Utopia, the work of inventing a better future with the powers of imagination, has never looked so out of reach and yet so urgent.
We live in difficult times. Technology, once heralded as an agent of human liberation, has only brought upon us rampant economic inequality and a dreadful resurgence of fascist filth. Runaway climate change, the bitter fruit of our industry, is consuming forests and melting glaciers and ice caps. Coral reefs are dying; heat waves are desiccating arable lands; cities and islands are drowning. Civilization is staggering on the edge of a precipice.
Our present is dystopian. As for our future—Leonard Cohen, pithy and savage, sang back in 1991, a lifetime ago: “I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder.”
It turns out it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine utopia. And the culprit is science fiction. Science fiction killed utopia. Science fiction failed us.
Nowhere is that failure more glaring than in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, loosely based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It is rightly hailed as a landmark, the prototype of modern dystopia. The movie takes place in a nominal now, in November 2019 in Los Angeles. It depicts a gritty, neo-noir, post-industrial urban landscape strewn with gaudy advertising displays that float in the air. Acid rain pours over street food stalls, and ambiguous androids are in the throes of an existential crisis. There are hints of off-world colonies, not doubt as wretched and insalubrious as Los Angeles.
The entire city has devolved into a sprawling oil refinery, a network of grimy conduits and pipes. It lights up the permanent sooty night with its gas torches and chimneys. Overlooking that derelict, toxic chaos sits the man at the top of the megacorporation, alone with his tremendous powers and his inscrutable schemes-within-schemes.
Blade Runner’s aesthetic of terminal degradation and ecological catastrophe was famously inspired by 1970s Hong Kong. Its influence on subsequent movies, and visual culture writ large, is seminal. No recent work of art has done more to define our imagination of the future city: a squalid, overcrowded, polluted, crepuscular wasteland.
Fredric Jameson once quipped that it is easier to envision the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And so we feast on dystopia (from the Greek for “bad place”), to the point where it has become utterly pedestrian—a dull and repetitive mainstay of science fiction. We experience our everyday discontent with the world as it is through the narrative veil of high-budget nightmares. From Mad Max: Fury Road and The Expanse to The Hunger Games and The Matrix, all these present us with archetypal stories where anomie reigns and where the entire world, and indeed the future, are humanity’s antagonists, humanity’s enemies.
This of course makes for marketable drama because it is the oldest of our myths, humanity’s fall from grace. It is retold and replicated (hence Blade Runner’s “replicants”) in seemingly infinite variations of the same narrative. Different costumes and different gadgets, sequels, and reboots, but the same old Christian apologetics, ad nauseam. The cheap thrills of dystopia work, or at least they entertain; that is, they sell tickets.
Utopia, on the other hand, is a lost art, a practice of the mind lost for lack of exertion. Today, the work of utopia is above all an attempt at recovering that art, to summon from neglect its “spirit,” as German philosopher Ernst Bloch famously called it.
Utopia sprang out of the European Renaissance, when political theorists began to probe the foundations and purpose of society. How should society be organized, and to what end? Should the goal of society be earth-bound justice? And which form of government, Plato’s Republic or Hobbes’s Leviathan, would best serve such noble and beneficial ideals?
Utopian literature flourished at first as a poetic strategy to criticize monarchy. It reached its zenith in the turmoil of the 19th century, with the likes of Robert Owen, Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and William Morris. These radical authors attempted to imagine worlds in which the base of society would have changed.
Saint-Simon, a French economist and philosopher, recognized in the 1810s that science and industry would transform society. An “industrial class” would rise, people no longer beholden to aristocratic heritage and therefore free to improve themselves. Robert Owen, a wealthy Scottish industrialist and social reformer, imagined intentional, cooperative communities. In the 1820s he established a commune in New Harmony, Indiana, with free public education for both men and women and collective ownership of factories. (Owen’s experiment foundered, but New Harmony, the town, still exists today.)
Fourier’s ideas, along similar lines, led to the creation of several communes in America (for instance, Utopia, Ohio). He envisioned a society organized around passions rather than obligations. In his “phalansteries”—self-contained communities that ideally held several hundred people each—work was supposed to become play and pleasure.
William Morris, an English designer, craftsman, and socialist, described a future classless society in his 1890 classic News From Nowhere (“utopia” means literally “nowhere” in Greek). The book was written in response to Edward Bellamy, the American socialist thinker, who believed that technological progress and industry would bring about harmony and the good life under the tutelage of state ownership of the means of production. (Bellamy’s own novel Looking Backward, published in 1888, was a bestseller in America.) Morris countered that a post-industrial, pastoral stateless future was preferable: Old nation-states would disappear and cities would dissolve into strings of countryside communes where equality, economic and sexual, would finally be realized.
The 19th century was the golden age of utopian imagination. And then, nothing—or almost nothing. Utopian socialism gave way to so-called scientific socialism, under the pointed critique of Marx and Engels; in literature, utopia yielded to science fiction. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville predicted uncannily in Democracy in America, that science fiction would become the dominant art form of bourgeois democracy:
Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be; in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure. ... Democracy shuts the past against the poet, but opens the future before him.
