Like its ill-tempered sibling ‘dystopia’, the idea of ‘utopia’ continues to provide a fertile source of inspiration for contemporary science fiction writers. New one-off BBC Radio 4 Extra drama No Point Talking imagines a future California separated into two parts: one a socialist, feminist enclave, run on open co-operative principles; the other a conservative free-market citadel, protected by closed borders and a popular militia. Both societies consider themselves as alternate models of a modern utopia.
Written by award-winning novelist Geoff Ryman, No Point Talking is a companion piece to a wider research project exploring the role of gender in science fiction (a theme he expands on in new radio documentary Herland). Voiced as a first-person narrative by the author, the story begins with the arrival of a staunch conservative wind-turbine technician and his family in the egalitarian hub of ‘West Cal’ in the search of a new life and a new job.
While he finds the principles of this new society (such as equal pay, communal living and multiculturalism) alien and uncomfortable, his wife Candy finds new purpose and a sense of freedom in the collapse of the traditional gender roles of their old life in Texas. The strains in their relationship reach breaking point when he insists on leaving for a new job in the capitalist sanctuary of ‘East Cal’ and the newly-independent Candy refuses to leave, staying behind with the children. Confused and embittered, the engineer takes the new job (one without the protection of a minimum wage or health insurance) and makes plans to join the local state militia – which Ryman hints might yet turn its guns on the hated free cities beyond its walls.
The author’s empathy with the norm-breaking dissidents of ‘West Cal’ is evident throughout the tale, as are his dislike for his hero’s ‘reactionary’ ideas. Yet unlike many realisations of fictional utopias, this is a very pragmatic, real-world rendering of the ‘perfect’ society. ‘West Cal’ is not a place of contentment, fulfilment and recreation, but a hard-working community held together by collective effort, graft, welfare and even charity. It is not a place that has abolished money; rather it is a society that upholds the principles of fair pay for all.
Ryman’s premise – that of two neighbouring, rival communities with different ideas of what ‘utopia’ looks like – is an interesting one. Although there are too many themes battling for attention in so short a drama to really do justice to any of them, Ryman does tease out some insightful contrasts between the two societies, and the bewilderment of the main protagonist (in a world he is completely bemused by) is convincingly realised. Ryman’s delivery is well judged and the soundscape by Robin Rimbaud is suitably otherworldly without being intrusive. However, the provocative setting and the intriguing conflicts introduced here deserve far more air time than the paltry fifteen minutes of this solitary instalment.
NO POINT TALKING / PRODUCER: NICOLA SWORDS / AUTHOR: GEOFF RYMAN / READ BY: GEOFF RYMAN / MUSIC: SCANNER (ROBIN RIMBAUD) / AVAILABILITY: AVAILABLE NOW (AVAILABLE ON BBC RADIO I-PLAYER AND AS A PODCAST DOWNLOAD)