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The Convergence of Utopia and Science Fiction


A couple of weeks ago – amidst all of the craziness involved with packing, moving, and unpacking – I managed to take a weekend and go up to Readercon in Burlington, MA. I’d been to Readercon two (more accurately, one and a half) times before, and every time, I find the panels thought-provoking (and the conversations between panels, at the bar, and at the parties hilarious and often thought-provoking, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog post).

Readercon This year’s Readercon featured a theme that’s been on my mind of late: utopia. There were three or four program items dedicated to the subject, and I managed to get to almost all of them. While the discussions were all very interesting, I felt that they had danced around two ancillary questions which form the heart of my interest in the subject: What are the drivers of utopian thought? And what makes utopian fiction effective?

Where Does Utopia Come From?

Utopian fiction has a long history, but it’s become increasingly thin-on-the-ground (or the bookshelves) of late. Why? This is the kind of question we can come at from many angles, but to really do an effective job answering it, I think we need to understand how utopian fiction comes about. And here, I’m going to speculate widely, generally, and with any luck reasonably.

Utopian thought (and the fiction which explores it) is a consequence of humanity’s tendency towards systemic thought.

Our minds are pattern-matching machines: From the moment of birth (and possibly even before) our brains are assembling a complex collection of cause/effect responses. If I drop my Cheerios on the floor, mommy gets upset. If I pull the dog’s tail, the dog runs away. When we assemble a bunch of those cause/effect responses – and when we chain them together and interrelate them – an incredibly complex system emerges.

We interact with the world around us – with physical objects, with individuals, with organizations, with groups, and even with ourselves – based upon expectations borne of that complicated system. While the individual action might be simple (turn up the thermostat so that the room becomes warmer), it is predicated upon a complex set of imputed underlying (and inter-related) systems. So what does this have to do with utopia?

Utopian thought comes from an awareness (however flawed) of the systems shaping society. It stems from a philosophical tradition in which one can comfortably place Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Engels, Marx, Rand, and just about any individual who has ever had a political opinion. Utopian thought is a systemic “what if game: If we adjust the systems that shape our society, how will our society change?

This may seem like a simplistic characterization of utopian thought, and to some extent, that’s a fair criticism. But despite its simplicity, it remains precise. And that precision is what makes it helpful for exploring utopian thought’s evolution through the centuries, its relationship to science fiction, and its structural portrayal within fiction.

Our Changing Understanding of Societal Systems

Utopian thought is always grounded in the philosophical zeitgeist of its time. As our understanding of the systems underlying our society changes, so too do the structures and systems depicted in our utopias.

Utopias – like science fiction – are as much commentaries on their present as they are prescriptions for the future.

When Plato described his Republic, or when More’s traveler came upon his island, they were writing in their time and for their time. Their “ideal” societies were built upon their understanding of the systems underlying their contemporary society. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’ News from Nowhere are both rooted in the social, economic, and cultural debates of the rapidly-industrializing 19th century. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed cannot easily be divorced from the political and economic debates of the mid-20th. Joanna Russ’ The Female Man and Samuel Delany’s Trouble on Triton are products of the culturally tumultuous 1960-70’s.

Utopian works rely on a philosophical context shared between reader and author. To remove a utopian work from the philosophical context of its time is to reduce it to quaint over-simplicity (an easy critique to offer when looking backwards) or abstruse incomprehensibility (a hypothesized critique when looking forwards – I suspect Plato might have had difficulty grokking Trouble on Triton, for example).

This relationship between utopian thought and the philosophy of its day is, I think, the reason why we have seen relatively little utopian fiction since the 1980s. Before the ’80s, political philosophy, economics, and even psychology were often founded on reductionist principles (i.e. if we can break each system down into its elemental components, we can understand how those systems function). The past thirty years, however, have witnessed the burgeoning popularity of anti-reductionist “systems thought”, “complexity theory”, and “holistic approaches”.

Berlin Wall Tumbles To over-simplify: before the 1980s, it was reasonable for any one philosopher to articulate a “complete” political, social, or economic philosophy. Yes, that articulated philosophy would be flawed and overly simplistic (see Plato, Rand, Heinlein, Yefremov, etc.). But the practical applications (and limitations) of such articulations could be observed in the wild: Soviet Communism in the Eastern bloc, Maoist Communism in China, American Capitalist Democracy in the United States, and mildly-Socialist democracy of varying strains across much of Europe. But then the world changed in the 1980s: Soviet Communism unraveled, and Western society realized that our reductionist models had missed something (or many things).

