Spotlight On: Retrotopia

Title: Retrotopia
Publisher: Founders House Publishing LLC
Author: John Michael Greer
Pages: 264 pp
Price: $15.99 (paperback) / $5.99 (ebook)

The year is 2065. Economic failure and ecological collapse have combined to shatter the United States. In the wake of a Second Civil War, the old US has broken up into half-a-dozen smaller nations and on-going war zones. A new President is about to assume power in the Atlantic Republic and she is determined to establish relations with the Lakeland Republic. As such, she sends her trusted envoy, Peter Carr, to open negotiations and learn what he can about the once-isolated Lakeland Republic, which, rumor has it, has turned its back on modern technology, economic theory, and law. Carr is certain that he will find a nation of backwards-thinking, starving illiterates. In fact, much to his shock and consternation, Carr finds a thriving nation which has learned the lessons of the past and embraces a much different idea of “progress” and “prosperity” than the rest of the world . . .

Star’s Reach is one of my favorite science fiction novels, ably combining Gaian spirituality, eco-consciousness, and political theory into an epic adventure. As such, I was thrilled when I discovered that Greer had recently published Retrotopia. I immediately ordered a copy and dove right in.

I can confidently say that Retrotopia will be one of my favorite novels, ever. There is a lot packed into this slim volume and it is all presented in an entertaining and conversational style. Using Carr as a reader surrogate, Greer introduces us to alternative(?) fringe(?) radical(?) old-fashioned(?) ideas in the fields of economics, law, education, and technology. In contrast to Carr’s own Atlantic Republic (which has carried forward many of the policies and attitudes of the old United States), the Lakeland Republic has completely transformed how it does business, how it governs, how it taxes, how it educates, how it develops new technology — well, pretty much everything.

There is not the space here to summarize the entire novel, and I would not want to spoil it anyway, so I’ll offer one example. In the Lakeland Republic, there are five tax brackets (or tiers) based on the technological level of a particular era. Tier One is 1840, Tier Two is 1870, Tier Three is 1890, Tier Four is 1920, and Tier Five is 1950. Each county determines for itself which tier it wants to be in, with taxes going to support that level of infrastructure. So, gravel roads and horse-drawn wagons in low-tax Tier One counties, but power plants and running water and trolley cars in high-tax Tier Five counties.

It gets more interesting: the taxes only determine the technological level of the infrastructure. If a family living in a Tier Two county wants a radio, they are free to buy one. When Carr visits a Tier One county, he is shocked to see paved roads in the town center; it turns out that a group of private citizens decided there was enough traffic and trade going on downtown that gravel was not good enough; so they formed a corporation, raised the money themselves, and paved the roads, and then dissolved the corporation.

OK, one more example: in the Lakeland Republic all creedal associations are taxed. Translation: religious groups are not tax-exempt. Second translation: no hiding behind a pulpit and calling for violence against those with whom you disagree. Any creedal association, any group of people bound by a common set of beliefs, is also bound by the same laws as everyone else; no discriminating based on race, religion, or sexual orientation, or sex; no slander or libel or calls for violence.

Unlike in Star’s Reach, religion plays a much smaller role in Retrotopia. Carr is an avowed atheist, and even attends two meetings of the Atheist Assembly while he is visiting the Lakeland Republic. Two Christian sects are introduced in the story, but there are otherwise no references to any religious group or spiritual path.

Perhaps that is appropriate. We made the mess that is the Atlantic Republic and the Confederacy and the Texas Republic and the on-going civil war in California and the melting ice caps and the flooding coastal cities and the falling satellites and the crashing economy . . . We cannot expect a God or Goddess or pantheon to intervene. We broke the world. We need to fix it ourselves.

Greer has introduced me to a lot of new ideas. He’s making me think some uncomfortable thoughts. Retrotopia is one of those rare novels which is both infuriating and enlightening, frightening and hopeful.

Highly recommended to fans of Greer’s other work, as well as The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk, Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and the California Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson.