Utopian writers and the creation of the America West

O, my America, my Newfoundland, My kingdom, safest when with one man mann’d

John Donne, To His Mistress Going to Bed, (1654)

america as colonized female

Engraving of Amerigo Vespucci awakening a Native American from her hammock slumber. Johannes Stradanus (circa 1615)

The future of America has often been writ into the imagination of frontier settlers long before their emigration. In fact, Utopian writers have so often used America as a stage for their writings, the land’s history is often conflated with the stories of its fictional pasts (and futures) — as a palimpsest from which multiple visions of futures are derived. After the Civil War, these fictions took on a near fervent ideological bent; from Edward Everett Hale’s Sybarist and Other Homes (1869), and William Dean Howell’s A Traveler from Altruria (1894), to perhaps the most profoundly influential novel — Edward Bellemy’s Looking Backwards: 2000-1887 (1887).

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Still from Fritz Lang’s silent film, Metropolis. Model-maker/Set-designer Walter Schuzle-Mittendorf (1927)

This last novel spurred a revolution of sorts in American politics. By the early 1890’s the adherents of the novel, those who worked to realize the future-America envisioned in the science fiction book, had formed a network of Nationalist Clubs that spanned the American continent — and poured resources into the formation of a new third party on the national stage, the People’s Party (also called the Progressive, or Populist Party). By the 1892 Presidential Election, the People’s Party had garnered the electoral votes from six western states — fully carrying Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho. In fact, Idaho had a Governor from the People’s Party, a U.S. Senator, and two U.S. congressmen (12). In 1898, Idaho itself had become the subject of another Utopian work of fiction, Francis H. Clark’s The co-opolitan: A Story of the Co-operative Commonwealth of Idaho (writing under the masculine pen name Zebina Forbush). In this novel Ms.Clark borrowed heavily from the actual settlement history of the, then, four year old community of New Plymouth, Idaho (called Co-opolis in the novel). Her story is set thirty years in the future (1927) — and it recounts how the cooperative commonwealth idea found its highest and best expression in Idaho, leading to a nation-wide socialist revolution.

ecotopia

Concept painting of San Francisco in 2048 as an Ecotopia for the film, The Fifth Sacred Thing. Jessica Perlstein (2012)

By 1975, a nearly dormant world of Utopian Science Fiction once-again emerged with a seminal work written on the pages of western America; with Ernst Callenbach’s novel Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. The novel is set in the year 1999, and is a compilation of newspaper reports and personal diary entries of the hard-nosed New York reporter William Weston (a character whose name serves as an homage to the protagonist in Bellemy’s Looking BackwardsJulian West). Weston is the first American reporter permitted to enter the break-away nation of Ecotopia in the 25 years since its succession from the Union (it being composed of the former states of Washington, Oregon, and the area of Northern California — with the city of San Francisco serving as its capitol). Callenbach uses the novel to introduce the somewhat radical notion of an entire country whose economy and urban forms are based off the principals of ecological sustainability. The book has been cited as profoundly influential to both the Green Movement and the advent of Eco-socialism.

“Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonizing process, with no end. Struggle forever.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge

Perhaps the most significant Utopian Science Fiction writer today is Kim Stanley Robinson, starting with his wonderfully written set of novels covering three separate possible futures for the same spot of western America — Orange County, California. In the first novel, The Wild Shore (1984), Robinson explores the oddly Eden-like world of a quiet fishing village in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Then, in a jujitsu-like move, Robinson introduces a radically different future in his second book, The Gold Coast (1988), where the area’s economy is mired in defense industry contracts and the urban landscape is dominated by automobile-centered autotopia. In his third book, Pacific Edge (1990), Robinson returns to a type of ecotopian future envisioned by Callenbach. In this novel, although the protagonist (Kevin Clairborne) is an architect/builder who converts old “dead” buildings into communal homes with integrated biological components and heuristic control systems, the primary focus is on the problems the character faces as he steps onto the local city council and is faced with a potentially environmentally damaging development proposal.

“We are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us.”

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312

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The Return to Abalakin: Part 1. Alexander Preuss (2006)

More recently, Robinson has written another Utopian work of fiction, 2312 (2012). In this novel humanity has spread throughout the solar system, bringing with it every conceivable type of settlement pattern. Not only has Mars been terraformed (part of the same universe created by Robinson in his Mars Trilogy), but Venus is in the middle of a monumental conversion — and a great number of asteroids have been converted into Space Habitats; which have been given differential orbits through the inner planetary system allowing them to be used as a type of interplanetary mass transit system. Many of these asteroids carry within their hollowed out cores entire biomes: African Savannas, Amazonian Jungles, Alpine ecosystems — each carrying their unique animal and plant species; flora and fauna now extinct on a future polluted and radically climate changed Earth.

I think cities are important because they are so densely populated…and I think that a lot of city life is fairly paleolithic in a strange way because it gets away from the automobile. Cities encourage face-to-face interactions with other individuals, so I like it for that. And I think that rooftops need to be used for urban gardens and that cities need to be greened, less for the auto and more for people and public transit.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Recently, Robinson has been pulling together the various strands of his Utopian writings and launching into public discussions about climate change and the unique role cities, and urban planning, will play in reversing the environmental degradation associated with such apocalyptic shifts. He has also been speaking out about economic shifts, at least as tectonic as the climatic shifts we’re experiencing. In particular, he’s been musing over the inherent flaws of Capitalism and what a post-capitalist world might look like.

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Boise Skyline at Dusk. Talo Pinto (2011)

As an American writer who’s novels are often set in the American West, Robinson knows we are not oblivious to the deep connections between our imaginations and our communities. As a Science Fiction writer he is surprisingly open about the limitations of technology, and about how we often abuse our intelligent manipulation of energy and material to craft far too unreal fantasies. We see these contortions in our western world everyday; from large-scale gated communities (where the wealthy residents attempt to sequester themselves from the vagaries of poverty) to the squirrelly activities of Doomsday Preppers (who seem to be rooting for the collapse of society itself). In the midst of this, Robinson strikes an amazing balance between hopefulness and caution — about our common past and our shared future.

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3 thoughts on “Utopian writers and the creation of the America West

  1. Really fun read. I was actually just having a discussion yesterday about how science fiction can and is a true go-to source for innovation, or toying with the what-if’s of consequence in a way we can’t currently explore.

    • Yes, there has always appeared to be an internal frission in New Plymouth — an energy that bounces between conservatism and progressiveness. The local “fixer” that the first settlers relied upon was B.P. Shawhan — a former member of a New York Nationalist Club who had only recently emigrated to Idaho (fleeing New York City for health reason) and who changed professions from banker to irrigation district manager. He worked to capitalize on the Cary Act federal land transfers and was instrumental in setting up the business aspect of the New Plymouth Colony. He was also a Silver-back Republican, who was eventually elected to the Idaho Senate. And today, we see a conservative libertarianism using the area as yet another platform for political and personal financial gain — though with Pierce’s pro-fraking legislation (removing these resource extraction decisions from local control), we see the desire for personal gain using the political process to overwhelm the concept of community. Hopefully, this action won’t destroy the town.

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