Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Utopian Impulse in Ursula le Guin's the New Atlantis

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

The Utopian Impulse in Ursula le Guin's the New Atlantis

Article excerpt

This essay aims to show that texts that shed light on the nature of utopias remain vital to attempts to imagine new social alternatives. Fredric Jameson contends that utopian narratives do not supply people with blue- prints for radical social change: rather they answer to the human need to imagine alternative and better worlds to existing ones. Ursula Le Guin's short story The New Atlantis lives up to this formulation: in it we discover a Portland besieged by massive earthquakes, constant power cuts, catastrophic pollution and a desperate, authoritarian government. But we also encounter a group of ordinary humans intent on preserving the dream of a better world rather than the exploitative and unstainable one of late capitalism. As tectonic plates clash and the physical environment collapses around them, the story's protagonist is consoled by the thought of a new civilisation arising from the old; one in which humans live in harmony with their fellow creatures and the natural environment. Read in the context of the neoliberal world we are today facing, Le Guin's story is a timely reminder of the human capacity to keep dreaming of better worlds no matter how the grim the actual situation.

From the perspective of a twenty-first century given over to what has been called the 'utopia of neoliberalism' (Bourdieu 2009) the literary utopias of the 1970s might seem largely irrelevant. The aim of this essay is to suggest otherwise. The essay proposes that literary works which show understanding of the concept and purposes of utopias remain vital for attempts to imagine new social alternatives.

Utopias are born out of dissatisfaction with the societies of the present. In so far as they hold out an image of a better future, they have traditionally been regarded as a stimulus for change. Conversely, to the extent they present worlds that are sealed off from the present and complete in themselves, they do not constitute a practical guide to revolution, nor do they explain how change from one state to another occurs. Rather they merely register the fundamental human drive to dream of something better. As the Jameson of Archaeologies of the Future explains, '[U]topia as a form is not the representation of radical alternatives; it is rather simply the imperative to imagine them' (Jameson 2005, 416).

Ursula Le Guin's story The New Atlantis (1975) is one of several stories that self-consciously remarks on this feature of utopias. A story with dystopian elements, in so far as it is a damning critique of the direction that humanity along with science and technology have taken under capitalism,1 Le Guin's tale is also Utopian in its portrayal of the human imperative to imagine an alternative world to the present, in this case a world embodied by the strange, but beautiful creatures of the deep who inhabit the ancient, submerged city of Atlantis, and who are seen by her as humanity's salvation.

The story's events take place on America's West Coast in Le Guin's home town of Portland. The date is sometime in the near future at a time when capitalism has so exhausted workers and resources that everything has ground to a halt, and daily life is characterised by chronic stoppages and shortages. At the same time, people fear that America is headed for physical catastrophe because the coastline is sinking under the combined effects of global warming, acid rain, continental shift, and the giant bursts of earthquake and volcanic activity occurring in the Atlantic and on the Pacific Ocean floor. To manage people's fears and frustrations and to veil their own inability to cope, the government has resorted to authoritarian rule. People are arrested, imprisoned and tortured without trial, and their apartments bugged in the effort to seek out and destroy critics and dissenters. A further characteristic of this repressive society is that marriage has been outlawed, because it generates children and hence more consumers of scarce resources such as electricity and food. …

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