I will concentrate my discussion on the work's treatment of gender and sexuality, two areas deeply imbued with libidinal energy and complexly structured in our imaginations by traditional motifs, plots, character types, and tropes.
We are told that the revolution that brought about Ecotopia was largely the work of the Survivalist Party, which women control pp. The feminist claims in the work are so strong that many readers have taken them at face value. Heinz Tschachler, for instance, claims that Callenbach "shows women as politically liberated" and even argues that his "excessive exaltation of women" acts to preclude "the reader's participating in the reconstruction of the utopian paradigm" Only inadequate attention to the fictive elements of the text could lead to such conclusions. For in fact, though Callenbach states that women have gained full equality, the gaps between what he states and what he shows are considerable.
In the case of government, for instance, we hear of many women officials. But almost all of the officials with whom Weston actually meets are male: the guards at the border, the ticket-taker at the train, the "high government spokesman" who tells him about the economy, and his contact at the War Ministry. Though we are told that both men and women took part in the helicopter war , the only soldiers Weston encounters are male.
The Minister of Food is a woman, but Weston meets only with her male assistant The notable exception to this pattern of male officialdom is the woman who is president of the nation. Yet even here, the portrayal of female power tends to reinforce traditional stereotypes. Vera Allwen does not meet with Weston until quite late in his stay. First seeing her on videotape, he describes her as "plain but strong" 47 , with "a lot of warmth, yet a certain menace too.
When Weston finally meets Allwen, he responds to her first as a woman, commenting on her appearance just as he does with most of the women--but few of the men--he encounters. That Allwen is "rather small and a trifle stout" seems to perpetuate a conservative assumption that a politically powerful woman will not also be sexually powerful.
This "formidable" leader of a nation wants to know what her guest feels. I am interested in everything that has happened to you here. His ultimate response? One wonders, too, why Weston's subsequent reports to his newspaper make no reference to this interview, the journalistic scoop he has supposedly sought since his arrival in Ecotopia. Callenbach's portrayal of gender in most other areas of Ecotopian society shows this same discrepancy between radical program and reactionary fiction.
Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston is a seminal utopian novel by Ernest Callenbach, published in The society described in the book. A novel both timely and prophetic, Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia is a hopeful antidote to the environmental concerns of today, set in an ecologically sound future.
Individual women are strikingly absent in most settings; when individuals are detached from the plural and gendered, they are usually gendered male. Both men and women are teachers, for instance, but the only individual teacher who is gendered is a male teacher of "mechanics," a traditionally male subject. In that same segment, "children" are constructing shelters which are later referred to as the "boys' shacks" The people who speak to Weston are nearly always male: the clerk in the wire office, the students who show him the city 35 , all but one of the journalists to whom he speaks at the coop , the old man from Warsaw whom he meets in the street 58 , the Ecotopian who tells him about the transition period 59 , the opposition party members who contact him, the one artist he talks to , two of the three doctors mentioned, three of the four Ecotopians who kidnap him, all but one of the children he talks to, and the only relatives of Marissa whom he meets.
In those relatively few cases where individuals are gendered female, traditional gender roles and stereotypes are usually reinforced. For instance, the character named Bert is involved with a "charming giddy woman named Clara" The discrepancy also appears in Callenbach's inconsistent use of gender-neutral language; despite some phrases such as "television newsmen and women" , there are any number of apparently inadvertent slippages into formulations such as "eminent men of letters" "man's love of powerful machinery" 73 , or "other men's labor power" , in contexts not clearly justifiable as examples of the generic male pronoun.
Sexuality is the one area in which Callenbach seems able to dramatize transformation and to focus on individual women; we are shown any number of women who are sexually liberated and assertive. Most central, of course, is Weston's lover Marissa. When she first appears as representative of a forest camp he will tour, Marissa is described as physically and psychically strong, competent, "not at all submissive or attentive" Yet in this first encounter, she focuses entirely on Weston, asking him about himself, his family, his pleasures; and the long section that follows is devoted to her physical attributes and to the sexual encounter she quickly initiates in the bathhouse.
It would be difficult to improve upon Margaret Atwood's sardonic send-up of this all-too-familiar metaphor: She had the startled look of a wild bird. Ah, but which one?
A screech owl, perhaps, or a cuckoo? It does make a difference. We do not need more literalists of the imagination.
