The AfroFuturism of the Fifth Dimension: Freedom Dreams in the Age of Aquarius

By Joseph Orosco (July 28, 2021)

I was listening to the interview with Questlove on NPR the other day.  He was talking about the new documentary he produced (Summer of Soul) on the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969 and discussing the performance of the group, The Fifth Dimension.  The Fifth Dimension, for me, is always connected with the songs from the musical, Hair, namely “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” so I always associated them with images of the largely white, hippie, Woodstock generation.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who made this association.  In the film, lead singer Marilyn McCoo talks about how important it was for them to perform at the festival:

“MARILYN MCCOO: We were constantly being attacked because…


MCCOO: …We weren’t, quote, unquote, “Black enough.”

CORNISH: Marilyn McCoo, a member of The 5th Dimension – she teared up while watching footage of their performance.


MCCOO: Sometimes we were called the Black group with the white sound. We didn’t like that. That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us – because we wanted our people to know what we were about.”


Hearing this made me go back to listen to the songs again and to see if I could find any videos of them from the era.  And what popped out at me was that The Fifth Dimension can definitely be thought of  Afrofuturist in 1969, and those songs from ‘Hair” as being infused as messages from what Robin D.G. Kelley calls the Black Radical Imagination.

In terms of the Afrofuturist aesthetic, check the the original video for “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In”:


Nigerian writer Munachi Ogsebu calls this video a “major moment” in Afrofuturism!

I’ve also been reading Kelley’s “Freedom Dreams” (2002) and came across this important passage:

“Progessive social movements do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does; transport us to another place, compel us to relive horrors and, more importantly, enable us to imagine a new society.”

Kelley thinks music is an important component of social movements because they give life to this poetic/radical imagination:

“When movements have been unable to clear the clouds, it has been the poets–no matter the medium–who have succeeded in imagining the color of the sky, in rendering the kinds of dreams and futures social movements are capable of producing.  Knowing the color of the sky is far more important than counting clouds.  Or to put it another way, the most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.”

With all of this in the background, I have started to hear “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” in a new way, as part of the tradition of those freedom dreams from the Black Freedom Movement:  spirituals, blues, jazz, and soul.  Especially when you look at the lyrics, these songs are definitely in that utopian tradition of imagining a different world in order to provide hope and soothe pain in the struggles of the present.

When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius
Harmony and understanding
Sympathy and trust abounding
No more falsehoods or derisions
Golden living dreams of visions
Mystic crystal revelation
And the mind’s true liberation
When the moon is in the Seventh House
And Jupiter aligns with Mars
Then peace will guide the planets
And love will steer the stars
This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius
Age of Aquarius
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Let the sunshine, let the sunshine in, the sunshine in
Oh, let it shine, c’mon
Now everybody just sing along
Let the sun shine in
Open up your heart and let it shine on in
When you are lonely, let it shine on
Got to open up your heart and let it shine on in
And when you feel like you’ve been mistreated
And your friends turn away
Just open your heart, and shine it on in

Are We Living in a Dystopia?

State police officers during a “Reopen Virginia” rally around Capitol Square in Richmond on April 22, 2020.
Getty/Ryan M. Kelly / AFP

Shauna Shames, Rutgers University and Amy Atchison, Valparaiso University

Dystopian fiction is hot. Sales of George Orwell’s “1984” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” have skyrocketed since 2016. Young adult dystopias – for example, Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games,” Veronica Roth’s “Divergent,” Lois Lowry’s classic, “The Giver” – were best-sellers even before.

And with COVID-19, dystopias featuring diseases have taken on new life. Netflix reports a spike in popularity for “Outbreak,” “12 Monkeys” and others.

Does this popularity signal that people think they live in a dystopia now? Haunting images of empty city squares, wild animals roaming streets and miles-long food pantry lines certainly suggest this.

We want to offer another view. “Dystopia” is a powerful but overused term. It is not a synonym for a terrible time.

The question for us as political scientists is not whether things are bad (they are), but how governments act. A government’s poor handling of a crisis, while maddening and sometimes disastrous, does not constitute dystopia.

