Utopia, by Sir Thomas More, translated and introduced by Clarence H. Miller – This book introduced to world the fictional country that even now is used to mean an ideal society, from the Greek meaning either “no place” or “good place.” And I was recently reminded of how Drew Barrymore was reading it in the movie Ever After, where she was also friends with Leonardo da Vinci.
It was originally written in Latin by an English philosopher and statesman under King Henry VIII, who was eventually a Catholic martyr. It is presented in a frame story in which More himself hears about Utopia from an explorer named Raphael Hythloday, who describes it as an artificially created island in the Western Hemisphere where there is no personal property, and the people live a fairly simple life, with no sense of pride and little in the way of entertainment. They’re all farmers, but they’re also encouraged to learn other trades, and they work for only six hours a day. They have a representative government, with no one allowed to campaign for office. It was actually founded by a king, Utopus, but his organization of the place left no room for his position. At the same time, it’s quite authoritarian in some respects, as people are sometimes moved around to keep households and cities similarly populated. Meals are communal, cities all look the same, premarital sex and adultery are punished severely, and the country practices slavery and colonialism.
The afterword points out that it’s kind of an entire society run like a monastery. The translator suggests that some of the seeming contradictions might have been made on purpose. For instance, it’s been pointed out that More was a lawyer, but said Utopia had no lawyers. I suspect More’s level of seriousness varies throughout. By the way, I should point out that Oz is often considered utopian, and Edward Wagenknecht’s study of L. Frank Baum’s books is called Utopia Americana. The two places have a fair amount in common, especially in the description given in the Emerald City of Oz: lack of money, storehouses for public goods, farming as the primary occupation, isolation from other places, and general contentment. Of course, Baum walked back some of these ideas in later books, and his successors did even more so. One major difference is that, while Utopians don’t much care for gold and jewels and dress in plain linen, Ozites use them in everything, and value individuality in general. Oz is also explicitly magical, while there’s no hint of anything supernatural in Utopia. I don’t know whether Baum read Utopia, but he definitely seems to have been familiar with the general concept.
Star Mother, by Charlie N. Holmberg – I had read Holmberg’s Paper Magician Trilogy, and while I didn’t love it, I thought it was pretty good. I got the Kindle version of this one free through some deal. It’s about a young woman named Ceris Wenden, who lives in a society where people are occasionally chosen to mate with the Sun God, and hence give birth to stars. Ceris, feeling she has no prospects in life, volunteers to be the Star Mother, and goes to live in the Sun’s celestial palace. She fully expects to die in the process, as all previous Star Mothers have, but somehow she survives. When she returns to Earth, however, she finds that several centuries have passed. The Sun tries to woo her back, but she finds herself taking interest in Ristriel, a minor deity in the form of a canine creature. The Sun is pursuing him for some reason related to his ongoing war with the Moon. It’s definitely an interesting premise, taking place in a world where ritual marriage to gods is actually taken literally.
Welcome to the United States of Anxiety, by Jen Lancaster – I think this was a free promotion from Amazon or something. I didn’t know who the author was, but I knew it was a humorous kind of thing. Lancaster was, by her own admission, a Republican for a long time, but apparently isn’t anymore. I don’t really know what her views were on most issues, but she does make a point of how she’s come around somewhat on issues like global warming actually being a problem. She still comes off as fairly well-to-do, and someone who participates in trends even while questioning them. The main theme is the exploration of why stress is so common in modern society when we are, in many ways, safer and better off than we were less than a century ago. Of course, that does depend somewhat on social class and other circumstances. Using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a rough guide, Lancaster addresses several different topics, using a conversational style while citing both personal history and various sources, and often coming to the conclusion that the media contribute a lot to the general sense of unease. And she does talk about fatphobia, something that even liberals are often loath to acknowledge.