I love ‘em. Go read some!
Read my article on the usefulness of utopia, “Conscious Dreaming: Feminist Utopian Narrative as Mentor” or my recent blog post about the subject.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Herland. 1915. While much of Gilman’s work such as the well-known and frequently anthologized The Yellow Wallpaper continues to enjoy feminist acclaim, other works have drawn criticism for their racist and classist underpinnings. Herland is among the works subject these analyses. Herland follows the adventures of three male explorers who search for and ultimately discover (much to their chagrin) a country on a continent that goes unnamed in the text, their interest sparked by a native tale of “a strange and terrible Woman Land” (Gilman 2). The country they dub “Herland” is peaceful, harmonious, and populated entirely by intelligent, athletic women, who are extremely curious about the ways of the outside world. Good-natured interrogations of the three male visitors, Vandyck Jennings (the narrator), Terry Nicholson, and Jeff Margrave, provide the perfect medium for Gilman to discuss the gross gender inequities of the early twentieth century. Gilman utilizes an explorer-diary device as a vehicle for exposition of women’s reproductive rights, the belief that women are weak if feminine and unfeminine if intellectual, and Gilman’s primary interest, women and economics.
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower. 1993 Lauren Olamina, young black woman, lives in a walled suburban community that has been fortified like compound. Lauren is what she calls “a sharer,” a person who experiences empathetic pain when she witnesses the suffering of others. In her violent world, sharing makes Lauren even more vulnerable, as her empathetic responses can incapacitate her. The Parable of the Sower suggests that if current trends continue, life in America in 2024 will be ruled by lawless, police and other emergency responders will not assist the people unless compensated, education will no longer be free, and increasing violence and isolation will pit neighbor against neighbor. And, as she shows later in her narrative, fundamentalism becomes more predominant in uncertain times but often creates more oppression than it relieves.
Sherri Tepper. The Gate to Women’s Country. 1989. In what could best be termed a work of dystopian fiction, Sherri Tepper creates a highly dualistic society in order to better examine gender, aggression and the meaning of citizenship. As with many other feminist utopias, this book seeks to pose answers the question of whether or not men are pre-disposed to violence by their biological nature; in other famous words, is it nature or nurture? Are men naturally aggressive and hierarchical while women tend to be interrelational and democratic? Tepper seems to think so, and this sense of biological destiny is one of the problematic but, I think, necessary aspects of Tepper’s narrative.
The novel takes place in a far future that finds the world spoiled by nuclear waste and war, but the process of re-establishment has already begun. A network of small walled cities, by various names such as Melissaville and Tabithatown, have been established by enclaves of women who busy themselves with scientific rediscovery, production of goods and the democratic maintenance of order. A military encampment surrounds each town, occupied by male warriors who protect the women from outside threat in exchange for food and clothing. Because warriors have chosen this war-like life, they aren’t allowed to read the books of the town’s libraries or benefit from the medicines produced by the women.
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia. 1974. A physicist named Shevek is compelled to leave his radical socialist world in pursuit of academic freedom, and travel to the “mother planet” Urras, a capitalist world not unlike our own that colonists broke away from to form a new order. Through this work, Le Guin examines both the excesses and inequities of capitalist society and the imperfections of anarchist/socialist structures, as well as the meaning of citizenship in each.
Starhawk. The Fifth Sacred Thing. 1993. This book posits utopia in the form of an enclave of affinity groups founded by revolutionary women in futuristic San Francisco. The radically democratic enclave is forced to choose between violent and nonviolent response when the community comes under siege by the military of the theocratic Millennialists, the author’s extrapolation of the Religious Right. Although this issue is the main concern of the novel’s story arc, it is interwoven with dire commentary on the consequences of ecological disaster, over-reliance on prescription medications and antibiotics, corporate control of water and food supplies, militarism, and the growing gap between rich and poor. It also incorporates Starhawk’s interest in spirituality and magick as a natural part of activist culture.