Today’s empty city streets capture the feeling of a dystopian time.
Getty/Roy Rochlin

Legitimate coercion

As we argue in our book, “Survive and Resist: the Definitive Guide to Dystopian Politics,” the definition of dystopia is political.

Dystopia is not a real place; it is a warning, usually about something bad the government is doing or something good it is failing to do. Actual dystopias are fictional, but real-life governments can be “dystopian” – as in, looking a lot like the fiction.

Defining a dystopia starts with establishing the characteristics of good governance. A good government protects its citizens in a noncoercive way. It is the body best positioned to prepare for and guard against natural and human-made horrors.

Good governments use what’s called “legitimate coercion,” legal force to which citizens agree to keep order and provide services like roads, schools and national security. Think of legitimate coercion as your willingness to stop at a red light, knowing it’s better for you and others in the long run.

No government is perfect, but there are ways of judging the imperfection. Good governments (those least imperfect) include a strong core of democratic elements to check the powerful and create accountability. They also include constitutional and judicial measures to check the power of the majority. This setup acknowledges the need for government but evidences healthy skepticism of giving too much power to any one person or body.

Federalism, the division of power between national and subnational governments, is a further check. It has proved useful lately, with state governors and mayors emerging as strong political players during COVID-19.

Three kinds of dystopias

Bad governments lack checks and balances, and rule in the interest of the rulers rather than the people. Citizens can’t participate in their own governance. But dystopian governments are a special kind of bad; they use illegitimate coercion like force, threats and the “disappearing” of dissidents to stay in power.

Our book catalogs three major dystopia types, based on the presence – or absence – of a functioning state and how much power it has.

There are, as in Orwell’s “1984,” overly powerful governments that infringe on individual lives and liberties. These are authoritarian states, run by dictators or powerful groups, like a single party or corporate-governance entity. Examples of these governments abound, including Assad’s murderously repressive regime in Syria and the silencing of dissent and journalism in Russia.

The great danger of these is, as our country’s Founding Fathers knew quite well, too much power on the part of any one person or group limits the options and autonomy of the masses.

Then there are dystopic states that seem nonauthoritarian but still take away basic human rights through market forces; we call these “capitocracies.” Individual workers and consumers are often exploited by the political-industrial complex, and the environment and other public goods suffer. A great fictional example is Wall-E by Pixar (2008), in which the U.S. president is also CEO of “Buy ‘N Large,” a multinational corporation controlling the economy.

There are not perfect real-life examples of this, but elements are visible in the chaebolfamily business – power in South Korea, and in various manifestations of corporate political power in the U.S, including deregulation, corporate personhood status and big-company bailouts.

Lastly there are state-of-nature dystopias, usually resulting from the collapse of a failed government. The resulting territory reverts to a primitive feudalism, ungoverned except for small tribal-held fiefdoms where individual dictators rule with impunity. The Citadel versus Gastown in the stunning 2015 movie “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a good fictional depiction. A real-life example was seen in the once barely governed Somalia, where, for almost 20 years until 2012, as a U.N. official described it, “armed warlords (were) fighting each other on a clan basis.”

Fiction best describes dystopia – as in this reference to the landmark dystopian novel, ‘1984,’ by George Orwell.
Getty/Schöning/ullstein bild

Fiction and real life

Indeed, political dystopia is often easier to see using the lens of fiction, which exaggerates behaviors, trends and patterns to make them more visible.

But behind the fiction there is always a real-world correlate. Orwell had Stalin, Franco and Hitler very much in mind when writing “1984.”

Atwood, whom literary critics call the “prophet of dystopia,” recently defined dystopia as when “[W]arlords and demagogues take over, some people forget that all people are people, enemies are created, vilified and dehumanized, minorities are persecuted, and human rights as such are shoved to the wall.”

Some of this may be, as Atwood added, the “cusp of where we are living now.”

But the U.S. is not a dystopia. It still has functioning democratic institutions. Many in the U.S. fight against dehumanization and persecution of minorities. Courts are adjudicating cases. Legislatures are passing bills. Congress has not adjourned, nor has the fundamental right of habeas corpus – the protection against illegal detention by the state – (yet) been suspended.

Crisis as opportunity

And still. One frequent warning is that a major crisis can cover for the rolling back of democracy and curtailing of freedoms. In Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a medical crisis is the pretext for suspending the Constitution.

