Finding and Breaking Utopia

by T.K. Rex

To build the world living inside her latest story for Asimov’s, T.K. Rex devoured books about California’s natural history. This post, featuring photos taken by the author herself, discusses some of what she found and how she incorporated it into her fiction. Read Rex’s “The Roots in the Box and the Roots in the Bones,” available in in our [January/February 2023 issue, on sale now!]

The world of The Roots in the Box and the Roots in the Bones was born on a train. I was fresh out of my first ecology class and looking forward to an environmentally friendly, days-long ride down the Atlantic coast from Baltimore to Florida. I found my assigned seat, at the end of a crowded car, in a corner with no windows.

No windows.

How . . . why? What? After a year of commuting between Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia I’d ridden so many trains they literally let me board this one for free, and never, once, had I seen a seat with no window. I was about to be trapped in the dark for days, staring at a nondescript wall.

After a few minutes of rising panic, I stood up, grabbed my notebook, and went to the cafe car. I stayed at that table for the rest of the trip. I accumulated a pile of Amtrak coffee cups like a rodent padding my den for the winter. I gazed out the big bright windows at the endless, flat deciduous forest outside, vaguely missed the more dramatic scenery of my western home states, and thought about the unknown future out in front of me.

That first ecology class would probably be my last. I’d gone broke leaving my advertising career for a second degree in earth science. My life felt like that seat with no window: the claustrophobic dead end of a well-intentioned aspiration.

There was a spark of optimism that stuck with me, though. Not even a year’s worth of for-profit undergrad debt could rob me of the real-life stories from that ecology class, of all the activists and scientists who’d worked their butts off over the course of the past century to make sure the climate crisis was wasn’t even worse. Real people had cleaned up the Ohio River after it got so polluted that it caught on fire, limited vehicle emissions so the air in Los Angeles wasn’t giving kids asthma, and fixed the hole in the ozone layer. Real people had accomplished thousands of little, local victories — watersheds protected from agricultural runoff, dams redesigned so salmon could spawn, oysters grown in the Chesapeake to keep the water clear — all those things we never hear about because they’re not disastrous or spectacular enough for cable news. If all of that had already been accomplished, what else was possible?

I imagined a future where everyone lived in beautiful cities, and the land between them was a dense food forest that ended hunger and sequestered carbon all at once. If there weren’t any people out there, it wouldn’t need roads, and if fruits and nuts could be picked from the air by, say, drones, then nothing would need to be planted in rows, and it could be so much denser, more efficient, more sustainable than our current destructive industrial agriculture.

The Wildcraft Drones

As the sycamores succumbed to palms outside the cafe car window, I gave the thing I wrote a title: The Wildcraft Drones. It’s still around, if you go looking for it, but it’s not very good, and more than a little problematic (if you don’t see why yet, no worries, the entire rest of this essay is about that), so I’ll summarize: An unnamed narrator gets the munchies, and summons a single apple from the AI-managed food forest surrounding her city. A small drone delivers it to her, and she takes a bite, all while musing at how much her world has changed, and how only a few select humans are allowed into the food forest for research expeditions. She briefly acknowledges that this new techno-wilderness—which stretches across the entire North American continent—has its detractors. There are people who lament the loss of desert landscapes, for example. Everything is forest now, but she lives in a sparkling utopia and never goes hungry, and the seas have stopped rising, so it was worth the cost.

The Wildcraft Drones didn’t have much of a plot, but it was never meant as more than a vignette to illustrate a concept. I sent it to my mom for her thoughts as an environmentalist. She’s an author in her own right and the “editrix” of Coreopsis: Journal of Myth and Theatre (and, yes, that kind of nerd) (love you, Mom). She had concerns about the steps my world took to get to its utopia, but invited me to submit it to the environment-themed issue of Coreopsis the following year.

It wasn’t exactly Asimov’s, and . . . you know . . . my mom kinda got me in, but hey! My little window to a better world had actually made it off the train, into the wide open internet, for anyone to gaze through. For the first time in my life, I had written science fiction that at least one or two unsolicited strangers had read. Sometimes it can be hard to tell when a story is finished, but, surely, this met all definitions.

Except, of course, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The techno-wilderness called to me. I wanted to explore it, to be one of those few allowed in for research purposes, to open the window I’d found on the train and stick my head out and breathe the wind. My mom suggested robot steeds, and the minimal footprint of artificial hooves on the soil was all the convincing I needed. I yearned to ride in on the back of one, past flocks of wildcraft drones harvesting apples, or walnuts, or . . . something.

