“Utopia is uninhabitable. As soon as we reach it, it ceases to be utopia. As evidence of this sad but ineluctable fact, may I point out that we in this room, here and now, are inhabiting utopia.”
— Ursula K. LeGuin, “A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be” (1982)
In 1959, the journalist Frank Herbert was assigned a story about the Oregon Dunes, the largest expanse of coastal sand dunes in North America. The Oregon Dunes are a unique ecosystem: because of the constantly changing shape and structure of the windswept dunes, plant and animal life there must be adaptable. Trees can get buried overnight, small burrowing creatures get entombed in their holes. You must be clever and steely-eyed to survive in the sand.
This story was not tied to any particular newsy event, so Herbert’s editor at the Oregon Statesman (now the Statesman Journal) gave him free rein with it. “Get it done whenever you can,” he told him, “we’ll keep it in the hopper for a slow week.” Herbert had a lot of other stories going at the time, so he just worked on the Dunes story whenever he could: did some interviews with local Sierra Club reps and with the Forest Service officials who managed the place; checked out some books from the library that sat on his desk, collecting dust, for weeks; visited the park once and took some overexposed photos with his little Brownie camera.
But eventually something changed. I imagine it was a particular interview he got, perhaps with an ecologist who was passionate about the place. I imagine that, when Herbert came to interview them, they made a serious attempt to impress upon him the importance and uniqueness of the dunes, the tragedy it would be if the fragile ecosystem was harmed. I imagine they got choked up at some point, talking about the flora and fauna of the place, how beautiful it was. I imagine they reached across the table and touched his hand, too overcome to maintain any professional composure.
I imagine that this ecologist had no emotional barrier against our slow destruction of the natural world: They felt it all, all of the time, like a thumb pressed into a bruise.
Herbert left that interview shaken. The next day, he and his wife went out into the dunes, got high, and stayed there for hours, hiking and talking and letting the day go by. As the sun started to set, they watched as a western snowy plover—a bird endemic to the dunes—walked across the sand towards Eel Creek. Herbert noticed that, because of the bird’s hollow bones and the way its weight is distributed across its wide-spread toes, its feet didn’t break the surface of the sand as it walked. It barely even left a print.
The closest thing we have to Oregon’s coastal sand dunes here in New Mexico is White Sands National Park. In the middle of the Tularosa Basin, the park encompasses 275 square miles of gypsum sand dunes, with sand so starkly white that it reflects the sunlight perfectly and stays cool to the touch, even in the hottest summer days of the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful and unique place, often used as a setting in sci-fi movies when the script calls for otherworldly.
Back in 2018 I went camping there. It was in early spring, and the place still got well below freezing at night—I woke up once to find the condensation from my breath frozen into little icicles on the ceiling of my bivouac tent. In the morning I crawled out of the tent, made coffee shiveringly with my little backpacking stove, and looked around. It was silent. Like waking onto a desert planet, empty of any human life but me. As the sun started to rise, I took my tin mug of coffee and trudged up the steep side of a dune to sit on top, catch the first rays, and warm up as quickly as I could.
Once I got to the top I looked over into the neighboring trough and quietly gasped—a coyote, not twenty feet away from me. He looked up at me but didn’t run, didn’t even flinch. Just squinted up at me. I’ve never seen a wild animal so completely unbothered by my presence, before or since. As I looked on, he returned to the task he had clearly been at before I interrupted: jumping up high into the air, then diving down and digging his snout deep into the sand, as far as it would go. Hunting for burrowing mice, I realized. A very utilitarian thing, of course; animals spend most of their time looking for food. But as I watched him I couldn’t help but think that he was having fun doing it. The way all four of his paws came off the ground when he sprang up, the snuffling, snorting sound he made with his nose in the dirt. I know it’s dangerous to try to map human feelings onto animals, to measure their intelligence or emotion on a scale with us as the control group. Their brains work in such different ways from ours that such comparisons are pure fantasy, and often result in the creation of concepts as toxic as alpha male.