In real life, too, crises facilitate authoritarian backsliding. In Hungary the pandemic has sped democracy’s unraveling. The legislature gave strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by sole decree indefinitely, the lower courts are suspended and free speech is restricted.

Similar dangers exist in any number of countries where democratic institutions are frayed or fragile; leaders with authoritarian tendencies may be tempted to leverage the crisis to consolidate power.

But there are also positive signs for democracy.

A sign ‘We are in this together’ is written in chalk on the sidewalk in front of NYU Langone Medical Center during the coronavirus pandemic on April 22, 2020 in New York City.
Getty/John Lamparski

People are coming together in ways that didn’t seem possible just a few months ago. This social capital is an important element in a democracy.

Ordinary people are performing incredible acts of kindness and generosity – from shopping for neighbors to serenading residents at a nursing home to a mass movement to sew facemasks.

In politics, Wisconsin primary voters risked their lives to exercise their right to vote during the height of the pandemic. Citizens and civil society are pushing federal and state governments to ensure election safety and integrity in the remaining primaries and the November election.

Despite the eerie silence in public spaces, despite the preventable deaths that should weigh heavily on the consciences of public officials, even despite the authoritarian tendencies of too many leaders, the U.S. is not a dystopia – yet.

Overuse clouds the word’s meaning. Fictional dystopias warn of preventable futures; those warnings can help avert the actual demise of democracy.

[Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.]The Conversation

Shauna Shames, Associate Professor, Rutgers University and Amy Atchison, Associate Professor of Political Science & International Relations, Valparaiso University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We Were Never Lazy, We Were Living in a Culture that Sapped Our Time and Energy

By Beth Strano (April 27, 2020)

This is also me seeing so many folks embracing gardens, new cooking skills, mutual aid, bartering, and mending as healthy ways to rebuild the feeling that we have some control over our lives. We were never lazy, we were living in a culture that demands so much of our time and energy to survive. Along the way, the things that make us feel happy and proud got labeled as “hobbies.”


Remember, when this is all over, that we all had this power collectively all along, and that we always knew what we needed and could accomplish when we’re looking out for each other.

With any luck, we are planting more seeds than we will see grow in our lifetime.

Utopia in the Midst of Pandemic: Lessons of the Decameron for Collective Liberation

By Joseph Orosco (March 24, 2020)

Looking around for articles that highlighted speculative fiction responses to pandemics, I ran across this piece from Alan Yuhas from a few years ago.  Yuhas mentions some obvious things such as Camus’s The Plague and The Walking Dead, etc, but what I found most interesting was a mention of Italian Renaissance writer Boccaccio and his story collection the Decameron:

“Going back to the pop culture of the Renaissance, Boccaccio’s Decameron tells the story of 10 young people who flee the Black Death to the country, where they tell each other funny stories, dirty jokes and the 14th century equivalent of romantic comedies. After a horrifying, surreal introduction that describes the remnants of Florence in the throes of the plague, Boccaccio tells stories of people who, rather than fixate on death or turn on each other, form a little society that celebrates what’s good in life. He reminds us, as do the heroes of The Plague and 28 Days Later, of a lesson that’s too easily forgotten: life lurches on, and we should keep trying to lurch with it.”

Boccaccio wrote these stories in the early 1350s after the plague of Florence that wiped out about half the population.  What Yuhas’s description neglects to mention that the Decameron is actually a piece of utopian literature.  Massimo Riva uncovers a bit of this in a recent interview when the Decameron was starting to spike in popularity at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdowns:

Beyond the obvious similarities of the book’s protagonists escaping to a villa and Americans holing up in their homes, what themes should contemporary readers look for when reading Boccaccio’s text today?

I would point to the ethical dilemma the ten young protagonists face in their decision to (temporarily) abandon the city. This decision can be interpreted in two different and somewhat opposite ways: as an escape from the common destiny of those who can afford a luxurious shelter (similar to the doomsday bunkers that very rich people build for themselves today); and as the utopian desire to rebuild together a better, more ethical and harmoniously natural way of life, out of the ruins of the old world.

