The newest additions to my 2020 Book List.
Ecotopia (1975) by Ernest Callenbach
The title and cover of this caught my eye in the bookshop and the blurb, stating that Northern California, Oregon and Washington had seceded from the United States to make a new nation with a vision of sustainability, sealed the deal. It’s part novel, part thought experiment narrated by the first American journalist to visit Ecotopia since its secession. The story is told through either diary entries, which tell his personal story, or dispatches to Washington, which detail the functioning of the new country.
Ecotopia itself is intriguing and there’s reasonably detailed descriptions of how it has been restructured to be sustainable with a huge emphasis on biology. Callenbach describes how they have short work weeks, fewer products available but make up with leisure and human contact – often literally as Ecotopians are sexually liberated. It also doesn’t pretend to describe a perfect society, there are issues that have not been solved and, while sexual equality has mostly been achieved, there are still lingering racial tensions. This is all woven into Weston’s own story of culture shock and love as he comes to terms with the differences between Ecotopia and America and considers which one he prefers.
It’s not particularly realistic; there are liberties taken in the science but also in the amount of change that such a large section of a country can undergo in merely 20 years. That said, many aspects do hold up well and there are, I think, many good lessons for how society could be structured. It’s not a perfect world there, nor does it take into account personal computers and the internet which were in their infancy when it was written, but it’s well worth reading to see how some things could be done.
The Hippopotamus (1994) by Stephen Fry
How can you not like Stephen Fry? He’s a wonderful, pink, fluffy marshmallow of a person! Whether he’s valeting in Jeeves & Wooster, fooling around in A Bit of Fry & Laurie or hosting QI, he’s an absolute delight. I had previously enjoyed reading one of his autobiographies which I had borrowed from one of my aunts who later gave me this book.
Similar to Ecotopia, The Hippopotamus is mostly told through letters and journal entries but, instead of a re-imagined California, it takes place across the pond in an English great house. Ted Wallace, the main character, has been employed by his god-daughter to stay at Swafford Hall and, rather vague instructions, investigate something. Since there is a mystery and it is even a mystery what the mystery is, I will say no more about the plot.
I will say that the book is highly enjoyable and full of surprises; one scene in particular was quite unexpected. Originally, I was surprised at where I thought Fry was taking the story and then I was simultaneously surprised and not surprised when he turned it all around again. Quite an enjoyable read that will keep you guessing.