HOTB2020 Panel 7.4: *Topias



Panel 7.4: *Topias

“Always Coming Home: Ursula K. Le Guin’s Utopian Aesthetic”

Lawrence Coates (Bowling Green State University)

“The Way to Utopia in an Environmental Crisis”

Sheryl M. Medlicott (Independent Scholar)

“Solarpunk: Imagining a Political and Ecological Aesthetics for the Future”

David Latour (Université de Clermont-Ferrand)

“Solarpunking the Impasse of the Anthropocene”

Ariel Kroon (University of Alberta)



Q & A

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30 replies
  1. Sheryl M. Medlicott, Independent Scholar says:

    Lawrence, I had to watch your presentation first as I also discuss Always Coming Home and ecological utopianism in my paper. I am thrilled there are two presentations on the book and hope it will encourage others to read and/or re-read it. I think you make an excellent point that it’s not boring! There is often an assumption that utopias must be boring – what, everyone just getting on with being happy? – and it’s great to emphasise that this book is immersive and fascinating. My question is, is it sci-fi? I have always considered it so, but if it is categorised as such does this jeopardise its credence as fiction that can address the climate crisis according to Kerridge and Ghosh, who seem to require realism in environmental fiction? And if this is a problem, where is the problem, in Le Guin’s text or with Kerridge and Ghosh? Thank you for your thought-provoking presentation.

    • Lawrence Coates says:

      I enjoyed your presentation, Sheryl. I thought we both found different places where the anthropologist figure, Pandora, is frustrated with the Kesh conception of time.
      In response to your question, I’m thinking about the different ways Kerridge and Ghosh are using the word realism. Ghosh is using it to refer to a literary genre that became firmly established in the late 18th early 19th century and is still a dominant mode within literary fiction. Kerridge, in his essay (which I had to look at again to respond) is saying that utopian eco-fiction needs “a strong element of literary realism within its utopian setting.” Hence, I read Kerridge’s notion of realism as not referring to the literary genre, but rather to the notion that what is depicted does not violate the laws of nature as we understand them. Nobody has grown wings, nobody came on a space ship through a wormhole from another galaxy, everything depicted is possible in the natural world as we understand it. So I think that Always Coming Home is realist, and also NOT an example of realism as a literary genre.

      • Judith Wakeman says:

        I used to tell students there were two types of SciFi – one that focused on technology, and the other that used different worlds to investigate alternative societies.
        Now, of course, we have dystopian fiction and cli-fi as well.
        But I do like the term Speculative Fiction, and I do think it is a good fit for many of LeGuin’s stories.
        Although I’d like to retain the term SciFi as well.

        • Sheryl M. Medlicott, Independent Scholar says:

          Thanks for your response Lawrence.

          Sometimes the two types you mention Judith are referred to as hard sci fi and social (or soft) sci fi. The latter seems to me a good fit for Le Guin’s science fictions as they are generally focussed on social rather than technological innovations. I’m cynical about the term speculative fiction, I think it’s a bit of rebranding by authors/publishers who are worried that sci fi isn’t literary enough or sounds too geeky!

    • Lawrence Coates says:

      I’m writing from Northwest Ohio, the site of the former Great Black Swamp. The land was underlaid with drainage tiles in the late 19th and early 20th century to allow agriculture, aided greatly by the steam-powered Buckeye Steam Ditcher. However, every once in awhile, on a humid day, the mists arise about us, and the swamp is saying that it is only waiting for a chance to return.

        • Lawrence Coates says:

          I did not know that! Thanks. I’m always interested in literature of the region. I teach at Bowling Green State, and many of my students are from the immediate surrounding area. And I like to present them with work set where they themselves grew up.

  2. Tom Bremer, Rhodes College says:

    This panel has a fascinating juxtaposition of Le Guinn’s utopian aesthetic and the ecological aesthetics of solarpunk. Can the panelists comment on the connections between these? In other words, how might Le Guinn’s critique and reconfiguration of utopia provide a lens for thinking about the solarpunk aesthetic and its reconfiguring of the Anthropocene narrative, and vice versa?

    • Ariel Kroon, University of Alberta says:

      Thanks for your question, Tom! Speaking personally, I think that Le Guin’s critique of utopia fits well with solarpunk’s political aims to sow the seeds of a sustainable future in the now, through action. Her vision of a non-patriarchal, non-capitalist society in her writing is one that scan be seen to have markedly informed solarpunk’s development as a genre – as (ideally) an open, continuously-evolving process that is progressive in a reflexive, care-ful fashion, as well as many solarpunks’ political alliances with anarchism and socialism.