The Decameron is not only utopian in the way it describes these young people setting up a new social arrangement in the midst of their quarantine; but the stories they tell each other are–in addition to stories of pleasure, romanticism, and so on– tales that criticize the Church and the moral hypocrisy of feudal leaders.  In a sense, the Decameron is a series of reflections on the collapse of the feudal order and a celebration the rise of the bourgeosie in Italy. Of course, the utopia being celebrated in the Decameron is now the one on the brink of collapse (and hardly turned out to be a utopia for many millions of human beings).  But there is a bigger lesson here.

What this should remind us is that moments like this Covid-19 pandemic are occasions for us to engage in some radical imagining about the limits of the old social order and for new skills, habits, perspectives, and forms of solidarity.  These old utopian stories should warn us that going back to normal after shocks like this is not possible, or even desirable.

So how do we now gather to tell these necessary stories for the building of more collectively liberatory society?

Metaphors of the Revolution: Architecture vs. Composition

By Joseph Orosco (November 6, 2019)

We are entering into the thick of presidential electoral politics as the Democratic party narrows its contenders to take on Trump.  There are pundits looking to see what can be learned about the mid-term elections of 2018 for creating a “Blue Wave,” and others wondering if the impeachment proceedings will lead to electoral turmoil before November 2020.

One of the argument strains going on on center-left circles is, of course, the old binary of reform vs. revolution, and whether the pronouncements of Bernie and AOC amount to “real” socialism, or whether Elizabeth Warren represents a more “measured” reform path compared to Bernie, etc.

A few weeks ago I found this video of Roberto Unger, the social theorist and philosopher at Harvard Law, and former advisor to Lula in Brazil.  What was interesting for me was a metaphor that he uses at about 5:30 into the video.

He says one the barriers to radical social change is a legacy of movements that claim that a “revolution” is like the practice of architecture.  By this, I think he means that make radical social change you need to first begin with a deep understanding of the conditions and materials you have at hand and build a blueprint for action.  Your blueprint determines your endpoint and the strategy to achieve it.

Unger wants to substitute the idea of revolution as something like musical composition.  Instead of knowing exactly where you want to go, you move forward by thinking of the progression of notes and how they follow.  This doesn’t mean that the same notes need to follow from what has come before, but you ought to see each note as building forward from what came just before it.  This doesn’t mean you can’t take radically new directions, but you see that such things happen as following from a progression of steps.

I take it this means that that radical social change can happen incrementally, like notes in a song; and that we shouldn’t get overwhelmed because we can’t imagine what the endpoint should be and don’t have a grand theory to explain how to start the revolution right now.

Is Unger’s music metaphor helpful in thinking about how we might move ahead to think about revolutionary change?


MLK, Jr. Was a Sci-Fi Geek (and It Shaped His Idea of Justice, Too)

By Joseph Orosco (January 22, 2019)

By now, a lot of people have heard the story of how Star Trek was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite TV show.


It was, according to Nichelle Nichols, the only program he allowed his children to watch because it portrayed African Americans living in a future where they were treated equally and with dignity and respect. He believed that this representation was an important image for young Black people to see and he urged Nichols not to leave the show. (She stayed and her role had tremendous impact—it encouraged Whoopie Goldberg to seek her role as Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and inspired Mae Jemison to become the first African American female astronaut. Soniqua Martin Green has recently said that Nichols motivated her as the star of the most recent Star Trek series Discovery).

It’s interesting to speculate how Star Trek might have influenced King’s thinking. Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) premiered in September 1966. This was after the two big legislative victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was also a year after Watts burned and the same year race riots broke out in Cleveland and Omaha. King had moved to Illinois at this point to extend his organizing into urban issues in the North, including unemployment, housing discrimination, and poverty. He had started to think about the effects of the Vietnam War and how it robbed people of life and the means the sustain themselves. It was a particularly difficult time for him politically, emotionally, and spiritually. How did a science fiction story about human beings living in the 23rd Century–in which war, hunger, racism, and poverty had been overcome–affect his sense of hope for the future and what was possible for humanity?

It’s not a far fetched idea to think Star Trek touched King’s imagination. We know that he was a fan of speculative fiction from his earliest days—and we know that his wife Coretta was partly responsible for stoking his creativity along this path.

