Perfect worlds

J.C. Hallman's utopias
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  August 15, 2010

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HEAVENLY: Some utopian ideas aren’t as crazy as they seem, says Hallman — like America.

In Utopia: The Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise | By J.C. Hallman | 288 pages | St. Martin’s Press | $25.99
In utopia, everything is wonderful. Reading about it usually isn't. The utopian novel elides conflict, one of fiction's most basic requirements. A story about untrammeled awesomeness isn't much of a story at all.

The prose doesn't help much either. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton wrote the world's most famous bad sentence: "It was a dark and stormy night." He also wrote a utopian novel, The Coming Race, that's widely thought to have been the seed for Nazi mysticism. An insufferably pedantic tone mars Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward, which is arguably among the most important texts of the 19th century. ("The long and weary winter of the race is ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis," etc.)

Somehow, J.C. Hallman made his way through dozens of these novels and managed to retain a generosity of spirit. "I did come across a couple that I thought were okay," he says on the phone from his home in St. Paul. "They're not trying to be good books." By keeping his expectations low, Hallman was able to focus on the visionary ideas of their authors and seek these ideas out in the present day.

The result — In Utopia — is a travelogue of six contemporary utopias. They range from the conceptual (the Slow Food movement) to the actualized and terrifying (a town being built in Nevada where all will be armed). He hopes his readers will become more credulous. "People now consider 'utopia' to be more or less synonymous with 'naive and impossible.' I wanted to demonstrate that these ideas, which appear crazy or absurd when you first hear about them, have literary and historical contexts that make them look sort of inevitable."

Even in context, Hallman's subjects can seem a little nutso. Nature-phobes might raise an eyebrow at a group of scientists who wish to restore New Mexico acreage to a primal wilderness rife with imported lions and rhinoceroses. Class warriors are sure to sneer at a cruise ship repurposed as a floating apartment complex whose units cost no less than $1 million. Most people outside the West would gasp at Front Sight, the aforementioned gun-crazy town in which civilians will participate in assured mutual destruction.

Hallman doesn't endorse his subjects — rather, he assesses them, deeming them "earnest" or "ironic." Front Sight is ironic. "I wanted to take that world and philosophy to task. I don't think it really is utopian in the sense that they're trying to make the best world for as many people as possible. I think they're essentially retreating into a shell. It's not a utopia at all, even though you can see the base ideas being fostered and fomented in utopian literature."

His judgment isn't politically motivated. "Utopia, to my mind, is describing the scope of an idea rather than anything about its ideological make-up. At this moment in history, with the right/left divide in our country, the right would want to label the left utopian — implausible, impossible. But it's really obvious to find conservative utopias that suggest that conservative values are going to make a better world."

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