Snowcapped peaks rose gradually over the horizon as the forested hills of the old valley fell away at our sides. Our destination was finally – thank the Gods, finally – in sight. None of us said anything aloud at the spectacle of those glistening mountains came into view. Not even the insufferably talkative Spaniard who’d hardly shut his lips when he slept. We made the trip in silence, eyes transfixed, pulled forward by some ethereal attraction. There had not been a single songbird on our journey – locusts, buzzing, the shrill cries of insects and the whining of crickets – but I swear, when we descended from the valley and made our way north, the air was filled with an orchestra of songbirds. Nature herself seemed to be beckoning us, soothing our aches and scratches, easing our worries away.
“It’s a utopia,” they’d said “And not like in those old novels where everything perfect came at a price, where the lesson was that a perfect place was impossible, where all the promises fell short and where grim reality washed it all away. It’s real,” they’d said, “You won’t believe it until you see it. But it’s more real than anything else in this world,” they’d said.
Listening to this birds that morning, watching those peaks get closer and closer, feeling the warm morning sun on my back – I was starting to believe it.
The Spaniard whistled at me. “What’s the first thing you’re going to do when we get to the city, cabrón? What’s a man like you going to do when he gets a taste of la Ciudad de los Dioses, huh?”
I didn’t take my eyes off the horizon. “Getting as far away from you as possible would be a start.”
… Where to take a story from here? That was the challenge. Round 1 of the A Writer’s Recluse League Cup 2016 presented each bracket of competing authors with the beginning of a story and challenged them to complete it in six days. The above text was my challenge.
“Arena” prompts, as such challenges are known at AWR, are tough because they present competitors with a handful of unfamiliar elements and ask that these things be brought together into a coherent story. I’ve written a few prompts for past competitions and have to admit it’s pretty fun. There’s a sadistic sort of entertainment to be had by just throwing unrelated ingredients together and leaving it up to someone else to make them palatable. It’s all about presentation, right?
This particular recipe appeared fairly daunting for a couple of reasons but the most distressing of those was this sentence:
“It’s a utopia,” they’d said ‘And not like in those old novels where everything perfect came at a price, where the lesson was that a perfect place was impossible, where all the promises fell short and where grim reality washed it all away. It’s real,”
Utopia is a tough concept to build a story around. An interesting narrative tends to revolve around some manner of conflict. A perfect utopia is the antithesis to such an idea and so it leaves me few options. I could disregard what “they’d said” and write the utopia-at-a-price version, or I could focus on a more internal conflict for the narrator, juxtaposing his struggle against a background of perfect harmony, or I could have the narrator, and/or his Spanish friend, ruin it all; allow these characters to bring conflict to Utopia.
In retrospect, the narrative seems primed for that last option with the two characters, though travelling companions, clearly at odds with one another for some reason which goes unmentioned. But I really wanted to explore the idea of “utopia.” What would that actually look like?
I’ve had a long-standing theory that any system of politics, philosophy, or religion are all inherently utopic. That’s really the goal of all of them isn’t it? Doesn’t matter if you’re Republican, Democrat, Capitalist, Communist, Christian, Muslim or atheist; the inherent goal of all of these things is a world in which all humans live in harmony. Even the nihilists, fatalists and anarchists all seek their own brand of utopia. The only missing components are cooperation and agreement. That’s why, ultimately, we spend so much time trying to convince one another to think the way we do; because if everyone can just agree, peace and harmony are inevitable.
Doesn’t even matter what we agree on, really. We could agree that some people are simply destined to be more well off, that others are supposed to be poor, that some people only get apples and others only oranges, others will starve… We could agree that ritual human sacrifice is necessary, and as long as everyone is on the same page (including the individuals to be sacrificed) utopia is inevitable because that’s all utopia is. A society that agrees.
I’m going to go head and write some SPOILERS below; so if you want to read the competition entry in its purest form, click here and read it before continuing. For the rest of you, keep reading.
I could have written about a society based on slavery and sacrifice or some other obvious atrocity, but such a place would appear immediately dystopic and broken to an outside observer. This includes not just the narrator and his companion but also the reader. The city could be a collection of crystalline towers with mother-of-pearl streets and fountains pouring rivers of nacho cheese, but the first time a severed head rolls down a stone staircase, the utopic spell is broken. That sort of defeats the purpose.
Aside from that, such grandiose versions of heavenly places always struck me as artificial and contrived. They’re a product of humanity’s worldly desires for wealth and status. Places where everyone lives in luxury, is unique and important, and gets 60 frames per second all the time. It just doesn’t make sense.
It’s those self-same desires for luxury and status which drive conflict and prevent a utopic experience to begin with. That’s where conflict comes from; a desire, or in some cases a need, for what others have. I could just magic a place into existence and declare that everyone has everything so nobody ever fights (it is fiction, after all) but like I said, that feels artificial and dumb to me.
I wanted a utopia more grounded. I created a place in which everyone’s needs are met through a system of mutual benefit. They farm, they sew, the trade goods or service to one another and have enough to go around because they don’t want for more than they need. They live in small humble homes, dress in common fabrics, they are modest but without shame. Life there is consistently pleasant and comfortable; enough to keep a person content. This contentment prevents desirous behavior, which is the springboard to conflict.
That works great for people living there, people born there who don’t know any different. But for an outsider, a person who is used to luxury and novelty, the place might seem idyllic for a while but boredom would eventually set in. That would take longer, though, and would be a more spiritual struggle than an outright offense to morality or sensation. A more interesting conflict which I felt was more appropriate to this particular narrative opener. The goal, in writing this, was to keep the reader in idyllic mode for as long as the narrator remained there, prevent the reader from noticing that, though this place seems great, like a place you’d want to live, there is something important missing.
I wanted it to creep on the reader, and create a sort of, “Oh yeah…” moment. A realization that sometimes it’s the trials that make life interesting and rewarding and drive us to be better; smarter, faster, stronger. If the judge’s feedback is correct, it looks like I could have drawn that out a little further than I did to create a more engaging story and more climactic ending.
I linked above to the draft version submitted to the competition and I’ll link it again here. I really enjoyed writing this story and playing with these ideas. I imagine that when the competition ends I’ll revisit this piece, make some of the changes suggested by the judge and put it up here at Warning Signs in the Unpublished Stories section. So be on the lookout for that.