An interlude for bleeding hearts

My grandmother was an herbalist. When I was a kid, we’d spend long summer afternoons wandering dirt logging roads on the Olympic Peninsula, while she pointed out miner’s lettuce, Pacific bleeding hearts, skunk cabbage and salmonberry. She knew the scientific name of every plant we saw, how our pioneer ancestors used it, and how her Quileute and Salish neighbors and extended family had used it for millennia. Some were medicine—her passion—and some were food, which always piqued my interest slightly more.

When Grandma’s landlord gave her an eviction notice so he could sell the land for lumber money, I had just moved back to California, and my mom, her partner and I decided to find her a new home here, closer to us. We had all those good intentions people have when they care about someone who can’t care for themselves quite as well anymore. Grandma saw the logic of it, but she also didn’t have a choice. And when she got to the house we’d found for her in Mendocino County, she missed her friends, who had been helping her much more than we realized, and she missed the landscape she’d been part of for eighty years. She didn’t know the names of the plants here, and no matter how many wheelchair-accessible trails we explored in the redwoods, or books about our native oaks I added to her bookshelf, she was homesick and displaced, and everything that had been keeping her together mentally began to slip, and then slip more . . . and then she was gone.

(I’m finding it hard, for a lot of reasons, to describe the direct connection between my grandmother’s death and the first draft of the novel I started writing later that fall. It sounds a little like her voice, telling me the bright pink flowers at her fingertips are bleeding hearts, Dicentra formosa, and it feels a little like her standing just behind my shoulder, four feet and eleven inches tall, leaning over my laptop, wondering what those cute little wildcraft drones are up to now.)

I cracked my knuckles and saddled up a Google doc. The character I’d live vicariously through should be a Ranger, I thought, one of an elite group trained to patrol the wilderness on low-impact robotic steeds. I named her Macara, and I gave the techno-wilderness a name, too, something that I thought the people in Macara’s world might come up with, a slang term that evolved from “agricultural jungle” to just “grungle.” I liked how “grungle” sounded wild and a little bit derogatory. The Grungle was a place, I figured, that some people were afraid of, even hated, because they could never go there. Just like in cities today, there would be those drawn to the wilderness, and those who recoil from it.

To ground it in our world’s future, I chose the real-life setting I now had the easiest access to, and knew the most about: Northern California. A food forest here would have to be drought and fire friendly, so what if all the plants were native California species? I knew about acorns, huckleberries, miner’s lettuce, nopales . . . what else would future denizens of San Francisco Citystate find in their produce aisle?

I had a lot of reading to do.

Research kinda broke everything

Research for fiction was new to me, and a little intimidating. I hadn’t exactly set out to write hard science fiction, but I wanted this world to be believable. I wanted to do what my grandmother would have done, and introduce people to real plants and their real uses. I wanted the landscapes to be vivid and detailed, the foods appealing.

As I read, I learned that the native species of California could, indeed, provide city-dwelling humans with not just food, but medicine, clothing, building material, ink, paper, decor, felt for yurts to combat homelessness. There could be craft and industrial uses even for the remains of animals washed up on shore. California has thousands of edible native fruits, seeds, berries, corms, herbs, nuts, roots, mushrooms, seaweeds, tree bark, shellfish, leaves. On and on. An AI-manged utility-forest was more intricately possible than I ever imagined.

My research very quickly led me to California’s Indigenous peoples. California has been populated continuously for at least 14,000 years, and there were over 500 distinct groups when the Spanish arrived, living in every single part of the region. They spoke hundreds of languages, as distinct as those from one end of Eurasia to the other.

The story of California’s native foods cannot be separated from the people who have always cultivated them. Growing up in Sonoma County, I’d heard stories of the local Miwok eating acorns, and tending oak trees. The true relationship was much deeper. Nearly every full grown oak tree was tended by many generations of the same family, who considered it a relative. This was common across cultures, in every landscape where oaks grew. (Their reverence for oaks was shared by my own European ancestors—just look up the origins of the words dryad and druid—before colonialism decimated their forests for shipbuilding.)

Native readers will already know all of this, but it was revelatory to me, coming from a hard lean into Western science: fourteen thousand years of trial and error, exploration and ideas, ingenuity and observation—everything that makes good science—gave the Ohlone, Karuk, Tongva, Miwok, Pomo and those 500 other groups of Indigenous Californians an incredibly detailed understanding of the environment. Controlled burns were timed to optimize the productivity of desired species. Meadows were seeded with huge patches of the same flower, to make their seeds easier to harvest in bulk. Hunts and harvests and fires were all planned according to conditional rules determined by cues in the environment. Everyone held knowledge about every species they encountered, in every season. Today, thousands of Indigenous Californians still use and pass on this knowledge as part of their modern, living cultures.

