Striving for Excellence in 2020; or, Jo Walton’s Utopianism (July 29, 2020)

“Hope” is the thing with feathers - 
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
              Emily Dickinson

It is a very good time to be a writer (and a reader) of SF, fantasy, weird, and other fantastic fictions—indeed, we might even say it is a golden age, if that term had not already been taken. This has been reconfirmed for me just this past month with the publication of Jo Walton’s beautiful and affirmative novel, Or What You Will.

In Invoking Hope: Theory and Utopia in Dark Times, I touch on the fact that the older post-World War II MFA “Program Era” proscriptions against genre or “paraliterary” fiction have begun to loosen (although, of course, not without resistance from a few critics who might very well be operating under the slogan “Make Literature Great Again” [MaLGA?].)   This welcome change is borne out, first, by the fact that many significant works of “literary” fiction published in the first two decades of our millennium are examples of or draw deeply on SF and fantasy—among others, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and its two sequels (2009 and 2012), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) and The Bone Clocks (2014), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006),  Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (2011), Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2011), Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017), Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God (2017), and Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte(2019).  

Secondly, writers long identified as practitioners of genre fiction—Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, China Miéville, Ted Chiang, Allan Moore, N.K. Jemisin, and Cixin Liu—are being treated with new seriousness and respect by an ever more expansive and sometimes unexpected group of readers and critics. For example, a 2013 article in The New Yorker advances the claim that Robinson is “one of the most important political writers working in America today.”  I would agree heartily with this assessment and would suggest something similar for many (all?) of the writers and books listed above.   (On a related note, for an insightful review of Gibson’s and Yu’s most recent novels, Agency and Interior Chinatown, check out UF’s own Mitch Murray’s “The Worst of All Possible Worlds?”)

Prominent in any such list should be the name of Jo Walton. Walton is among the most interesting writers working today. Such a statement on my part is, as Sianne Ngai teaches us, a performative utterance “disguised as a constative:” it is a “demand,” or commandment as to how we should spend our limited time, masquerading as a truth claim or even an observable (for those who have the right eyes to see) fact (i.e. her work is “objectively” good).  If past experience has led you to consider me a trust-worthy enough reader (and if so, I thank you), then you don’t need to proceed any further and can go out and use your valuable time to encounter for yourself some of Walton’s extraordinary novels.  If, however, this is not the case, or if you would like some inkling of where you might begin, then allow me to explain some of the reasons I find her work so significant and rewarding.

In his meditation on postmodernism and utopia, The Seeds of Time (1992), Fredric Jameson observes, “It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations.” A little over a decade later, Jameson again and even more concisely claims, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”  This has become among Jameson’s most repeated observations, one that has not surprisingly come to renewed prominence in the last few years. One place where Jameson’s insight is most immediately borne out is in the realm of contemporary storytelling: for as even the most cursory survey of contemporary print, television, and film will confirm, it seems today that it is far easier to imagine dystopia, stories of those bad places we make by our own actions, than utopia, a more equitable and just world beyond our own (it being understood that any such world can only be one where the cruel logics of both labor exploitation—the only freedom most people possess being the freedom to work or starve—and oppression are exceptions rather than norms). 

There are of course very good reasons today for the fear that the world we know may be coming to an end and an even worse one is on the horizon: the now almost daily assaults on democratic institutions and the rise of neo-populist authoritarianism (what Frederico Finchelstein describes in his recent insightful and chilling book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies, as the post-WW II reformulation of “fascism in a democratic key”); the growing economic inequalities in what William Davies names a post-2008 “punitive neoliberalism;” and the seeming inexorable slow-motion apocalypse of climate change and environmental destruction. Moreover, many of the most interesting recent works of fiction—including a number of those listed above—are dystopias, albeit in the form of what Tom Moylan identified at the very beginning of this millennium as critical dystopias, works that “negotiate the necessary pessimism of the generic dystopia with an open, militant, utopian stance.”  One of the best examples of this practice can be found in the great novel with which I conclude Invoking Hope, Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a work whose Gramscian “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will” I argue harkens back to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), the “critical dystopia” that helped found modern science fiction.

