There have been some profoundly influential dystopias in the course of the last hundred years – George Orwell’s 1984; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; the Hunger Games sequence by Suzanne Collins. But there have been few convincing utopias. Speculative fiction remains popular, but currently takes a profoundly pessimistic view of human nature and the future of the planet.
One of the best quasi-utopias in recent years, Earth by David Brin, postulates a world where ‘arks’ – enormous, largely self-sustaining habitats – conserve what remains of the world’s wildlife as the seas rise and the sun grows ever more dangerous. Earth is a fine story, first published in 1990, but in a telling postscript the author observes that this is the best outcome he can imagine.
The first Utopia was written by Sir Thomas More, and published under that title in 1516. More was a statesman and lawyer. He strongly opposed the influence of Martin Luther and William Tyndale, and strenuously argued that Henry VIII should remain within the Catholic Church; he was executed after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy. More was profoundly engaged with his society; his Utopia puts forward a number of ideas with a decidedly contemporary ring, including the welfare state and euthanasia.
I have just finished Euterra Rising by Canadian Mark A. Burch, published by the author under Amazon’s Createspace. Burch draws upon ideas from Quaker and Buddhist sources to describe a functioning society, set in 2298 CE, that emerges after the collapse of the Web and the loss of the Cloud lead to widespread economic failure. He makes an entirely serious attempt to imagine what social relationships might look like – nuclear families for instance are replaced by ‘dans’, groups of about thirty people in which all share responsibility for childcare and attending to the elderly. The ceremony by which a new member may join a ‘dan’ is ‘not an oath, nor a creed, but a spirit we aspire to.’ Personal possessions are largely obsolete, which does away with many causes of conflict and much legislation. Work, in the sense of paid work, is also obsolete: each member of the society contributes about twenty hours a week to the common good, which leaves time for making music and making love. Money is no more. Decisions are taken in common; each member of the society spends significant amounts of time in a form of meditation, called Practice. The Euterrans (‘Euterra’ means ‘healthy earth’) practice permaculture, working with the natural world to maximise species diversity while generating food.
But this is no Eden. The Euterran community comes under threat from another group of survivors who are more eager to appropriate than to generate the wealth they crave. Will they fight? If so, how?
It’s a well-told tale, light on character development but long on ideas, and I read it twice. It struck me however that while there is considerable emphasis on Practice, there is little concept of the divine.
This led to a further thought: why are there not more Christian attempts to write a utopia today? I come across many Christian-sourced fantasies, but almost no attempts to imagine an ideal society, which gives adequate weight to the spiritual world and takes proper account of the human condition. How would such a society function, and who would hold power? What is your vision?
Tony Collins is editor-at-large with Lion Hudson plc, and author of Taking My God for a Walk (Monarch).