On Failure and Revolution in Utopian Fiction and Science Fiction of the 1960s and 1970s

Colloquy 17:6-15 (2009)

Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed was a bestselling novel of its time, and remains a classic work of contemporary utopian fiction. Despite its successes, utopian scholar Tom Moylan describes it as a “flawed” example of his own model of a critical utopian form particular to the 1970s. He considers Joanna Russ’s The Female Man , Samuel Delany’s Triton and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time to be more adequately critical, as they call into question the stasis of a “passively perfect society” with an “engaged, open, critical utopia.” 2 This kind of selfreflexivity toward the closures of the utopian imagination was necessitated in the 1970s by the totalitarian tendencies of the twentieth century, as Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China and corporate America proclaimed their utopian credentials but with little of the happiness and liberty that was supposed to accompany utopia’s realisation. 3 The experimental, open-ended play of Piercy, Russ and Delany responds to this historical situation by dialogically interrogating the narrative conventions of closure, to push generic boundaries and negate the utopian claims of historical states. Moylan’s argument claims a distinctive place for this critical turn in the history of the genre, but finds The Dispossessed to not be critical enough, for while it portrays a utopian world, this utopia has become somewhat stagnant. More significantly, the novel is not dialogical, instead relying on a more traditional mode of narrative, in which a supernaturally talented male character, Shevek, plays out a heroic quest by travelling off-world, beyond his utopian world, leaving his female partner and child at home. Moylan cites other critiques of The Dispossessed: Samuel Delany argues that the only homosexual character in The Dispossessed functions only to normalize the novel’s heterosexism, 5 while John Fekete and Nadia Khouri point out that the scarcity of the utopian moon, the way in which the lunar society struggles to produce enough to eat, reproduce those ideologies of capitalism that proclaim its own unrivalled production of wealth. 6 I want to argue here that Moylan, and by implication these other com- mentators on Le Guin, have mistaken the actual subject of her book, which is not so much utopia, utopian hope or revolution as much as it is the failure of these forms. The dialogical quality of utopian fiction, its critical engagement with failure and closure, was already at work within the so-called static utopias that Moylan identifies in earlier eras. The problem with Moylan’s description of the critical utopia is two-fold. First, to situate the critical utopia historically, he presumes that earlier utopias were static exercises in world building, but as I want to argue here, they were already dialogical and critical. Moylan falls prey to the notion that utopian form has a progressive history, as if one utopian novel succeeds another, thus revealing the fallacies of earlier formulas for fictional production. Second, his critique thinks that the patriarchal power system of capitalism is somehow embedded within the novel’s formal qualities, as if the experimental tendencies of Piercy, Russ and Delany were not themselves implicated within this system. Yet the formal experiments of fiction, their interest in self-reflexivity, do not necessarily make them more politically correct, their forms either more or less implicated in the ideological superstructures of their time. In this, Moylan has failed to confront the more dire implications of the failure of utopian states in the twentieth century, their tendencies toward totalitarianism. For even Thomas More’s closure of the Island of Utopia from the mainland in the sixteenth century was a critical engagement with the dependence of the utopian imagination upon capitalism, its tendencies toward closure in a dialogic relation with the expansive, assimilative tendencies of capital
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