial logic still prevails and this is why we need utopia. We need better ways of thinking, or new “intellectual systems” to use TallBear’s term.

The Way to Utopia in an Environmental Crisis

My own contribution to the ASLE conference was a paper on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home. The paper, which you can view below, looks at how in Always Coming Home Le Guin manipulates the genre of utopia in order that the form of her book can be true to its feminist, ecological content. I also wrote an article on this subject, which you can read here.