Against realism

The best Utopias are those that fail the most comprehensively.

– Fredric Jameson

We live in a utopia; it just isn’t ours.

– China Miéville

A few months ago I received an email about my latest novel. ‘Dystopian worlds are in favour,’ it said. Dyschronia is not a true dystopia, although it flirts with the form, but I did not argue the point. What interested me was the reaction this categorisation provoked, a strange mix of pleasure and horror. Should I be pleased by fashion’s favour, I wondered, or should I be a little ashamed of myself?

Dystopia ‘cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.’ So wrote Jill Lepore in the New Yorker last year. The piece was at least partly an expression of impatience, perhaps even boredom, with the imaginative reach of recent novels and with genre fiction in general (she calls it ‘pulp literature’). Lepore names this trend ‘radical pessimism’, but omits any exploration of what that ‘radical’ might mean.

Dystopia, an explicitly political genre in which fiction and metaphor are used to explore the negative consequences of various forms of social organisation, soared in popularity in the mid-twentieth century in response to authoritarianism, and it rises again now in a strikingly similar historical moment. In The Queue, Basma Abdel Aziz documents the return of totalitarian rule in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Likewise, the new wave of feminist dystopias, and the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, are expressions of a cultural moment in which patriarchal power is pushing back against a series of demands; as critic Alexandra Alter pointed out in the New York Times, many of these novels articulate real-world anxieties around reproductive rights and gendered violence. Lepore blamed dystopian literature for contributing to the collapse of the liberal-democratic state – an ahistorical accusation, if not absurdly generous, since the liberal-democratic state is fragmenting of its own accord. But there is something in dystopia and utopia that feels very urgent to the democratic project, and to the current moment.

It is well known by now that The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 became bestsellers in the months following Trump’s inauguration. Neither is a novel of pure despair: both are bleak, but both can be seen as novels of resistance. Like other dystopian novels, they challenge both their protagonists and their readers to take sides: would you scratch out nolite te bastardes carborundorum, or would you love Big Brother in the end? What is more, these two novels at least suggest the perspective of history: there is a world outside, a world after, from which the dystopian is seen and remembered.

The social value of what Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan described in 2003 as ‘critical dystopias’ is more complex. They argued that ‘critical dystopias allow both readers and protagonists to hope by resisting closure: the ambiguous, open endings of these novels maintain the utopian impulse within the work.’

Sure, some dystopias can read as torture porn, as illustrations of the inevitability of suffering or the futility of rebellion, but even the bleakest imagined worlds express fears and griefs that already exist in this one. ‘The dystopian appearance is the sharp edge inserted into the seamless Moebius strip of late capitalism,’ writes Fredric Jameson – an effort to break through the illusion of inevitability. In an age where authoritarian capitalism seems ascendant, in the dawning awareness of the Anthropocene, and the full consequences of extractivism, is it any surprise that recent fiction is brimming with anxieties about the future? The question, it seems to me, is whether dystopian literature helps us to use power, or to relinquish it.


Dystopia does not require much imagination; as I have said elsewhere, it already has a postcode. It is Nauru, Manus Island and Don Dale. It is deaths in custody. It is the NT Intervention. It is family violence, defunded shelters, no escape. It is punitive welfare systems and robo-debt (all debt). It is feudalism in the arts. It is a parliament of small-minded, self-interested individuals, plotting endless revenges. It is watching your farm die while these same corrupt politicians spruik for coal. Examples like these are, alas, endless.

Given all this, where does the disdain for dystopia come from? Cultural theorist Andrew Milner wrote that ‘the Marxist hostility to utopia’ in literary criticism has been ‘repressed and displaced into a more specific prejudice against dystopia.’ On a more superficial level, publishing insiders are often wary of trends, hedging against a potential bubble. There is also a general dislike of genre within literary circles, although this seems to be a pretension not shared by readers. In a recent piece for Commune magazine, Kim Stanley Robinson identified the dystopia as ‘lazy, maybe even complacent’, arguing that imagining the worst can ‘create a sense of comparative safety’. In other words, dystopias make the present seem not so bad after all.

