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Dreaming of a Better Future: Science Fiction Utopias

May 30, 2022 by in On Books

Illustration by David Lupton

Another month, another horrific set of shootings that leave me shaking with sadness, shame and frustration.

As a country, we seem to have forgotten how to care for one another, how to work together to solve problems. How to even agree what those problems are. The system feels broken, but maybe it’s just my heart.

By strange coincidence, I’m in the middle of reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, one of the best works of modern science fiction utopia out there. The way the novel takes a long, hard look at different political systems — how it questions the meaning of freedom, individual choice, and collective responsibility — makes me hungry for more novels that grapple with how to affect change, both within ourselves and as a society.

For those who haven’t yet read the 1970s classic, here’s a quick summary: The novel follows the dangerous journey of a scientist named Shevek who hopes to bring reconciliation between his people – an anarchist society on a poor, barren moon – and the home planet they left hundreds of years before. The planet is a place of beauty and plenty but also extreme economic disparity.   

I think the novel’s greatest strength lies in Le Guin’s creation of a moon “utopia” that is idealistic yet flawed. The society values community and nonviolence, but there are still selfish, petty people who fear Shevek’s brilliant scientific theories. They say there are no laws, but some try to control and manipulate Shevek for their own ends, and he must flee.  It’s this complexity that makes the world feel real, enabling the story to become a thoughtful, inspiring exploration of political and social possibility rather than proselytizing manifesto.

I wish I knew of more speculative fiction novels that imagine such radically different ways of working toward a better future.

Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, which begins with the novel Too Like the Lightning, comes to mind. In it, governments are no longer tied to geographic countries, thanks to flying cars that make large physical distances insignificant. Rather, you can choose a “Hive” that reflects your values and live by its laws regardless of whether your home is in Brazil or your job is in Tokyo.

Also, just about anything by Kim Stanley Robinson always stretches my imagination and brain cells. His novel The Ministry of the Future tackles the hard collective work of addressing climate change. His novel The Years of Rice and Salt examines the cyclical nature of history, highlighting both the violence and moral/technical progress that is achieved when cultures clash. His Mars trilogy even has the New Yorker asking if he is “Our Best Political Novelist?”)

Have you read any great books that give you hope that things can be different, not because they offer easy answers, but because they ask complex questions and spark deep conversations?  If so, I’d love to hear about them. Feel free to reach out!

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