I recently finished an advance reader’s copy of Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson, which debuts in January 2017. Perfect Little World is the story of Isabelle Poole, a fierce but desperate single mom who applies, with success, to be a part of a utopian parenting project in which children will be raised communally by their parents and a team of educators and scientists in near seclusion. I was expecting Perfect Little World to transform from a utopia to a dystopia by its end—and there were certainly disturbing, sad moments throughout the novel—but Wilson resisted sensationalism and apocalyptic tropes. Instead, he’s written something quite genuine and powerful. Unexpectedly, I was moved. I realized my recent exposure to planned societies has been books like The Heart Goes Last and Children of the New World—stories devoted to satire, technology and dark prophesy. In other words, more dystopian than utopian.
Maybe that’s why Perfect Little World moved me. There’s so much evil in the world—racism meets unchecked authority meets gun, say, or a dangerous, dangerous man running for president of the United States—that any degree of optimism feels hard-won. At this point, hopelessness feels easy, logical, intelligent, but I am finding more and more power in a well-crafted happy ending, a redemptive final note. With that in mind, here are five stories about utopian societies.
1. “‘Nonesuch,’ excerpted from Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea.” (Erik Reece, Macmillan, August 2016)
“Utopia Drive is me trying to write an optimistic book,” said Erik Reece, who describes himself in his book’s introduction as a “guy with a truck, a gas card, and a few boxes of old books shifting around in the cab.” In Utopia Drive, Reece visits approximately 10 utopian communities originally formed in the late 19th century—some lost to time, others still functioning—spanning Kentucky to New York. Reece is no rambling everyman, though, and thank goodness for that. His background as an accomplished journalist, poet and the writer-in-residence at University of Kentucky at Lexington means his writing—even when he’s dipping into denser histories—remains lyrical, yet sharp. For a closer look at Reece’s journey, read about his visit to the Twin Oaks community at The Atlantic.
2. “The Illustrated Map of America’s Worst Utopias.” (Lauren Young, Atlas Obscura, September 2016)
It’s not quite long enough to be long-form, but I can’t resist these bizarre stories of orgies, expired food and colonization.
You can read more from Atlas Obscura’s Utopia Week, including first-person essays and short travel guides to utopias all over the world.
3. “Oneida: The Christian Utopia Where Contraception was King.” (Ellen Wayland-Smith, LARB, August 2016)
The Oneida communists, living in their theocratic cocoon “under the government of God” and breathlessly awaiting the Rapture, didn’t give two hoots about the civil rights of women as they were being debated by Stanton and her comrades in the secular world. What they did care about was releasing women from the assumption that bearing children and darning socks marked the outer limits of her capacities. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Oneida Community undertook a radical restructuring of the traditional nuclear family in the belief that a woman’s biology was definitively not her destiny.
4. “Trouble in Utopia.” (Maddy Crowell, Slate, July 2015)
City of the Dawn. Experimental township. “The world’s largest existing spiritual utopia.” Auroville was founded in 1968 by a ragtag group of hippies following Mira Alfassa, known as “The Mother.” Supported financially by UNESCO and the Indian government, approximately 2,500 people from all over the world live in spiral-shaped Auroville today. Reporter Maddy Crowell is one of the 5,000 visitors to Auroville, where she rents a room from a regular, chats with the locals, and tries to navigate a strange, half-formed bureaucracy.
5. “Feminist Utopia Project.” (Margaret Shultz, LARB, August 2015)
Describe your ideal feminist sex life. What systems comprise a feminist government? Does a feminist healthcare model exist? Janet Mock, Jill Soloway, Melissa Harris-Perry and Sheila Heti are just a handful of the brilliant minds behind The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future. At LARB, Margaret Shultz interviews Alexandra Brodsky, co-editor of the Project. “A Day in the Life of a Teen Mom in Feminist Utopia” by Gloria Malone, an excerpt from the Project, is available at Jezebel.
Looking for even more stories about utopia? You can find more in the Longreads archives, including “Beautiful Nowheres: ‘No Man’s Sky’ and the 500th Anniversary of ‘Utopia'” and “When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman.”