Meanwhile, ‘utopian’ has become a byword for the unrealisable, for a future that is both impractical and impracticable. Certainly, any ideal that proposes a static power structure should be treated with caution; dystopia is a matter of perspective. But there is another reason why the establishment frowns upon these literary forms and that is its distaste for the popular political imagination. What is often forgotten is that dystopia is the literature of the underdog, the genre of the disempowered. There is a reason it is so prevalent in teen fiction. In this context, the urge to put dystopias down seems less a literary opinion and more a political one: it is a dismissal of the whining voices of the oppressed, an impatience with the boring victims of society’s many inequalities, a policing of the novel’s potential for the expression of social possibility.


We do not need dystopias to make us complacent; this world already asks us to accept injustices. We are presented with ‘realism’ in the shape of budget cuts and austerity measures, in our ‘sensible’ ongoing support for fossil fuel companies, in the ‘necessary deterrence’ of private offshore prisons that kill asylum seekers and render their children catatonic, in the ‘fair’ platforming of hate speech and in ‘commonsense’ newspeak like ‘practical reconciliation’ (this language was a direct influence on Dyschronia’s imaginary Department of Sustainable Communities). We are told it is our duty to uphold this version of reality, to acquire lifelong debts in order to secure housing and education, to work hard – sometimes for years without pay just to ‘get a foot in the door’ – and to accept mass extinction, catastrophic fires, wage stagnation, casual racism, gendered violence and so forth.

Political realism shames us for desiring more and better. Those desires are personal and social, abstract and concrete: freedom, equality, housing, art, safety, clean air, health care, more time. The compulsion to be realistic shrinks our sense of ourselves as historical actors, as protagonists in our own stories, as agents of change in a functioning democracy. Increasingly at odds with democratic processes, capitalism prefers to show us a funhouse mirror of ourselves as small and ineffectual, and of our organisations as isolated bands, out of touch with ‘the mainstream’, unable to effect change except by turning inward, and preferably by making purchases. The dystopian and the utopian novel both present an interest in collective power that contradicts that model.

At certain moments, such as natural disasters or political upheavals, the possibility of a utopian response lies open to us (see Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark), but it is the dystopian one that remains the default. Hurricane Katrina, the Black Saturday bushfires and other catastrophes have taught us that even hope is unequally distributed. There continues to be an argument, such as that offered by Paul Walker-Emig in the Guardian, that the gloom of dystopian (in his case cyberpunk) futures has prepared us to accept the worst. I thought of this recently, observing the ubiquity of surveillance in China and seeing it so beautifully reworked in Xu Bing’s film Dragonfly Eyes. The distance between dystopia and documentary is shrinking, but I am not sure this is fiction’s fault.

The novel as a form is neither inherently reactionary nor inherently progressive. In writing Dyschronia, I was aware that the form had certain limitations and certain advantages – it is great at individual sympathy, for example, and small group/family dynamics; it is comfortable with linear time. My own struggle to articulate collective responsibility is clear in the novel’s first-person plural; I also became interested in the dislocations of action and consequence that occur in a dyschronic narrative timeline. At the heart of the book is the question of human accountability to and for the future – a question that remains for me unresolved.

The response to Dyschronia has sometimes been confused by its themes, taking its articulation of the mechanics of imagining the future as itself a prediction of that future. For the record, I am usually more optimistic than my work suggests. But the axis of optimism/pessimism misses the real issue: the role of human agency in determining the future, both individually and collectively.


We look to dystopias for a heroic figure, a Katniss Everdeen who will lead the uprising. We look for hope, for a way out. In the real world, however, the uprising is not a single event or charismatic individual, but a daily battle; the way out is anywhere we dare to interrupt business as usual. I think it is being realistic that holds us back. Realism keeps us on the defensive and represses our emotional response to suffering. We are kept busy fighting for safety and inclusion – the lowest of bars – fighting to be considered human, let alone equal. Attacks on the notion of a public good or commons – often expressed as the rise of identity politics and the policing of participation, but underpinned by rising inequality – have hollowed out democracy. It is surreal to note that Behrouz Boochani, who lives in a real-world dystopia of Australia’s making, is, through his writing and activism, already a better citizen of this country than its latest revolving-door prime minister, one of the architects of that dystopia. In No Friend but the Mountains, Boochani illustrates that writing and culture can be forms of democratic participation.