When they were first dating in 1952, Coretta gave King a copy of Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward. She instructed him that she wanted him to read it and return to tell her his thoughts about it. Bellamy’s book, written in the 19th century, imagines what a socialist United States would look like in the year 2000 (free medical care and unemployment benefits for everyone!).

In an amazing and touching note, the 23-year old King writes to his future wife and tells her how much he enjoyed the book—so much so that he admits he wants his future ministerial work to be guided by the kind of vision of progress hinted at in it—a world free of war, with a better distribution of wealth and resources, and solidarity instead of racism. He admits that he agrees with Bellamy that capitalism has no future for humanity but he worries what revolutionary socialism can justify in terms of violence. For the next sixteen years, he would reflect and refine his thinking on these subjects, leading him to not only imagine the Promised Land, but also to the devise the organizational strategies and policies—the Poor People’s Campaign, universal basic income, demilitarization—to try and get there.

Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown have given us this notion of visionary fiction in their collection of stories Octavia’s Brood:

Visionary fiction encompasses all of the fantastic, with the arc always bending toward justice…Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless. (p. 4)

I would argue that some of King’s works, such as the “I have a dream” speech and his idea of the Beloved Community are verging on visionary literature in this sense.  As the King Center puts it:

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth.  In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it.  Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice will be replaced by an all inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.  In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power.  Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred.  Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

All in all, King’s vision of the future for humanity is a clear example of the power of utopian speculative fiction, and Star Trek, in particular, to nourish an imagination in the pursuit of justice.


Dystopia Can Offer Caution But Utopia Brings Hope

By Joseph Orosco (November 5, 2018)

The folks at Futurism Studios feel that we have become too entranced by dystopian stories about technology and political developments.  These stories can be good as tales of caution, they say, but too much can nurture cynicism and nihilism.  We need utopian stories to offer us hope:

“So fiction — of the dystopian and optimistic varieties — both have their value. Dystopian stories can be a powerful motivator for societies headed down the wrong path to right themselves. In the same way, utopian fiction illuminates a possible right way forward — the ones that lead to the kind of society we all wanted in the first place.”

They’ve produced a series of short videos that explore how technology might improve our futures rather than mutilate them.

Check them out here.

Socialism in the US Must Contend with Racism and Militarism

By Mark Rudd (August 29, 2017)

I woke up at 2 am last night thinking: How can you talk about socialism in the US without taking into account two salient characteristics of this country’s history and present: racism and militarism?

Obviously John Judis has no problem with this question, since he never mentions either. I love Scandinavian socialism as a utopian model as much as anyone, but those countries are pretty different from this behemoth.

What would Black Lives Matter say about the Judis piece? How do we deal with the fact that the military and the corporations feeding off it have had complete free reign for almost 80 years and have now found a pot of gold in the Trump administration? Or that a separate military caste involving millions now exists apart from civil society?

At least Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign has four elements that address the realities of US society: racism, poverty and economic exploitation, destruction of the environment, and the effects of war and militarism. This seems like a much more realistic basis for creating a liberal and democratic socialism.

It will take some time to change the nature of what is “common sense.” Right now “government bad, free markets good” is dominant (that is, has achieved “ideological hegemony”). We have to keep in the forefront of all our work that WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER AND TIME IS SHORT.

That’s my socialism.


Can We Memorialize Without Monuments?

By Chris Lowe (August 28, 2017)

Can intercultural gardens be an alternative to Confederate monuments to the past?

A friend of mine observed that as the movement to remove or relocate Confederate monuments goes on, it will change spaces and create new spaces.

The implication is that even while we work on this, we should also be thinking about what if anything we want to fill that space with.

What *should* we memorialize? What do we want to be remembered for memorializing? Could it take forms other than monuments?

For decades, I have preferred the idea of interculturalism to multiculturalism, because I understand culture as living process, not a dead thing, in which we exercise agency in choices about how we make meaning. Even within traditions, the act of passing, which what the Latin root of ‘tradition’ means, always involves choices of what is passed, what is not, what people work to recover. Creativity is sparked by inspiration derived from cultural appreciation, exchange, and recontextualized elements, creation of hybrid forms, grafting.

