Wednesday, 2 November 2011

A former self speaks: sketch utopia

I found the text below in a long-forgotten corner of my laptop's hard-drive. It must be from around 2002, when I was doing my PhD. It seems, although I'd forgotten this, that I planned my thesis to be much more directly utopian than it eventually turned out - it and my closely-related 2007 book, Living Without Domination, ended up being much more about how and why we should construct utopian texts. This is my attempt at actually writing a utopia rather than writing about them. William Morris and Ursula Le Guin needn't worry about their preeminence, but I have to admit I quite like it, considered as the product of a relative I don't remember very well.

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Joseph lives in what was once a hotel, and which is currently officially called Ice Station Bakunin after a slightly drunken general meeting, but is called Home Farm by most of its hundred-or-so inhabitants. Unluckily for Joe, the meeting last night didn’t get silly until after a work rota’d been agreed, and so he’s digging manure into a field which was once a tramp-haunted park, at seven am on a cold, bright october day.
          Joe’s half-brother Hakim nudged him awake an hour ago, hung over, and they stumbled between heavy hangings and out of the old breakfast hall, with muttered swearing following them from the futons, camp-beds and blanket-nests scattered around it. Joe and Hakim started the breakfast-hall crew two years ago, when they decided they couldn’t live with dad and his ominous silences any more. They and six others in their teens cleared the room, dried it out with space-heaters after begging the power from that week’s resource committee, learned some basic tent-making from the web, and then got Rob, Joe’s mum’s partner, to help when their first go looked more like a collapsing balloon than the combined opium-den and barbarian camp they’d imagined.
          Already though, they’re thinking about moving. Little kids keep joining, nobody’s got any new ghost-stories, and sometimes they’d like a little privacy. If either could be bothered with the work, he could commandeer a room, have his own bathroom and cook for himself. But Hakim might be moving in with his partner Carl soon, and Joe’s thinking about leaving Home Farm. And anyway, who’d want to eat breakfast alone when you can have scrambled eggs and rye pancakes in the refectory, and listen to the gossip?
          Joe’s been thinking of moving on for a while now. He’s been talking to a group of musicians on the web, sometimes throwing themes into their sprawling communal pieces, sometimes just listening and chatting. They’re based fifty miles south, they concentrate on their one art instead of just messing about with everything and anything, and – best of all, thinks Joe – they live in one of the new ceramic domes, not in some urban-bricolage mess held together with cellulose-still plastic and ridiculous ancient skills like plastering and carpentry. Bricolage is going out of fashion. More and more people are moving out, casting domes under the forests which are spreading again, eating from hydroponics pools instead of farming, and concentrating on creation instead of just living. There are web-based design groups working on self-sufficient domes for the deep oceans, and more and more sealed-environment skills are being developed and spread by the orbital communes.
          Some don’t like this. They say the single-issue affinity groups are unstable, that the old communities work because the people in them work at all sorts of jobs, see each other in all sorts of roles, and can be masters today and apprentices tomorrow. Hakim’s beginning to think they’re right. He likes the respect he gets from the younger breakfast-hall kids, likes teaching his skills and telling his stories, but he also likes being the na├»ve newbie on committees. He likes digging fields in the morning and arguing about economics in the afternoon. He likes knowing, as Joe doesn’t, how much maintenance the hotel’s ancient plumbing takes, and even almost likes the repair jobs themselves, stinking hard work though they are. But he’s got some ideas about how to make them easier.
          The cities are emptying, and the people who still live in them are either traditionalists like the Home Farmers, or weirdo affinities eagerly scanning the web for every new invention that’ll leave them a few more minutes to make music, or design games, or work on the maths of faster-than-light travel. The skies and seas are filling up. There’s talk of colonising the asteroids, ‘though if anyone does go, they’ll be arguing all the way, the time-lag gradually increasing, with the conservationists. And maybe the conservationists will convince them after all.
          The web links everyone who wants to be linked. Big number-crunching projects are run distributed across the idle microseconds of millions of computers. Experiments are run in Birmingham, Cairo, and under the Black Sea as part of ambitious projects, medical, artistic, techinical, and blue-sky physical. The meta-collation software gets better all the time. There are uncountable conversations, cross-fertilisations of ideas, negotiations, self-selected emergency committees for a thousand contingencies, novel forms of conflict-resolution or avoidance from simulated wars to poetry contests to massive tetris championships, going on every second. Joe once helped arbitrate a real squabble about an orchard in Australia, without ever knowing, by how he played an online roleplaying game.
          Hakim is happy where he is, digging the old park and watching his steaming breath. He’s thinking about whether he should ask to be deputised to the local moot next month. Joe is restless, and will move to that muso commune soon, and then on into orbit when music gets old the way tent-making, and history, and many other things did. He’ll have a burst of depression in his twenties, but hard work designing the acoustics of an orbital habitat’ll pull him out of it.
          There’ll be other restless seekers and other depressives. People will die tragically young, like Hakim, who’ll break his neck in a fall at thirty. Not everyone will get want they want to do done, or stop their loved-ones leaving them, or be satisfied. But there won’t be wars, or famines, or nations, or tyranny. There will be bullies and domestic tyrants, but there’ll be creative resistance and ways of leaving. Great things will be created in music, architecture, technology, maths, subjects we don’t have names for yet. By negotiation and creativity, community and initiative, humans will continue to organise themselves, as they have done ever since there were humans. And this time, they’ll get it right.

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