Similar feminist shifts happens in Kunstler’s trilogy, although the shifts in his novels are not so pronounced or dramatic. His book is the most subtle of these three nextopian novels. In World Made by Hand, the main character describes a town meeting and notes that “all the trustees were men, no women and no plain laborers;” the town “reverted to social division” that is unethical in today’s society (Kunstler 101). A return to clear social delineations is evidence of a slip back in time, toward segregated folly and a loss of equality between humans which places the novel firmly in the dystopian category.
However, some people with very traditional or strict religious beliefs would argue that clear delineation of duties aids a society because each individual knows and performs their duties less confusion of responsibility. People with such attitudes would view this aspect of World Made by Hand as a utopian vision. Simultaneously, the ability of a woman to pursue happiness remains in the novel, and is explored through the private lives of three main characters. Loren the minister is “unable to have sexual relations” with his wife (16).
In an effort to fulfill her sexual need, Jane Ann initiates an open affair with Loren’s best friend (16). She is beyond child bearing years so her relationship with Robert is not one of procreation, instead it is one of physical enjoyment. The arrangement shows the freedom Jane Ann has to a healthy and fulfilling sexual life without social stigmas that exist today. This choice is not like the mandated promiscuity of other supposedly utopian novels, but it shows an increased respect for the needs of an individual woman and is therefore a feminist representation.
However, lack of access to medicine (in this case for impotency) is evidence of a dystopia (13, 134, 154). Later in the series Loren is cured by an imaginative New Weird twist involving a witch and a night of hallucinations that continue to mix utopian and dystopian themes. After Loren is cured, Jane Ann happily ends the affair. The more juxtaposition characters display the more likely the story is a nextopian novel. The ability of a single scene, or a single character, to be identified as utopian by some and dystopian by others typifies the scene or character as nextopian; if there are numerous examples then the novel is nextopian.
In addition to strictly feminist topics, ecofeminist topics are also explored in nextopias. One proponent of ecofeminism is that inequality and ecological injustice arise from the current monetary-focused patriarchal systems. Ecofeminist pocket-cultures are contrasted with more traditional patriarchal pocket-cultures in two of these nextopias. Stirling and Piercy present subsistence-focused, decentralized, ecofeminist systems of political and social organization. 6 Neither novelist wrote a complete overthrow of patriarchal systems; instead both matriarchal and patriarchal systems co-exist in these books.
The inclusion of diverse political organization lends itself to the complexity of the nextopia subgenre. By including many political systems, the benefits and pitfalls of each system are accentuated. These and other nextopian “novels provide imaginative bases for continued examinations of the multiform connections between language, gender and sexuality” as well as political and environmental relationships occurring in American thought and fiction of the past forty years (O’Donnell 23). Ecofeminism lends itself to the nextopia subgenre because of the layers of complexity inherit in ecofeminist tenants.
Ecological criticism also reveals evidence of complex utopian and dystopian elements in each book. The environmental utopian aspects of Piercy’s novel include “ownfed” communities in which each community fulfills its own food requirements which has the side effect of limiting the growth of international luxury crops (Piercy 70, 7777195). There is no smoking, or other harmful substance use and abuse, no industrial agricultural or industrial pollutants, no mega cities, and nature-tending is of upmost importance (127, 128, 68, 70).
Industrial production is entirely automated freeing the population from industrial wageslavery (129). The communities maintain environmental equilibrium by “car[ing] for [their] brooder, cook[ing] in [their] fooder, car[ing] for animals, do[ing] basic routines like cleaning, politic (sic) and meet. That leaves hours to talk, to play, to study, to love, to enjoy the river” (128). Animals are companions more than pets (97-99), a fooder is a community kitchen (74), and a brooder is where all the children are produced.
When a member of the community dies a new person is ordered from the brooder, thereby maintaining the population (162). However, environmentally friendly population control is widely regarded as a dystopian aspect and further evidence that “Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is not really a utopia” (Delany 173). Indeed, the idea of population control comes straight from dystopian nightmares. Connie visits the township’s yellow birthing center, which Luciente calls a “brooder” (Piercy 100).