Interculturalism for me is also connected to the opposition of monoculture to historical and contemporary pre- or non-capitalist systems of intercropping by which agriculturalists managed their land and food systems to sustain the land and themselves. It is possible to romanticize that history, but I don’t think the problem of creating a sustainable economic ecology can be thought about sensibly without engaging it.

So one idea I have for memorialization would be intercultural gardens, situational gardens, allegorical gardens, relating to what we want to remember and the values we want to express or raise up. Gardens that would be living as culture is living, processes as culture is process, practices as culture is practices. Gardens that would be open and open ended, amenable to new additions, or to revisions and adjustments, as circumstances and understandings change.

Octavia Butler and the Journey Toward Utopia in the New Star Trek Discovery Series

By Joseph Orosco (August 10, 2017)

Lots of people are noticing that our pop culture seems obsessed with apocalyptic and dystopia themes lately. Father of cyberpunk William Gibson thinks our narrative vision of the future is shrinking because we are focused on the end of the world tales. Brianna Rennix is concerned that the only people that seem to hold onto the dream of exploring space are right libertarians. In particular, she thinks we live at a time in which the picture of humanity as represented in something like Star Trek appears hokey and unduly optimistic. Hollywood actor and producer Seth MacFarland says he is fed up with the single-minded fascination with dystopia and his new TV sci fi space series intentionally harkens back to the old optimism of Star Trek from the 1960s.

This past year, the Anarres Project hosted a series to mark the 50th anniversary of the network premiere of Star Trek: The Original Series. One of the events was called Star Trek and Black Lives Matter. We hosted a viewing of of one of my favorite episodes from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Far Beyond the Stars”  in which Captain Sisko imagines himself living as a science fiction writer in the 1950s United States. The episode depicts the subtle bigotry, institutional racism, and state violence faced by Blacks in this era in a way that highlights the progress of racial justice into the 23rd century. What is most striking about this episode–that came out almost 20 years ago–is that it dramatically crests with the police execution of a young Black man in a manner that is reminiscent of the all the shootings that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. Watching that episode today demonstrates how some things have not changed in terms of racial progress—and why the future of Star Trek seems so distant.

During the discussion of the episode, one African American woman said that while she liked Star Trek a lot, she thought it was less inspiring than a lot of current science fiction. The future of humanity it portrayed was great, but it was so removed from our present that it seemed almost irrelevant or impossible to attain. I asked her what she did like and she responded that she felt Octavia Butler’s work, especially The Parable of the Sower, was much more appropriate to our world today.

Butler’s Sower series is interesting because it is set in a dystopian near future with societal collapse, not unlike something you see in current zombie stories such as The Walking Dead. But the story here is about a group driven by the hopeful vision of humanity travelling and extending to the stars–Earthseed. They are surrounded by death and danger, betrayal and isolation. Yet, what is inspiring in Butler’s universe is how the communities deal with these challenges and how the vision of Earthseed creates a kind of solidarity that can be experienced through such hope. Ultimately, it’s a story of how to cope and overcome dystopia with a rich sense of humanity and how take the steps toward utopia.

This current mood is why I think it makes sense that the new Star Trek: Discovery series to premiere later this Fall is one that is set in the timeline before Star Trek: The Original Series. Fans have been criticizing the choice to have a series in the early 23rd century, a decade before Kirk and Spock; these fans want to see the future after the 24th century in the timeline established by the series Star Trek: Voyager.

But we are in a dystopian and skeptical era.  We’ve seen what humanity is like at its best already, exploring the farthest reaches of space and holding onto its best ethical principles–that’s what Star Trek Voyager was all about. We want a more Butlerian Star Trek now. What we crave is now is more guidance through adversity; we want to know how we get to the post-scarcity utopia represented by the Federation and Star Fleet.  Mary Wiseman, an actor in the new series really captures this craving in her comments about Star Trek Discovery at this year’s San Diego Comic Con:


“’Star Trek’ is so idealist because it could feel like the end of the world right now, America feels extremely divided. People can’t hear each other people can’t have compassion for each other… What ‘Star Trek’ [asks is], ‘What qualities are we going to have to have, and what ways are we going to have to think to move forward to a better future? Not just survive in a dystopian one.’ And I think those qualities are compassion, openheartedness, open-mindedness, respect for difference, teamwork, rigor, strength.”

