How Utopia Becomes Dystopia: The New Naturals Review

Mel Jones ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

A secret underground society. A colony that claims to be a utopia, yet has unpleasant truths hidden underneath the glamor. These are the enticing premises of award-winning author Gabriel Bump’s new book, The New Naturals. Although the novel takes a different stylistic approach than its synopsis initially presents, it is a worthwhile inquiry into modern conceptions of mental health, community, and capitalism. How far will a community go to prove its identity when doing so means rejecting the principles it was founded on?

The New Naturals may catch readers off-guard at first with its poetic phrasing or eccentric names (Bounce, Rascal, and Aviary are some of the more memorable ones). However, it quickly demands attention with its captivating descriptions of life and relationships. It is primarily told through stream-of-consciousness narratives from the perspectives of colony members and contains lush descriptions of the way they see the world. Although the narrative occasionally teeters on the verge of purple prose, the writing never becomes too heavy-handed. Through hyper-specific imagery that somehow feels universally relatable, Bump delves into what it feels like to experience anxiety, hatred, lust, and love. The overarching narrative explores how modern society corrupts mental health and makes it impossible to feel personally fulfilled, trapping people in a cycle of searching for meaning.

The story begins in Boston, where Rio, an academic, and her husband Gibraltar, live. Readers from the area will notice many recognizable landmarks from the city, including a reference to Emerson. However, Bump tears apart this familiarity and shows how dystopian the current social climate is. Seemingly mundane scenes are the backdrops for the couple’s frustration with social injustice and the glaring issues no one else seems to notice. Rio cannot believe the amount of hypocrisy she witnesses: everyone ignores death after death, hate crime after hate crime. They are more concerned with getting promotions and attending conferences on diversity to make themselves seem progressive. Rio and Gibraltar are disillusioned with this stagnant political climate and the overwhelming amount of performative activism their friends and colleagues participate in. 

After a string of hardships culminating in the death of their newborn child, Rio and Gibraltar feel purposeless. They decide to found a secret underground colony, building an escape from everything wrong with modern society. Rio imagines it as a refuge for people of color who have been brutalized by the world above and a hub of antiracism, but the project eventually expands to take in anyone who feels unwelcome in society. With the help of multimillion dollar donations, they tunnel out passageways under a mountain and create living quarters, a school, exercise facilities, and entertainment centers. Everything is perfect. They can start building a life away from the constant criticism and empty promises of the outside world.

Soon, they recruit others to join the colony. Some people feel dissatisfied with the ways they have been exploited in their careers or feel dissatisfied with the life paths they’ve chosen. Others are unhoused and haven’t been able to find the footing to do what they want to in the world. However, all of them share a sense of unfulfillment that causes them to be incapable of living in a conventional way. They leave the lives they’re accustomed to and join the project to give their life a purpose. They call themselves the New Naturals, a reference to their desire to build a new and better society underground. A government is established, and factions form. Although things go well at first, the colony’s spotless image quickly falls away, replaced by messy, uncomfortable truths.

Through brief but impactful anecdotes of each character’s life, Bump provides explanations for why the colony struggles and how complicated the desires of each person are. Some of the characters’ arcs require a suspension of disbelief, like when the very rich benefactor of the entire project decides to fund it on a whim simply because she’s bored of being rich. However, hypotheticals like these allow Bump to satirize neoliberalism and comment on class structures. This benefactor eventually stops funding the project because of pushback from the federal government, which is the final nail in the coffin. The colony is left without food or outside resources, so Rio and other leaders of the colony begin sneaking out and stealing food from local stores in order to survive. These operations are small at first, but they become more and more morally questionable, culminating in a murder that fractures the colony for good. The New Naturals are forced to take extreme measures to maintain their separation from the rest of society. Ironically, in doing so, they become a tiny replica of it.

The New Naturals are forced to retreat from hiding and return to their former lives, leaving their time in the colony as nothing more than a fading memory. The project dissipates as quickly as it was formed. Its founders envisioned an escape from the capitalist, oppressive regimes that beat everyone down, but because the colony relies on these same systems to survive, it cannot fully separate itself from them. Bump does not portray Rio and Gibraltar as too idealistic or naive for believing that they can create a utopian world. Instead, he critiques how damaged society has become so that such visionary action isn’t viable, and exposes everyone’s reliance on the corrupt power structures they oppose.

Admittedly, if you’re looking for an action-oriented, dystopian read, The New Naturals may not be the book for you. Its description is misleading, because most of the story occurs before the characters make their way to the utopia, and is dedicated to detailing how they got there, not the actual goings-on of the society. It is closer to literary fiction than science fiction. Despite this, The New Naturals is relevant because it shows that modern society is already a dystopia, and it explores all of the ways it is harmful to us. Surprisingly, the novel ends on a hopeful note: inhabitants of the original colony take refuge together with their family and friends, standing up against the perpetual injustice and negativity they’ve experienced. This sums up the book’s argument perfectly: a utopian version of the world may be impossible to reach, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make it better. 

The New Naturals can be purchased online from Barnes & Noble or Hachette Book Group.

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