Since the ‘80s, in every field of social science (including economics, history, sociology, psychology, etc.) we have come to embrace the idea of complex and irreducible systems. This has progressed in line with the increasing specialization of our education systems. For example, the average (educated!) person on the street is unlikely to be able to explain how money supply or the quantity theory of money works. And even amongst economists there is much debate about how various systems affect and shape the money supply, and how that money supply in turn affects and shapes society at large.

I’ve heard time and again folks say that the world has gotten more complex. That’s not true: The world has always been this complicated. But our awareness of the world’s complexity has increased substantially in the last century. As a result, we have shifted from a society which believed it could explain the world to a society which now recognizes its own inability to do so. As a result, our what-if scenarios (reliant as they are upon a shared understanding between reader and author) have grown more tentative.

That makes the creative challenge of producing effective utopian fiction harder. The audience comes to the text already predisposed to reject our utopia.

The Relationship between Utopia and Science Fiction

Several paragraphs ago, I offered a reasonably concise description of utopian thought, characterizing it as a systemic “what-if” scenario. If such a what-if game sounds suspiciously like a working definition of science fiction, well, there’s a good reason for that: Every work of utopian writing can be considered a work of science fiction. And the obverse likewise holds: Every work of science fiction can be considered a work of utopian thought.

I can imagine the complaints now: How can works like E.E. “Doc Smith’s Lensmen series, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Paulo Baciagalupi’s The Windup Girl, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games be credibly called utopian? They have very little in common, it might seem, to works like H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward.

But those differences are superficial at best: beneath the stories’ plot, underneath their characterization, and independent of their narrative structure lies an underlying question (what if) which is central to the vast majority (though not all) of science fiction. The differences? Those are differences in expression, differences in technique, differences in the method by which the author’s conjectures are explored. From a philosophical perspective, those are differences in aesthetic.

The Changing Aesthetics of Utopia

When I look at the evolution of utopian fiction, I see a path of convergence. By today’s aesthetic standards, the “classics” of utopian fiction can be considered dull at best, and didactic at worst. A “perfect society devoid of conflict makes plotting difficult. A society which assumes the uniformity of the human condition either a priori or as a consequence of society’s perfection makes characterization tough. By the aesthetic standards of the 19th century, the philosophical question of “what if” alone may have been enough to support a novel-length work.

By our aesthetic standards today? We demand more: tension; conflict; drama. We want pathos in addition to our logos. Utopian fiction’s gradual evolution throughout the twentieth century has marked the gradual shift to more emotive expressions: compare the conflict in H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia to that of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and then that to the conflict in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. One could plot a timeline of explicitly utopian fiction based upon the reader’s emotional proximity to the characters, and those character’s explicit articulation of philosophical conjecture.

The commercial and aesthetic requirement that fiction must feature conflict and drama stands in tension with that fiction’s ability to examine social, economic, or political philosophy. The closer our gaze is focused on the characters, the more oblique becomes the presentation of philosophical conjecture.

Where the philosophical conjecture is viewed head-on, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, we are left with a dystopian work (or in Le Guin’s case, a heavily ambiguous one). The conflict stems from the philosophy, and the “perfect” world is shown to the reader to be so flawed as to fail in its stated goal. This is, of course, a valid and powerful technique in both utopian thought and in science fiction. “It will fail” is a reasonable response to the question of “what if”.

However, in works where the utopian philosophy is presented obliquely – implied through what goes unstated or otherwise baked into the world-building – we can still identify fascinating utopian themes. Whether that’s in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot stories, Madeleine Ashby’s vN, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, M. John Harrison’s Nova Swing, or Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy we can identify strains of utopian conjecture and examination. They are explored – typically – between the lines, sometimes closer to the story’s surface and other times buried a little more deeply. It works, however, because it is baked into the story’s underlying world-building using the techniques of the science fiction genre.

Utopian Fiction Looking Forward

Contemporary utopian fiction has fully converged with science fiction, to the point where separating the two has become all but impossible. One can make the argument that this discussion is tautological navel-gazing, or as relevant to contemporary writing as asking how many angels can dance on the period at the end of this sentence. I disagree.

Like any branch of either philosophy or writing, utopian fiction is subject to the pressures of its society. In this case, under aesthetic pressure, utopian fiction has had to embrace narrative conflict. This has happened in parallel with society’s rejection of reductionist socioeconomic philosophies, and this societal acknowledgment of nuance has forced a further narrowing of the narrative’s focus to individuals within a hypothetical society. The surrounding society may be idealized, or have utopian elements, yet the lives of the individuals living within it may still be conflicted. Today’s science fiction and utopian thought have both rejected narratives of simplicity.

The mechanism that enables utopian thought (what-if style conjecture) is the same that enables science fiction’s world-building. If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, it stands to reason that it is – in fact – a duck. Can we have science fiction that isn’t utopian? Or can we have a utopia which isn’t science fictional? Given the above, I am hard-pressed to think of examples.

Philosophical travelogues with thin characterization and prescriptive didacticism are passé by today’s standards. But the deep and philosophically relevant questions that utopian fiction has traditionally explored can still be examined. But this creates a two-fold challenge: On the one hand, we must consider the complex systems underlying our fictional societies and the relationships therein, while at the same time considering how those systems will affect individuals within those societies on emotional, functional, and even spiritual levels.

Where those systems fail, it is far easier to shift the story into dystopia, to derive narrative tension from those failures.

A far more difficult trick is to show those systems as functional, while still featuring emotionally resonant narrative tension.

Where are the massive epic science fiction series?


I’ve really been enjoying the invective-laden “debate” between Sam Sykes and Ari Marmell over at Babel Clash this past week. Their discussion, essentially on “standalone fantasy novels” versus “single-story epic fantasy series” raised an interesting question in my mind. With door-stopper tomes so common in fantasy, why does fantasy’s cousin science fiction not have similar Chihuahua-killers?

It’s hard to think of contemporary fantasy without the likes of Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, David & Leigh Eddings, George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Steven Erikson, Brent Weeks, etc. There’s quite a bit of commonality across these authors: first, they have written (or are writing) series telling a single story across more than four books, which take up entire shelves at the bookstore, and where each individual book is heavy enough to weigh down a tent.

The last thirty years in fantasy can generally be described as giving us longer series, and longer individual titles within those series. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Tolkien-inspired, 300-page apiece trilogy was the general rule. In the 1980’s, David and Leigh Eddings gave us the quintet (where again, each title was about 300 pages). In the ’90s, Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and George R.R. Martin gave us the N-teen volume epic series, with each title clocking in at 600 – 1000 pages. In the 2000’s, we have a fresh bevy of fantasists like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Brent Weeks, and Steven Erikson continuing the process. Where are science fiction’s gargantuan multi-volume epics?

If we can generally say that over the last thirty years, a significant portion of fantasy has used (a) more books, and (b) longer books, to tell a single story, why has this trend not appeared in science fiction? Sure, science fiction has its share of series. But these series tend to be trilogies or duologies (with a very rare quartet). Each of the novels in best-selling “series” by authors like Alastair Reynolds or Iain M. Banks is a standalone title, sharing a universe with its siblings, but little else. So…why is this?

I’ll be the first to say it: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer, although I do have some thoughts on narrowing down the cause. The way I see it, the reason that science fiction hasn’t expanded the way fantasy has can be laid at the feet of one of four actors in the process: the readers, the writers, the publishers, or the stories.
Saying that “science fiction readers are different from fantasy readers” doesn’t fly for me. Sure, the two audiences differ. But there is very significant overlap between the two, and, fundamentally, people are people. The drive to lose oneself in a fantasy universe applies just as strongly to a science fictional universe. That’s one of the many reasons why Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels are so popular, as are Reynolds’ Revelation Space novels or Larry Niven’s Ringworld. So I don’t buy any argument that says “readers of science fiction wouldn’t like it.” To me, that’s the equivalent of someone in 1965 saying that readers of fantasy would never accept a quintet. Time and time again, readers have proven such accepted wisdom wrong.

So if the readers aren’t at fault, what about the writers? Are science fiction writers too good to produce what some would call bloated epics? Or – to apply the flip side of that coin – are they too limited in their outlook to conceive of a story/universe on so grand a scale? I think the answer to both questions would have to be “no.” Science fiction writers are just as talented – and just as fallible – as their fantasist counterparts. Saying that there are no multi-volume, large science fiction epics because of the writers is too simplistic. Nature and publishing abhor a vacuum, and sooner or later a new author would come along and write one. After all, the fantasy genre didn’t typically expand beyond trilogies until the 80’s. And the door-stoppers didn’t show up until the 1990s. It all starts somewhere.

So maybe the fault lies with the publishers. Here, my natural cynicism makes me want to say “Aha!” and blame editors and acquisitions departments. But again, I fear that’s too much of an oversimplification. If at some point an author tried to write a multi-volume science fiction epic, then sooner or later some editor would take a chance on it. And if it did well, then others would quickly follow suit. That’s the nature of the industry (Vampires, anyone? Zombies?). So I don’t think this is a case of publishers not wanting to publish books like that because they don’t want to take a chance. Eventually, someone would try it out and a new trend would start.
If the reader, the writer, and the publisher aren’t at fault, is there something intrinsic to the science fictional story that precludes a 10+ volume series? Is fantasy somehow exceptional as a genre in that it either enables or requires such series where other genres do not? If the story is to blame, then the fault must lie in its setting, characters, or plot.

We fantasy fans talk about these giant series in terms of losing ourselves in a fictional universe. We love to take our time exploring the richly imagined lands of Westeros, or Genabckis, or Randland. But science fictional settings can be just as richly imagined, just as Other, as fantastical ones. What’s the difference between Arrakis and Westeros? Or the universe of the Culture and Randland? From a technical standpoint, the real differences are window-dressing: spacecraft and ray-guns rather than galleons and swords. Sure, that’s flippant and over-simplified, but any science fictional world is just as fantastical as a fantasy world. This applies just as much to space opera, sociological SF, the future (whether post-apocalyptic or not), time travel stories, etc. The quality of the world-building rests in the author’s hands, and science fiction presents just as much opportunity for involved and interesting world-building. I don’t believe that fantasy settings do something that science fictional settings don’t (or vice versa). They’re settings, imagined universes with rules and actors and factions as complex or as simplistic as the author wishes to make them. Alien is alien, whether they carry swords or blasters.

So what about the characters? Huge fantasy series are replete with a dizzying cast of characters – so much so, that the appendices to keep dramatis personae and their factions straight are a cliché feature. Typically, these large casts effectively comprise different protagonists who we follow at different points in the story. Farah Mendelsohn makes a great point in her Rhetorics of Fantasy, which – if I may paraphrase somewhat – suggests that this is really a shell-game: It takes what are essentially separate epic plots, and disperses the reader’s attention across them. We think that there’s one complex story going on, but really we’re watching ten or twelve simple stories happening in parallel. This isn’t a bad device, and it is one which I enjoy very much when done well. But why does this device appear in fantasy, but not in science fiction? A complicated cast of deeply personified characters is not unique to fantasy. Ever read Victor Hugo? Or Tolstoy? Or Iain M. Banks? There is no reason why this technique, or why this character structure, cannot apply in any genre.

So that leaves the science fiction plot as the remaining culprit. Perhaps there is something in science fiction’s plots that precludes such epic myth-making. I’ve read quite a bit of theory on fantasy, and rather a lot of excellent research on the morphologies of fantasy plots (I cannot recommend Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy enough). But I haven’t come across much morphological research on science fiction. When I think about all of the criticism of SF that I’ve read over the years, I can’t think of a single piece of criticism that tries to postulate a morphology of plot structures in SF. There are many great books on the history of the genre’s evolution, on the different themes that crop up in SF, and even on the techniques by which these themes are communicated. But I can’t find anything that deals with the sequence or structure of science fiction narrative.

So rather than try and come up with some back-of-the-envelope set of structures based on the books I can remember right now, I’ll instead leave you with three questions:

1 First, does science fiction have broad categories of plots the way fantasy does?
2 If it does, then do those categories somehow preclude the development of multi-volume door-stopper epics in science fiction?
3 And if not, then why aren’t we seeing series like that get published?

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.

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