Utopia—if the word today points at a genre of literature typified by a focus on the marginally beneficial reformation of social rituals, it is perhaps worthwhile clarifying the revolutionary vision of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). In his account of the original utopia, More envisioned a society where ownership of private property has been abolished; where leaders are democratically elected, and where food and drink were not for want. More’s utopia posited, in short, a world organised on principles entirely unlike those governing European societies of the time.
Making the shortlist for the Epigram Book Fiction Prize 2017, Judith Huang’s Sofia and the Utopia Machine is a novel that attempts to revive this very romance. Not only does the novel promises the founding of revolutionary new society, the onus of doing so falls ambitiously upon the shoulders of Singaporean technocrats.
Here is the story: set in a somewhat futuristic Singapore, Sofia is a teenager who, in the inadvertent operation of a universe-creating machine, finds herself and her family wanted by the government. She flees the Singaporean mainland for the paradisal island enclave/holdout of Pulau Ubin, and in doing so, encounters for the first time in her life the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses of the Singaporean underclass. She is sympathetic, but is unable to do anything for these unfortunate souls. Later, she relocates her newfound, exiled friends to the brave new world she has created, leaving behind the old world of oppression and inegalitarianism and poor dying people for a “chance, a blank state, to start over”.
Now, the chief critiques in Sofia and the Utopia Machine are income inequality and political persecution. Indeed, the Singaporean government’s intended use of the Utopia Machine was to create a private universe where “only the best people would be allowed to live … [A]ll the stupid people, all the worthless types of riffraff you get in the real world, they wouldn’t be admitted in the first place”. An impeccable local fable of authoritarian unimaginativeness, Huang presents a ruling class which, despite having the ability to engineer an infinite universe and end the question of need and want, still goes out of its way to kick society’s underdogs in their emaciated ribs. And whereas 1984, towards which Sophia repeatedly gestures, has political oppression figured in terms of a sophisticated panoptic surveillance and a robust self-disciplining regime, Huang’s future Singaporean government still, perhaps somewhat laughably, resorts to the blunt and utterly incompetent instrument of the ISD to quash civil and political dissent.
There are moments in the writing that are quite magnificent. In the chapter where Sophia forms her universe from scratch, the lilt of the prose, appropriately reminiscent of the style we find in Genesis, is uplifting and liturgical:
And she lifted her hands and formed the birds of the air, fleeing swiftly before the tiger’s stride, and they scattered, blue and green and red jewels that flashed in the sky and disappeared amongst the trees and the oceans. And they breathed the air of that rare atmosphere, pristine and clear as a bell ringing out.
And she dipped her hands in the oceans and all manners of sea creatures came forth from them—mermaids and oysters and great sea serpents that coiled and twirled and made a playground of the deep. And it was a magnificent thing to behold, this ever-changing water that made up the sea. And all the vegetation of the oceans sprouted forth, its seaweeds and corals forming strange underwater worlds.
And she blew out of her nostrils and all the animals of the land formed, galloping with great freedom to all corners of the land, their feet swift and sure, their feet scuttling and leaping and bounding, born to twist in the open air.
And some of them climbed through the forests, and some of them dug and burrowed beneath the ground, and some of them leapt swiftly over the ground to chase or give chase. And each one was of such particular strip of spot, as to be unique in all the world, each one magnificently formed.
If indeed the beginning was the Word, the prime mover of this novel is a skilful wordsmith. Here, the prose bounds as its fauna bounds; it is fleet as its winged creatures; it is rich and deep and confident and aspirational. Huang’s writing at its most inspired, as we have here, is magisterial.
Few first novels, however, are without fault, and Sophia and the Utopia Machine is no exception. For this reader, the chief flaw of this novel is its surrender of plausibility to narrative expediency. Fiction is, of course, often predicated on minor disruption to the everyday normalcy of life. Consider, however, that in the brief span of five short chapters, Sophia would
-learn of the existence of the top secret Utopia Machine project from a loose-lipped princeling on the Internet
-conveniently discover a hitherto unread missive from her long-missing father from a pile of paper in the study referencing the top-top secret machine
-find out from a loose-lipped colleague of her mother that her parents were the chief scientists behind the top-top-top secret project
-break into an unguarded but nevertheless “top secret, restricted area” of a government research facility
-and come into possession and operation of the top-top-top-top secret machine, which happened to be nonchalantly squirreled around in the pockets of aforementioned colleague
The way things fall somewhat too neatly into place demands a suspension of disbelief so great that the reader who could pull it off could probably also levitate by sheer force of will. But if the internal coherence of these scenes does not pass muster in other literary genres, it is entirely appropriate to the form of a work of YA fiction.
Northrop Frye once remarked that utopian/dystopian literature, despite being expressed in terms of myth, are nevertheless highly relatable to their contemporaneous audience. This is because they are projections of present social symptoms into the future; they imagine the telos of the society in which the mythmaker lives. Literary utopias show us the best version of ourselves, while their satirical cousins have us at our worse. True to form, Huang’s utopian satire is an (exaggerated) snapshot of present-day Singaporean socio-dynamic: we find the same economic inequality, the same divisions, and indeed the very non-tolerance of dissent, in the novel as we do in today’s Singaporean society. If the impulse of the utopian/dystopian imagination is flight into an alternate time and/or space, the issues they raise are never quite solipsised. Rather, that which they castigate is reality as is presently lived.
It is unsurprising therefore to find this novel’s observations on social inequality and political dissent fitting and feeding a larger discourse in Singaporean print. While its themes have already been meticulously explored—quite recently, and amongst others—in the form of a graphic novel by Sonny Liew (The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, 2015) and in essays by Teo You Yenn (This Is What Inequality Looks Like, 2018), Huang’s gesture to More’s highly egalitarian, communist society is a particularly apt argument against the income inequality and political oppression in Singapore. With its ambition, relevance, and occasional grace, Sophia and the Utopia Machine is a welcome addition to the corpus of Singaporean prose fiction.