You can count on your fingers the major speculative works of the past century that fully embrace a utopian orientation. There are Ursula Le Guin’s novels, the Strugatsky brothers’ sci-fi, and the work of Iain M. Banks. There are also a couple of H.G. Wells’s pulps, Black Panther’s Wakanda, and the Star Trek franchise.
Slim pickings—especially for a genre that purports to explore the future of humankind and that has risen from marginal status to near hegemony in today’s popular entertainment.
When you endeavor to search for the utopias of our times, you seldom find them in movies, prestige TV shows, or sci-fi novels. As utopian imagination deserted speculative literature, it found an unlikely redoubt in architecture and urban planning. Le Corbusier’s Paris plan, for instance, called for razing the city’s historic center in order to replace it with concrete high rises. Corbu’s modernist vision of rationalized, monumental space led to his construction of Chandigarh in India, as well as Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia (to mention the most well-known offspring of his vision).
Today’s utopias draw from that wellspring, but with new materials and new buzzwords. They are surface utopias. You encounter them in the glossy renderings of architectural competitions, smart and radiant cities on paper, sustainable business districts built on reclaimed polders, floating neighborhoods, orbiting space habitats, settlements on Mars or the Moon.
Saudi Arabia’s planned metropolis of Neom on the Red Sea, Lagos’s EKO Atlantic, Malaysia’s Forest City: All these share the same motif. They aim to provide the comforts and amenities of modern life but under extreme conditions. They are tabula rasa cities built on sand—the sand dredged and hauled from the bottom of the sea, or the sand of the burning deserts. They follow Dubai’s model of detached, pelagic luxury chimeras, dug out from seemingly nowhere in the most inhospitable of locales, by the combined miracle of financial leverage and the marshaling of cheap migrant labor.
In intent, these are non-cities, nowhere-cities—the original meaning of utopia—without any of the roots, any of the challenges, or any of the rewards of actual cities. They are climate-controlled and Instagram-ready. They are safe and they are clean. They could be located on another planet, on Mars even, because in a way they are, ringed and covered by invisible and yet very tangible protective domes. They erase all the frictions, the institutions and the worldly powers that will them into existence.
It tells you something that when the most avowedly utopian franchise in modern entertainment, Star Trek, decided to showcase a future city in space (in 2016’s Star Trek Beyond), it shot the exteriors in … Dubai.
These are the cities of the future that powerful monarchs and billionaire entrepreneurs dream of. They are erected on new, virginal ground. They elide what Rem Koolhas once evocatively called “junkspace”—the accumulated layers of (built) environments, weathered, eroded, and transformed by time, by usage, by life. On the surface, they are the opposite of Blade Runner’s dystopian 2019 Los Angeles. And yet.
Despite science fiction’s failure at imagining a future worth living for, the city remains the starting point and the contested terrain of today’s utopia. For the first time in the history of our species, a majority of humanity lives in urban areas. Demographic projections suggest that by 2050, more than two-thirds of us will live in cities. Conurbations and megalopolises are the future of our civilization. The utopias of yore used to be more Arcadian, like William Morris’s arts-and-crafts communes. It seems to me that today’s utopia, to be a useful engine for political imagination, must leave Arcadia behind and embrace the city.
Copenhagen’s anarchist commune, Freetown Christiania, offers a possible alternative. It started out as a squat in the early 1970s, when the so-called “Provos”—countercultural provocateurs—occupied vacant military barracks. It quickly became a focal point for the local art scene, attracting freaks and hippies eager to experiment with new ways of urban life.
This was not so much adaptive reuse as creative reuse. Christiania banned cars and built its own school, bakery, and cafes. Although it had to contend with some of the blight and difficulties of modernity (such as drug trafficking and tourism), it remained a self-governing, intentional community until the 2000s, when it was gradually “normalized” under Danish law. It has had a lasting and broad influence. Christianian ideals of low-impact sustainability and playful, recycled urban spaces—the “slow city,” as in “slow food”—are now mainstream.
What made Christiania uniquely utopian was not so much the built environment as the distribution of political power in its midst. It stood as a counter-model to top-down real-estate development. The inhabitants themselves decided collectively—and oftentimes after long and contentious debates—on how their sliver of city would live and grow. In Freetown Christiania, at least for a few decades, utopia was not a place or a glossy plan but an everyday, egalitarian praxis. It was free from the yoke of traditional land and building ownership: The old barracks were abandoned public infrastructure, a disused, liminal space, a terrain vague as we call it in French.
The terrain vague delineates urban spaces that have been emptied not so much of people but of their original, intended function and semantic weight. It is made up of what has been rendered obsolete. Abandoned, it can thus can be reinvented and reinvested with new meaning. The terrain vague is up for grabs, up for recycling. Urban growth and social dislocations constantly generate new terrains vagues, almost like skin peeling off.
I believe that the terrain vague is the point of departure for today’s utopia, both as a work of imagination and as a practical, lived, political process, as a deliberation. The experiment of Christiania demonstrated that it is where the future is invented, much more surely than in the autocratic, climate-controlled towers of surface utopias. Any prologue to a re-enchantment of the future requires that we re-occupy and re-adapt disused spaces—both the concrete spaces and the imaginary, intellectual ones.
It is time to lay claim to the ruins of science fiction, to give birth to a better future.