      • Lawrence Coates says:

        Hi, all … and thanks for the presentations. I’m happy to be on this panel.
        I’m interested in exploring in comments a contrast I found between Sheryl’s notion of how time is depicted in “Always Coming Home” (doing away with time’s arrow, living in the “thick present”) and the notion of building the bright green future that I saw as integral to David’s presentation. Ideas? Reactions? Did anyone else notice this contrast?

        • Sheryl M. Medlicott, Independent Scholar says:

          Hi Lawrence, thanks for noting this. I think that what Le Guin achieves in Always Coming Home is really hard to emulate, I find myself still wanting and campaigning for progress e.g. in tackling climate injustice, gender discrimination, racial inequality, poverty. I think it has been hard-wired into us that progress means changing the future and it’s really hard to think about simply the way we exist in the present instead of approaching things through targets like fossil-free energy by this date, gender equality in the boardroom by this date (or on a personal level, PhD by this date, do this before I’m 40 for example). I liked Ariel’s description of solarpunk as a site of potential resistance to imaginative impasse and felt this was a point of definite crossover with utopianism.

          • Lawrence Coates says:

            Hi, Sheryl:
            That is a great point. In Le Guin’s terms, that progress is toward a “hot” utopia. But I’m inclined that way as well, staying involved with political action (including mainstream stuff like trying to get a new US President this year). There was a presentation on living with being “futureless” in 7.6 that seemed deeply pessimistic. And Kim Tallbear seemed to find new possibilities in the collapse of the settler colonial project. But I’m not willing to give up on working for our current political state to address problems.

          • Lawrence Coates says:

            I’m also a novelist, and I agree that what Le Guin did is hard to emulate. I tend toward more traditionally plotted narratives. And how do we get from our current state, following time’s arrow, to a thick present? Fwiw, Harraway herself, in the ending part of “Living with the Trouble,” wrote a kind of utopian fiction showing how human population could decrease over the next few hundred years. I found myself skeptical of her vision, though.
            Good luck with the PhD. I didn’t get mine until I was forty, and didn’t publish my first book until I was forty-three, though as a novelist, I exemplify obscurity.

  3. Ariel Kroon says:

    Lawrence, your presentation was thought-provoking and very nuanced. I have been slowly working through Le Guin’s oeuvre through audiobooks from the local library, but they don’t have a copy of Always Coming Home…. indeed I think perhaps it’s not something that would work too well in audiobook format! It sounds fascinating.

    Your discussion of the novel as a collection of anthropological investigations of a people reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s method of worldbuilding and the Silmarillion – the Lord of the Rings is a byproduct of the fact that he needed some people to speak the multiple languages he had devised. And so of course they needed a world, which needed history, etc. The Silmarillion is similar, I think, to Always Coming Home in structure – as it’s a collection of short fragments of stories, following different characters, and the whole thing is supposed to be written by, for, and in one of the Elvish languages – there are a lot of notes on translation. However, the Silmarillion doesn’t seem to quite fit that “carrier bag” model of fiction since it has an overarching narrative of linear history (spanning multiple Ages), and which follows mostly male heroes in what are mostly tales of war and conflict. It is very much what we would think of as “High Fantasy”. But that leaves me with a question about genre and Always Coming Home.

    In your opinion, could Always Coming Home be construed as an inheritor of the fantasy construction of an other world, or (as Sheryl asks above) is it more science fiction because of its future orientation and cli-fi aspect?

    • Lawrence Coates says:

      HI, Ariel:
      I am a Tolkien fan … I remember once being in the Hoh Rain Forest, one of few non-tropical rain forests on the coast of Washington, and thinking I was among the Ents.
      I lean more toward Sheryl’s point of view, although I see the similarities between the Sllmarillion and Always Coming Home. One of the reasons (perhaps ironic) is the realism of Always Coming Home, as I mentioned above. There’s nothing in Le Guin’s book that could not happen in the natural world as we understand it, whereas Tolkien’s world really is one of high fantasy. I’d call it Speculative Fiction rather than Science Fiction, but not fantasy.

  4. Ariel Kroon, University of Alberta says:

    Sheryl, I loved your discussion of utopia in the context of ecocriticism and the usefulness of the literary concept of utopia. Also thank you for the link to the decolonization work on utopia – I will definitely be checking it out.

    Your discussion of how utopia, as influenced by the writings of Le Guin and Haraway, must have its grounding in the present if it is at all to be a future reality, is compelling. I want to ask you – do you think utopia exists in the here and now? Your discussion of Stone Telling’s autobiography suggests to me that in order to actually see and recognize a present utopia, we must first experience dystopia. Do you think this is correct?

    I am thinking also of Le Guin’s “Ones who walk away from the Omelas” – the necessary prerequisite of utopia being the suffering of other beings. Could the Valley of the Na exist without the cities of the Condor? I’m interested to hear your thoughts!

