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Where Do We Go from Here? Utopia in Contemporary Science Fiction


Over the weekend, science fiction author Charles Stross posted a call for more utopian speculation in contemporary science fiction. I was weaned on Huxley, Wells, Skinner, and Orwell, and so Charles’ call got me thinking: why has the utopian sub-genre fizzled out of style in the last fifty or so years? Why has the search for a good place (eutopia) ended up going no place (utopia)? (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun). I think the decline of utopian fiction is linked to the lack of a cogent utopian response to dystopian critique. What makes the dystopian critique so effective? How are the best dystopias constructed?

The Structures of Utopia and Dystopia

How to Make Perfection Entertaining

The vast majority of utopian fiction was written during the end of the industrial revolution (1880 – 1950), riding on the popularization of socialist philosophy in western Europe. Dystopias rose in parallel, although in far greater number due to their greater entertainment value. The brutal fact is that dystopias sell better than utopias because perfection makes it very hard for an author to introduce conflict.

Starting with Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, every piece of utopian fiction has been written like a travelogue. The reader follows a protagonist who comes from our imperfect society, and who enters (one way or another) the perfect society. Given this set up, it becomes almost impossible to introduce tension. Why would the visitor ever want to leave? What would the hero need to fight against? Conflict is out-moded in a utopia, and this makes storytelling very difficult.

The vast majority of utopian fiction appeals to logos first and pathos second, and it wasn’t until Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delaney that those priorities were revsered. In the 1960s and ’70s, authors like Robert A. Heinlein (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia), and Samuel R. Delany (Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia) introduced real conflict into their utopian plots. Each did this by throwing the utopia or its representatives (Heinlein’s anarcho-libertarian Luna, Le Guin’s collectivist Shevek/Anarres, Delany’s sex/gender heterotopia Triton) into armed conflict with a non-utopian society (Earth, Urras, and Earth respectively).

As Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delany made clear, the entertainment value of contemporary utopian fiction relies upon the relationship between the utopia and a different (possibly opposed) society. More recently, Iain M. Banks has done this to good effect in his Culture novels, where his protagonists tend to be Special Circumstances operatives (spies) interacting with non-utopian planets/societies/situations. While retaining some aspects of the travelogue, these books take a page out of Victor Hugo’s work and embody the utopian ideal into a principle character. Similarly, they then take the opposing viewpoint and embody that value system into a different character and let the two collide.

Le Guin effectively reversed the utopian travelogue structure: her hero Shevek is the collectivist utopian, but the world he visits (Urras) is the anti-thesis of his collectivist home planet. By making her visitor the utopian, she was able to explore more clearly the strengths and flaws of her collectivist/anarchist society and the opposed individualist/capitalist society. Delany does something similar by sending a visitor (Brom) whose values are inimical to those of the utopia he visits. This sets the stage for a gripping and powerful conflict between him and those he has relationships with, which is mirrored by the interplanetary conflict with Earth.

For those looking to write entertaining utopian fiction that has a hope of competing against dystopias, the lessons are deceptively simple:

  1. Personify your value systems.
  2. Play with perspective, by shifting which character is either narrating the story or the viewpoint character.
  3. Focus on individual relationships, instead of on the philosophical ones.

Viva la Revolucion!

Dystopias, by contrast, are stories of revolution. An ostensibly perfect society is shown to be deeply flawed, hypocritical, unjust. Our hero – usually a died-in-the-wool believer at the story’s opening – realizes his perfect society is a lie and either brings the system down or escapes to a liberated area outside of the proscribed area. The conflict practically writes itself: the situation is dire (our hero is usually alone against oppressive odds), and the stakes are high (death, or worse: conversion).

Structurally, dystopias tend to be logical extrapolations of a central conceit, a conceit that tends to be tied to the philosophical, sociological, and economic concerns of the time:

  • Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 classic We takes the early 20th century’s industrialization, Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon, and constructs a totalitarian world state where individuals are referred to only by number and any burgeoning individuality is earnestly squashed.
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where the principles of assembly-line manufacturing are now applied to individuals, whose roles in life are rigidly determined based on their genetic engineering.
  • George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, directly inspired by Zamyatin’s work and extrapolating the concept of a society founded on the Panopticon.
  • Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which depicts censorship taken to a logical extreme.
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron (published in Welcome to the Monkey House: Stories), which shows a state in which everyone is forced to be average in all aspects of their being.
  • Jack Vance’s Alastor trilogy, where each book explores a different society built around a particular social concept (respectively gambling, fuedalism, collectivism).
  • John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, which take show plausible consequences of Malthusian overpopulation and ecological collapse.
  • Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which takes 1980’s Thatcherite politics and postulates a future based upon them.
  • Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which shows a society built on religious fundamentalism and male chauvinism.
  • James Morrow’s City of Truth, which posits a society founded upon (always) telling the truth.
  • Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which builds a society around providing the masses with “bread and circuses” (gladiatorial conflict) to keep them in line.

