Close Quarters: Utopias, Dystopias, and Where We Live

Summer in Texas: the heat won’t budge during the day, and it only subsides briefly in the early morning. So, just before the sun comes up, I pop my baby into the stroller for a quick walk around the neighborhood. If, that is, it’s not an ozone action day or the pollution is otherwise low. We talk about squirrels, birds, dogs, trees, but what holds my baby’s attention is the people: neighbors out turning on sprinklers, picking up newspapers from their driveways, getting into their cars for their morning commutes. Those whom we know and will stop to say hello to; those new faces perhaps we’ll see again. Then, when the sun is up over the horizon, we’ll usually go back inside for the day. We’ll stay in with the air conditioning, the walls of our home keeping out the heat and, perhaps unfortunately, views of the people passing by.

It’s in this context that I recently read Catherine Helen Spence’s A Week in the Future, written in 1888.

3649239In this utopian novel, Emily Bethel, an unmarried woman, has spent years dutifully caring for her mother, who dies shortly before the introduction. This frees Bethel to pursue her own life of activity.  She’s curious about her world and how it will, she hopes, improve as time passes.  She collapses, however, and is diagnosed with a heart condition that will kill her if she does not live quietly.  Her doctor gives her another option: he can arrange for her to be suspended for one hundred years.  She will then wake up in 1988 in London, but she will only live a short time after. Bethel thus gives up a couple years of quiet life for one week of living in the future she wants to see.

Shared Spaces as Utopian

Bethel meets her great-grandniece, Mrs. Carmichael, in London. Mrs. Carmichael, members of her family, and other residents in the home they share, explain the improvements of the last 100 years: how children are educated, how people spend their work hours and their more copious leisure time, and so on. The element that stands out and ties the piece together is that everyone lives in an “associated home” with several other families. Mrs. Carmichael explains:

“Well, when twenty families combine, the forty or fifty small sitting-rooms are exchanged — the twenty dining-rooms for two large well-heated but uncarpeted eating-rooms or refectories; the twenty drawing-rooms, kept mostly for show, are represented by a large music room, an art room, a whist and chess room, a smoking room, a dancing room, a large library, a mechanics’ room, and a ladies’ work room.”

Families have private suites for sleeping, but for the most part, the homes are a collection of shared spaces that are more economical for the families involved. In pooling resources, the benefits go beyond financial ones. All the other improvements in education, child care, work, and so forth that raise the quality of life depend on this collective living.

The Peril of Choice?

Shortly before Bethel collapses in 1888, she faces a choice between maintaining the home she shared with her elderly mother and moving in with either family or friends. The former would allow her more independence, while the latter would be more economical. Her family attempts to sway her to the latter, but she is intent on keeping herself in a position to have “a home to which I can invite my friends, where I can have company or quiet as I please.” She fears that her family is right in their argument, but she puts off making the decision as long as she can, indeed, until it is made for her.

While Bethel sees the associated homes as a positive—the good that may have come from the decision her family had wanted her to make—there’s something troubling in the fact that she wouldn’t have had any choice to make in this utopian future. Furthermore, for all the good that comes from the associated homes, they are still entrenched in a class system. Bethel, no doubt, would have lived in the home her great-grandniece lived in, one inhabited by “twenty families, descended from many generations of educated people.” Despite the claim that “all classes lived alike,” we see that they don’t do it in the same place.  This stratification is more troubling even than Bethel’s limited but comfortable position.

This is one of the difficulties of utopias. In a recent article for Motherboard, Adam Rothstein explores the city in science fiction films. He concludes that while cities are part of the storytelling, they are also grounded in what we know of our own cities: “the familiar aspects of today’s cities we see in SF also become a reflection, as we see our own image in a mirror, though disguised by different clothing.” In this version of the future, the working class can’t cast off their metaphorical coveralls even if the middle class is literally dressed more plainly.  There is still the implication that the middle class is superior to the working class, and the homes of the middle class reflect this.  Spence’s utopian 1988 would have been better served by having members of various classes coming together in the associated homes—or, better yet, dispensing with the idea of class altogether.  But the image of Spence’s class-based society is too strong to cover up entirely.

Where We Live Now, Where We’ll Live Then

While I appreciate what Spence achieved in envisioning a better life for her characters in 1988–her movements toward gender equality are worth noting as a start–I’m reminded of why dystopias are the easier genre to write.  It’s simpler to point to a problem and imagine where it’ll go than to propose a workable solution.

That isn’t to say writers should shy away from writing utopias nor readers from reading them, however.  In her article for Slate, “The Dystopian City and Urban Policy”, Annalee Newitz concludes:

“Ultimately, however, the dystopian city is not a stop sign. These tales do not suggest we should halt innovation, or shut down our dreams of a futuristic city that’s better than what we have today. Instead, they are warnings to remember that cities are more alive than we care to admit. They are full of human beings who are vulnerable, and whose needs should come before those of the industries and individuals powerful enough to shape the urban landscape.”

The same can be said for utopias when their settings fail to achieve the sort of futures we should be aiming for. The dystopian city and its hopeful but flawed cousin do share the goal of providing an example of what can go wrong and what should be addressed, even if the utopian city does so against the author’s intention and by subtler means.  The reader can–and should–walk away with a lesson either way.

From a distance of 127 years, it’s easy for us to spot the flaws in the London Bethel gets to see.  Reading utopian literature from the past should be a starting point for us to hold the mirror up to ourselves.  I wonder what I’m teaching my child during our mornings strolling through the neighborhood.  I hope that these walks are lessons about valuing those around us, about valuing where we live and being good neighbors.  But what I really want is for my child to look back critically on how we lived, to see clearly where I may have had blind spots.  Like Bethel, this is the future I’d love to see.