And yet. Is fantasy not the only tool we have to empathize with creatures so drastically different from ourselves? Is it not in some way valuable for us to imagine: What would it be like to move through the world in the body of a coyote?
Coyotes, despite being a native species, have been the subject of multi-million dollar campaigns of eradication here in the US. They are the only carnivore species in the country that’s considered a “pest,” mostly by cattle and sheep ranchers, who lose some small percentage of their stock each year to coyote predation. For much of the 19th century they were hunted by bounty—each tail you brought into the local sheriff’s office would earn you a cash prize. Federal agencies killed them by the thousands with bait laced with strychnine—a poison that makes muscles contract. Strychnine causes incredible pain before death, and leaves corpses corkscrewed into impossible positions, faces frozen in a rigor mortis snarl. This systematic elimination was considered conservation. The powers that be had decided that there were simply too many coyotes.
Despite these efforts, coyotes have only expanded their territory over the 20th and 21st centuries. They used to be found only in the Southwest—now, they’ve spread as far east and north as New York. There are coyotes in Central Park. They live off unwary pigeons and picnic lunches snatched from equally unwary tourists.
It’s their adaptability that has ensured their survival: coyotes will live and hunt either in packs, couples, or solo. They are primarily carnivores, but can and do also eat nuts and berries and whatever human food they can get. Studies have shown that, by some unknowable biological signal, coyote mothers give birth to larger litters when the local coyote population has significantly dipped. They are the American Ur-opportunists: adapting to fill whatever niche in the ecosystem they can get a foothold in.
The only species that even comes close to matching their growth in territory across the continent is us. Our adaptability is different: We don’t adapt to fit our environments, we adapt our environments to fit us.
Herbert’s article about the Oregon Sand Dunes never got published. Instead, six years later, he had a manuscript for a novel. He called it Dune. (That’s right: this whole time I’ve been writing about how much I love Dune! Gotcha.) This is the dedication he gave it:
To the people whose labours go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’—to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.
He says it right there: “this effort at prediction.” Herbert had already bagged a prior called shot—in his 1955 novel The Dragon in the Sea, he described a world that goes to war over corporate oil interests. Now he was aiming for another.
On a first read of Dune, you will certainly catch that ecology is a big theme, but you probably wouldn’t call it central to the plot. The book is really about power, the struggle against empire, and native forms of resistance. It’s also about drugs and magic and religion and a 15-year-old being thrust into an impossible situation.
I wonder, still, if the “prediction” that Herbert was making with Dune was about the empire robbing the planet of its resources, or about the ensuing rebellion. More likely it was both: one begets the other, of necessity. Not to wildly oversimplify the trajectory of human history, but that’s usually how it goes, isn’t it? The overstep and then the backlash, again and again and again.
Or maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe I got so caught up in the human drama and power struggles of the story that I lost track of the sand beneath my feet, and the life that teems within it. The book is, after all, not called Paul Atreides or Muad’Dib. It’s called Dune. It’s about the planet.
I think Herbert’s prediction was actually pointing to this desert planet and saying, “This could be a paradise. It only takes a little imagination.”
Thankfully, he had imagination in spades.
Before I lived in New Mexico, I spent my childhood in the subtropical climate of Houston, where the infrastructure of the city is always at war with the willful nature that is still trying to reclaim its lost territory. Live oak trees crack and buckle the sidewalks with their roots; hurricanes and tropical storms flood the bayou and wipe out whole swathes of neighborhoods with some regularity. In the summertime mosquitos make the city nearly unliveable, and city-funded pesticide trucks sweep through on a weekly basis to keep them somewhat in check. Perhaps the most pervasive and visible presence that wild nature still has in this very cosmopolitan city, though, is kudzu.