It is important to make explicit this link between culture, education, imagination and democracy. Henry Giroux describes neoliberal education as a ‘disimagination machine’. Our present government has made it clear that attacks on cultural and educational institutions are a priority. One needs to imagine oneself as a citizen in order to take part in a polity, to see one’s own agency through engaging in democratic practice. In contrast, the crisis of representation – also a crisis of citizenship – offers a slow slide toward the politics of disenfranchisement, a politics that preys on the very isolation and alienation that it seeks to reinforce. I believe fiction can help to restore a sense of agency through solidarity. The question is not whether the future will be better or worse, but rather what we will do about it when we get there, what we are doing about it now, and what that ‘we’ might mean.

1984 is a fairytale, one that helps us arm ourselves against the state; it has given us a language that helps us make sense of the world. The twentieth century gave us an armoury of dystopian texts, and we need them again; the nature of the enemy is changing, and we need new stories too. As Western states remove their liberal-democratic costumes and reveal the corporate oligarchy beneath, a handful of elites destroying the planet for quick profit, the forms of authoritarianism shift: the old models of resistance must also mutate.


Perhaps there is enough despair in the world. Perhaps our fictions ought to be utopian (I use the term in its common sense, as eu-topia, the good place). But I am not so sure. The notion that writers have an obligation to imagine something better suggests an instrumentalist role for literature that I think mistakes its value.

The idea that fiction ought to do something useful is itself utopian, in that it is well intentioned and stems from a real-world desire for change. We accept that utopias are provocations, not instruction manuals, and dystopias should be afforded the same intellectual respect. As critic Terry Eagleton put it in the Guardian, both are ‘devices for embarrassing the present’.

If there is any relationship between novels and social change, it is not a direct one. Thomas More was unable to imagine a world without slavery and the patriarchal division of labour, but he could speculate about the end of money and governing elites who prop up inequality for their own benefit. Five centuries later, the unimaginable is slowly coming to pass; the imaginable still eludes us.

It must be acknowledged, too, that utopia is a genre that emerged alongside colonisation. It is always in part a fantasy of escaping the past, starting fresh in a new land of abundance, often against a ‘wilderness’ backdrop. The gay utopia of ‘Go West’ hitches itself to an old frontier dream. But what happens to utopia when it refuses to reckon with past violence?
If literature does help, it is in part because every story offers a reminder of human agency. In reading, we might see our own potential in the lives of others, or recognise abilities previously unknown, or find empathy and build solidarity. It is a child who reads Pippi Longstocking and vows to become more adventurous. It is a teenager who reads Orlando and realises the infinite possibilities of gender. It is an adult who reads NK Jemisin and creates their own community of survivors.

Books are neither architectural models nor treasure maps; they cannot create the ideal world for us. As readers, we know our own desires. Fiction operates at a baser, more human level, inviting the reader to play, to see themselves as a participant, as an agent of change. Even baser, it allows us simply to feel without shame. It is, above all, an imagination machine, and the imagination is wonderfully irrational.


It matters who and what we are reading. In these pages – as fiction editor for the last six years – I have been increasingly aware of the responsibility to act against the amplification of established power structures, to question what Overland does and who we represent. I do this not to ‘give space’ to ‘others’ (inclusiveness and safety are only the outer orbit of a functioning democracy) but to attempt to practise a tiny utopian ecology, to bring about, on a small scale, the world I want to see: plural, exploratory, unfixed, self-sustaining, mutant, generous, fully expressive. It is not enough, but it is a start.

If utopias are a desire space, a place of fantasy and abundance, then can literature itself ever become utopian? In my utopian vision, a writer’s work is valued fairly, as is an editor’s; there is an abundance of time for reading and reflection, plenty of energy for learning and healing, ample room for play and curiosity, and an appreciation of wide and varied and generous criticism. Obviously, this is not reality. Resources are limited; we compromise. But why participate at all, unless it is to move from here to there? And, if my labour can become creative, curative, generous, conversational, horizontal, playful, communitarian and pedagogical, can we not make all labour satisfying?

