From William Gibson to Robert Macfarlane, the novel-writing Italian collective pick books that construct utopian worlds and explore our impulse to build them
High hopes ... A visitor to the national National Museum in Brasilia, designed by Oscar Niemeyer as part of his utopian plan for the new city. Photograph: Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images
It's good that you want us to write about our Top 10 utopias. These days, everyone is asking us to write a piece on the Italian political situation, and we keep answering: "You already know what's going on." A character from comedy became a charismatic leader, adopted both a superficially left-leaning phraseology and a decidedly right-wing macho posture, and kept screaming: "Neither left nor right!". He showed the masses a shortcut to clean their souls: "Good citizens are honest! Politicians are the only culprits!" By focusing on scapegoats and denouncing only the surface of the system (ie politicians), the new movement is stabilising the system's core, so austerity politics can go on, exploitation can go on, and social inequality doesn't suffer any threats.
Altai: A Novel
by Wu Ming
When dystopia is not dystopian anymore utopia becomes, more than ever, a vital necessity.
While writing about science fiction, Jameson draws on German philosopher Ernst Bloch in order to revive an inspiring distinction between the "utopian programme" and the "utopian impulse". If utopia is about imagining a different world or at least a different way of living, then a "utopian impulse" is at work in many actions and choices of our everyday life. Even a walk in the woods creates a different, temporary world around us, revealing that we'd rather live in another way. There are books about utopian programmes, displaying carefully constructed utopian worlds, and there are books about the utopian impulse. The titles we chose fall in both categories.
2. Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick
On a terraformed planetoid called Kirinyaga (the Gikuyu name of Mount Kenya), a Gikuyu community tries to live as their ancestors did before Kenya was colonised. For Koriba, the self-appointed mundumugu (witch doctor) of the community, this is a dream come true. It goes without saying that things don't go as he expected, but after the predictable failure of the utopian programme, Kirinyaga becomes a much more intriguing book, a book on Koriba's return to a transfigured, futuristic Nairobi and the unrelenting utopian impulse which makes him a stranger in a strange city. He's got only two friends: an old man and a clone of Ahmed of Marsabit (the most famous elephant in the history of Kenya). When he achieves a creative synthesis between utopian impulse and death drive, he finds a way out.
3. Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane
This is one of the best books on mountaineering ever written. It's the book that explicitly deals with the utopian impulse that drives men and women to suffer cold and fatigue, defy altitude sickness, risk death at every moment, only to see the world from the peak of a mountain, little more than a quick glance before going back down. Until the 18th century, no utopian impulse was associated with mountains. People were not interested in climbing them, reaching their peaks was not yet an expression of the primary metaphor up = good/down = bad. Macfarlane tells the story of how humans became interested in mountains, and turned them into a realm of utopia.
4. No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi
This is both about Kenya and mountaineering as utopia. On a 1943 equatorial night, three Italian prisoners of war escaped from camp 354 near Nanyuki, in order to climb Mount Kenya. They had secretely prepared their escape for about eight months. After two weeks of primeval freedom and fierce hunger, they reached Point Lenana (16,355 ft). Then they went back to the camp, to face unavoidable punishment. Was it worth doing it? Of course it was. With their romantic gesture, they overcame the horrific boredom and humiliation of the concentration camp. One of them, Felice Benuzzi, told the story in two books, one in Italian (Fuga sul Kenya) and the other in English (No Picnic on Mount Kenya). Wu Ming 1 and Roberto Santachiara just wrote a narrative biography of Benuzzi entitled Point Lenana.
5. Timeless Earth by Peter Kolosimo 6. Spaceships in Prehistory by Peter Kolosimo 7. Not of this World by Peter Kolosimo 8. Brothers of Infinity by Peter Kolosimo
We chose four of them, but we've become re-obsessed with all the books this guy wrote in the 1970s, stuff that we used to read when we were kids. They were all bestsellers, each of them sold hundreds of thousands of copies. We're even planning a book about Kolosimo. He was a member of the Italian communist party who spoke fluent German and Russian and was in touch with visionary scientists from all over the Eastern Bloc. He thought that advanced civilisations existed in other parts of the galaxy, and most likely they had achieved socialism long ago. He stated that delegations of those "comrades from other planets" had visited Earth in ancient times, and tried to prove it by pointing at pictorial representations allegedly showing starships landing, cosmonauts in full attire etc, or interpreting passages from the Bible as thinly disguised descriptions of close encounters of the third kind. He also wrote about weird science and reinterpreted alchemy through materialist dialectics. His books always had epigraphs with poems by Pablo Neruda. Utopian fuel for our young brains. Psychedelic Stalinism. We never recovered from reading that wondrous stuff.
9. The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson
We talked a lot about this famous short story, we even held conferences about it, saying that nowadays it ought to be turned upside down. More than 30 years ago, Gibson suggested a therapy for post-utopian melancholia. The main character is haunted by images of the futures that never were, the kinds of future that pop culture dreamed about in the late modern age – ie from the 1930s to the early 1960s – the era of classic science-fiction prefigurations. All of a sudden, this guy sees futuristic airplanes flying above him, futuristic landscapes appearing on the horizon, happy Jetson-like families on futuristic cars floating in the air. It's the semiotic garbage left behind when the future withdrew from our world. He recovers from this peculiar illness by following the advice of a friend: Look at ugly, trashy films. Get stuffed with junk TV. Consume the lowest products of pop culture with no sense of guilt. Do not feel sorry for the loss of the future.
Nowadays, if we had to rewrite the story, the therapy would be the illness and the other way around. In plain words: forced overconsumption of cultural trash is what most westerners grew up in. They grew up in the eternal present of late capitalism, with no one encouraging them to envision any kind of future. This cultural disability can be cured by cultivating a renovated desire of future worlds. Let's brush the dust off those old Robert A Heinlein books. Let's take back ourCordwainer Smiths, our Jack Vances, our Philip J Farmers, and our Ursula K Le Guins. Let's reconquer utopia.
10. Breckenridge and the Continuum by Robert Silverberg
Another short story with the word "continuum" in the title, that was the subject of one of our conferences. This is slightly older than Gibson's one. It is clearly a tribute to Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and it's also a demonstration of faith in the art of telling stories. How intriguing that, not long after he wrote it, Silverberg retired from writing for five years. Breckenridge is a man of the 20th century that, all of a sudden, finds himself in an extremely remote future. Probably hundreds of thousands of years separated this underpopulated, desertic world from the one where he used to live. He joins a group of stranded mutants and becomes the storyteller, every night, around the campfire, he tells them distorted, half-forgotten versions of Greek and Hebrew myths. Little by little, his awareness of the structure of those stories becomes the skill by which he'll solve an enigma and give a new beginning to civilisation. Novelists can do that.