In the writings of two of my recent favourite novelists, a common element keeps popping up: communal living arrangements, whether in space or on a near-future Earth. Put that together with my personal dream about living in some sort of artists’ colony, and I start thinking about whether this is a model for the real future. And whether (and how) we could push that in fiction, make it exciting and get people think about it a possible way forward.
The Far Future: Communes in Space
I think that Becky Chamber is one of the best sci-fi writers these days. Her Wayfarer Trilogy tells wonderfully human / Aeluan / Harmagian stories, depth with a light touch effortlessly plugged into a backdrop of space ships and space worlds. (For once, ‘effortless’ probably comes close to the truth as she grew up in a family heavily involved in space science, as she puts it on her website.)
In Record of a Spaceborn Few, humans have long since left a devastated planet Earth and built a new society in space. Over the standards - the time unit used by the GC or Galactic Commune (hint hint) - many have gone on to live on new planets, with other species, but those that remain in space, on the ships of their ‘Fleet’, do so in communal living arrangements. Families live together in smaller quarters that are part of larger units, the ‘hexes’; food - preparing and eating - is shared. Everyone is provided accommodation and basic needs, a kind of universal basic income; there are jobs and specialisations; trading with the outside uses ‘credits’ but within the Fleet, it’s by way of barter. And everyone has to do the occasional shift of sewer work.
The Near Future: Communes in New York
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, we also encounter communal structures. In this metropolis half-flooded by sea-level rise, skyscrapers with submerged, reinforced foundations offer accommodation to thousands of people - basically everyone. regardless of ‘status’, has modest private quarters, and then there are communal dining halls and hydroponic gardens for growing much of their own food.
What I like best about the way this set-up is described is that nobody makes a fuss of it, and nobody complains. This is the way life works in New York in the year 2140 (except, of course, for a few super-rich). And if people lose their accommodation because yet another building topples under the onslaught of a storm surge, people in other towers make room for them, somehow and anywhere. This kind of solidarity is a given.
The Present: Energy-Autonomous Villages and Modular Buildings
Back to my dream of an artists’ colony… In its (German and Swiss) origins, this concept was lived mostly by painters. But let’s expand this idea, let’s dream up a commune where artists, musicians and writers live together with farmers, tech geeks and doctors, share work and the proceeds of their labour, oh and of course lots of solar power, greywater recycling and geothermal heating.
Sure, the hurdles are high. Room for privacy might be an issue; you’d all have to get along, more or less; you’d need to cover medical needs, have back-up plans for power shortages, and somehow work this into the globally connected world we have today and are unlikely to leave behind (unless there’s an apocalyptic EMP or similar - which is a distinct possibility - and then you’ll be in the right place).
All of this already exists, of course, from very basic hippie-style communes to energy-autonomous towns in Germany to this amazing project: rundown city apartments reborn as food-forest co-living Agritopia (that's the photo above). It may seem easier to achieve in rural areas where you have space for farming etc., or in suburbia, like the Agritopia project. But there are projects that use modular building techniques for ‘inner-city ‘re-densification’, making use of unused spaces between and on top of existing structures. This on its own would ‘only’ provide more living space, but add hydroponic gardening to that and you start approaching New York 2140.
Fine. But what does that have to do with storytelling?
I guess it would be difficult to write a gripping epic, or a thrilling drama, where the plot revolves around the protagonist(s) establishing a commune. But in an earlier post I proposed to make green behaviour part of your story’s DNA. So your protagonists could already be living in a commune, as in the above-mentioned novels, and engage in all kinds of ecological, sharing-based behaviour as a matter of fact. As a given, self-understood backdrop. Even better, the commune helps them achieve their goal or overcome the antagonist in some way or other. And then they all have a massive party to celebrate.
Over to you - I am sure you can find ways to make living in a commune appealing and attractive. Perhaps even sexy - throw in orgies if that’s your thing, as long as it makes people share and use resources responsibly…