What does “utopia” mean to you?: An Interview with the Editors of Room 47.1 UTOPIA

The call for submissions for Utopia issue 47.1 is now open! Some of our editorial team for this issue—Room editor Micah Killjoy and Augur guest editors, Kerry C. Byrne, Terese Mason Pierre, Toria Liao, Yilin Wang—all sat down across time zones to delve into our thoughts on utopias and what we’re looking for in the issue.
*Not present here but also on this editorial team are Room editor Nara Monteiro and Augur guest editors Conyer Clayton and Kelley Tai.

The call for submissions is open from May 15 to June 5 to all submitters, and from June 5 to June 30th for writers living in Canada/Canadian writers living abroad.

What does “utopia” mean to you? Has your definition changed since you started reading, writing, or editing science fiction? How so?

Micah Killjoy: I was raised as an avid Jehovah’s Witness, a religion known for their bible-thumping door-knocking squeaky-clean Godliness. Not as many people know about their obsession with Armageddon and the ensuing eternal Paradise for all pious believers, built on the ashes of our current world. Through my time with them, there was an obsessive focus on being remade as ‘perfect’ in this new world, without racial division, classism, or disability.

Things have changed considerably since then—the belief an all-loving God would murder 8 billion disbelievers feels ugly now. But I still love the idea of continually working towards a better world for all, regardless of race, class, or dis/ability, and speculative fiction has become a place to imagine and explore these places.

Science fiction, specifically utopias, can give these thoughts some space to breathe and a place for us to wrestle with the intricacies and blind spots that are inherent within them. So, it means a myriad of things to me now, but, ultimately, it’s got some form of characters from diverse backgrounds making meaning within their relationships and care for each other as well as a deep relationship with nature.

Kerry C. Byrne: I don’t think it means anything specific to me. I think Utopia is a term that has been used in a specific way, and I want to see the ways we can claim it for ourselves. I think when I was younger, high school, I likely would’ve said “a perfect place where everyone is happy.” And I think that is the easy, and quite meaningless, definition. The sort of definition that is used to rally unhappy people to do terrible things. An empty promise. But especially right now, there’s a creeping edge to that idea; because what happens to all the people who wouldn’t be happy?

The optimist in me feels that Utopia comes from breaking down capitalism; rejecting colonialism; shutting down penitent-centric systems; generating non-binary futures; centering Black and Indigenous futures. It means returning the land and centering respect, compassion, education, and repair. It welcomes conflict, but not war. Difference, without destruction. But what does that look like in the end? That’s what I’m hoping to explore in this issue.

Yilin Wang: When I was growing up, my understanding of utopia was informed by the Chinese folktale “Peach Blossom Spring” (桃花源记) by the writer Tao Yuanming (陶渊明), which tells the story of a fisherman who finds himself caught in a storm and encounters a utopian village. The utopia is inhabited by villagers whose ancestors went into hiding centuries ago to escape the troubles of war and conscription and whose descendants have since then remained separate from the world. The fisherman leaves the village and goes against the villagers’ advice to keep the village’s location secret; neither he nor anyone else who goes out to search for it ever finds it again.

This view of looking at utopia–as a world you stumble across accidentally, as a way of living, and as a mindset–is one that I still find myself returning to again and again. In the past few years, as I continue to reflect on what utopia means, I have realized I am interested in utopias that offer new possibilities, ways of imagining futures, and challenge oppressive social hierarchies and power structures. What kind of worlds and futures are we building towards, and how?

Terese Mason Pierre: The classic answer is that utopia is meant to represent an imagined, perfect, fictional world. But as I get older and much better at crafting questions, I understand that even that meaning is loaded. What does “perfect” mean? Perfect for whom? How was this “perfect” world built? What does this “perfection” include and exclude? And if this supposedly “perfect” world does exist, who or what is stopping us from achieving it?

To be as specific as I can, nowadays, I think of utopia now as a world in which everyone’s needs are truly met—whether the need is food, shelter, love, respect, guidance, community, connection, education, curiosity or freedom. I think of a world that moves past capitalism (especially capitalist realism), colonialism and the oppressive structures that derive from it. I think of a world that honors the environment, honors children (and personhood more broadly), honors restorative justice, and honors community as well as individuals. What would it look like to live in a world under systems that actually took care of us, allowing us to imagine and create brighter futures?

I also think about a world that centers and celebrates joy and contentment, something whole, somatic, and transformative, something we feel deep in our bodies—an undoing of the fundamental exhaustion and tightness that capitalism and colonialism instill in our bones (around the fleeting moments of happiness that it does allow). Joy as all-consuming and as world-changing as grief. Contentment as a deep understanding that we are cared for, loved, and safe, a slow unfurling into the crevices of our lives. What would it look like to live in a world under systems that actually wanted us to feel good and safe?

Speculative fiction, famously, has enormous room to explore these kinds of worlds, and I have continued faith that it can do that.

Why do utopias matter? Do you see ways they can help or hinder us in the midst of climate change and mass social upheaval?

MK: When Walidah Imarisha spoke at Ursula K. Le Guin’s memorial in 2018 she said, “We need imaginative spaces like sci-fi if we are going to build new, just futures. We have to have space to dream the change we will build.”’ That idea has stuck with me—utopic exploration is about dreaming the change and also finding the steps to get there.

KCB: For me, Utopia has one major job. To make room for marginalized people to claim futures that center their contentment and safety. Maybe joy, but joy is fleeting. I crave contentment. Comfort. The feeling that things are okay today, and they will be again tomorrow. Something so normal, that belongs to so few.

YW: When the world is broken and falling apart in so many ways, it can be so difficult to feel a sense of hope and optimism. Utopias offer a space for those who are vulnerable and marginalized to imagine better worlds and futures. It’s so important to have that space to dream.

