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Protopia vs. Utopia

Updated: Apr 14

I’m beginning to think that I am contributing to a mental health crisis. Depression and pessimism among the younger generations are on the rise. Many blame social media, and it certainly plays a role. And so does the plethora of dystopian stories in popular media. The Awakening of Artemis—the first book in my three-book series—takes place in a dystopian future America in 2049. Popular streaming video series and movies thrive when they play on fears about the dimming prospects of global society.


There’s definitely a market for dystopian stories. And it’s not a recent phenomenon. From Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 to Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange and, of course, Orwell’s masterpiece 1984, there has been a public appetite for stories that project trends into a miserable future in which we are all victims of unseen autocrats.


Is it any wonder that today’s Millennials and Gen Z kids think the future looks horrible? How will they find their way out of this mess?


The track record of those trying to overcome the worst aspects of the prevailing social order is not great. The Puritans, wishing to escape the imposed values of the Catholic Church, headed for New England in the early 17th Century and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, perhaps the first attempt to form a utopian community in North America. Of course, the colony was ruled according to the religious values of its founders. They were just trading one autocrat for another.


The obvious fallacy of this approach to creating a perfect society did not discourage others from trying. Over 100 so-called utopias were founded in pre-Civil War America. All of them failed—and for the same reasons. Each promised to share equally in the rewards of a perfect society, and each collapsed because those who contributed more resented those who contributed less. Moreover, utopias failed because of the natural human tendency to envision a perfect world and to disparage those who don’t share their vision. It starts as bickering and transforms into dissent, rebellion, and dissolution.


Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. So, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that a group called Black Hammer has crowdfunded the purchase of 200 acres of Colorado land on which they plan to establish an independent, self-sustaining utopian commune populated by Black and native people. The group was founded in Atlanta in 2019. Having lived in Colorado, I wonder how this urban-founded enterprise plans to grow enough food to sustain itself in the brief Rocky Mountain growing season.


Perhaps the pitched battle between the American Left and Right will end in a dystopian future as I’ve envisioned in my novels. But we know dystopia is just as unsustainable as utopia. The ultimate dystopian society lives hand-to-mouth, day-to-day. The descent into such a disaster could be triggered by a pandemic—as envisioned in the Netflix series “The Last of Us” or the bestselling book “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel. Or it could result from a breakdown in the social order.


While those stories and the stories in my books are driven by the journey of heroes who triumph despite overwhelming odds, our success in overcoming the worst effects of the pandemic might suggest a more optimistic view of the future. After all, Operation Warp Speed developed a vaccine to fight COVID-19 in less than a year.


Before there were countries, there were communities that thrived based on trade. Whether bartering silk for food or clothing for horseshoes, trade created prosperity for citizens who created villages and towns at crossroads or near natural harbors. In turn, orderly societies evolved, and governments implemented laws to protect property and people from those who would do harm both inside and outside their societies. Those locales were not utopian. But they thrived and adapted to take advantage of opportunities to grow and counter threats from nefarious forces. In a sense, they were protopian.


How is protopia different from utopia? Well, utopia starts with a clear vision of a perfect society (that is never realized), and protopia envisions a world of continuous experimentation and improvement.


The advantages of protopian societies should be obvious. History provides an example—the United States of America—or at least, the USA of the 19th and 20th Centuries. (Since the beginning of the 21st century, we seem to have gone off the rails.) In earlier times, a nation founded from a clean sheet of paper was well-suited to expansion through immigration, innovation in business, and a government designed to adapt to a changing landscape.


Can we get back there? Well, I can’t be sure. But I have a theory. (I have a theory about everything.) By the end of this decade, a next-generation leader will emerge. They will find language that unites the interests of both a rural and an urban underclass that feels exploited. Rather than collapse into chaos (or dystopia), a new socio-economic model will emerge. I confess I don’t know how that might look. But I’m working on it.




One must wonder what any of this has to do with books—specifically my books. Well, I am working on the next volume of my series. Working title: “Protopia.”

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15 de abr.

Good food for thought on this Monday morning as I start my day in my 8-person manufacturing business. I'm creating a small world for my employees, even as some come and go, deciding that small or large worlds that others have created are more appealing for one reason or another. I often ask myself is it a worker's paradise or just a job. Peter


15 de abr.

Hopefully your version of Protopia doesn't start with slavery or slaughter of the natives.


Avaliado com 5 de 5 estrelas.

I love the title Protopia... and your explanation of what it is. Great post!

John Calia
John Calia
06 de mai.
Respondendo a

We’re on vacation in Italy right now. I’m planning to start writing when we return.

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