The ambiguity of utopias and dystopias is not their downfall but their main advantage. Stories always remain works in progress, living a fresh existence with each reader. A better world is also already in progress. It is always going to be in progress; it is going to be, as it is now, annoying. There will be too many meetings and long discussions about process, and a lot of translation. We will be lazy sometimes, and at other times we will miss the instant gratification of buying things that make us feel better. Solidarity and care work will still challenge and exhaust us. It is impossible to imagine a utopia that will satisfy everyone – which is not to suggest we give up trying, but rather an acknowledgement that we have only just begun to talk. Underestimating readers, underestimating ourselves, arguing that the imagination is not needed: these are the bad habits of the realist. There is no common ground unless we, as writers and readers,  begin as equals.


Recently, I have been reminded of the need for the utopian imaginary as a palliative space, a space for radical self-care and radical reciprocity, a pocket of autonomy and community. So, too, can the dystopian be a site of shared grief, a social ceremony that gives voice to fury (in a similar way to punk music). I definitely want to read about fully automated luxury space communism, but I also want to read about what we are up against and to discuss it with you at a festival, over beers.

The reality is that capitalism is making this planet uninhabitable, and not just for the poor. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson warned nearly a decade ago, ‘a 4°C future is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond “adaptation”.’ The lethal nature of business as usual should change the meaning of pragmatism. Whether it stems from compromise or from the Marxist tendency to obsess over material circumstances, being realistic has withered the core of traditional left/labour parties and proven itself to be insufficient, ineffective and generally counterproductive. The moment calls for a flourishing of radical possibilities.


So despair, by all means, but let us do so together. What passes for public discourse in this country sometimes feels like being stuck in a bad relationship: if I walk away, the violence will get worse, but if I stay, I might not survive. The amplification of hate digs up our common ground, and puts the social world at risk of whirlpooling into an abyss of ever-necessary outrage. Art provides an escape, but also room to cry in. It creates a ‘hell of a good universe next door’ in which we can find some mutuality.

Or hope, by all means, if you feel like it. Optimism is a posture for me, a stance. In a utopian mood, I am like the depressive who smiles into the mirror and adopts a power pose, hoping a positive demeanour and authoritative stance will somehow help. But maintaining such a stance is near impossible when the white media establishment argues that Nazis deserve polite attention, or when governments backtrack on already inadequate emissions targets. We all breathe despair, like an atmospheric pollutant. We need to let fiction be a gasp of nitrous oxide. Let us not be ashamed of our fantasies.

Who am I to say we need more utopian stories, or more dystopian ones, or more stories that are neither? All I can say with certainty is that we need all the stories we can get.

In the face of the real, neither despair nor hope is sufficient – but both are necessary. Fiction can, it turns out, do more than one thing. It can move simultaneously against and towards what is offered, drawing attention to potentialities while also examining the dystopias we already accept. It can demand the impossible and express the unsayable. As Ursula K Le Guin argued, invoking the concepts of yin and yang, ‘Every eutopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a eutopia.’

Let us not forget that reading is an education as well as a pleasure. In reading, we become who we are. I go on writing because I want to contribute to the world in a way that will help; as per campsite rules, I want to leave this place in a better condition than I found it.

I know that books can help because they have saved me. They have taught me how to survive, shown me how to get free when I felt unfree, and lit the way to community and meaningful work. Whether our imagined worlds are hard or bright, whether they are better or worse than this one, does not matter. When we imagine them, we begin to find each other, to articulate our own desires and strengths, our fears and hopes. What was once unthinkable is invited into play. It is our labour to imagine the unrealistic into being. This is urgent work – enormous work – and it needs your voice as much as it needs mine.




Jennifer Mills

Jennifer Mills was Overland fiction editor between 2012 and 2018. Her latest novel, The Airways, is out through Picador.

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