The kudzu vine was first introduced to the US in 1876, brought over from Japan for the Centennial Expedition in Philadelphia as an ornamental and shade plant. It wasn’t until the 1930s and the Dust Bowl that it started getting promoted as a cover crop. The USDA gave out 85 million seedlings to southern landowners and the government paid farmers to plant kudzu on their farms—farms which, you know, weren’t growing much else at the time. This solution to the nutrient-sapped soil (made so largely by decades of monocropping tobacco and cotton) became a new problem within the span of twenty years, and the problem remains—as you may know if you’ve ever been anywhere in the American South.
The problem is that kudzu grows like wildfire. Not only does it grow fast (a vine can grow up to a foot in a single day), but it can grow in drought conditions and bad soil. It tends to take over in roadsides, abandoned properties, and transitional zones like around the edges of forests: places nobody really cares about or holds a title to. In Houston, you’ll see trucks piled high with kudzu clippings driving around in the spring and summer, as city crews try to hack it into submission with clippers and machetes. Left unchecked, the vine will swallow entire houses, pull down power lines with its weight, choke the life out of forests, cover over acres like a living green ocean. The joke is that, if you stand still for too long, it’ll grow over you too.
I’ll admit that I find the vine beautiful, despite its destructive power. The way it completely blankets landscapes in the South looks lush, abundant, Eden-like. On a hot day, you might look out and think how cool it would be to disappear under the shade of that endless canopy. Maybe I can have this perspective only after years of living in New Mexico, where the color green is at a premium and the real-life consequences of the vine are distant, practically imaginary. But I am not the only one who thinks so.
A lot of people—definitely not farmers or landowners—have found something kind of romantic or provocative about kudzu, granting it the mythic-sounding title of “the vine that ate the South.” I love that moniker. There’s something wryly satisfying about the idea of us apex predators being “eaten” by a plant. There might be some among us who believe we deserve to get eaten; that our empire’s annihilation by plant would be good and just and cosmically funny.
Even if you haven’t seen kudzu in real life or never knew the name before, it’s probably in your cultural lexicon. If you saw those Chernobyl 30 Years Later photos of abandoned schools and Ferris wheels all swamped over with vines and radioactive saplings—that was kudzu. Any given illustration circling in the last few years of a presumably defunct cop car with vines growing over it, symbolizing our post-cop future—that’s kudzu, too. The all-consumingness of the plant really prods our apocalyptic imagination, and these images of it thriving long after some kind of “fall” event can be strangely comforting. Look, here is something with an even stronger will to survive than us. Maybe, after many years, it will erase all these signs of us from the planet, and our sins will finally be forgiven.
I’m not rooting for kudzu over humanity, but I would understand somebody who did. I honestly think that kudzu has just as much of a hunger for land and homogeneity as our short-sighted culture. We are, after all, a part of the same nature as it—red in tooth and claw. Perhaps that’s the reason for our love-hate relationship with kudzu: We are just two hungry predators circling each other on a shrinking landmass, thinking game recognize game.
But a healthy ecosystem has many predators—not one that edges all the others out. In a healthy ecosystem, everyone eats and is eaten. Everyone has their niche.
What if we could coexist with the plant that wants to kill us? Hopefully we could at least find some compassion on that point: We’ve spent millions of dollars a year trying to eradicate kudzu since the 50s. A Google search yields images of people killing it off with literal flamethrowers. Like Sigourney Weaver used to fight off the xenomorph in Alien. We get desperate in our fight against this ever-hungry enemy, this enemy that we cannot communicate with or detect any recognizable intelligence in. We turn to extreme measures. Science fiction measures.
For years I’ve been saying I’m going to write a novel about kudzu. It’s a dystopian novel in which kudzu actually is an alien species, has been sentient this whole time, and really, truly, is trying to kill us. Maybe there’s some parasitic mind-control angle; maybe the plant is a symbol for colonization or something. I don’t know, I haven’t got all the details worked out yet.