In such a situation, Walton’s novels stand out because of their unabashed commitment to imagining utopia.  This is especially the case with the five novels that she has published since her award-winning and moving novels, Among Others (2011) and My Real Children (2014).  However, none of Walton’s novels are utopian in the clichéd, if still commonplace, sense of offering a fully realized destination, an end of history, or so-called “perfect” and perfectly static world at which we must arrive (another performative utterance, a demand, masking itself as a constative).  Rather, Walton’s genius in these books—and again this is something she shares with a number of the other writers listed above, albeit in her own inimitable fashion—lies in her portrayal of both the fidelity and hard work, but also the joy, in what Moylan names in his forthcoming collection of essays and interviewsbecoming utopian; or what Walton, in her Plato-inflected language, refers to as increasing our excellence.  Walton’s work is so important because it strives to educate our desire to take up the labor of making worlds other to a present that is far too easy to see only in terms of a catastrophe that unrelentingly piles wreckage upon wreckage at our feet.

Walton’s novels The Just City (2015), The Philosopher Kings (2015), and Necessity (2016) make up her “Thessaly trilogy.”  These novels are more immediately recognizable as part of the “cognitive estranging” (Darko Suvin’s path-blazing and still invaluable term) genre of the utopia.  However, even this trilogy begins in the very different non-cognitive but still estranging practice of fantasy. The Just City opens with the decision by the Greek gods Athena and Apollo to enact, rigorously and to the letter, the vision of the Just City modeled in Plato’s Republic.  Their original city is populated by three groups: the Masters, “three hundred fanatical Platonists from times ranging from the fourth century B.C. to the late twenty-first century A.D.”, and including such real world historical figures as Crito, Plotinus, Cicero, Boethius, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Lucrezia Borgia, Benjamin Jowett, and Ellen Francis Mason (while Plato remains absent, Sokrates is soon brought to the community as well); ten thousand former slave children, to be educated by the Masters to become the founding citizens of the Just City; and programmable mechanical workers, whose labor in building and maintaining the city’s infrastructure frees the first two groups to enact Plato’s vision.  All this along with great “lost artworks from all of time,” including “the head of the Winged Victory of Samothrace,” and “all the books from the Great Library of Alexandria.” The entire community is then isolated on the island of Atlantis at some indeterminate point before both the Trojan War and the island’s destruction. On this seemingly improbable foundation, the trilogy proceeds to develop an extraordinarily profound meditation on the relationship in any utopian imaginary between contingency and necessity.  Along the way, the trilogy also posits its own fascinating theory of the activity of reading. (As this preview might suggest, I am working on a longer essay on the trilogy that I hope to finish up before too long.) 

Following on the heels of the Thessaly trilogy, Walton turns in a very different direction in her next novel, Lent (2019).  Lent begins as an exemplary historical novel (the genre Jameson suggests precedes and gave rise to modern SF), developing a carefully researched and provocative revisionist account of the city-state of Florence in the years between 1492 and 1498 and encompassing the period of the republic established by the controversial Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)—who also happened to have been a real world friend of the great Christian humanists and Platonists also featured in the Thessaly trilogy, Ficino and Mirandola.  In this section of her novel, Walton brushes against the grain of conventional histories, and presents the Republic, its warts and limitations there for all to see, as a realized utopia. 

Crucially, this is not some idealized past to which Walton nostalgically wants to return (Make Florence Great Again!): rather, the aim is to “repeat” Florence. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, “To repeat Florence is to accept that Florence is dead, that its particular solution failed, even failed monstrously, but that there was a utopian spark in it worth saving. To repeat Florence means that one has to distinguish between what Florence actually did and the field of possibilities that it opened up, the tension in Florence between what he effectively did and another dimension one might call what was ‘in Florence more than Florence itself.’” Early in Or What You Will, one of the character’s describes 15th century Florence’s governing structure in this way: “Eight men of the merchant class rule for two months at a time, the highest honor the city affords. It was a real, if time-bounded, power, and if it led to inconsistent policies, well, it’s better than tyranny, and how is your democracy doing at that this fine day? (Don’t answer that. Don’t even think about that.)” In this regard, Walton proved to be ahead of the curve, as a number of essays have appeared recently that look to 15th century Italy in general and Florence in particular for the lessons they might hold for efforts to build a new and better world after the conclusion of our plague and other not-unrelated disasters.  

