If you have ever seen the old (1999) movie Blast from the Past, you probably remember the ingenious premise. A suburban American couple in 1962 decides that an atomic war is about to begin. The husband has prepared a secret bomb shelter underneath the house for just such an occasion and he leads his pregnant wife there. For 35 years the family remains hidden and when their son finally emerges, he discovers the world has completely changed. No atomic war came, but their neighborhood has turned into a slum and the people he meets are unfriendly and greedy. In the movie this encounter leads to romance and comedy, but what would going back to an old neighborhood after 35 years really be like?
Reading David Talbot’s Season of the Witch (2012) has reminded me of how dramatically and quickly American cities can change. Talbot’s book is a well-documented history of San Francisco from the 1960s until the 1990s. During that time the population of the city did not change much—hovering in the 700,000 range—but the people and the mood of the city altered sharply. New groups arrived in the city and many descendants of earlier residents drifted away.
Talbot begins his book with 1967, the Summer of Love, when San Francisco attracted crowds of young people demanding peace, love and an end to war in Vietnam. The staid citizens of the city, many of whom looked back on World War II as the proudest moment in American history could not understand why young men were unwilling to become warriors. Conflict was inevitable, but the hippies learned to provide their own services to take care of the young people flooding into the city. Eventually the war ended, the runaways went back home or settled down in the city, but San Francisco was never the same. Many memories of the city of love are still alive in the minds of city residents.
No city can remain a city of love forever and the days of love and trust faded away as drugs came into the city and with them some brutal crime sprees that shocked residents and titillated the rest of the country. The zodiac murders were especially brutal. And later came the trauma of Jonestown when hundreds of people—men, women, and children—died under the guidance of a charismatic but deluded minister. Drugs, death and destruction all became part of the indelible history of the city.
Reading Season of the Witch makes you aware of how swiftly and irrevocably a city changed over a short period of time. The gay community gradually overcame the fear and resistance of many of the city’s more traditional residents. Today the city is a center of LGBTQ life. The Gay Pride parade became an emblem of the city and the movement it started spread across the country and around the world. The tragic crisis of the AIDS epidemic might have torn the city apart, but instead it seemed to bring the city together in working to heal the sick and find a cure.
All of this happened within the lifespan of one generation. Each decade brought the city another influx of people with new ideas and ambitions. And now a new wave of people have come, bringing another source of tension. Well after the period covered by Talbot’s book, came the invasion of the “techies”, welcomed by some and hated by others, but undoubtedly a group that must be reckoned with.
The prices of houses, condos and rentals have soared, streets have become crowded with cars, bicycles, and scooters and giant buses have appeared to carry the newcomers back and forth to their jobs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And now developers are hoping to push height limitations on new buildings to accommodate the newcomers. Will San Francisco eventually become a city of high rises like so many other cities around the world? That remains to be seen, but one thing seems certain—it will not remain the same.
Centuries ago Heraclitus told us “There is nothing permanent but change” and it is still true.
What does Anne of Green Gables have in common with The Parable Series by Octavia Butler or The Hunger Games or my own Charlotte Edgerton mystery story A Death in Utopia? Recently I discovered that they all have enough in common to share a space on the Internet in Utopian studies.
Five hundred years ago, Thomas More coined the term Utopia and used it to describe a fictional community that many readers saw as far better than the actual communities in which they lived. Ever since then, it seems, people have been searching for the ideal Utopia where healthy, happy people could live and flourish without the need for violence, war, and greed.
During the early 19th century, in both America and Europe, the search for the ideal community continued and led to the establishment of several Utopian societies including Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the Oneida colony in New York. At a time of crisis when the country was changing, many people were discontented with the ways things were going. Fulfilling lives seemed to be disappearing as the industrial society replaced the old rural, farming life Americans had been accustomed to. Isolated groups of people trying to forge a new society did not, however, find great success in changing the world. As years went by, the Utopian or “intentional” communities have mostly faded away, but perhaps technology has found a new way to bring together the dreamers, past and present, who hope for a better world.
Even Ronald Reagan, the idol of conservatives across the country believed that
technology would solve the world’s problems. As reported in The Guardian (June 14, 1989) he announced “The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip.” It never quite worked that way though; Goliath has not quite disappeared in the almost 30 years since Reagan predicted its demise, but our world has certainly been changed by technology.
The Internet has made it possible for writers, readers and dreamers across the world to share ideas about how people have tried to change society in the past and what could happen in the future. This summer a conference, Solidarity and Utopia 2017 in Gdansk, Poland, brought together scholars from many different countries and disciplines to discuss the ways Utopian ideas have affected the world. There was a great deal to be learned.
