*Spoilers below for The Power, The Handmaids Tale, several older feminist sci-fi works
I've been thinking about 'topias (dys—, u—, eu— or other) and about the purposes of writing speculative fiction. Partly because I'm pulling together strands for my dissertation, and partly because Handmaid's Tale is doing so well, but largely because I've just finished listening to the audiobook of Naomi Alderman's scorchingly good The Power.
Alderman's story is set in the present day, but framed as if it were a fiction written by a male author living 5000 years after the events he is describing. His story, or her story through him, is about the sudden evolution of 'the skein', an electricity generating organ akin to that of eels, along the collar bones of almost all human women. What starts almost as a pleasing revenge fantasy (listen, I always though Lady Macbeth had a point) ends up as something else much more visceral and profound. I found I spent most of the last two hours of the audiobook with my hands bunched up at my chest. I won't spoil the novel beyond this, it's still new and it's very much worth your time, but I loved its focus on process. Not only 'what would happen if patriarchy reversed?' but what would happen next, and after that. How do we move from one world to another?
Dystopia, which Alderman's book isn't quite, always has this focus on 'how?'. Part of its purpose as a warning is saying 'look, these steps, don't take them!'. Margaret Atwood's brilliant The Handmaid's Tale describes with great clarity the route, via coup, between 80s America and a 'bible-based' theocracy called Gilead. Like Alderman (who was mentored by Atwood), the examples of gendered violence she describes all echo real life examples. The abuses of power she's talking about, the political tendency towards fascism, are familiar enough that signs at the Women's March read 'Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again'.
But utopia works on different lines. It is, famously, 'no-place'. It doesn't exist. There isn't the burden of 'how do we do this?', or, if there is, it can be waved away with magic. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's seminal 1915 novel Herland solves the problem of patriachy with the sudden arrival of human parthenogenesis and, oh dear, eugenics. The Power, in as far as it is a utopia (I just really like art where straight men get fridged, okay?) relies on the arrival of an electricity generating organ. Both novels can depend on women developing the powers of fish because they aren't really about the 'what if?' so much as they are about questioning where we are already.
There is also such a thing as a eutopia. The e at the beginning switches the meaning from 'no place' to 'a good place'. I didn't know the distinction, but it's useful. Fictions that aren't about impossible places, but places that could be, maybe, please, if we work towards it. It makes me think of Ursula K. Le Guin's comment at the 2014 National Book Awards.
Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope...We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings.
And I also think of the brilliant, essential book Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. In it he suggests that we keep making post-apocalyptic fictions because 'It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.' We have zombies because we can't think past money. Maybe we have fish-women because we can't think past men?
This is, in reality, massively unfair on Naomi Alderman, who has actually laid out in some detail her practical suggestions to move beyond gendered hierarchies. If there is a failure of imagination, it certainly isn't hers. And holding her book to account for genres it doesn't actually belong to is the kind of dickish thing that should, rightly, have people calling me a prick on the internet. But I think it's interesting how few feminist eutopias are produced. Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.
Another scorching book, this one tells the story of an institutionalised woman who is able, via psychic power, to send herself forward in time to an eminently sensible community run along queer, socialist, democratic and ecological principles. Whilst her route there is questionable, and Piercy leaves us free to question how real Connie's visions are, the future described requires very little suspension of belief on our part. It seems to run entirely on polyamory, 3d printing and kindness. The 'what-if' is 'what if people were kind?', and then it gives a complete image of what that might look like and how problems with that system might be negotiated. It seems workable. It seems infuriating that we aren't all living in that sensible, technologically viable world right now. I want 3D printed dresses and sexual liberation and comfortable trousers. It all sounds so reasonable.
When I think of my writing, I can see the ways I shy away from attempting eutopia. Utopia's never been my bag, but I know I've written plenty of dystopic work. Despair is less frightening than hope, I suppose, because it requires so much less of you. The possibility for change also implies the moral imperative for change. It's hard to sit down at the page with that in mind and not shit yourself. But I hope one day I will. There is a path, I hope, between there and here. In the mean time, excellent reflections like Alderman's provide a light for map making.