They cannot read a body like a gazelle's without thinking of intestinal parasites, zoos and smells. She had a feral gaze like that of an untamed animal, I read. Metaphor leads me by the nose, into the maze, and suddenly all Eden lies before me. Porcupines, weasels, warthogs and skunks, their feral gazes malicious or bland or stolid or piggy and sly. Which one?
I murmur to the unresponding air. Though we are told that "couples are generally monogamous," almost everyone Weston meets is single and available. Homosexual couples supposedly exist 83 , but none is ever shown, and Weston is never sexually approached by another man or by, say, Vera Allwen herself, whose "rather plain and a trifle stout" person would jar with the soft-porn cliches that rule the novel's sex scenes.
Furthermore, given its emphasis on open sexuality, the work's presentation of actual sexual behavior is surprisingly conservative: "intercourse, the old standby," dominates Weston and Marissa's sex--nothing "weird," no "strange positions or anything" Certainly the most blatant instance of the invasion of this author's imagination by B- movie fantasies is the presence of Nurse Linda, whose treatment of Weston after he is wounded in the war games includes massage of the massage-parlor variety and eventually intercourse as well.
Whatever the interesting radical possibilities of medical treatment "encouraging all of your life forces" , the actual handling of this situation is far from radical. Marissa provides the "steely" and apparently jealous appraisal of Linda necessary to give the inevitable copulation its requisite transgressive thrill And after their first sexual encounter Weston realize that Linda herself "really isn't quite as pretty as I thought at first, and she is not perhaps the most piercingly intelligent person in the world either.
Though Callenbach is careful to establish that Linda doesn't bed down with just any patient--that she feels affection for Weston--and though elsewhere the novel emphasizes the complexly maintained social networks of Ecotopian society, there is no sense that this friendship could or should continue in any form once Linda's role as nurse has ended. Weston receives the wound for which he is hospitalized when taking part in the strongly gendered war games, which play a crucial role in the society. Bands of young men towns periodically gather, paint their bodies, arm themselves with spears, and fight until someone has been wounded.
It is not clear why sexual rivalry should be necessary in a society where sexuality is not expected to be confined to marriage or to monogamous relationships, and where the biological father is only one of many people who take responsibility for a child's development. Furthermore, men could presumably express their competitiveness in these same arenas. Weston appears unaware of any contradiction between the relegation of these games to young men and the fact that it is "mainly older people and women, who do not take part in the games, who are troubled by.
It seems that Callenbach simply could not imagine or envision women fighting as men do.
Weston is certainly not an uncomplicated mouthpiece for the author's own views; his reactions are often satirized in this work. Nor can we find an explanation for the work's contradictions in the structural alternation between Weston's private, presumably honest journal of his trip to Ecotopia and his newspaper articles for American consumption, which consciously maintain a non-Ecotopian perspective.
The work's treatments of aging and of race are similarly problematic, in ways that I will only sketch out briefly here.
Presumably, a society perceiving life in terms of the metaphor of natural processes, the stable-state of a meadow, would value the entire spectrum of human life and would see itself as strengthened by a population diverse in age and race. One would expect older people to be proportionately represented in the novel and more important to Ecotopian society than to our own.
But old people appear only in passing. There is an old man taking a nap on a train 9 , an "old Japanese man" in a bath , the old Polish man who tells Weston about the transition period; there is one reference to grandparents 65 , and we are told that old people "mostly live in the families, where they play an important role in child care and early education" In response, hour workweeks ensure nearly full employment.
I think of ours like a meadow in the sun. The place also has: a woman president in the capital city of San Francisco, consensus-based local councils that decide policy, and cities shrunk into collections of neighborhoods. Automobiles and gas stations are erased from the landscape.
Can you imagine it, man? Even better, I was impressed by how many of his ideas came to pass. For example, Ecotopia accurately predicted that West Coast scientific institutes would be studying algae, biofuel, solar, and ocean-generated power. Solar power-plant dedications are shown on TV news, and recycling and composting are routine. Sexual equality in mating rituals and the workplace is the norm. Waterfronts are restored as urban amenities.
On a few things, Callenbach was a bit overly optimistic — but his dreams are just over the horizon. High-speed rail in California will break ground in Bike sharing is on the verge of coming to San Francisco. Some parking lots are being replaced with restaurants, shops, and public space. Marijuana is almost legal. Other aspects of Ecotopia are unlikely anytime soon.
While Ecotopia bans use of the private automobile for travel, we remain car-dependent.