In today’s vernacular a brooder is a place for warming baby chickens, piglets, or other young livestock. The similarities between livestock and fetus continue when Connie enters the brooder, but the cheerful yellow is replaced with a calming blue environment, and human production at this stage, resembles fish farming (101). The choice to relegate reproduction to a “crazy machine,” “a nightmare of [this] age,” may be environmentally sound and might eliminate the world problems with population overshoot, and famine (Piercy 102, 103 Bartlett).
Theoretically, resource wars would diminish because the equilibrium between what the Earth can supply, and what the human population consumes, could be maintained. 7 Despite the touted environmental benefits of “maintaining a steady population”, it is a dystopian element because of the removal of personal choice by denying women the right to choose motherhood, and a religious concern for those who believe population control circumvents divine mandate (74). Ecologically, Dies the Fire is sound only because no other options exist.
The Change altered the laws of physics so that combustion and energy storage are impossible (Stirling 473). Ken Larsson, a secondary character and former engineer (33), notes that “gas cutting and welding sets still worked as long as the acetylene held out” but “no matter how much fuel you put” in any kind of engine “the pressure doesn’t get high enough” to combust (474, 473). The lack of energy to facilitate commercial farming and trade leads to mass starvation and many perish or turn to cannibalism when local food supplies run out (82, 223, 230).
When groups of survivors band together, they plant what they can by hand with the help of the few beasts of burden that survived the Change, the fires, and the hungry people fleeing the cities (11, 17, 124-5). Use of human scale organic farming methods are necessary because combines, sprayers, spreaders, and other heavy duty farming machinery are rendered inert without a means of combustion. The organic lifestyle is a familiar ecotopian trope but the starving and dying required to lower the population to organically supportable levels rings of dystopia.
World Made by Hand features many ecological utopian ideas as well. The diet of each person is by necessity organic and locally grown (Kunstler 5). The production of food has returned to backyards in the form of intensive gardening, also rabbit and chicken keeping for the production of manure and eggs (22). The local Schmidt farm is manned by nearly half the population in order to provide enough diverse crops for the town (35). Fish from the clear running, pollution-free creek serve as supplements to a basic diet (135). The lack of pollution has promoted a rebounding effect in the wild game population (135).
That, coupled with the decrease in overall human population due to flu (13) and infection (134) has resulted in a new equilibrium. Kunstler presents a possible utopian community that, if resources are properly maintained, is ecologically sustainable. In addition to caloric resource management, the city dump has become a treasure trove of supplies (28). The recycling of what was once tossed casually aside, has led to a new economy with its own capitalist kingpin presiding. Wayne Karp runs the city dump as a general supply where “he ha[s] a large crew… systematically digging up … nything that c[an] be reused,” while simultaneously managing a salvage operation of the crumbling suburban sprawl (30-31).
The careful use and reuse of objects shows the importance of recycling in Kunstler’s retrofuture and the ability of a community to grow beyond the wasteful aspects of capitalist consumerism These ecotopian ideals are not based on scientific marvels that perpetuate the current rate of energy consumption, or find new ways to maintain the modern way of life. Instead, nextopias typically feature retrofutures in which the modern world is returned to historical conditions.
A retrofuture is more like the past than the present. Retrofuturism is the undoing of globalization, the crumbling of international communities, and the demise of large scale identifiers. 8 In nextopian novels the changes that bring about the next phases of global history are told from localized and limited perspectives because the expansion of unity crumbles without long-range communication and trade. The number and variety of pocket-cultures that emerge in local-focused networks are an example of nextopian complexity, further separating the genre from the dualistic (and more global-minded) genres of utopia and dystopia.
Each pocket-culture is isolated from its neighbor by a geographical feature, distance, or lack of communication and so develops in unique ways. No two pocketcultures are identical and the inclusion of multiple communities speaks to the possibility of continued evolution of current diverse societal ideals. The exploration of manifold retrofuture societies interacting with each other is a key aspect of the nextopian subgenre.