Liberally Speaking (5/14/09)

A novel idea: Idealizing society

May 14, 2009

By Steve Mount

For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a novel for middle school students. Right now, the novel is in the hands of an agent, whom I hope will agree to represent my work to publishers.

The novel, which follows a group of four girls, takes place in Williston. The Williston of my characters, however, is not our Williston, not exactly.

When deciding where to set the novel, the oft-used phrase “write what you know” came to mind. However, our town has many quirks that could take a lot of explanation to get across to a visitor, especially a visitor by literary means. As one example, in the literary Williston we have a Williston Elementary School and a Williston Middle School.

To have taken Williston’s schools as a model, and have to explain why there are elementary schoolers in the middle school, would take more words than I could afford to spend pages on — so I idealized our school system.

Is there a lesson to be learned in such idealizations?

After working on the Williston Conceptual Frameworks Committee since last summer, I am keenly aware that there are divisions in our town about how our schools are structured. If our schools were structured like my idealized Williston schools, could the controversies have been avoided? As I wrote, as I edited, as I attended committee meetings, I gave this question a lot of thought.

The reason that I idealized our schools, though, was not to teach us Willistonians a lesson of any kind. The reason is actually quite pedestrian: simple literary license.

As I thought about all this, I realized that there are actually very few novels I’ve read in my lifetime that idealize society. More common, by far, are the novels that exaggerate problems with society, magnify them. These novels are typically categorized as “dystopian,” a genre I’ve written about before.

Almost anyone could name a dystopian novel: “1984,” “Brave New World,” “The Giver,” “A Clockwork Orange.” Some of the characters in these novels might consider that they live in utopias; but they are written for us, and we can recognize that the cost of the utopia is something we hold dear — liberty, security, democracy or even individuality.

I’m a big fan of science fiction, and I’ve often heard Star Trek described as a look at a utopian future. That may be true for the people of Earth, done with war and poverty, even with greed and money, with our attention focused on the stars. But I dispute this characterization. Any Trekker knows that war, poverty, greed and money play a big role in the Star Trek universe.

Closer to home, a good example of a true utopian novel (one that describes a society that its author wishes us to aspire to, rather than one the author wishes us to avoid), is called “Looking Backward,” by Edward Bellamy.

(You can read “Looking Backward” online by going to Project Gutenberg, where Bellamy’s book is available for free. Go to gutenberg.org to find out more.)

In Bellamy’s work, a citizen of Boston from 1887 is put into a hypnotic trance from which he does not awake until the year 2000. Some of the advances of Boston in Bellamy’s year 2000 might seem laughable to us today, but some were strangely prescient.

Bellamy did not foresee television, but he did foresee a “music room” into which music could be piped in from any one of a number of live performances, via the telephone wires. Bellamy foresaw a store with only one sample of each item on the shelves; shoppers put in their orders for goods, which were made on demand and delivered to their doorstep. All workers started out at the bottom, in the “industrial army,” and worked their way up according to desire and ability; but in any case, retirement was at the ripe old age of 45.

In my case, I idealized Williston to avoid having to explain too much, to make my job easier, to make the reader’s job easier.

Bellamy idealized all of the United States and, indeed, the world, to illustrate a place we could land, something to aspire to. As I read “Looking Backward,” there was much fault I found in his year 2000, a little I recognized and also a few things to look forward to.

Do you have a favorite utopian novel? Let me know, I’d love to read it.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.