Growing up in Sonoma County, I’d heard stories of the local Miwok eating acorns, and tending oak trees. The true relationship was much deeper.

The easily-accessible literature on the use and edibility of California native plants is based, often second or third hand, entirely on this traditional knowledge. The people I found most active in educating the non-native public on California native foods today included Vincent Medina and Louis Trevino of Cafe Ohlone in Berkeley (highly recommend if you’re in the Bay Area); and Nicholas Hummingbird, the Indigenous educator behind @california_native_plants on Instagram (who gave me feedback on a later draft of the novel).

I made a spreadsheet of edible species that might grow in the Grungle, and it’s 353 rows long and largely limited to the coast redwoods and adjacent biomes where the novel took place. It barely touches the deserts, the Sierras, the chaparral, the prairies, the pine forests — each of which have volumes I’ve only skimmed, each of which have been meticulously tended by the families who’ve been part of them for fourteen thousand years.

This intensive system of care and tending meant the land was so productive before colonization that herds of elk and pronghorn filled the valleys. Flocks of geese darkened the sky. The Russian River would have been so thick with salmon, when it was called Ashokawna, that you could reach into the water and grab one with your eyes closed. (Many of these scenes are lusciously illustrated in Laura Cunningham’s A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California, my most-bookmarked source of visual inspiration.)

A hard truth set in for me as I learned the reality of what had been. Real-life California was once an engineered hyper-wilderness that outperformed my imagined, science-fictional Grungle in every way. And it didn’t need artificial intelligence to become that way. All it needed was the people who lived there. The people… who my fictional rewilding would have forced off their land, again.

Crap, I accidentally made a dystopia

I spent several years as a kid in and around the Navajo Nation, where the parents of my Diné classmates still remembered getting hit by their teachers for speaking their own language. Where my dad reported on the continuing public health disaster of the uranium mines that failed utterly to protect Diné miners and communities from radiation. Where the US Government forcibly removed the entire population from the land their food came from and addressed the resulting malnutrition with diabetes-inducing shipments of agricultural leftovers. So, while the native presence in California was much lower-profile than in the Southwest, I assumed our colonial takeover here had a darker history than what I was taught on a 5th grade field trip to Mission Dolores. This was not a surprise.

What I didn’t know about California’s missions, and about missionaries like Junipero Serra, who somehow still has a major street in San Francisco named after him, was the extent of their brutality and sadism. The Europeans considered the people of those 500 distinct cultural groups “wretched humble creatures,” and, while attempting to systematically eradicate their entire way of life, went out of their way to replace the carefully tended native species with the invasive cattle feed that now gives our hills their distinctive golden color every summer (and catches fire every fall).

The families who were pressured or forced from their land often ended up in the missions, where they were forced into labor, underfed, beaten and then executed or tortured for crimes ranging from trying to flee, to asking if their children were alive, to weeping. The descriptions of this treatment recorded by the missionaries themselves and other visiting Europeans—not all of whom were comfortable with the extreme cruelty, to their small credit—are detailed, gruesome, and heart-shattering. I read accounts of torture so horrible I feel uncomfortable sharing them. Read M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, subchapter Atrocities of the Mission System if you need nightmares.

I knew I would find injustices in the history of Native California. I knew that going in. I was still, somehow, shocked to find the literal Spanish Inquisition.

When California joined the United States, many of the families who had survived these atrocities hoped things would improve. Instead, bounties were placed on their lives, cultural burning was outlawed, and thousands of ancient oak trees were destroyed for the explicit purpose of starving their human relatives. The State of California committed genocide in every sense of the word, on purpose, for profit. There is no qualifying or justifying it, and there has been very little acknowledgement of it or public attempt at repair.

That doesn’t mean we aren’t paying a price, though. Extinctions, infestations, soil degradation. The decimation of fisheries. The droughts. The fires. The worsening of floods and landslides due to all of the above. Every time you hear that a degree or two of global warming made some natural disaster worse, there’s probably an entire culture’s worth of best practices for living in that landscape that could have helped or prevented the disaster in the first place, that have been ignored or lost to genocide.

But we’re writing about the future here, so…

Remember that big food forest I was writing about, that nobody lived in, managed by robots instead of human beings? It was starting to seem like a much more menacing place than I had intended. And the cities where everyone had moved to make room for rewilding and save the world from global warming? They were probably full of people who’d been forced there. Some like my grandma, who had seen the logic of it and left their homes willingly, though they had no other choice. And some who would have done anything, risked their lives, to stay on their land, and been so depressed by the confines of city they would have done anything to get out.

