Our resident bibliotherapist and author of “The Novel Cure”, Ella Berhoud, is using fiction to re-imagine what life after lock down could look like….
Whilst we’ve been in lock down and with more time than usual to ponder different ways of living better, I’ve been thinking a lot about Utopian ideals. Fiction has a great number of utopias to explore, and we can find inspiration in these idealised communities. The word utopia literally means ‘no place’, and it was coined by Thomas More in 1516 as a concept; the word dystopia was invented later by John Stuart Mill. For our purposes, a utopia is a place that we desire to be, whilst a dystopia is a place that we fear. Both can be great to read about in these changing times.
In Farenheit 451, Ray Bradbury described a future in which humanity leads a kind of utopian life, in which everyone lives in controlled environments with massive screens on their walls on which they watch an endless soap opera called The Family – which they find more gripping than their own family life. Sound familiar? In this world, all books are burnt, as they are dangerous to society. But some people rebel, and learn books off by heart so they can share them with future generations. If you were to learn a book by heart, what would it be? What book would you save from the flames?
The world of Fahrenheit 451 has much in common with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Here the population is kept calm and happy by taking the drug soma and having no-strings-attached sex. But the world he portrays is also sinister and fundamentally flawed, with people being bred in bell-jars, then classed according to their genetic structure into Alphas, Betas or Gammas. The population is hypno-fed stock phrases every night so that they grow up believing that their class is the best place to be for them. Huxley wrote a far more optimistic novel called The Island in 1963, which was his last work. In The Island, he writes a utopian model for people to live freely, happily and fulfilled lives where they take a drug called moksha which allows them to see the world through the eyes of someone who has been ‘liberated from the bonds of the ego’. Huxley’s paradisial utopia was set in a tropical island where free love is the norm, contraception is encouraged, and strong family ties are not strongly nurtured. It’s a revealing experience to read these two novels alongside each other, comparing Huxley’s Heaven and Hell. Through his own experiences with mind-altering drugs, Huxley felt that he had invaluable insights to share with others – so it’s interesting that both his version of paradise, and his version of hell, have drugs at their centre.
Another fascinating utopia can be found in Ernest Callenbach’s 1990 novel, Ecotopia. This novel created a blueprint for a society where people lived in harmony with nature, the government was run by women, and cities were kept small, to avoid pollution and overpopulation. This is one of the most loved utopias in fiction – a place where readers genuinely want to live.
For more dystopian visions, you can’t go wrong with reading some JG Ballard. One of my favourites from the great author of modern dysfunctional societies, is Cocaine Nights. In this novel, people live in gated communities, permanently on holiday, lacking nothing. But they are bored; they pay people to commit crimes in their perfect worlds, setting a snake into paradise, just to live things up. Ballars is not renowned for his positive views on human nature, but he definitely makes for entertaining reading.
I wonder what ideas about utopias you might have after living life in lock down? Has it made you feel differently about how you might life in the future? Can the literature that you’ve been reading help you to recreate your world in a new form?