• Hi Guest!

    The costs of running this forum are covered by Sea Lion Press. If you'd like to help support the company and the forum, visit patreon.com/sealionpress

Fire on the Mountain and utopian AH

#1
I recently came across Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain in the local anarchist bookstore, and I thought I'd recommend you all check it out if you haven't already. I've admitted before that most published alternate history doesn't interest me, but I really enjoyed this one.

The POD is a successful raid on Harper's Ferry, made possible by Harriet Tubman's involvement; this world's Civil War unfolds as a war of liberation rather than reunification and ends with an independent black state in the Deep South. The story is told through the memoirs of a boy who becomes one of John Brown's medics and through the perspective of his great-granddaughter in an Afrofuturist 1959. In her time, the rump USA is rebuilding after a successful socialist revolution, while Nova Africa is about to land the first mission on Mars.

I'm not going to do a whole SLP-blog review here, but I thought this would be a good starting point for discussing utopian AH in general and whether it can be done well. Bisson's focus on human relationships in the "present day" sections really sold the less plausible points of the narrative for me; alongside the explicitly revolutionary adventure of the 1859 storyline it worked well as a reminder that a better world is possible.
 
Last edited:
#2
I'm not going to do a whole SLP-blog review here, but I thought this would be a good starting point for discussing utopian AH in general and whether it can be done well.
From my point of view, a Utopia is a difficult place to set interesting stories. If it's Utopia, there's nothing to drive the story. Why bother to try and change things if nothing needs changing? There's no reason to struggle, and it's all a bit "Nice day again."

That's an over-simplification, obviously. There are stories in a Utopia. For example, what is a Utopia for some might be a dystopia for others. The utopia may be founded on the exploitation of one group for the benefit of another group. The Edwardian class system springs to mind, and all those vile Downton Abbey type depictions. Utopia (after a fashion) for them Upstairs, and when you start looking at life Downstairs, a rather different picture emerges. A story looking at this contrast has legs.

Then, of course, you can have a story based on atrophy in a utopia. If it's a utopia, why bother working to change things? There's no challenge for people there, just boredom, and if there is one thing that human history teaches us, it is that people are restless.

And, of course, there are countless stories in the attempt to create Utopia. Building Jerusalem, to adapt Blake.
 

Skinny87

It Has Been ZERO Days Since I Mentioned John Major
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
#3
I have a sample copy of Alternate Peace, the new anthology from Zombies Need Brains! which focuses on utopian AH tales. I've only read the first story - O-Rings - but it definitely works. The Challenger disaster doesn't occur after someone delays the launch in order to check the O-Rings. Challenger is successful, and leads to a mini-revival of NASA with greater funding. However, the cost is the complete disintegration of an astronauts marriage and neglect of her children, all told through press cuttings and letters home
 
#4
I have a sample copy of Alternate Peace, the new anthology from Zombies Need Brains! which focuses on utopian AH tales. I've only read the first story - O-Rings - but it definitely works. The Challenger disaster doesn't occur after someone delays the launch in order to check the O-Rings. Challenger is successful, and leads to a mini-revival of NASA with greater funding. However, the cost is the complete disintegration of an astronauts marriage and neglect of her children, all told through press cuttings and letters home
But is that a utopia? Some things better, some things worse.
 

Skinny87

It Has Been ZERO Days Since I Mentioned John Major
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
#5
But is that a utopia? Some things better, some things worse.
An interesting question. I'd see it as a Utopia because the World is in a better place - NASA is funded, more interest in science and exploration. Surely even in a Utopia people can have relationship struggles?

Can a Utopia be a Utopia if things are generally better for society? Or only if everything and everyone is contented?

Intriguing debate
 
#6
I'd argue that relationship issues will always be around, and can be removed from consideration. Therefore the outline as described would seem to be generally positive.

Does that make it a utopia? To me, Utopia implies an end goal, rather than a step on the way. Somewhere a bit better than here may be better, but there's still more that needs to be done.