The most tempting near-future projection—the novel that would write itself—sprouts from this: The best mass-scale solution to the kudzu problem that agricultural scientists have come up with so far is introducing a species of weevil into the mix, a species that has a big appetite for kudzu. The only problem with this is that the weevil’s favorite food is soybeans, America’s most economically important crop. No matter how many times scientists throw the thing back into the genetic modification chamber, spin and splice its genome into different patterns, it keeps coming back hungry for soybeans.
As disastrous as kudzu is for American agriculture now, this could be apocalyptic. If you close your eyes, can’t you see the montage of panicked scientists in lab coats, farmers looking out over empty fields, the arrow of the Dow Jones spiking suddenly, irreversibly, downward? We know what this apocalypse would look like already, without having to live it.
Every couple years, somebody publishes a “why aren’t we eating kudzu?” story in a science or food publication. It’s a good question. Every part of the plant besides its seeds and seed pods are edible. The leaves, apparently, taste similar to spinach. In Japan and China, where kudzu originated, its starchy roots are turned into a powder and used as a thickener, like cornstarch or tapioca. There have been some attempts at integrating kudzu into the American diet in the last decade, but they are all more novel than they are practical.
If kudzu is to continue its role in our imagined futures, I want to think bigger: why not kudzu biofuel? Why not shipping materials, clothes, 3D printing substrates made from kudzu? It is an abundant and self-replicating resource, and all of those things are relatively easy to make from organic material. I mean, I know that there are very real reasons why not; we’d all be driving biofuel cars right now if it weren’t for an oil industry that has a chokehold on our entire way of life. But indulge me for a moment here: this is all speculative fiction anyway.
Last summer I read Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto. It’s a dead serious book but I couldn’t help but laugh at the title, and feel weirdly, guiltily embarrassed to be reading something so idealistic and forward-looking in our era of collapse. It is written with the consequence-ignorant conviction that I find frustrating in a lot of Marxist writers, but I still found myself getting caught up in this guy’s fervor. I wanted to believe that asteroid mining would save us, that lab-grown meat would mean an end to factory farms in my lifetime, that automated labor would pave the way to easier, better lives for all of us. Still, with every world-saving technology this writer put forth, I couldn’t help but think sure, but a lot of poor people are gonna die before we get there.
Besides, as much as I want to believe in the power of human invention, we all know that America’s period of building innovative public infrastructure is over. We built highways, we created a power grid, turned some lakes into valleys and some valleys into lakes. We used taxpayer dollars to put a man on the moon, and that was cool—but only billionaires mess around with space travel these days. We’re done with all that now. The national imagination has run dry. We can’t even figure out how to kill off this one annoying plant. Much less learn to live with it.
For me, it all started with those Chernobyl photos. They sent me down a rabbit hole of guilty pleasure: trying to imagine what the planet would look like post-humans. How quickly the ecosystem would balance itself out. How much better things would be without us.
Eventually somebody checked me on this line of thought, used the term “eco-fascist,” and I was properly chastised. To imagine that future is to give up hope, to admit we’ve lost, that the climate catastrophe—whether our fault or not—is no longer our responsibility to stop, or even curb. Because it’s inevitable. Give in, surrender, let the vines grow up over you; let it blanket the earth. It’s so beautiful, so lush, so tempting. Eden.
I once heard this distinction made between fantasy and science fiction—fantasy is about knowledge that we’ve lost, science fiction is about knowledge that we don’t yet have. Fictional past, fictional future. I think the same distinction could be applied to Eden versus Utopia—Eden is the paradise that we’ve lost, Utopia is the paradise that we aim for.
Of course, genres are only useful up to a point. Look at one of them too closely and it will refract into dozens of subgenres, with endless blurring between them—infighting and gatekeeping abound in the interstices. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look at them closely, though.
