Utopia Shy

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy is a solarpunk reminder of the challenging world utopia remains.

Utopia Shy

Utopian fiction kind of sucks.

Or, at least we assume so. In its drive to imagine a world of unlikely opulence it envisions one of impossible boredom. Storytelling is driven by friction, so where’s the tension in a world freed from most concern? Perhaps even more importantly, pure utopianism is a concept that demands particular skepticism, at least if its is presented as an entirely post-toil paradise.

“You have to drop the language of utopia, it is totally and completely trash,” I remember a largely drunk socialist mansplaining to me after a political meeting. His claim was mainly that utopianism is an impossible fantasy framing for what is a much more “scientific” process, that of the workers taking the reins of the economy and rebuilding society in his image. In talking about radical politics, of revolution, I stepped on a landmine by suggesting the world of our future longings was, perhaps, utopian.  While I understood the objection, I failed to see why the word was so allegedly fatal. “Without the utopian impulse, you don’t have revolutionary politics,” my friend Deric Shannon commented when I recounted the earlier story. Utopia drives the imagination, it sits underneath the gut instinct towards remaking the world, but that does not mean it has excised pain and suffering.

This argument was running through my head as I read Beck Chambers’ latest entry into the Monk and Robot series, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, the follow up to last year’s solarpunk novella, A Psalm for the Wild-Built. The short book is notable for being one of the first major press efforts at branding a book as SolarPunk, a relatively new genre that revives certain auspices of utopia speculative fiction and does so with an occasional tech optimism and ecocentrism. Chambers’ world is certainly optimistic: it operates in an ecologically sustainable model, seemingly without serious systems of oppression, and in which life is governed by the pursuit of collaboration rather than conflict. Robots had progressed to the moment that they gained sentience, and which point they left the human world to discover themselves in the forest. Centuries have passed and one robot has emerged from the forest, meeting a religious monk who serves tea, and asking: what do humans need? The series is a dialogue in pursuit of this question as our monk, Dex, takes our robot, Mossberg, on a journey through their society.

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The reader will be struck by the familiarity of the prose: in classic speculative fiction form, it builds up its philosophic inquiry by having two unlikely friends, each uninitiated in the world of the other, have conversations about mundane things so as to highlight our own contradictions. It's reminiscent of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, where a talking ape discusses the faulty results of this thing we call civilization. Dex and Mossberg are making their way from the wilderness, through various surrounding towns and villages, ultimately in the direction of the technocratic core of the society. In the meantime they bump into various people enthralled by the “it” in their midst, all while a certain tension simmers in both Dex and their robot companion. 

The title for the book comes from the “crown shy” phenomenon observed in some trees, whereby a canopy allows for a verifiable gap between the foliage of each plant. The trees, seemingly autonomously, know when to halt the growth so as to not collide with their neighbors, maintaining a boundary between them. This is less an act of isolation than an intentional act of communitarianism: they do so likely to avoid parasites, but also as a silent acknowledgement of the communal sovereignty of the other. They remain alongside one another in a state of harmony, with the permeable borders necessary to allow the relationship between the two to continue. Through Dex’s society we see people who are so identifiably different that their underlying ethos runs in direct contrast to that of their visitor, perhaps even the majoritarian instinct of the entire society. This is especially visible when they enter the territory of river-dwellers who have shunned technology entirely, opting for a primitivist arrangement that avoids the missteps that allowed for the earlier robot enslavement in the first place. Here, Mossberg’s presence is itself a kind of offense, and yet, once we meet a member of the community, the disagreements are left to rhetoric, and a relationship, one that finds more in common than in contrast, forms. In the end, he returns to his lifestyle, and Dex to theirs, a quiet acknowledgement that this is what a diverse society actually entails: the right to be different, together. 

In this way, Chamber’s is reminiscent of another figure at the edges of SolarPunk, Margaret Killjoy, who’s recent novella reissue from AK Press, A City of Ghosts, imagines an anarchist society with radically different lifestyles and identities interlocking, confederating, and at times overlapping, rotating, and blending. A revolutionary society is one that shutters conformity, but how does it do that without reverting to imperialism, nationalism, and identitarianism? How do we remain ourselves while continuing to pursue harmony with those different from us in inalterable ways? Maybe that is why SolarPunk refuses to shy away from the concept of utopia, not a world of perfection, but one that attempts to resolve the contradictions that need no longer be.

Dex’s poly family is another piece of this, a radically large collection of people whose interpersonal relationships are never the same: one is the partner of another is the former partner of a third who is the parent of a child who is the cousin of a friend, and so on. This is, itself, a dive into what is possible when expectations are dropped and each person is invited to organically determine what relationships will best keep them, and the only guiding principle is that we will have to, ultimately, manage these relationships together.

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Dex and Mosscap close the book wracked by a shared existential dread, and it’s not the kind a utopian society can ultimately resolve with its bountiful resources and democratic arrangement. Instead, the conflict that is possessing both of them emerges from something more perennial than politics: what would truly make us happy? This is a statement about the ubiquity of human struggle, its unmistakable inevitability, even plentiful in a post-revolutionary society that actively destroys oppressive remnants. Mosscap’s journey is likewise a distinctly human one, or perhaps even more universal than that, and the bifurcation between the two characters is just as much a soliloquy as it is the rhetorical sparring of two very different souls. Who we are, what we need, and what should come next are much more devastating trials than the kind that usually fill our lives with because, even in the most perfect of worlds, some of life’s problems simply must remain. Dex seems free to have the kind of relationships, job, and lifestyle they choose, but what do they actually want? Mosscap’s presence is an intrinsic critique of our civilization, but what about it’s own world? It’s not about what could be different, but what should, and what it might look like, if that question can be answered at all. The radical intervention of speculative fiction is to create the space to imagine something profoundly different, something existent only in the shifting sands of ideas, the first step necessary to lay the bricks of a new paradigm. The mission to reimagine life is a groundbreaking one, but it offers little more than opportunity. What world we build retains a Faustian spirit of drive, sacrifice and…who knows what else. 

Mosscap and Dex seem to hope that they will have the rest of their lives figured out by the time they reach the city center, but it’s doubtful, just as it is unlikely that anyone they meet is any more put together than they have become. Dislodged precarity is the human status quo (and the same is true of robots, apparently), and so while their angst may be acute to this particular moment in their lives, which is likely what they will have in common with everyone they collide with. The particulars of their crisis may be unique, but their crown shyness is not: we have a lot to figure out.

So maybe he was right, utopia is a fool’s errand. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t die trying.