Tag Archives: dystopia

Utopias in America

Does dystopia seem more tangible than utopia? Media such as Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games and Mad Max depict fractured futures. Science and economics speak of the effects of climate change, the next big flu pandemic, wealth inequality, and dark campaign money.

Utopianism seems gullible and naive, while dystopianism seems world-weary and chic. But it wasn’t always this way. 19th century America was littered with utopian societies. There were the Shakers, the Rappites, the Owenites, the Associationists, the Oneidans (yes, the silverware folks), The Amanans (yes, the refrigerator folks), and others. Look it up; there were probably utopian communities in your area too. In St. Louis, the Icarians briefly settled near present-day Dogtown. A German utopian group called the Giessen Emigration Society settled near Washington, Missouri. In New Mexico, we have Blackdom, a settlement for black families; there’s also the Faithists who founded the Shalam community. Most of these communities lasted only briefly, but vestiges of many remain; Washington, Missouri remains heavily German today although the surrounding area is not.

Some utopian colonies, like Blackdom, were more pragmatic than religious or dogmatic; Blackdom was founded to leave behind the KKK and Jim Crow. Millenarians, like the Shakers, believed that the Second Coming was imminent; they had to prepare for a thousand years of heaven on Earth, as predicted in the book of Revelations in the Bible. This thinking was influential in the Second Great Awakening. Others, like Robert Owen’s Owenites, were secular and believed that the industrial revolution could be harnessed to improve life if people pooled their efforts.

So why were there so many utopias founded in the United States in the 19th century? Europeans interpreted the Biblical arc of history as traveling from east to west; they saw history as starting in the Middle East, advancing in Europe, and ending in the Americas. The American revolution still seemed truly revolutionary, but also to some, incomplete. There was a lot of cheap land available for purchase. The industrial revolution destabilized long-standing traditions. The woman who brought Shakerdom to the United States, Ann Lee, grew up in the industrial miseries of Manchester, England–the city where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also developed their social theories.

These intellectual ties to 20th century communism probably explain why we’ve forgotten these kooky and imaginative social experiments. Marx and Engels used the term “communism” because “socialism” was so tied to Robert Owen in the public imagination. The utopias of the 19th century inspired later communist theory, but they differ immensely from later authoritarian regimes. They were voluntary social experiments. The Shakers were led by a woman and preached celibacy and gender equality. Many advocated gender equality, universal education, sexual liberty (or at least relaxation), and later, abolitionism.

The utopian thinking of the 19th century, though largely forgotten, was influential. Robert Owen spoke to congress twice and President John Q. Adams displayed a diagram of Owen’s utopian “parallelogram” in the White House. Many of the famous transcendentalists of New England, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, participated in the Utopian colony of Brook Farm. The famous editor, Horace Greeley, advocated Associationism. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was brought up in the vegetarian Fruitlands Utopian Colony. (Not strictly relevant but hilarious: In the book Paradise Now, the author describes a few Fruitlands residents; “the community included… a man who refused to eat tubers because any vegetable that grows downward displays questionable ambitions;” another man “advocated spiritually cleansing obscenity. ‘Good morning, damn you,’ was his preferred salutation.”)

I think today’s dystopianism and 19th century utopianism are two sides of the American coin–we think expansively. Things are either the worst or we’re going to create heaven on earth in western Indiana. Both utopianism and dystopianism emerge from the observation of fault in today’s society. Both today’s dystopianism and 19th century Millenarianism utopianism are obsessed with the end of the world. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised eyebrows with his talk of the rapture. Either way, we like to think that, when it all goes down, we’ll be at the center of it.

Some good resources on American Utopianism


Book Review: The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi 2015)

Note: in this review, I avoid spoilers beyond the first few chapters.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Water Knife is set in the not-too-distant future American West. Water shortages have reached critical levels; states sabotage and fight one another for water rights. We have three main characters; Angel is a Las Vegas “water knife,” a shadowy figure that does the dirty ground work of securing water rights through any means necessary. Lucy is a high-minded journalist from the northeast that came west to cover the collapse of Phoenix and found herself unable to pull away. Maria is a teenage refugee from Texas stuck in the wreckage of Phoenix who schemes to go north. Rumors send Angel to Phoenix, and we get a first row seat to the violence and desperation surrounding water in this dystopian future.

I finished reading The Water Knife over a week ago and I still can’t quite decide what I think of it. I felt the same way after I read Bacigalupi’s Wind-Up Girl, though I now find myself reflecting favorably on that book. Bacigalupi seems to have a knack for leaving some questions unanswered. This is probably a good thing, but it left me unresolved at the end. Both of his books leave you in consideration for a while. His writing style is easy and engaging; both books drew me in quickly with a good balance of action and character development.

My least favorite part of the book is the future dystopian southwest, although it is a critical element of the book. I usually dislike dystopias and find myself remembering an Ursula Le Guin quote from the introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness:

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life. —Ursula Le Guin

Bacigalupi’s Water Knife is undeniably extrapolative. And that extrapolation is undeniably cancerous. In history, the path that unfolds always seems richer and more meandering, even when things worsen. I felt unconvinced by a corrupt future where states are nearly at war over water. The book makes numerous mentions of Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, a 1993 nonfiction book about water shortages in the west. Perhaps reading that would provide some of the context I found lacking.

But as a New Mexican with a lawn and garden, and there’s no doubt Bacigalupi meant this work as a cautionary tale. Bacigalupi himself lives in western Colorado. It’s that intention that compensates for the gloomy dystopian aspect—it’s gloomy for a reason. In The Water Knife, Texas fundamentalists called “Merry Perrys” pray that water will simply return. In 20 years, readers may wonder why a Merry Perry, but today’s reader knows he means Rick Perry without any explanation. Until this year, I always lived in places with oppressive humidity and abundant water. The water landscape here is very different, but the attitudes toward water don’t seem much different. After I watched the Ken Burns’ documentary about the dust bowl, I was struck by how early settlers tended the land as they would have any last east or in Europe. The United States, with its European roots, is rooted in a culture that never considers water as a finite resource. In the west, even today, it must be considered as such, and you still see pushback to this rationing in protests against the Bureau of Land Management and in California’s current drought. The Water Knife is meant to be a cancerous extrapolation; it’s the doctor sitting down with the smoker and discussing the future.

Like The Wind-Up Girl, I would recommend The Water Knife to any sci-fi fan. Both books are thinking science fiction, enjoyable but challenging. In both books, the setting is a strong element in the plot. Much as I love distant future space operas, I also love science fiction set in concrete locations with real streets and climates. The commentary on problems in today’s world perhaps diminishes the escapism a bit, but cautionary science fiction is an old subset of the genre that deserves thoughtful revivals like this one.