Then, in the middle part of the book, Lent unexpectedly takes a dramatic swerve into fantasy (how it does so I will not reveal here), and transforms itself into a profound exploration of, among other concerns, the nature of freedom—”Girolamo thinks about the mutability and weight of history”—the importance of hope and change in the good life—“He wants to shout and jump for joy. At the very least there will food and beauty and friendship and hope”—and most of all, the necessity of community to bring about meaningful change: “You can’t do this alone, Asbiel, and I can’t either. You have to trust me. . . . The house divided against itself cannot stand, that means Hell cannot stand.”  

I read Lent shortly after its release—along with the 2003 English translation of the Italian Wu Ming collective’s equally extraordinary debut, Q (1999) and  its sequel, Altai (2009) and Alix Christie’s enjoyable Gutenberg’s Apprentice (2014)—and this experience led me to change my planned graduate seminar in spring 2020 to the Contemporary Historical Novel.  The course began in the past, with readings of works by Walter Scott, Georg Lukács, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, before turning to late 20th and early 21st century examples of the historical novel.  We concluded the seminar (by then many weeks into an online-mediated mode of conversation) with two novels released in summer 2019, Walton’s Lent and Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (the latter won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction only weeks after the end of the term).  I also hope to be able sometime very soon to write something about both of these equally extraordinary novels.

While Or What You Will is very different from these prior works, it continues to develop Walton’s deep meditation on the questions of becoming utopian and striving for excellence.  The novel is especially hard to characterize as it does so many different things and it does them so well.  There are three intertwined stories in play throughout.  First, the novel tells the life story of a successful Montreal based writer, Sylvia Katherine Harrison—“Thirty books, she’s written, in forty years”—who a few years prior had lost her beloved second husband, Idris, and who has herself recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  Secondly, we are told the story of the intimations of change occurring in the fantasy community of Illyria, a world modelled on both 15th century Florence and Shakespeare’s imaginings of an Italy he never visted, but where magic is real and people now live on as long as they desire (or are not killed by another). Illyria, it turns out, was created by Sylvia many years earlier in her first trilogy of novels (like Walton, who began her career with a fantasy trilogy, the Sulien series composed of The King’s Peace, 2000, The King’s Name, 2001, and The Prize in the Game, 2002). Linking these two stories together is a narration offered by Sylvia’s unnamed (at least until the novel’s final page) imaginary friend and the basis of many of her characters. Realizing Sylvia is dying, her creation and longtime comrade determines to find a way that they might continue on.  This inaugurates a dialogue that spans the course of the novel.

 In many regards, the novel returns to the blend of autobiography and fantasy that Walton so effectively deployed in  Among Others and My Real Children. At the same time, Or What You Will continues the reflections begun in Lent on the special qualities of Renaissance Florence—and like its predecessors, in this novel Ficino and Mirandola once again play prominent roles.  Or What You Will also resembles Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in that it is a Künstlerroman, or artist novel, with a fictional artist whose story parallels Walton’s own (even passages from Walton’s own earlier works appear in the final chapter.)  

Along the way, the novel offers its readers poignant reflections on death and mourning; a sometimes grimly realistic portrayal of the experience of working-class women in the post-World War II period and the psychology of abuse; an investigation into the creative process; a philosophical meditation on the real of fiction and the fictional nature of the reality (even Jacques Lacan is alluded to in passing); and a meta-fictional commentary concerning both potential limits and possibilities of generic fantasy.  At the conclusion of her acknowledgements, Walton writes, “And thanks to you, my readers, for bearing with me through so many odd edges of genres and different kinds of stories.” I can say that no such thanks are needed as the experience of this novel, as with its predecessors, moved me deeply and inspired many new thoughts (some of which I am sharing with you today).

In addition to being a gifted writer and storyteller, Walton is a voracious reader: her February 2020 reading list includes 25 books encompassing a wide range of fiction and non-fiction.  One of the great pleasures in all of her books, for me as well as many of her other readers, lies in their generous invitations to dive into the rabbit holes of other reading. (In this invitation, her work is not unlike that of my teacher and the subject of one of my earlier books, Fredric Jameson.) A number of fantasy readers have written about the ways Among Others opened up for them new horizons in SF.  In a 2013 interview concerning just this fact (the interviewer expresses their gratitude for Walton’s introducing them to the work of James Tiptree, Jr.), Walton notes that a question she really doesn’t like to answer is which book would you most recommend, as Among Others “is not about reading one book! It’s about indiscriminately reading a lot of stuff.”  