Of course, the flip side is that of a dystopia; somewhere much worse than here is often referred to as a dystopia, even if it could be worse. Flipping that round, somewhere much better than here should, following that logic, be called a utopia.

I guess it depends on how one defines Utopia. If it's singular, as in a person's Platonic ideal (which seems somehow a happy turn of phrase) of a place, then that suggestions there are few around.

If, however, Utopia is defined as being significantly better than here, then there are many more options to the writer. Not least in terms of the Dark Side of a Utopia, going back at least to the Eloi/Morlock issues. The example here is of NASA being better funded, and space/exploration/science getting a much higher profile. As a story-teller, my mind immediately goes to those who lose out as a consequence of that shift; more resources into NASA, military funding, interest in the ability to intimidate the lesser nations (ie not USA/USSR) from the security of orbit; funding to NASA coming from welfare payments (to pick one possible), and a separation of US society into those involved, with their nice lifestyles in gated communities and those not, with their dying communities, and the Grapes of Wrath writ large. Given US society (and others, but NASA speaks of the USA) at present, that's not such a hard leap to conceive of.

I guess my first reaction on being presented with a "Wouldn't this be neat" concept is to promptly ask: "What's the Down Side." It makes me a lousy politician, but it helps feed my story-telling instinct.
 

Alex Richards

Etched Swiftly.
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Derbyshire
#7
Then, of course, you can have a story based on atrophy in a utopia. If it's a utopia, why bother working to change things? There's no challenge for people there, just boredom, and if there is one thing that human history teaches us, it is that people are restless.
I'm suddenly reminded of Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars which in many ways deals with exactly that.
 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
#8
Utopian AH - and indeed utopian anything - seems more difficult than dystopian AH because while everyone can agree on what's a bad government/world to live in, they might not agree on what's a good one beyond "we all have food, people aren't murdered by the state in their beds". And that's going to lead to argy-bargy.

For example, an independent black nation in 19th century America and socialism wins worldwide. That's a utopian idea for a bunch of people. But what if you're an American who isn't a socialist, or who thinks it's better that the Union stayed unified, or you're a right-of-centre African-American from Alabama & this world means you wouldn't be American? It's not just that "utopia for some is dystopia for others" but also "utopia for some sounds very, very silly to others". You have to be good to get around sounding very, very silly. (See also: lots of good TNG-era Star Treks but boy does everyone laugh at the time Picard solemnly said We Have Evolved Beyond Money)

Surely even in a Utopia people can have relationship struggles?
Good point. Even in utopian worlds from our POV, there'd be personal problems- "Richard Corey went home last night and put a bullet through his head" and all that. There's also bound to be some sort of exciting crime/disaster related problem. Thunderbirds is a utopian ice place but planes keep crashing & that Hood fella is a right bastard.
 
#9
It's not just that "utopia for some is dystopia for others" but also "utopia for some sounds very, very silly to others". You have to be good to get around sounding very, very silly. (See also: lots of good TNG-era Star Treks but boy does everyone laugh at the time Picard solemnly said We Have Evolved Beyond Money)
This is a decent point. I've never read The Probability Brooch but I'm sure it would make me roll my eyes even if the ultralibertarian America is convincingly presented as a good place to live within the story's context - because I'd find the underlying assumptions silly. Likewise, no matter how stirringly Bisson describes the green, black, and red flag rippling behind John Brown's horsemen (and it is stirring!), a conservative is likely to go in skeptical. And if they're skeptical, it becomes easy to say hey, wait, it's too convergent for a Pan-African flag like OTL's to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century, and the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

Essentially, describing a utopia usually involves taking a political stand, and that will necessarily alienate some of the audience.
 