Somewhere in the stew lies “dystopian” and “post-apocalyptic”; convenient labels that are applied to books as wildly different as The Road and The Hunger Games. Apocalyptic literature has had a sort of renaissance in the 21st century; an exponential proliferation that only barely keeps pace with the number of actual apocalypses we all keep on our personal lists of things to worry about. This makes sense, of course. One of the many things literature does is hold up a mirror to what’s going on in the real world. What it can also do, though, is fixate on the biggest, most dramatically awful things going on out here in the real world — and then trap them in an echo chamber.
Susan Sontag wrote about the apocalypse in her book AIDS and Its Metaphors:
“With the inflation of apocalyptic rhetoric has come the increasing unreality of the apocalypse. A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms… and it doesn’t occur. And it still looms. We seem to be in the throes of one of the modern kinds of apocalypse. There is the one that’s not happening, whose outcome remains in suspense: the missiles circling the earth above our heads, with a nuclear payload that could destroy all life many times over, that haven’t (so far) gone off. And there are ones that are happening, and yet seem not to have (so far) the most feared consequences—like the astronomical Third World debt, like over-population, like ecological blight… Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now’ but ‘Apocalypse From Now On.’”
We all know what apocalypse and dystopia look like: it is peering out at us from every page, every screen. How much harder it is to imagine what that other place looks like, the good place. Paradise rarely appears in our fiction; when it does, it is in the condition of always already being a paradise lost. Or else it is false, exclusionary—behind the shiny facade, a gulag labors to turn the cogs of paradise for the few.
Why do we feel the need to couch utopia in the trappings of dystopia? Even in our fiction, where, supposedly, anything is possible? Here’s Jens Lekman in his song “On the Edge of Time”—named after the Marge Piercy novel, in which a patient in a mental institution is contacted by people from the future, to warn her about the disastrous path that humanity is on:
“How vulnerable it is when someone says what they want
Instead of just saying what they don’t want
How easy it is to laugh at someone’s utopia
After decades of being spoon fed dystopia.”
My favorite book as a child was Dinotopia. It’s kind of from that Swiss Family Robinson genre, that swath of kid literature that all begins with a shipwreck and ends with being joyfully returned to civilization. In Dinotopia, a man named Arthur and his young boy Will (there’s a dead mom backstory, naturally) wash up on the shore of an uncharted island after their ship gets dashed on the surrounding reef. There, they encounter humans and dinosaurs—dinosaurs!—living and working together, as they’ve done on this island for thousands of years, unbothered by the changing of the times out in the larger world.
To say that the world of Dinotopia is beautiful is a cruel understatement. It is a utopia. Humans and dinosaurs are equal citizens under Dinotopia law; they treat each other with kindness and respect. Humans see and understand the intelligence within these towering lizards, despite the insurmountable language barrier. They never reached the Industrial Age—instead, every vehicle is human- or dinosaur-powered, time is kept according to the sun, and everything is made by hand. Their clocks and bridges and toys all have the look of something da Vinci would have designed: intricate and interlocking and clever. When Arthur tells them of the new technologies and advances in science and medicine that have occurred in the world outside, they are uninterested. They like their way of life.
Except for the sewing machine. They’re very interested in this invention, and ask him to draw up a diagram so they can recreate it. They are not completely stuck in their ways—they like progress and invention, they just want it on their own terms.
The reason this book is different from all those other shipwreck stories is that, in the end, the protagonists don’t go back home—because, after a couple years of settling into the culture and language and pace of life on Dinotopia, they don’t want to. It’s not a particularly satisfying narrative arc, maybe: father and son shipwreck, struggle to survive, find an entire hidden society unknown to the world and—and then they stay there. They don’t leave, don’t tell the world about this secret, marvelous place. Arthur becomes a respected scholar at the university, is absorbed in studying Dinotopia’s history, goes on leisurely hikes out in the forests with his colleagues. Will grows up, falls in love with a girl who’s brave and kind, they start making a life together. Father and son have found a new home on the island, where everything runs in harmony with everything else, where parades of dinosaurs and giggling children walk down the street every day, throwing flowers to the crowd and symbolizing the continued, sustainable, symbiotic futures of both species.