My encounter with Lent resulted in a personal and very valuable plunge into not only books and essays about Florence, Renaissance art, and early modern European history, but also the essays and letters of Italian Renaissance humanists—Ficino and Mirandola, among others—and early Christian mysticism, especially the writings of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.  This then led me to Thomas Merton’s recently published lectures, A Course in Christian Mysticism (2017) and A Course in Desert Spirituality (2019) and more recently, a really fascinating trilogy of books by Thomas A. Carlson.  A Course in Desert Spirituality contains a short Foreword by Paul Quenon that points out that a chief concern of these great thinkers, women and men, was “’the discernment of spirits’; how do you know what inspirations come from God and what comes from the devil?”  Quenon then concludes by noting that people today “feel an urgent need for ‘discernment of spirits’ on many fronts, personal, ecclesiastical, and political.  How can we detect what is motivating people—myself, others, and those big faces on the TV screen?”

A similar generous and enthusiastic invitation to read continues in her latest novel. Early on, we learn that the final novel read by Idris is Sofia Somatar’s A Stranger in Olandria (2013).  We are told that it was sent to Sylvia “to blurb, and [she] loved it, and passed it on to him. She had been looking forward to his perspective on it, the wonderfully complex world, the characters poised between cultures.” Idris’s final text message to Sylvia reads, “I’ve finished Olandria. Can’t wait to talk to you about it!” This scene recalled to me one of my favorite lines from The Philosopher Kings and which I use as an epigraph for the second chapter of Invoking Hope: “I knew what death meant now. It was conversations cut off.” 

Later on, the couple discusses Kim Stanley Robinson’s monumental alternate history, The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) (a few years after its publication, Walton would also produce her own alternate history, the Small Change Trilogy of Farthing, 2006, Ha’penny 2007, and Half a Crown, 2008; My Real Children also offers an alternate history, albeit this time on the scale of an individual life): “They both loved the book, which struck them as a truly innovative thing to attempt, though he was unsure about some of what Robinson chose to do with Islam. The hard-back book sits on Idris’s shelves now, back in Montreal, haunted by a new, deeper loss.”  I have written on The Years of Rice and Salt, and re-read and talked about it with my seminar participants this past spring and I too would recommend it to anyone who has never read it (a book about an alternate history growing out of the Black Death is especially timely today); and thanks to Walton, I have just ordered A Stranger in Olandria and look forward to reading it as well.  

In Or what You Will, Walton expands her generous and enthusiastic celebration of books to include places she has visited (although already in My Real Children the encounter with new places plays a significant role). As with Lent, Florence is the primary setting of her latest novel.  However, differing from its predecessor, the Florence of Or what You Will is divided between fantasy world of Illyria and the real-world Florence, presented briefly in 1847 and the 1970s and  then more extensively in 2018.  The novel is filled with beautiful evocations not only of well-known sites in the city but some that are clearly Walton’s personal favorites.  When Sylvia visits Florence’s Teatro del Sale, Walton writes of it, “Talking about Teatro del Sale it’s easy to use words like ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable,’ but when you’re there it feels instead like the ultimate reality, the way things ought to be. Famous chefs ought to want to give things like this back to the community. Food ought to taste this way. It’s so like a wish-fulfillment narrative that it’s hard to suspend disbelief, but yet, here she is again, eating mouthwatering food, familiar but never taken for granted.”  Walton’s beautiful description of the experience of Teatro del Sale has encouraged me to visit Florence as soon as I am able (in the coming after-time, of course) and to make a visit or multiple visits to Teatro del Sale among my top priorities (and in the meantime, I will to try and recreate as best I can something of the dishes she mentions. The picture below is not one of those, but a recent dinner we enjoyed here in Florida: Sicilian grilled tuna steaks with roasted Brussels sprouts, hand-rolled couscous, and Caprese salad.)