Hendryk

Asperginger
Published by SLP
Location
France
#10
First of all let's clear up a confusion--when we're talking about utopian AH, we mean TLs in which things generally turn out better than OTL, not TLs in which every last thing is perfect. Even in a better world than our own, there's plenty of room for dramatic tension, if only in the depiction on how it got there. I haven't read Fire On The Mountain but I assume that starting out with chattel slavery means that things will take a while to get to a point where we consider that they're decent, never mind ideal.

Also, I think that in the current context, there's a market for fiction that depicts the world as a better place than it is. "At least we aren't ruled by the Nazis" gets old after a while.
 

Archibald

Well-known member
Patreon supporter
#11
From my point of view, a Utopia is a difficult place to set interesting stories. If it's Utopia, there's nothing to drive the story. Why bother to try and change things if nothing needs changing? There's no reason to struggle, and it's all a bit "Nice day again."

That's an over-simplification, obviously. There are stories in a Utopia. For example, what is a Utopia for some might be a dystopia for others. The utopia may be founded on the exploitation of one group for the benefit of another group. The Edwardian class system springs to mind, and all those vile Downton Abbey type depictions. Utopia (after a fashion) for them Upstairs, and when you start looking at life Downstairs, a rather different picture emerges. A story looking at this contrast has legs.

Then, of course, you can have a story based on atrophy in a utopia. If it's a utopia, why bother working to change things? There's no challenge for people there, just boredom, and if there is one thing that human history teaches us, it is that people are restless.

And, of course, there are countless stories in the attempt to create Utopia. Building Jerusalem, to adapt Blake.
best example of this is Iain Banks Culture series. There is no better utopia than Culture, and Banks, to his amusement, realized he could only make it interesting to the reader by exploring the few dark places there. that is, Culture relationship with lower/barbarian civilizations... like us !
Talk about an idiotic paradox !

Also Arthur C. Clarke in 2001 (the novel)

There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic
headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more
trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes,
natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials - these
still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into
the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the
newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.
 

zaffre

front-runner for Pantone Colour of the Year 2019
Location
Massachusetts
#13
This feels in line with a certain trend of utopian / afrofuturist AH that forums tend to avoid (I suspect the “no see actually when you count the number of divisions mcclellan had” crowd has to do with this) but is becoming refreshingly common in the published stuff - I’m all for it, especially considering it arguably offers a more pointed commentary on modern-day race relations than a surviving Confederacy does.

In general, I think it also depends how you define “utopic” - does a utopia have to be literal perfection and devoid of flaws or can it just be pretty nice like, say, Male Rising? If the latter, I’d say there’s plenty of space for more of those[1], especially considering every third vignette ends in “and then Stalin but made of spiders”.

[1] I will caveat that pop-culture timelines are the obvious exception to this, since virtually every timeline to make it the focal point will go “right I think Nathan Fillion is underrated so he is Batman now”. It gets old but it is understandable considering you have to be fairly masochistic to write page after page of solely “and then this movie that I love never got made and all the actors starved to death”.
 

Von Callay

Senior Agent, Working Group Masticate
#14
This is a decent point. I've never read The Probability Broach but I'm sure it would make me roll my eyes even if the ultralibertarian America is convincingly presented as a good place to live within the story's context - because I'd find the underlying assumptions silly. Likewise, no matter how stirringly Bisson describes the green, black, and red flag rippling behind John Brown's horsemen (and it is stirring!), a conservative is likely to go in skeptical. And if they're skeptical, it becomes easy to say hey, wait, it's too convergent for a Pan-African flag like OTL's to emerge in the mid-nineteenth century, and the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.

Essentially, describing a utopia usually involves taking a political stand, and that will necessarily alienate some of the audience.
I think you can judge something like this, to an extent, by how much it can bring you onboard with the story it wants to tell even if you are mightily suspending your disbelief to engage with it, and that the story is the most important part. Classically speaking, a lot of utopian literature falls into being a story without a story, or the thinnest excuse of a plot to drag us through an essay about how much better the world would be if we just all agreed with the author. A journalist or some kind of outside observer visits Paradise, receives lectures on the nature of Paradise, potentially has personally transformative love/sex with a citizen of Paradise, and converts to the way of Paradise.