That is, we need sci-fi to assist us in reflecting on the hard challenges we face as human beings, what is it that we have to overcome about ourselves, in order to arrive at a world in which the need for a Black Lives Matter movement is unnecessary or unthinkable.

The Utopiyin Imagination: Moving Forward Toward a Better World with Ursula Le Guin

By Joseph Orosco (July 12, 2017)

Espen Hammer argues in the New York Times that we need to revive the utopian imagination in this era, fascinated by dystopian themes:

“There are reasons, however, to think that a fully modern society cannot do without a utopian consciousness. To be modern is to be oriented toward the future. It is to be open to change even radical change, when called for. With its willingness to ride roughshod over all established certainties and ways of life, classical utopianism was too grandiose, too rationalist and ultimately too cold. We need the ability to look beyond the present. But we also need More’s insistence on playfulness. Once utopias are embodied in ideologies, they become dangerous and even deadly. So why not think of them as thought experiments? They point us in a certain direction. They may even provide some kind of purpose to our strivings as citizens and political beings”.

Hammer offers some categories of utopia as a way to understand how this kind of imagination has operated in the past and what is no longer a viable way to envision alternative futures.

The first is the Utopia of Desire (a world in which all needs and desires are fulfilled). Hammer thinks that in our world of endless consumer consumption this kind of vision is not particularly motivating. The next is the Utopia of Technology ( a world in which technology provides the means to solve all of humanity’s pressing problems). This kind of utopia is not inspiring any longer in a world that recognizes the dangers of technological innovation, such as nuclear destruction. Finally, there is the Utopia of Justice (a world in which all social injustice is removed). Hammer thinks that no one can be convinced of this kind of vision in the aftermath of a totalitarian 20th century.

In the end, Hammer argues that the only kind of utopian vision that can really capture our imagination and move us to act is a Utopia of Nature:

“In my view, only one candidate is today left standing. That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. More’s island was an earthly paradise of plenty. No amount of human intervention would ever exhaust its resources. We know better. As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet.”

(Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novels that envision how humanity might flourish in a world forever changed by climate change seem to be along the lines of what Hammer might be calling for.)

But there is something especially fatalistic in Hammer’s discussion about the dimensions of the utopian imagination today. No doubt we have to think about alternative ways of living with nature. But Hammer accepts the myth of scarcity—we have to learn how to do things differently now because there is just not enough to go around. At least from a social ecologist standpoint, this is a flawed assumption. It’s not that nature is limited, it’s that some have more than is fair because of an economic system, global capitalism, that privileges hierarchy and domination. An ecological society can only be built, Murray Bookchin reminds us, by re-imagining political and economic structures:

“Social ecology is based on the conviction that nearly all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems. It follows, from this view, that these ecological problems cannot be understood, let alone solved, without a careful understanding of our existing society and the irrationalities that dominate it. To make this point more concrete: economic, ethnic, cultural, and gender conflicts, among many others, lie at the core of the most serious ecological dislocations we face today—apart, to be sure, from those that are produced by natural catastrophes”

In other words, what we still need (and perhaps more than ever) are Utopias of Justice that involve deep and nuanced conceptions of justice. But how can we resuscitate this tradition of utopian thinking?

Here, it might be more useful to think along the with Ursula Le Guin in terms of Utopiyin and Utopiyang. The Yin-Yang dynamic is something that has influenced her work for years. She understands it this way: “Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.”

Le Guin thinks our dystopian era has focused mostly on picturing Yang worlds in which Yin is severely restricted or even eliminated: she has Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four in mind. Yin dystopias are represented our fascination with the zombie apocalypse or Octavia Butler’s Parable trilogy: “popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control—chaos and old night”.

Thus, what Hammer seems to object to in rejecting the Utopia of Justice and Technology are actually Yang tinged visions that emphasize control over institutions and machinery eventually seeping into political control of some over the many.

Le Guin seems to tell us that what we need is a radical utopian imagination that provokes us to think of a just world in Yin terms—a Utopiyin:

“My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth”.

Any suggestions of works that operate in a Utopiyin imagination?