To dispute the rapidly increasing stratification of wealth around the globe is to ignore the very ground on which we stand. To imagine an upending of this global economic order is to imagine either a utopian vision or a cataclysmic reconfiguration—either a deepening of economic and political marginalization to the point of absurdity, or a judicious reconfiguration of established modes and mores.
In Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia, the author attempts to envision the former condition—a world in which the teetering inequality of today explodes into untethered, brutal, and worldwide segregation between a wealthy minority and a seething lower class. One of the novel’s characters laments the state of things: society lost its middle class, and without it one has a “society primed for explosion” (108). The explosion that came kept the wealthy secure and condemned the rest to suffering and degradation. And yet, the character’s analysis of class dynamics feels shockingly contemporary. Where the book attains its most fascinating characteristics is this liminal space between the present and the imagined future catastrophe wrought by the inception of “biroil.” How different, really, is the world of Utopia from the unflinching lived experience of millions today?
Thus far, the novel features first person narration from two characters on either side of this economic order. These two characters provide the novel with its form, as the juxtaposition of their interior lives and exterior conditions makes the division of class a pronounced structural division in the book itself. In other Science Fiction efforts, characters at the center and periphery of the story can often feel like products of their environment that are inextricable from their more fantastic, elevated, and exaggerated conditions. Yet, in Towfik’s work, they could just as easily be products of our current economic, political, and social order.
The vile observations and emotions sputtering from our first narrator—the son of Utopia’s pharmaceutical magnate—ring true as a contemporary view of life, love, and death from the top 1% of the societal ladder. The ennui, base misogyny, non-existent empathy, and mindless appreciation for violence as a political end and as an aesthetically pleasing pastime don’t just feel like capital-T truth about life steeped in exorbitant wealth, it feels like the enumerated characteristics of our president.
Gaber, on the other hand, with his clear-eyed analyses of his lot in life and his deft diagnosis of his strata’s ills, is rendered dutifully as an amalgamation of the colonized, the oppressed, and the brutalized under neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism writ large. His humanity intact, but his disdain for the conditions imposed on him and his sister stoked continuously by the world around him, Gaber must decide every day what tact to take with is oppressors, a task which only became more complicated with the arrival of the Utopians. As more and more people in our globalized capitalist system find themselves in a mire with varying degrees of similarity to the one facing Gaber, choices like those Gaber faces for survival will be laid at the feet of a steadily increasing majority.
In short, these two characters butting heads reveals Utopia’s main sociopolitical challenge: how can such powerful, all encompassing divisions in character and perception be overcome? Through revolution? Through exposure? Towfik challenges us to imagine a more direct and hypernormalized vision of the world in which we currently find ourselves, asks us which side of the fence we may be on in the near future, and finally urges us to deconstruct the framework of these structures which solidify division and exacerbate inequality.