All of the examples listed above hinge upon a central character who comes to doubt the society they are a part of. Whether it is Bradbury’s Montag, or Morrow’s Jack Sperry, the protagonist is a product of the dystopian society who comes to vehemently oppose it. This opposition lends even early dystopias powerful conflict, rising tension, and thematic tension. Even the earlier dystopias established the pattern of embodying opposing principles in their characters. For every Winston Smith, we have an O’Brien (Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). For every Bernard Marx and John the Savage, we have a Mustapha Mond (Huxley’s Brave New World). This gives the opposing philosophies a face, makes them personable and – in the case of Mustapha Mond, at least – deceptively sympathetic.

If utopian fiction has traditionally appealed to logos, and then pathos, then dystopian fiction has traditionally reversed that order. As a result, the success or failure of dystopian fiction lies in its world-building. The memorable dystopian works tend to have fully-realized characters, and conflict-prone plots that put their heroes in desperate situations philosophically and physically.

The Dystopian Critique of Utopia

If Charles Stross is looking for more utopian fiction, then he should be looking for more utopias that apply lessons from their dystopian cousins. By relying upon more three-dimensional characters, dystopian fiction better illustrates how flawed humans may react to situations and choices. “Human nature” is often cited as a criticism of utopian philosophy, and only the works of Heinlein, Le Guin, and Delaney have tried to respond to that criticism. Heinlein’s utopia takes the cynical, ultra-libertarian view of individualism and applies it. Le Guin readily admits to the flaws in her utopia, and posits that society as an aspirational work-in-progress reliant upon the ethos of its inhabitants. Delaney shows that any utopia is indelibly based upon a shared value system, and elements which “don’t fit in” may or may not have a place within that society…even if by ostensible definition, it is an all-encompassing, all-permitting society.

These are not the techniques of H.G. Wells or earlier utopian authors. They are instead the techniques of dystopian fiction, applied to utopian concepts. And if we are to look for modern-day utopian fiction, we should try to write more books that attempt the same. Thinly-veiled imperative lectures (à la Wells or Morris) would not sell today, and though well-written utopian travelogues (like Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age) may win awards and earn respect, they are extremely difficult to get right. I also suspect there is limited demand for them.

If we want to see contemporary utopian fiction, one option is to take a page out of Iain M. Banks’ playbook: establish the utopia in the far-distant future, so far removed as to make it effectively fait accomplit, then use Le Guin’s tactic of taking a dyed-in-the-wool utopian and putting them in conflict/interaction with opposing viewpoints. It’s a technique that works for the most-recent utopias, whether Iain M. Banks’ Culture or the Star Trek Federation. While this technique makes for compelling reading, but the fact that there are few “new” types of utopia limits the potential thematic impact.

Another option is to do as John C. Wright does in his Golden Age trilogy. There, the author takes a page out of the dystopian playbook: he uses a dyed-in-the-wool utopian character to uncover the flaws in his own utopia. Whereas in a truly dystopian work, that hero would then go on to either destroy or escape his society, Wright’s hero instead tries to save his society despite its flaws. Structurally, this is probably the most interesting utopian fiction I have seen in many years. While the utopia itself is of the nearly-ubiquitous individualist/anarchist mold, the technique by which Wright explores his themes is quite refreshing.

A third – and perhaps most challenging – option is to actually come up with some fresh utopian philosophies. In many ways, utopian philosophy has become almost synonymous with either libertarian anarchy or collectivist anarchy, and I question whether there is much more to be said on either subject. Instead, perhaps we should come up with some new models for looking at society, for structuring our relationships. If we do that, then we should apply the structural lessons of dystopian fiction to make the characters compelling, the plots full of conflict, and fundamentally resonant.

One possibility which I see is for utopian fiction that actually precedes the utopia itself. Utopia is – by definition – a static place. But the process of building a utopia, whatever its value system, surely is not. Why not utopian fiction that is directly aspirational? The reality of watching a utopia be built might be like the making of law and sausages: best left unwatched. But if we’re dealing with fiction, then I’m sure we can squeeze some entertainment and thematic resonance out of the struggle for a better world. After all, once that struggle is won, we’ll have no more conflict to write about.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi, my name is John and I am a big fan of Utopia and Dystopia. I created Site based on this theme. If you are interested you can check it:
    Utopia and Dystopia

    November 11, 2011
  2. I realize this is an old post, and I was wondering if you were able to find any recent (last 2-3 years) utopian SF novels. Thanks.

    February 20, 2012
    • Outside of the ones I mention in the post itself, I haven’t come across much utopian SF recently. The market seems pretty glutted on dystopian (or at least post-apocalyptic) fiction recently, so it’s hard to think of any utopias outside of the ones I’ve already mentioned. Iain M. Banks Culture novels are great, and for a more classic Utopian structure I strongly recommend Michal Ajvaz’s The Golden Age.

      Hope this helps! If you come across any other recent utopias in your reading, please let me know!

      February 21, 2012

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