The Utopia at the End of the World

by Noah Berlatsky


The robots revolt and kill us all. Religious fanatics take over and treat women as chattel. A vicious dictatorship is instituted that kills children for sport. The planet runs out of food, water, fuel, or all of them, and civilization tears itself apart. The aliens invade, the meteor hits, the zombies arise, the rapture raptures. The methods are various, but the message is the same: The world has plenty of problems, sure, but it could be worse. Terminator, The Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games, Mad Max, 1984, War of the Worlds. Who can resist the thrilling bleakness of a wholly inimical world?

There’s an impulse to believe that dystopias are a trend, that we like to imagine the end of the world because of the financial collapse, or September 11th, or ecological disaster, or Vietnam. But dystopias are always more popular and more prevalent than their cheerier twin; utopias mostly just sit there, soliciting didactic admiration. Once you’ve achieved perfection, what else is there to do? Much like the Houyhnhnm section of Gulliver’s Travels or Herland, utopic fiction tends to be a tour, rather than an adventure, because as soon as the engine of plot starts grinding, you’re moving towards conflict, disaster, and dissolution. Utopias are static because heaven is outside time — and outside narrative.

Science-fiction and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin has created many utopias and nearly as many attempts to combine heaven with plot. The Word for World Is Forest, from 1972, is about an ecological and spiritual utopia being destroyed by human imperialism; The Dispossessed, published in 1974, is actually subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and is about a genius physicist whose personal ambitions create discontent in the anarchist utopian planet in which he lives. His restlessness generates the narrative, with an assist from the rest of the inhabited universe — which is not a utopia, and so causes (fruitful) problems. Le Guin’s most ambitious, and creative approach to utopia, though, is one of her lesser known books: the sprawling, non-narrative Always Coming Home, published thirty years ago, in 1985.

I read the Hunger Games trilogy in two days; Always Coming Home, which is roughly the same length, took me more than two weeks. There’s no mystery as to why: Le Guin’s novel has no story. Always Coming Home does not have a pulse-pounding quest, or an angst-filled protagonist. Le Guin’s father was the noted cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, and Always Coming Home is organized as a kind of anthropological study, with numerous short chapters detailing different cultural expressions of a maybe-future Pacific Northwest, populated by a small-scale, peaceful society known as the Kesh. Le Guin, as narrator, figures herself as an explorer or researcher, and devotes sections to her discoveries about Kesh poetry, song, theater, and dance. She describes how and where the Kesh build their houses, and, in impressively mundane detail, their group sex rituals. In the utopia, there are myths, drawings, dreams, alphabets and genealogical charts. There are even some aphorisms (“Cats may be green somewhere else, but the cats here don’t care.”) But there are no grand adventures.

Utopias are popularly thought of, or parodied, as perfect societies, in which everyone is happy all the time and no one wants or suffers. In practice, though, utopian writers frequently present the perfect world not as one in which all evil has been banished, but rather as a society in which the inevitable problems and pains of existence are managed with justice, kindness, and mercy. In that tradition, Le Guin’s utopia isn’t one in which all evil has been banished. There’s still sickness, jealousy, violence, and cruelty. The reason it’s a utopia isn’t because people have been perfected, but because narratives of conflict have been scaled down. Kesh frowns on injustice and greed: “Owning is owing, having is hoarding.” The word for wealth is also their word for giving; it’s a society in which self-vaunting and inequity are quietly but persistently discouraged, which means that people don’t try to get ahead by telling great tales or by blowing each other up.

So the stories Le Guin gives us in Always Coming Home are all smaller than life. A woman who is in charge of watching some of the things in the heyimas (central buildings) starts to keep some bits and pieces for herself — a flute, some cornbread. She becomes very ill with a spiritual sickness. And then, “she got well. Other people looked after the things in the heyimas after that.” Wrongdoing is sickness — its own punishment, which leads to repentance and healing, rather than to revenge, violence, or further misery. Another history talks about a small battle between two groups over a hunting dispute. It ends with a commentary: “I am ashamed that six of the people who of my town who fought this war were grown people.” Theologian Stanley Hauerwas argued in War and the American Difference that war will be abolished not when all wars cease (which is impossible) but when there is no longer ideological justification of war. “War might exist two hundred years in the future,” Hauerwas writes, “but at least we could begin the process [of abolishing war] in the hope that no one in the future would think war to be a good idea.” The Kesh appear to have reached that blessed point; people still fight, but the society as a whole does not justify that fighting, and works, more or less in unity, to prevent it.