The whole place seems too good to be true, and Arthur says so. There’s this scene shortly after he’s arrived at the capital city, where he goes on a walk along the canal with Nallab, a teacher who’s served as his sort of cultural liaison as he adjusts to the customs of Dinotopia. He notes that the city is beautiful, even more architecturally impressive than Venice, and then:
“‘I can’t imagine,’ I said one afternoon after a long silence, ‘how it could be possible for such a small island to support enough artists and stonecutters to build all these wonders. And I can’t imagine how all these different people and dinosaurs can possibly get along without quarreling.’
‘Oh, it’s possible,’ said Nallab, sucking thoughtfully on a mango, ‘but only if you do imagine it …’”
It’s easy to come to the conclusion that we’re jaded after decades of being spoon fed dystopia, and that our fiction reflects that jadedness. But I think the main reason it’s hard to do what James Gurney did with Dinotopia is that trying to imagine all of the different interconnected facets of a utopian society is simply impossible: Nobody can master-plan a world that is perfect for all its inhabitants, not even in fiction. And committing to paper a certain vision of what your utopia looks like is a vulnerable act—you are opening yourself up to criticism, of course, and to all the potential exceptions to your rules, to all the people who will say that “your utopia looks like hell to me.”
To Paul Atreides, the desert planet called Dune looked like hell when he and his family first landed there. It was only after his world turned upside down and he found himself among the Fremen, the native people of Dune, that he began to see the beauty of the place and understand how to live in harmony with its peculiar rhythms. It was not a utopia, no, not even to the people who loved it—but those people were united by a shared vision of what the planet could be. The reason Frank Herbert stuck with Dune for so long, the reason he wrote so many books about it—he died before he could finish them all—was because he, too, had a vision of what the planet could become, and he wanted to see it come to fruition. He knew that the fall has to come before the rise, that to get to utopia might require the complete annihilation of the world we know; that what comes after will be unrecognizable. He wrote into that breach, unmade and built up that new world piece by painstaking piece. He did it not because he thought he could solve the problem of utopia or give us a roadmap to get there, but because imagining it felt important, even knowing he would never live there.
Not long ago I was biking home from a friend’s house at night. I’d had a few drinks, and the warmth of booze radiated in my chest and made my breath come out hot and white in the icy air. There is maybe nothing better than biking drunk, at night, in the cold—a celebration of having a body, of moving fast in the dark, feeling yourself beyond language and complex thought, just an engine of legs and pulse and breath.
I was feeling all this and then I turned a corner and there was the coyote, standing under a street lamp like a mirage, like the very idea of a wild animal. I coasted around him, and—as if he’d been there waiting for me—he fell in step next to me. For a couple blocks we went in tandem: me out of the saddle and leaned over the handlebars, pedaling slow; him loping along as silent as a shadow; two animals moving down a residential street in a mid-sized American city. Parallel but not quite together. Then, as if following some map of scent or instinct invisible to me, he peeled off from the street into the block, into the backyards of houses where people slept, to remind those people that the desert was not some distant and sanitized idea but a real fact, yes, a fact still; a fact that lives on their block and noses through their garbage and kills their cat, a fact that crosses borders and digs under fences and doesn’t understand the significance of either, a fact that will chew its own leg off to get out of a trap, a fact that will keep coming back, over and over again, no matter how many times we try to destroy it.
ROBIN BABB is an MFA student in creative writing at the University of New Mexico. She writes about nature, agriculture, and ecology in the American Southwest, as well as the human interventions in all those things. Her writing has appeared in New Mexico Magazine, Southwest Contemporary, Modern Farmer, edible New Mexico and other publications. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Art: “The Old World” by Anton Amit, Acrylic, Canvas