Arts & Entertainment

The Novel Solutions of Utopian Fiction

By Kim Stanley Robinson, The Nation

Climate catastrophe has transformed a minor literary genre into an important tool of human thought.

Recently I read an excellent book: The Soviet Novel, by Katarina Clark. In it she observed that the USSR’s socialist realism suffered from what she called “modal schizophrenia,” because the writers were supposed to stay true to the situations they described while also evoking the better world socialism would bring. They were caught trying to bridge that gap between what is and what ought to be.

Clark’s diagnosis made me laugh. I’ve been writing utopian novels for a long time, and I recognized all too well the syndrome she described. The novel is usually regarded as a realist art form, and I’d go even further: By telling the stories we use to understand our lives, the novel helps create our reality. In novels, things go wrong—that’s plot. People then cope. That’s realism.

Utopia, on the other hand, is famously “no place,” an idealized society sometimes described right down to its sewage system. In utopia, everything works well—maybe even perfectly, but for sure better than things work now. So utopias are like blueprints, while novels are like soap operas. Crossing these two genres gets you the hybrid called the utopian novel: soap operas put in a blender with architectural blueprints. It doesn’t sound all that promising.

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