I’m studying all the utopian novels this year

And how modern thinkers are taking utopian ideals into the future.

Elle Griffin
7 min readJan 5, 2023

Several years ago I was contemplating going to graduate school. There were so many things I wanted to learn and I wanted nothing more than to spend my time in deep research and contemplation. But when I started looking into programs I realized I’d have to spend years of my income and take a bunch of classes I wasn’t interested in to do it.

So I sat down and looked at those programs and thought: if I were creating my dream curriculum, which of these classes would I actually want to take? I wrote them all down, linking to each class and noting the reading materials required for each one. Pretty soon, I had a rather substantial curriculum in front of me and I realized I didn’t need to go to school at all — I could simply read my way through the reading materials without paying to come in and talk about them.

So I did — I read through that list in order. That’s why I finally read Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, Madame Bovary, Candide, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, Manon Lescaut, The Nun, Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as a compendium of instructional literature about them. I learned so much reading “the classics” and they ultimately inspired my gothic novel and my decision to serialize it via this newsletter.

Now I’m craving something similar. There are so many things I want to learn and I want nothing more than to spend my time in deep research and contemplation — research that will inform my own perspective on how we can create a more beautiful future, and that will ultimately inspire my utopian novel! So I made a list of everything I wanted to read and study this year — and this time, I thought, why don’t we do it together?

Here is my personal curriculum for the year. It’s a plan to study, not just the utopian futures outlined by 12 writers across two millennia, but a thorough mapping of utopian thought, as well as how modern thinkers are tackling these concepts and taking them into the future. I’m calling it the Utopian Collective and I’d love to invite you to join me by subscribing to my newsletter.

The Utopian Collective Curriculum

January: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516)

Themes: City state, wise rule, democracy, just and virtuous humans.

  • Supplemental reading: Plato’s The Republic (375 BCE) was the first utopian novel and the forebear to Utopia.
  • Supplemental reading: Plato’s works Timaeus and Critias (360 BCE) depict the city of Atlantis (which represented Ancient Athens) in a pseudo-historic embodiment of Plato’s ideal state in The Republic

February: Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis (1626)

Themes: Knowledge, education, scientific advancement, research, technical progress.

  • Supplemental reading: Francis Bacon’s The Essays
  • Supplemental reading: Jonathan Swift satired The New Atlantis in Gulliver’s Travels (1726)
  • Supplemental reading: B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two was inspired by The New Atlantis

March: Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666)

Themes: Monarchy, social equality, scientific advancement, personal identity.

  • Supplemental reading: Blazing World was originally published as a conjoined text along with Cavendish’s Observations upon Experimental Philosophy
  • Observations was a direct response to Robert Hooke’s Micrographia
  • Supplemental reading: Cavendish’s Poems and Fancies (1653)
  • Supplemental reading: Deborah Boyle’s The Well-Ordered Universe: The Philosophy of Margaret Cavendish

April: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888)

Themes: Socialism, leisure, technology, advancement.

  • Supplemental reading: Bellamy’s sequel Equality
  • Supplemental reading: Richard Michaelis’ response Looking Forward
  • Supplemental reading: L.A. Geissler’s response to both Bellamy and Michaelis: Looking Beyond: A Sequel to ‘Looking Backward’ by Edward Bellamy and an Answer to ‘Looking Forward’ by Richard Michaelis
  • Bellamy’s mention of urban planning influenced Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of Tomorrow
  • William Morris’ book News from Nowhere was a response to Looking Backward
  • Supplemental reading: In 2020, William P. Stodden wrote an update to Looking Backward for the modern age: The Practical Effects of Time Travel: A Memoir

May: William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890)

Theme: Socialism, leisure class, common property.

  • Supplemental reading: William Morris’ How I Became a Socialist
  • Supplemental reading: Teaching William Morris by Deanna Kreisel
  • Supplemental reading: Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891) which later became an influence for Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Supplemental reading: Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
  • Supplemental reading: In 2012, Robert Llewellyn wrote a modern adaptation of News from Nowhere in three parts: News from Gardenia (2012), News from the Squares (2013), and News from the Clouds (2015).
  • Supplemental reading: Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons
  • Governing the Commons is a rebuttal to the “Tragedy of the Commons”

June: H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905)

Themes: Samurai, work and leisure, single world government.

