From the Greek “amphi,” meaning “around,” or “on both sides.” The combination of utopianism and anti-utopianism (dystopianism); a controversial, ambivalent attitude towards the future. Utopianism and anti-utopianism share common features: heightened sensitivity to the future; intensity of aspirations, anticipations, and apprehensions; and utterly enthusiastic or suspicious attitudes to any novelties and innovations.
Inherent to ambiutopianism is a deep, multidimensional vision of the future. Thomas More’s Utopia or Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun are clearly utopias, whereas Evgeny Zamyatin’s We and George Orwell’s 1984 are anti-utopias (or dystopias, the term prevalent in Anglo-American usage). It is much more difficult to define in these terms the work of Andrei Platonov (1899–1951), who, as a proletarian and revolutionary, dreams of a communist future and at the same time portrays it in terrifying images of decay, death, and wastelands. His novels The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan) and Chevengur, written between 1927 and 1930, are the clearest examples of ambiutopia. From an ambiutopian point of view, the realization of ideals turns out to be a prologue to social disaster, repression, and melancholy. For example, we see this in the post-human race of the Eloi in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895): having realized all their desires, they lose the will to live and become easy prey for the workaholic Morlocks whom they once enslaved. Utopia degenerates into apocalypse. Aldous Huxley’s work is also ambiutopian, since his novels Brave New World (1932) and Island (1962) present two opposing views of high-tech society—anti-utopian and utopian, respectively.
The most frightening aspect of utopias, according to Nikolai Berdiaev, is that they have the propensity to come true. Ambiutopianism combines utopianism and antiutopianism in such a way that it is keenly aware of their dramatic interchangeability. In the 20th century, humanity has experienced periods of both zealous utopianism (especially with Marxist communist utopias) and ardent anti-utopianism, and thus we can now easily measure the close extent to which these categories are connected. The mood of the early 21st century falls precisely within the category of ambiutopianism: every utopian impulse is tempered by an anti-utopian fear, which keeps humanity from hasty or reckless surges of progress. There are fears of biological and computer viruses, clones, genetic engineering, a new race of cyborgs, and an all-powerful and hostile artificial intelligence; behind all of these fears, “The End” is looming. Knowing the dangers of utopia prompts our suspicion of them, and therefore contemporary ambiutopians blend the hopes of their modernist revolutionary grandfathers and the dissolutionment of their antitotalitarian fathers in an ironic, shimmering amalgamation. In some cases, ambiutopism tries to embed a mechanism of self-limitation into the concept of utopia, or to give it a less imperative and more hypothetical orientation (utopia in the subjunctive mood, not “to be,” but “as if”).
Among Russia’s most famous contemporary writers, Boris Akunin, Viktor Pelevin, and Vladimir Sorokin are inclined toward techno-social ambiutopianism. Akunin’s novel Aristonomy (Aristonomiia, 2012) presents, according to its title, “the law of the best.” Aristopolis is a country that ensures a worthy existence for all its citizens. However, despite its supposed perfection, Aristopolis possesses some features of anti-utopian societies, for example, the requirement that all people adjust to a preestablished ideal and its inability to cope with citizens who reject the idea of spiritual development.
Viktor Pelevin’s novel The Love for Three Zuckerbrins (Liubov’ k trem tsukerbrinam, 2014) pursues an ambiutopian approach to world-wide digital networks, where the illusory qualities of such networks prompt zen-like revelations among the novel’s protagonists. The word Zuckerbrin in the title is a portmanteau that combines the surnames of the creator of Facebook and a co-founder of Google. One of the protagonists is connected to a global control system by multiple cables and tubes; the tubes feed and wash him, while special wires implanted into his brain keep him immersed in a virtual reality that is indistinguishable from authentic experience. This is a utopia of technological singularity, a dream that turns out to be a nightmare.
Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Manaraga (2017) depicts a world where people accumulate knowledge at the tips of their neurons, and where only the wealthy can afford the privilege of a fully electrified brain. The protagonist, Geza, “knows all the classics by heart” thanks to expensive subcutaneous implants called “smart fleas.” This brave new world of 2037 is both attractive and repellent. The global elite has a taste for great books of the past, including Tolstoy and Nabokov. However, the idea of “literary taste” is literalized as the elite turn to “book’n’grills,” where “chefs” prepare thematic feasts over flames kindled by first editions of literary classics, called “logs.”
In an interview with Anton Dolin about Manaraga, Sorokin confirmed that the genre of his writings is determined by a mixture—or, rather, a mutual transformation—of utopian and anti–utopian elements:
Dolin: “Do you distinguish between the concepts of “utopia” and “anti-utopia” at all? Or is this some kind of false opposition?”
Sorokin: “In fact, I am a proponent of the symbiosis between utopia and anti-utopia. Otherwise, you become hostage to the genre, which then affects your book. I’ve always looked for a balance between them. Basically, I wanted to write a fun book. Just a single human story, a sneak peek into the space of the future. But if we take it by itself, I think, it is something more than the genre of anti-utopia.” (Dolin)
Thus, ambiutopia is a productive genre in the literary imagination of the early 20th century, as evidenced by contemporary Russian fiction.
Mikhail Epstein, March 2019
Dolin, Anton. “‘V Rossii nastoiashchee stalo busushchim, a budushchee slilos’ s proshlim.” Meduza, March 10, 2017, https://meduza.io/feature/2017/03/10/v-rossii-nastoyaschee-stalo-buduschim-a-buduschee-slilos-s-proshlym, Accessed March 27, 2019.