    • Lawrence Coates says:

      Hi, Ariel:
      I know that you addressed this to Sheryl, but I’m going to jump in. I think your question about Omelas is a good one, but I think that Le Guin did not undermine her vision of the Kesh by including the Condor. The Valley of the Na could very well exist without the cities of the Condor.

      I’m relying on Le Guin’s essay “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be.” She quotes an earlier writer on Utopia, Robert Elliott, who wrote that “Utopia is the application of man’s reason and his will to the myth of the Golden Age.” That is the “hot” version of utopia, the one that requires progress and direction. And in that version of utopia, yes, I think there would be many suffering children left along the way, as in Omelas.

      Le Guin goes on to write: “If the word [utopia] is to be redeemed, it will have to be by someone who has followed utopia into the abyss which yawns behind the Grand Inquisitor’s vision and who has then clambered out the other side.”

      The Grand Inquisitor’s vision is a choice: “Will you have happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness.”

      Her answer is No.

      She wants to be able to imagine what it might be like, what kind of utopia might exist without a linear, rationalist model – “that is the society … I must be able to imagine, for one does not get on without hope.”

      I think that the non-linear version of utopia presented in “Always Coming Home” does not require that some are excluded, some must suffer, on the way to a blessed destination. I loved Sheryl’s invocation of the “thick present” to describe time in the Valley of the Na.

      Sheryl? What do you think?

      • Sheryl M. Medlicott, Independent Scholar says:

        Hi both

        I think utopia is something we do in the here and now, but is not a place or to be found in any place currently existing. Utopia is about seeing that we are on the cusp of various alternate futures and as such enabling the practice of imagining ways of being that are better than the status quo. Dystopia is a subgenre that extrapolates to a much worse future and although it can be intended as a warning about certain elements of contemporary society I think it is ultimately ineffective as environmental fiction as it feeds into the narrative that we’re all doomed and closes off rather than opens up imaginative possibilities.

        A function of utopia is to critique contemporary society (i.e. we need something better than *this*) and I think this is the function that the presence of the Condor fulfils in Always Coming Home. They are patriarchal, militaristic, hierarchical and dualistic, like us. Through the Condor these tendencies are exaggerated and portrayed clearly as flaws, and the contrast with the Kesh highlights how Kesh society is distinct from and more perfect than our own.

        When Stone Telling returns, it is not simply seeing her village in a new light that makes it a utopia. Making a good life is something that she commits to and works at on her return by tending animals, doing useful work (weaving) and engaging with other members of the community. Utopia is something she can do there, rather than something that passively exists there.

        Lawrence, I like your suggestion that the rationalist utopia suffers the problems of Omelas and that Always Coming Home is something other.

  5. Ariel Kroon, University of Alberta says:

    David, I am very happy to hear another presentation about solarpunk! I agree with you that it is particularly resistant to being picked apart by ivory-tower academics due to its nature as an action-oriented movement, and I admire your commitment to introducing it to the ASLE community. I enjoyed your nuanced discussion of the aesthetic of solarpunk as it informs its politics; solarpunk art is not just nice to look at or the continuation of a certain style of art, but an expression of the movement’s core philosophy – working for a bright, diverse, colourful, sustainable future by depicting a bright, diverse, colourful, sustainable future.

    I have a question about your early assertion about how the sun is the only natural element that guarantees life on earth – I was wondering how water figures into this, and if you could comment on that. I had several things in mind prompting this, one being the knowledge that over 70% of the human body is made of water, that most of the earth is covered in water, that all flora and fauna need water to survive…. the second is my awareness of slogans such as Water is Life – indigenous resistance to pipelines and the development of the natural landscape of Turtle Island often comes back to water rights and water is held by many to be sacred and life-giving. Third is mentions of tidalpunk, which is perhaps the younger sibling of solarpunk that I don’t know a whole lot about, admittedly.

    Anyway, all of these leapt to mind at your words and I wondered if you could comment. Looking forward to your reply.

  6. Judith Wakeman says:

    To Ariel and David. Thankyou for your introduction to SolarPunk. Do you have any recommendations for SolarPunk novels &/or short stories suitable for older teens and young adults?

      • Ariel Kroon, University of Alberta says:

        Hey Judith and Lawrence, I’d recommend Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation edited by Phoebe Wagner and Bronte Christopher Wieland, specifically the short story “The Boston Hearth Project” by TX Watson – the frame narrative is a university application, so it fits pretty squarely into that age group and experience, and is an extremely relevant story to current events, I find. Not to mention it’s fun to dig in to in order to study from a literary perspective, which I did a bit in my article –

        Your mileage may vary on the collected stories, as some of them will be more or less fitted for your purposes, but I invite you to check it out as they are very indicative of the broad range of plot and styles of solarpunk writing.

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