Monday, May 28, 2012

Why I Love Writing About Utopian Communities by Steve Wiegenstein (includes giveaway)

Life is pretty much a mess, most of the time. People don't behave as they should; they follow their own interests and desires, bringing them into disagreement with others and creating unnecessary heartache and conflict. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could agree in advance that they would act for the common good, setting aside their own wishes in favor of what's best for everyone?

That is the essence of the utopian ideal, and that's why it has fascinated me for many years. I first got interested in utopian movements when I read about the Icarians, a little-known group that lived in the United States for about fifty years in the Nineteenth Century. The Icarians, like a lot of utopian groups, originated with a charismatic leader who attracted a group of followers. But the Icarian movement was different from most others as well.

For one thing, its founder, Etienne Cabet, hadn't actually intended to form a settlement. He wrote a novel, Voyage to Icaria, largely to comment on the political situation in France and to keep his name in front of the French public while he served a period of exile. But the novel, in which he set forth his communistic ideas in the form of an imaginary community in the South Seas, caught the public imagination, and in 1848 Cabet found himself leading a group of immigrants to America to establish a real-life Icaria.

Those of you who have read my novel Slant of Light will recognize that situation as the starting premise of the book—a charismatic social reformer finds himself founding a community, almost by accident. I depart from history at that point, but certainly one of the central themes of my book is the utopian impulse that lives in us all, and whether that impulse can ever be realized.

The fictional inhabitants of Daybreak, my Slant of Light community, try earnestly to arrange their lives for the common good. They hold weekly meetings to vote on everything from whether to install windows in their cabins to whether to buy cloth for mourning dresses. They eat together, work together, travel together. But their communal urges keep getting thwarted by their human desires. They envy, they betray, they fall in love. It's the struggle between these two sides of human nature—the desire to improve and perfect ourselves, and the desire to have what we want when we want it, regardless of others—that fascinates me. In my mind, that's what makes Slant of Light less of a book about a particular historical time and place and more of a book that explores some universal elements of our humanity.

Somewhere below the surface, the utopian impulse has a dictatorial side—it's the "I know best" impulse, the belief that life's messes and strife could be avoided if only you would agree to what I know is best for us all. To the social reformer, our human imperfections are a problem to be solved. But to the novelist, they're what makes us so interesting.

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  1. Steve, I find your comments on Utopian societies so close to my own thoughts on them! I am very intrigued by your book. nicolama at cogeco dot ca

  2. Thanks for the great post and giveaway! I, too, find utopian communities fascinating. I would actually love to study utopianism for a Doctoral degree one day. :) Voyages to Icaria is already on my wishlist - it's even been republished in English translation fairly recently by a university press.

    bookwormsusanna AT gmail DOT com

  3. Wonderful guest post -- I so loved Slant of Light and found those Utopianists at Daybreak to be maddening/wonderful/aggravating/moving. No need to enter me in the giveaway -- just wanted to squee over this!

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  6. Yes please! Would love a copy.... layersofthought(at)gmail(dot)com

  7. Oh, I saw this novel online somewhere and would love to win it-I've visited the site of the Ephrata Cloister (1700s) community in Lancaster PA many times and have read of the Shakers a bit, too.