the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘utopia

I discovered this wonderful short story in The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer.  I did some research on the author, and learned about her incredible legacy. Read the story because it’s fun,  learn about Rokheya Shekhawat Hossein (also known as Begum Rokheya) because she’s freaking amazing.



One of the many wonderful things about fiction that’s older than 100 years old, is that you can often read  it for free, online.  If a fifty pound anthology isn’t for you,  you can read “Sultana’s Dream” at Strange Horizons, where they reprinted the story as part of a series on Utopias.


Because all science fiction (and a lot of art) is a reaction and reflection of the time in which it was written,  here are a few contextual things you might want to know before you read “Sultana’s Dream”.

  • Begum Rokheya was born in 1880,  in what is now known as Bangladesh, and at the time was British India
  • She is considered the pioneer feminist of Bengal
  • She was raised in an intellectual, multi-lingual home that was wealthy but also very traditional.  This combination meant that she learned Arabic and Urdu, and then English and Bengali.
  • You may want to understand what purdah is. (or not. up to you)


Reading this story sent me down a google rabbit hole of the phrase “gender-flip”.  That term has to be fairly new, right?  hahahaha, NO.    I love that gender-flipping has been having a moment for the last, oh, 20 years,  but the concept has been around for quite a while.   My brain is also going down the rabbit hole of “what was social media way back when?”  more on that at the end of this post.


“Sultana’s Dream” plays with gender flipping (and women’s rights!),  with the idea that in this Indian Utopia,  the women run the country and the men are kept in seclusion.


The plot goes like this:   Sultana is drowsing away the afternoon,  when a woman walks into her room and invites her out for a walk.   Sultana at first thinks the woman is her friend Sister Sara,  but later realizes the woman is a stranger.   Upon leaving Sultana’s home, they end up where not-Sister Sara lives,  and Sultana states that  she feels weird walking around in public unveiled, as she is a purdahnishin.


The rest of the story  is not-Sister Sara explaining to Sultana how her women-run world, called Ladyland, came to be.  A young Queen insisted that all women in the country have access to education,  thus women’s universities were started.   The women’s universities used their discoveries and inventions for the good of the whole community, while the men stayed focused on military might.  The men insisted that the inventions that came out of the women’s university’s were nice, but nothing compared to the value or importance of military strength and other men’s work.


When the country finds themselves on the losing side of a war,  the Queen and her female advisors come up with a plan, which I won’t spoil.   They win the war, and in the process transform the country into one where women can be in public unveiled, and the men are kept in seclusion.  When the men ask to be let out of seclusion, the Queen’s response is “if their services should ever be needed, they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they would remain where they were”.

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You probably know Frank Herbert from his masterpiece, Dune. or perhaps you are more familiar with his son, Brian Herbert, who has been involved with continuing  the series. But Frank Herbert did so much more more than just epic space opera involving secretive sisterhoods and sandworms.  Many of his stand alone  novels took place in the present (which would have been the 1960’s and 70’s) and could be easily be considered mainstream suspense novels.  When I’m at the used bookstore, if I see a copy of a Herbert I don’t own, I grab it, and rarely have I been disappointed.   In my mind, Frank Herbert is a little like George R. R. Martin – sure, their famous series blow my mind every time, but I’m missing out on the bigger picture if I don’t read their other works too.

SantarogaThe Santaroga Barrier, by Frank Herbert

written in 1968

where I got it: bought used












Something very strange is happening in a valley in Southern California. Or perhaps, it’s nothing strange at all, just a close knit, old fashioned community famous for its cheese production.  Doctor Gilbert Dasein of the Psychology department of the University of California has been sent to the Santaroga Valley.  It is true that he’s hoping to patch things up with his ex-girlfriend Jenny, a resident of Santaroga, but Dasein has another mission, one which killed the last two men who took it on. He’s being paid to do market research and find out what exactly is going on there. Why won’t the Santarogans allow national businesses to build in their valley? Why don’t they have a single reported case of mental illness? Why doesn’t anyone ever leave the valley for good? Are they innocent survivalists? is it a cult? is it something more?

It’s not that Santaroga doesn’t like outsiders, it’s that they don’t need them. They produce plenty of their famous cheese, and they also produce everything else their residents need, from furniture and wine, to independently sourced auto parts and canned food. Most Santarogan-made products never leave the valley, and all residents work together to make everyone has enough, newlyweds have houses, and that everyone is taken care of. And everyone sure gets excited when a wheel of Jaspers Cheese is brought out.

The good news is that Gilbert does find Jenny, and they do patch things up to the point where she’d like to get married as soon as possible. But the more time Gilbert spends in the valley, the more he wants to leave and take Jenny with him. Santaroga is an odd place, to say the least. Salespeople are brutally honest about what’s wrong with the used cars in the lot. No one ever seems frustrated or depressed or angry, words between Santarogans are never misunderstood, and the smell of the famous Jaspers cheese is everywhere. And children? There’s not a single child to be seen in the valley.

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I read about this book on a blog a few weeks ago, and of course I can’t remember where! So if I posted on your post about The World Inside, please let me know who you are. And Thanks for the great recommendation!

One of the strangest books I have ever read, Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside requires an open mind.

Written in the early 70’s, when so many science fiction writers were writing speculative stories about population booms, and limiting births and concern for how we were going to feed and house billions of people, Robert Silverberg asked himself what if humanity decided to go the absolute opposite direction? What if we decided our goal was to have as many people living happily on the planet as possible, and society was formed around housing, feeding, and taking care of billions of people? The vignettes of The World Inside is what he came up with.

This future includes vast, huge, vertical arcologies of 1,000 floors, housing 800,000 people, in “constellations” of 40 or more buildings. Estimated population of the earth is over 75 billion. 80% of the earth’s landmass is given over the farming, and the Urbmon’s tower over all. Imagine the entire population of Dayton OH living in one gigantic apartment tower. Most residents never leave the “Urbmon”, why would you want to, everything you need is there. Your floor is your neighborhood, the 20 floors or so around you are your city, lifts get you anywhere you need to go and there is no reason to leave. Outside means danger, loneliness, and death. The only thing more rampant that forced sharing in the Urbmon is propaganda. Read the rest of this entry »

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.