Walton’s enthusiastic evocation of books read and places visited resonates so deeply with me because it suggests experiences parallel to my own. (Walton discusses her initial encounters with Florence in a recent interview.)  I was born in the same year as Walton, but in West Germany, where my father was serving as a nuclear missile technician and my mother joined him from their home in Chicago. I then spent the first 10 months of my life in Europe.  However, I would not again travel outside of the United States (except for a few brief academic meeting trips to Toronto in the early 1990s) until 1996 (and my first trips to Florence and Rome in 1998), three years after completing my Ph.D and two years after I had begun teaching at UF.  Until then, my only encounter with these places was limited to books, movies, and my parent’s photographs. However, the advantage of this delay is that all my subsequent encounters with the new places I have been so fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit in the last 25 years (most recently, in late 2019, an extraordinary week in South Korea) remains very much like that of Idris when he first visits Teatro del Sale and proclaims, “How can this exist?”  

I also, thankfully, continue to have the same response to books, movies, paintings, and other storytelling media: encountering something fantastic and new—like Walton’s novels—I really do often wonder how can this exist? Even more immediately, this same experience occurs at home, where I have had, through no merit of my own, the impossible experience of living with someone who transforms every day into a conversation, a duet, an opportunity to learn by glimpsing the world through the eyes of a talented, joyful, caring, and brilliant other.  Even the university, at its very best moments—especially those when it succeeds in resisting the neoliberal urge to transform all our interactions and experiences into money-making opportunities (we are not first and foremost, or should we be at all, “a business”)—still surprises me with its ability to evoke this response: how can such a way of life amongst such a vibrant, passionate, open-minded, and creative people exist in this world of ours?

I dwell so much on these seemingly secondary aspects of Walton’s books because I want to suggest that her invitations to read, travel, converse, and in general expand one’s experiences are at the core of her understanding of what it means to strive after excellence or become utopian. First, as with all great utopian visionaries, Walton, in passages like the one concerning Teatro del Sale I cited above, underscores utopia’s inherent unrepresentability: as Alain Badiou suggests, these are truths that you can only ever know by encountering them for yourself.  The best a storyteller can do—and let me underscore, even this accomplishment is a rare one that should be treasured—is to present such impossible places and experiences in a such a way that a community of readers will feel inspired to do the things necessary to call them into being in their own and others’ lives.

Secondly, Walton’s portraits of places like 15th century Florence or Teatro del Sale in 2018 give the lie to the assumption that utopia cannot exist: it has, fleetingly, in the past and continues to do so in scattered places in the present. This brings us to Idris’s second question on his inaugural experience of Teatro del Sale: “And given that it does [exist], how can there only be one like it?”  What Idris is really querying here, is why don’t more people (everyone) have the necessary resources—money, but even more so the time, education, community, and emotional support—not only to give full expression according to their abilities to their most creative energies, but also regularly to encounter according to their needs “impossible” things. The point is never just about creating opportunities for me to read, travel, write, converse, and live and work in a university community, but rather to create similar opportunities for excellence in as many people as who desire them. This inevitably means a change of not only one’s individual life but of our shared world. (I also take up these issues in my chapter in Invoking Hope on Isak Dinesen’s magnificent utopian short story, “Babette’s Feast” [1950]).

Finally, Walton’s Teatro del Sale undermines the notion that utopia involves anything like a final destination, a perfect world where change is no longer possible: this would be to fall into the form of evil Badiou names “disaster,” something very different mind you from the Trumpian “terror” of Make America Great Again (but for whom?) or the “betrayal” that says no meaningful change is possible. In the midst of her final experience of Teatro del Sale, Sylvia comes to an important realization concerning the world she has built: “We were wrong about Progress. . . .We wanted it to be the Renaissance forever in Illyria, and so we said it was so. . . . But if it is forever, then it stops being the Renaissance.” This continues on for a number of very interesting paragraphs, before Sylvia concludes, “But really, a lot of what was important about the Renaissance was that golden-age feeling, people making things and being excited. Stopping that dead and removing the possibility of progress by fiat kills half of what matters about it. And the other half is really just decoration. Very beautiful decoration, admittedly, but still just decoration.” A world where the best of the past is celebrated but also where people are encouraged to make new things and be excited, and a world of change and growth as unforeseen and unexpected developments occur—this is the vision of utopia that is developed throughout all of Walton’s great fictions.   

I’ll conclude here.  I hope that these glimpses will encourage a few others to encounter Walton’s work for themselves (and this is what I think any reviewer striving for excellence ought to do). Walton’s novels invoke hope and increase the desire to become utopian in ways that far too few others do today. And for these reasons, her works need to be shared, encountered, and talked about by as many people and as often as possible.

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