39 pages 1 hour read

Ernest Callenbach


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1975

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Summary and Study Guide


Ecotopia is a novel set in an alternative historical timeline, one in which Washington, Oregon, and Northern California have seceded from the United States to form a new country: Ecotopia. After independence, the two countries have severed all diplomatic relations and have existed side-by-side with virtually no communication, though there is plenty of mutual distrust, even after twenty years. Enter the novel’s protagonist, William Weston, “top international affairs reporter” for the Times-Post newspaper, who has secured the “first officially arranged visit by an American to Ecotopia,” in order to explore America’s neighbor and try to understand its society and people (1). In addition, Weston has a more pointed mission directly from the American president: to reestablish diplomatic ties and float the prospect of reunification.

The novel itself consists solely of Weston’s writings, both the twenty-four articles he writes and files for the Times-Post during his visit to Ecotopia, interspersed with his personal journal entries from the duration of his trip. We begin with Weston’s apprehensive first journal entry and column composed on his way to the country, unsure of what he will find when he gets there, since the only information Americans have about Ecotopia comes from rumor and speculation, most of which has been negative. Throughout these initial articles and entries, we see Weston confronted by a way of life vastly different from the one he has known: People live more communally, work and play blend into one another, and everything from the economy to family life revolves around decentralization of power and what Ecotopians call a stable state: waste products being reused and reintroduced into the ecosystem so that truly unusable waste is practically unheard of. Equality and sustainability are the guiding factors of Ecotopian society.

Throughout Weston’s articles especially, he explores these differences from the United States and, more specifically, his home in New York City, in often minute detail. Although at first baffled by and skeptical of the things he witnesses and experiences, as the articles progress Weston begins to soften his tone and eventually even comes to appreciate and participate more fully in Ecotopian life, even if he himself does not seem to notice this subtle shift at times.

This change begins with (and in large part seems to be due to) Weston’s encounter with a woman named Marissa early in his stay. Weston is instantly attracted to Marissa, and soon they become lovers. She is strong-willed and fiercely protective of the Ecotopian way of life, and often their burgeoning relationship becomes contentious. However, especially through Weston’s personal journal entries, we see that, through Marissa, Weston comes to recognize the many benefits of the way Ecotopians live, which are so different from his own life in America, first with his ex-wife, Pat, and their kids, to his more recent American life with his lover, Francine.

Through his investigations, Weston has a number of formative experiences, both positive and negative. He becomes quite attached to Marissa, but knows he will be leaving for New York again in a matter of weeks. He sees the wonders of Ecotopian green energy, but also runs into a radical conservative group who wishes to violently topple the Ecotopian ideal in favor of the old American ways. He participates and is wounded in the violent Ritual War Games, which serve as an outlet for the baser, more animalistic human aggression still felt in Ecotopian society, especially by men. He finds that, despite minority groups being essentially equal, Ecotopians have tended to self-segregate, preferring the company of people of their own race and culture. Ultimately, near the end of the novel, he finally succeeds in his mission to gain an interview with the Ecotopian president, Vera Allwen, but with disappointing results: while a thaw in diplomatic relations is possible, there is no chance of reunification, as the President of the United States wished.

This failure sends Weston into a deep depression and he decides he cannot stand Ecotopia anymore and must flee the country for home. However, in a climactic moment, he is “kidnapped” (seemingly without malicious intent) and forced to go on a retreat to a hot springs resort. Although it is unclear to him why this is happening, both the friends he has made and his captors agree that it is for his own good. While there, he finally realizes he wants to stay in Ecotopia, with Marissa, and build a life together, and that his captors really did have his best interests at heart. He and Marissa tearfully reunite when he tells her the good news. The novel ends with an “Editors’ Epilogue” in which his editors from the Times-Post reveal that they have published the preceding articles alongside Weston’s complete journal at Weston’s request.