In a nicely serendipitous coda to yesterday’s post, here’s the mighty Sherryl Vint talking about the equally (if not more) mighty Ursula le Guin at FiveBooks.com, taking a little aside into the theory of critical utopia, and summing it up in a manner so succinct that it’s obvious why she’s a serious boss in the field, and I just a minor spear-carrier:
This emphasis on questioning utopia as a model of perfection is not an idea that’s original to me. This comes from Tom Moylan’s work, which gave us a new and more complicated vocabulary for thinking about the utopian tradition in science fiction. Le Guin is one of the writers he talks about as what he called ‘the critical utopia,’ a utopia that still has its problems as this one clearly does. What you actually learn is that utopianism is not the model of how the society should work, but rather a commitment to the values a society should uphold, even though you are always in progress in trying to manifest this in a concrete way. But it’s what Le Guin refers to in this novel as ‘permanent revolution.’ That what is utopian is always asking questions, never letting society sediment into these rigid roles.
Precisely what goes wrong with the anarchists [on Annares] is that the bureaucracy they need to manage distribution and scarcity solidifies into a power structure, and then they’re not as anarchist anymore, as their ideals would have it. The sense is that utopia is never a place you arrive at, but it’s a journey you’re on.
(A sudden thought, riffing off that “always asking questions” line: do we associate utopianism with immaturity because children are so endlessly curious about why things are the way they are? And have we perhaps got that entirely the wrong way round?)