This is pretty dull reading if you are actually there for a story, as one usually is in alternate history, and not because you're interested in Edward Bellamy's particular brand of utopian socialism.

The Probability Broach, for all that it is a a polemic of the author's worldview with many pages dedicated to going on about that (the graphic novel is actually better about this, because it does better at 'show don't tell' even though it spends an awful lot of time telling anyway), but there is actually a plot. An adventure happens, there is conflict that makes sense within the rules of the world established, and you can follow it along. As much as the setting is an excuse for the author to expound on their ideal world, that's not the only thing that happens. It is certainly easy to go 'wait a minute' at virtually every page of it, but that's not the only thing happening on each page, if that makes sense.

Obviously any story might go too far, even to the sympathetic reader, but a good plot well-executed and correspondingly less lecturing will get people interested.
 

Hendryk

Asperginger
Published by SLP
Location
France
#16
The Probability Broach, for all that it is a a polemic of the author's worldview with many pages dedicated to going on about that (the graphic novel is actually better about this, because it does better at 'show don't tell' even though it spends an awful lot of time telling anyway), but there is actually a plot. An adventure happens, there is conflict that makes sense within the rules of the world established, and you can follow it along. As much as the setting is an excuse for the author to expound on their ideal world, that's not the only thing that happens. It is certainly easy to go 'wait a minute' at virtually every page of it, but that's not the only thing happening on each page, if that makes sense.
Then again, The Probability Broach's plot is a good example of the author considering their personal utopia so perfect, any dramatic tension has to be literally imported from a different universe. Imperfection, and therefore drama, is brought by cross-time travellers who link up with evil domestic subversives, and the plot is about defeating them in order to uphold political stasis.
 

d32123

Well-known member
Location
Seattle
#17
I don't know if utopian fiction is necessarily any more political than dystopic ones, it's just that standing for something is often more difficult and controversial than standing against something. At the same time I think it has the potential to be much more impactful. It's easy to write a story about how fascism bad, but much harder to put forward your own ideas on how to make things better in a way that doesn't come off as too grating. Seeing it done well is usually very rewarding.
 
#18
I don't know if utopian fiction is necessarily any more political than dystopic ones, it's just that standing for something is often more difficult and controversial than standing against something. At the same time I think it has the potential to be much more impactful. It's easy to write a story about how fascism bad, but much harder to put forward your own ideas on how to make things better in a way that doesn't come off as too grating. Seeing it done well is usually very rewarding.
I'd argue that there is a difference between a story set in a utopia and a story based around building a utopia.

There's a lot of mileage in the struggle to make things better (see, for example Six East End Boys); it can be done well or badly, but there is room for conflict, and conflict (of one form or another) lies at the heart of most stories. Indeed, thinking about it, a lot of my tales follow the attempt of people to make things better. Take that element away from the Bring Me My Bow series, and you're left with a vignette, if that.

It's a lot harder to get a story from a setting where everything is already pretty good. It can be done; there's holding things together and preventing the brief utopic setting from fading away; there's protecting it against an external threat; there's looking at those within the utopia for whom things are not so great.
 

Burton K Wheeler

Itinerant Frontier Hobo
Location
garbage can
#19
The classic plot device of the Utopian novel is the traveler from outside who comes to the Utopia, after initial struggles accepts it as perfect, and then has to defend it against an invasion from outside. So in an AH Utopian novel, you have to define that outside threat as the antithesis of the idealized society. What factions in the U.S. would be seeking to resubjugate Nova Africa?

Or, more interesting, what factions within Nova Africa might be bringing it down internally? What do they say about modern black America? That's a much harder story to write if you've already set up your utopia. The discussion of Reds elsewhere on the forum made me think about how more authors should do that. Even if you're writing an idealized setting, there have to be some aspects of human nature that you're neglecting and things that aren't perfect.