There is one exception to Always Coming Home’s studied epiclessness. Amid the poems and play scripts and cultural observations, there is one long story, presented as the written narrative of one of the Kesh, collected along with the other anthropoogical materials. The story is about a hundred pages, split over three parts, and it has many of the features of an honest-to-goodness adventure narrative, including a restless protagonist, a long journey, a daring escape, and a return. This narrative is also, not coincidentally, a dystopia within the larger utopia. This is not a device that originates with Le Guin — many utopias, like Marge Piercy’s A Woman On the Edge of Time and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man — contrast their perfect societies with imperfect ones, present or future. Piercy, for example, has her protagonist travel back and forth between an ideal communal future and a very flawed present. But Le Guin is unusual in that the structure of Always Coming Home allows her to demonstrate how dystopia and narrative are tied together.

The dystopic story in Always Coming Home is titled “Stone Telling,” which is also the name of its narrator. Stone Telling is the child of a warlord from a society called the Condor, who had a tryst with Stone Telling’s Kesh mother on his way to other conquests. Later, when Stone Telling is a young adult, her father returns briefly, and when he leaves, she asks him to take her with him, back to the seat of Condor rule.

The Condor is less like the small-scale, egalitarian Kesh, and more like a hierarchical empire — it’s monotheistic, nomadic, and patriarchal. Or, to put it another way, the Condor is similar to Judeo-Christian culture, but more extreme. “The Condors had purposed to glorify One by taking land, life, wealth and service from other people,” Le Guin writes, clearly referencing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. The Condor has one God and one ruler; unlike the Kesh, they segregate women and despise them. They are also constantly at war; they mean to spread all across the land, and they use computer records (available to all) to try to reconstruct ancient weaponry, pouring more and more resources into powering their flying death machines.

But it doesn’t work. A society which neglects all its other needs in order to make bigger and more menacing engines of war is, as it turns out, unsustainable. The Condor collapses under its own weight. Not too long after Stone Telling escapes and flees back to the Kesh, the Condor begins to decline; the giant imperial threat simply dissipates as armies and weapons put an unsustainable strain on the society’s food supplies. In another book the Condor would be the central evil to be resisted and defeated, but in Always Coming Home they’re simply a byway, not really more important than a description of Kesh theater. Utopias are often denigrated as too simplistic, too pie-in-the-sky, too good to be true. But Le Guin suggests that it’s dystopia — our dystopia — that is unrealistic. Hate eats itself; give it a little time and room and it will implode. Art, nature, relatonships, love are all more real and more lasting.

History is usually seen as real, utopia as fantasy. But Always Coming Home is predicated on the idea that outside of history is in fact the real bit; it’s history that’s the chimera. In one of the many fragments of anthropological analysis in the book, Le Guin writes that “The historical period, the era of human existence that followed the Neolithic era for some thousands of years in various parts of the earth, and from which prehistory and ‘primitive’ culture are specifically excluded, appears to be what is referred to by the Kesh phrases ‘the time outside,’ ‘when they lived outside the world’ and ‘the City of Man.’” Dystopia, for the Kesh, is not a nightmare of the future, but a nightmare that there is a future at all — and a past, and a series of exciting events connecting the two. To be in history is to be in a dystopic narrative illusion.
In contrast, the Kesh see themselves as part of the world — which means they cannot see it whole, or trace its arc into a pleasurably awful future. Dystopia, for Le Guin, is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not because thinking bad thoughts makes them come true, but because the drive to claim history is how you get the wasteland we’re living in. She asks us to pause long enough to imagine that we can imagine differently — with more fragments, more spaces, and fewer lines in the sand. “No hurry,” she writes in her novel that isn’t a novel. “Take your time. Here, take it please. I give it to you. It’s yours.”