  • Supplemental reading: Wells also wrote the utopian novels Men Like Gods (1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
  • Wells wrote a number of philosophical books and letters outlining his utopian positions

July: James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933)

Themes: Happiness, monasticism, longevity, Buddhism, Christianity.

August: Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962)

Themes: Buddhism, ecology, democracy, overpopulation, communal living, mysticism.

  • Supplemental reading: Island is the counterpart to Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World
  • Supplemental reading: Huxley’s exploration of world religion The Perennial Philosophy
  • Supplemental reading: Dana Sawyer’s essay “Alduous Huxley’s Truth Beyond Tradition” (2003) about how Buddhism influenced Huxley’s work
  • Supplemental listening: Alan Watts was a close friend of Huxley and fellow Western admirer of Buddhism

September: Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974)

Themes: Anarchy, capitalism, libertarian, authoritarian, Taoism, yin and yang balance.

October: Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota: Too Like the Lightning (2016)

Themes: Futurism, synthetic food, 20-hour workweek, surveillance, nongeographical nations, social equality.

  • Supplemental reading: Book 2: Seven Surrenders
  • Supplemental reading: Book 3: The Will to Battle
  • Supplemental reading: Book 4: Perhaps the Stars
  • Supplemental reading: Begum Rokeya’s Sultana’s Dream (1905)
  • Supplemental reading: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915)

November: Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Themes: Climate change, ecology, capitalism, democratic socialism, anti-libertarian.

  • Supplemental reading: Stanley’s Mars trilogy is also utopian
  • Supplemental reading: Stanley’s New York: 2140 and 2312
  • Supplemental reading: Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia

December: Yanis Varoufakis’ Another Now (2021)

Themes: post-capitalism; democratized work, money, land, digital networks, and politics.

  • Supplemental reading: Varoufakis’ The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the World Economy
  • Supplemental reading: Varoufakis’ Talking to My Daughter About the Economy: or, How Capitalism Works — and How It Fails
  • Supplemental reading: Varoufakis’ And the Weak Suffer What They Must: Europe’s Crisis and America’s Economic Future

Extra Credit:

In addition to the utopian literature mentioned above, I’ll also be reading several titles by thinkers who are tackling some of these utopian themes and exploring how we can take them into the future. Here are those lists:

Here’s how this is going to work

I want to spend the year immersed in the utopian futures imagined by thousands of years of authors before me, and to wonder whether the future might be even more beautiful than they could have imagined. And I hope that in reading and thinking and dreaming I will be able to add my own novel to that utopian tradition, another dreamer just optimistic enough to believe that imagining it is enough of a start to creating it.

And I’d love nothing more than to invite you to join me — to spend the year engaged in intellectual discussion with literary thinkers, studying utopian ideals together, and even coming up with our own. If you’re game, this year we’ll read 12 classic utopian texts and their supplementary materials, alongside texts by modern thinkers exploring how we can take those utopian themes into the future. As much as possible, I’m going to make these readings free via the Threadable app where we can read, comment, and highlight the text together, and see one another’s thoughts in the margins.

Join my utopian reading circle

As we go, I’m going to write essays and engage in letter-writing campaigns on the common themes found in these books and how we might be able to take them into the future — things like socialism, capitalism, democracy, education, scientific advancement, wealth, work and leisure, and a wise and enlightened class. I’ll share all of those on my Substack newsletter. I’ll also start discussions about the reading material in Substack Chat (in the Substack app). Paid subscribers can join the discussion in the comments of my posts and even start their own discussions about the reading material in Substack Chat.

I’m so excited about this. It feels like I’m going to spend the year, not at graduate school, but in Epicurious’ garden — an earthly paradise where we can study philosophy and debate politics and enjoy contemplative leisure and be part of a new enlightenment. If you choose to join me, I’ll see you in Threadable, and in Substack Chat, where we can start reading Thomas More’s Utopia together!

Subscribe to my newsletter to join us.

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Elle Griffin

Writing a utopian novel and essays imagining a more beautiful future. ellegriffin.substack.com.