I had never known that Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne of Green Gables became an important document in Poland during World War II. Polish soldiers were issued copies of a Montgomery novel to take to the front; later, it became part of a thriving black market trade for the Polish resistance.
As for my own heroine, Charlotte Edgerton, here is what one scholar discussed about her appearance in A Death in Utopia.
Intentional Community under the Magnifying Glass: Brook Farm in A Death in Utopia by Adele Fasick Elżbieta Perkowska–Gawlik (Maria Curie-Skłodowska University, Lublin) A Death in Utopia of 2014 by Adele M. Fasick is the first book in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. The eponymous utopia stands for The Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education, a famous intentional community set up by George and Sophia Ripley in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841. But for economic solidarity and the solidarity of ideas, Brook Farm would have never come into existence. However, “all the grand plans for reforming the world” (Fasick 3) were very soon confronted by the practicalities of farming, in which most of the members lacked experience. Since the novel covers the span of time from September to November 1842, i.e. the second year of Ripley’s experiment, the spirits of many members appear to be high yet the looming financial crisis casts a shadow over the future of the whole enterprise. To make matters worse a Unitarian minister visiting the community is found dead on the premises of Brook Farm. Charlotte, one of the Brook Farmers, resolves to protect the good name of the community and find the culprit. In my presentation I will argue that Fasick’s idea of inscribing the fictional investigation of an amateur detective into the life of Brook Farm has proved to be successful as far as “magnifying” the issue of solidarity is concerned. However, Charlotte’s amateurish attempts to solve the criminal conundrum reveal more of the ideals and daily routines of the intentional community than of the tragic circumstances concerning the crime, a facet most probably intended by the author who has already explored the history of Brook Farm on a scholarly basis.
We may not have reached a Utopian society, but the possibilities are still worth discussion. And being able to talk about them on a worldwide network is the kind of Utopian dream that Thomas More and the Brook Farmers would have loved to celebrate.
The March for Science held yesterday in cities around the world demonstrated how many people support science, research, and the fact-based decisions. Many rallies and marches are emotional outbursts against injustice, but this one had a slightly different tone. People who marched care passionately about basing public policy on facts, not profits, not quick-fixes, but long-term solutions for our world. And judging by the enthusiastic support they received from the public and media, it seems that many Americans agree with them.
In honor of some of the pioneers who helped develop the science and technology, I am repeating a tribute to Ada Lovelace published in this blog a few years ago.
Who was Ada Lovelace and why is she celebrated? You can still get a few arguments about whether she deserves the distinction, but she certainly had an unusual life. She was born in England in 1815 and was the legitimate daughter of Lord Byron, quite a feat in itself because the famous poet fathered all of his other children with women who were not his wife. Still, being born legitimate is not an achievement for the baby, who has no choice in the matter. Ada Lovelace (born Augusta Ada Byron) had to be an unusual woman to earn a reputation of her own and gain lasting fame. And she was.
Despite having an irregular upbringing with a mother so focused on hatred for her husband, Byron, that she had little time for her daughter, Ada Lovelace had a good
education. Her mother encouraged tutors to teach Ada mathematics as a way to ward off the tendency toward madness that she believed affected Lord Byron and his family. Ada took to numbers and became a competent mathematician as well as mastering several languages.
Ada Lovelace moved in high social circles. She became Baroness King when she married William King. The couple had three children, but Ada still had time to continue her friendships with both men and women. She became an avid gambler and tried to find mathematical models to help her and her friends find formula which would increase their winning. That, unfortunately, didn’t work and she went deeply into debt. Her love of mathematics, however, continued.
It was her friendship with Charles Babbage, the inventor of the Analytical Engine, a first attempt at a computer, which led to her developing an algorithm to allow the analytical engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It was this which led to her being considered the first computer programmer.
Scholars have debated how much of the programming work was done by Ada and how much by Babbage, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Whether or not she actually was the world’s first programmer, she certainly achieved far more than anyone would have expected of a 19th century woman. And all that she achieved was done before she died of cancer at the age of 36.
It is fitting that we now have an Ada Lovelace Day celebrated every year in mid-October. The day is dedicated to honoring the past achievements of women in science, engineering, technology and mathematics and to encouraging women to enter these fields. You can find a number of biographies of Ada Lovelace, many of them aimed at children and teens. It is too bad there aren’t more biographies of other women scientists. One outstanding memoir, a recent best seller, is Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. Anyone interested in knowing what it means to be a scientist will find it well worth reading.