TMP: I see utopias as something to strive towards, which means that they are necessarily future-focused. They act as a pull-factor—an anchor and a lighthouse. Utopia as a space to imagine better futures might seem romantic in the midst of climate change and social upheaval—childish, insulting, or even “toxically positive.” But that is what the powers that be would have us think—that a world that centers joy, contentment, safety, and healing is nigh impossible, so we should stop trying.

Have you ever experienced anything in real life that felt utopic?

MK: I’m heavily involved in an overnight science education program for public school 6th graders and secondary school students as their counselors. I think calling it ‘utopic’ is a step too far; it’s still a school program, it’s short-term, and it’s certainly not for everyone (though I wish it could be). Still, it feels magical to see what communities of care, kindness, and joy we’re capable of creating when everyone has their basic needs met, even if only for a week.

KCB: I’m not sure. When I think about this feeling, my first instinct is to think about happiness. Fleeting moments in community, especially in the literary community. Moments in AugurCon, or when attending The FOLD. Sometimes, moments in performance, or witnessing music or art. But then, when I think about the utopia of the normal, I also think about childhood. I did not have a particularly safe or good childhood, but I was fortunate to have moments where I trusted that my basic needs would be taken care of. And that privilege gave me moments of escape, where I could venture out in nature to the beautiful peace of being by myself, knowing I would have somewhere to return home and sleep and eat. I think, under capitalism, there is something utopic for those of us fortunate to have that experience.

TMP: There are moments in my life where I felt immense joy, and these are the moments I come back to when I lose sight of reality, truth and my future. These moments are spent with my friends and community—my twenty-seventh birthday party, the launch of my first chapbook, or even when friends venture out on stormy days to spend time with me. These are the moments where I know I am loved. I am loved, I am loved.

What’s your favourite utopia story or poem? Any favourite utopia tropes?

MK: Perhaps it’s a bit basic of me, but I love both The Dispossessed, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. There is plenty of ugliness within both, but they are still driven by community and by love, and put forth hypotheses of better worlds; fictional visions which influence me in the present. DS9 especially gives me comfort when I’m sad—it shows how even in the midst of trauma and pain, we can still have silly hijinks and deep familial love—regardless of our background. So, if it’s not overly redundant: My favourite trope is a small group of people who find belonging, regardless of their material comfort.   

KCB: This may be controversial as a utopia, but I’m going to say Sailor Moon. What is the entirety of Sailor Moon if not ramping up a world based on friendship, hope, and compassion, where everyone lives happily after? But then, the people who get that utopia are still so flawed and human; they receive it not because of who they are, but what they do, and the choices they make in community and care. I think there’s so much to be said about Sailor Moon and the downfall of capitalism. Of course, it also includes monarchy in its concept of utopia, which does ruin this answer a bit for me. But I’m not sure I’ve ever come across a perfect Utopia. So, for now, this is the one for me. Tropes? I’m not sure; but I think Utopia, for me, must be written with an awareness of what it takes (sacrifice, conflict, education, community work) to create Utopia. If it’s possible. (I also think this is where postmodern magical girl series like Madoka Magicka pose interesting questions.)

What is your personal utopia’s downfall? Put another way, what is the struggle of a utopia that lives in your head?

MK: Definitely something to do with anxiety. Perhaps anxiety skewing the inhabitants’ view until they can’t quite tell what’s a real threat and what’s imagined.

TMP: My personal utopia’s downfall is living in a world that thrives on my misery. It is the idea that there is something fundamentally, essentially, wrong with me, as a person. That no matter how hard I try, I can’t accomplish anything, I can’t carve my own future, I can’t receive love, I can’t support anyone, and that I can’t be “worthy” of anything. That who I am is wrong, and that I don’t “deserve” to envision a utopia.

What are you looking for in this “Utopias” issue?

MK: Clear visions, desires, and conflict. Liminal settings. Worlds almost realized but not quite there, and that are built on something bigger before. Stories coming from historically underserved and underrepresented voices in literature, stories that feel like they come from a real place and a real understanding of the world as it is today, but don’t give up hope that it can also drastically improve.

KCB: Normal worlds. Docile utopias. Near-future Utopias. But also, utopias built on histories they have had to come to terms with—and do so responsibly. Utopias on a precipice, fighting to figure out what it means to maintain utopia—and is maintaining utopia a utopian decision to make? Throw big, glamorous worlds in there too; I’m a sucker for aesthetics. I’m especially interested in seeing utopias from Black, Indigenous, disabled and/or trans creators.

YW: I would love to see utopias by Black, Indigenous, racialized, trans, and disabled creators. I am especially interested in seeing work that complicates the idea of utopia, that imagines what the building of those futures might look like, that explores how those futures may be sustained, all that follows, and that approaches the topic with care and consideration for its relation to the histories and present-day realities of our world.

TMP: I am a fierce advocate of joy, so I’d love to see utopic stories that embody joy and contentment in the ways I described earlier. I refuse to give into ideas that may coax me to see joy as radical, strange, immature, simple, impossible, or “too much.” I’m interested in utopias that center community, communal learning, and communal care. I’m interested in slice-of-life stories, moments magnified and made magnificent. I’m interested in near-future stories, solarpunk stories and urban stories. I am particularly interested in utopias by Black and Indigenous creators, and all the intersections that they may inhabit. By peoples who have lived through dystopias, apocalypses, world-ending sorrows, and survived, and lived, and dreamed.

Submit to Room 47.1 Utopia today.

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Editor: Shristi Uprety
Assistant Editor: Ruchika Gothoskar
Shadow Editor: Tara Preissl
Cover Art: R.Y.B by Doan Truong

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