Sunday, August 18, 2013

Six top novels on utopia and dystopia

Chan Koonchung is a novelist, journalist, and screenwriter. Born in Shanghai and raised and educated in Hong Kong, he studied at the University of Hong Kong and Boston University. He has published more than a dozen Chinese-language books and in 1976 founded the monthly magazine City in Hong Kong, of which he was the chief editor and then publisher for twenty-three years. He has been a producer on more than thirteen films. Chan Koonchung now lives in Beijing.

His book The Fat Years, begun in 2008 and published in the US in 2011, has been described as being both a utopian and a dystopian novel. The author prefers "the term heterotopia, a term coined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault and recently reintroduced into Chinese by Professor David Wang of Harvard University. It’s not exactly a utopia: it’s a realm you can have a glimpse of, but it’s very difficult to talk about or to see the whole picture because it’s almost beyond our comprehension."

With Katrina Hamlin at Five Books, Chan Koonchung tagged six top novels that are utopian or dystopian or heterotopian, including:
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

This book came out early, in the 19th century. At that time there were many utopian novels. It’s set in America, where a future socialist state will solve or eradicate all the ills of society of late 19th century American capitalism. The protagonist Julian West doesn’t see those ills at the beginning of the novel: but the author contrives to put him to sleep for 100 years. When he is woken and he adjusts to his new life, he sees how different things are in the future – an industrial society where everyone shares the capital equally. He begins to regard the past, which is the author’s and the contemporary readers’ present, as nightmarish.

Bellamy is envisioning a better world, that’s his intention. It was supposed to be a utopia, and it was very popular – many people identified with this kind of socialist state at that time, even in North America. But it was criticised too. The world he imagined is a world of nationalistic “industrial armies”, not the kind of artisan-libertarian socialism in another famous utopian novel News From Nowhere, by his contemporary William Morris. It was very prescient, in the sense that Bellamy almost tells the future of a certain Communist country that came two decades later.
Read about another book on Chan's list at Five Books.

--Marshal Zeringue