Maybe the right thing to do was to give up on this world. These were flaws I couldn’t just handwave away. I thought of my mom’s Salish and Quileute cousins and the elders who taught my grandmother about the herbs of the Northwest. I thought of the Zuni and Diné kids I went to school with in New Mexico, and the people I still knew there. I thought of the Native people who would read this and how they would see themselves in this future that was supposed to be persuasively better.

I had been so excited to explore the Grungle, and now I wasn’t sure I could go any farther. The forest was thick with monsters and traps. I should turn back, find another world, write a different story.

And yet. My grandmother’s teachings were in there. My ideas for combating climate change with food forests at scale surely weren’t terrible, and my own personal love of California was written into every description of the landscape. My husband Gary, my alpha reader, was enamored with the characters and the technology, and he cheered me on.

I thought back to worlds built by authors I’ve loved. Octavia Butler’s Earthseed vision from Parable of the Sower had inspired me in ways I didn’t yet know what to do with, and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed was one of my new favorite books. LeGuin once described Anarres as an “ambiguous utopia,” and it felt, reading Shevek’s story, like she was prodding her own anarchist ideals, testing them, trying find out where they broke, and for whom. The result is a world that feels fully realized, with flaws, like any great character, that make it even more compelling, and show us a way forward that feels as possible in its honesty as aspirational in its ideals. That, to me, felt so much more inspiring, interesting and real than the utopia I’d so easily dreamed up in that first vignette on the train.

Ambiguous utopia it is, then

I decided to follow LeGuin’s lead, brave the monsters, and earnestly explore the shadows of the Grungle. Without giving away too much for those who haven’t read it yet, I found ways to give my characters new challenges and rethink the histories and agendas of my fictional institutions. It deepened my worldbuilding, my narrative, my characters and my own thinking. It pushed my research even farther, and exposed me to the Land Back movement, the concept of food sovereignty, and the philosophy of Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose Braiding Sweetgrass changed how I see pretty much everything. It eventually pushed me to write this essay, at the risk of belaboring several points that my fiction still doesn’t actually live up to.

I began to see the world of the Grungle as a not a destination, but a path, from the well-intentioned place I started in to the more honest place my research led me. I wanted to take readers on that path with me. And maybe forward, to new distant destinations I can only tease, in the Grungle stories I’m still working on. Perhaps utopia lies there. More likely, as countless writers before me have learned, it is always, just slightly, farther.

So… what happened to the novel? (Is this an epilogue?)

“The Roots in the Box and the Roots in the Bones” is, by most definitions, a novelette, and one of several short stories in a growing Grungle collection. But it started as the novel that took me on the journey above. I rewrote it three times, changed literally everything about Juniper’s character (shoutout to my friend Robin Lasiloo for gut checks & drone naming), added and removed entire plot lines, described the woods endlessly, “finished” it, queried 35 agents, deleted everything except the fourth act, tried to pass that off as a short story, and finally rewrote my favorite part as the standalone novelette that you can now read in the January/February 2023 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

As I write this, there is one other published story worth reading set in this world, A Holdout in the Northern California Designated Wildcraft Zone. It takes place in the early days of the rewilding process that led to the Grungle, and was a finalist in Grist’s Imagine 2200 climate fiction contest in 2022. The themes are echoed in much of my other writing, most recently The Hall of Being (Luna Station Quarterly, 2022), set in a future that feels right next door to the Grungle. Gentle Dragon Fires (Strange Horizons, 2022), The Beast of the Shadow Gum Trees (New Edge Sword & Sorcery, Issue 0, 2022), and My Favorite Shape of All (Queer Blades, vol. 1, 2021), are all set in a secondary fantasy world inspired by California, where Indigenous, non-native, magical and immortal characters all struggle to avoid our world’s mistakes. My co-creator in that universe is my mom, Lezlie Kinyon, who was the first to champion the Grungle, and the first to call me out on its injustices. And keep a look out for SQUAWKER AND DOLPHIN SWIMMING TOGETHER, upcoming in Reckoning Magazine, for a nearer-future take on the complex relationships between humans, technology, and nature. Thanks for coming on this journey with me. I hope, at least, the train had windows.

T.K. Rex writes science fiction and fantasy in San Francisco on Ohlone Ramaytush land. She grew up in Northern California and Northwest New Mexico, with Wiccan parents of mostly British and Ashkenazi descent. Recently, she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in San Diego, and had short fiction published in Strange Horizons, The Molotov Cocktail, and Luna Station Quarterly. You can say hi and keep up with her latest stories on Twitter and Instagram, where she shares photos of San Francisco and retweets dinosaur stuff as @tharkibo.

2 thoughts on “Finding and Breaking Utopia”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: