Utopias and Dystopias give shape to contemporary values and beliefs, acting effectively as sociological and philosophical essays through storytelling. They have the power to inspire the creative imagination and raise political consciousness.
They allow us to imagine places too good or too awful to be true, based on hopes and fears prevalent in society at the time. This got me wondering…
Why are we obsessed with dystopias?
From the early 20th century we’ve been obsessed with dystopias. Cautionary tales prevail, symptomatic of the anxieties society has felt in our post-world war era. With the advancement of technology, widening inequality gap and global liberation movements, they present a version of the present magnified and played out to the Nth degree.
In Octavia Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower society has finally collapsed under the strain of climate catastrophe and wealth inequality. Driven by poverty the US is reduced to extreme violence, crime and a (horrendously familiar) demagogue who rises to power under the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. The main character, Lauren Oya Olymina, goes on a perilous quest to find a safe place to write up her new belief system, Earthseed.
In Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale gender inequality is taken to new extremes, and women are enslaved to bear the children of wealthy men and their barren wives.
In Zamyatin’s We (1921), banned from publication until the 80s, people live in a mass-surveillance future where everyone is the same and ‘only the rational is useful and beautiful’.
In Orwell’s 1984 people are capable of double-think, reminiscent of Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, dishing out obvious lies when the truth is glaringly obvious in the pursuit of maintaining power.
In Aldos Huxley’s Brave New World society is controlled through pleasure. High levels of superficial happiness through entertainment, sex, drugs and brain-washing rob citizens of their desire for freedom and truth.
The message is clear as day. Dystopia’s grab you by the arm, shake you to say, in the words of Huxley, “this is possible: for heaven’s sake be careful about it!”
Why don’t we write Utopias?
I could list dozens of dystopias but very few Utopias. Why is that, I wonder?
Is it a writer’s dilemma? Are our imaginations limited? Are we afraid to dream, believing suffering, as we’ve always known it, to be inevitable?
Or is it an issue of readership? In Charlotte Gilman Perkins ‘Herland’, the utopian all-female society is criticised by the male visitors as being wonderful, but ultimately rather dull. Is that it? Lack of interest?
Or are the conditions thought to be too far-fetched? Too optimistic, ridiculous, impossible? Given that the word itself means ‘nowhere place’ I can understand the sentiment.
Arguably a perfect society can’t exist because there is no tabula rasa on which to build utopia, either real or imaginary. Louise May Alcott, author of Little Women, mocks the concept of Utopia and the men who dream of it in her book ‘Transcendental Wild Oats’. It was based on her real life experience living on her father’s idealistic anti-commerce ‘Fruitland’ farm, founded on transcendentalist principles by ‘an odd assortment of friends who knew more about philosophy than they did about farming’. She writes, “The world was not ready for Utopia yet, and those who attempted to found it only got laughed at for their pains […] in modern times these things are out of fashion. To live for one’s principles, at all costs, is a dangerous speculation”.
I like the optimism of ‘yet’ — times change. Many things that were once deemed as far-fetched and impossible have become our reality. In Thomas Moore’s original Utopia from the 15th century he imagined an England where people work six hours a day and eat meat but don’t slaughter the animals themselves. In Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel ‘Looking Backward’ women weren’t at home working on their ‘charms and graces’ but were an equally valued member of the workforce. Society is not far off from ideals that utopian writers expressed.
Saying that, Utopia’s do get rather personal, and by extension, open the writers up to ridicule, just as Alcott’s father’s ‘Fruitlands’ experiment.
They often drift into the realm of a narrow set of ethics, customs and laws that appeal to the writer’s opinions alone, or at the very least, reflect the values of that time it was written in.
In Moore’s Utopia, for instance, adultery or refugee status can lead to slavery and death. In HG Wells’ 1905 A Modern Utopia, motherhood is subsidised, women are equal but if they don’t bear a child within a set amount of time they get divorced. In a 1976 updated retelling of Gilmans’ Herland, titled Houston Houston do you read by Alice Sheldon, one of the female characters from the all-female space crew tells a male visitor: “Of course we enjoy your inventions and we do appreciate your evolutionary role. But you must see there’s a problem. As I understand it, what you protected people from was largely other males, wasn’t it? We can hardly turn you loose on Earth, and we simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems”.
Arguably, all utopias are also dystopian depending on where you’re standing. It’s all a matter of perception. After all, we all have different needs and desires — one person’s nightmare would be another’s dream come true.
No Utopia reflects this better than Ursula le Guin’s Omeros — a perfect city where everyone’s happiness is hinged on the one child’s terrible suffering. The story asks the reader: do you help the child, or walk away?
Just like dystopias, utopias can be a useful critique of socio-political customs and practises. They both ask the same question: “what is the price we are willing to pay for stability?”
Utopia at what cost?
The 19th century was a fertile time for Utopias as cheap book production made literature more accessible to the masses and with it came the first dystopian slants, critiquing the very idea of utopia itself.
In John Swift’s 18th century satirical Utopia ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ he mocks humanities war mongering tendencies through characters like the talking horses, enemies of the voiceless humanoid yahoos, or the petty squabbles between two nations of tiny people.
Samuel Butler’s 19th century Erehorn, an anagram of ‘Nowhere’, spoke to the US anxiety of the vanishing frontier by exploring a hidden subterranean society. In this Utopian society, prison is for people who allow themselves to get sick and criminals get medical attention and sympathy. Most interestingly, the inhabitants of Erehorn fear machine intelligence and consciousness.
In HG Wells The Time Machine the leisure-class above ground and the ape-like working class society below ground have a consumer and consumed dynamic.
In all these examples, Utopia comes at a cost, spilling into the dystopian.
I want to read more Utopias
To dismiss stories set in Utopia is to miss out on an opportunity to encourage a reader to imagine ‘what could we be’?
Well known Utopias include the Bible’s Garden of Eden or America’s Declaration of Independence — a utopia of equal rights and freedoms.
In 1888 Edward Bellamy, convinced that industrial expansion created a widening wealth gap, wrote “Looking Backward” — a euchronia based on the social fantasy of nationalising industry. The character Julian West wakes up from cryogenic sleep to a version of Boston in the year 2000. They have a credit economy where everyone gets a basic income. When it rains one great big umbrella opens up for the people walking on the street, instead of everyone needing to carry around their own protective gear — everyone shares one. There were 500 real-world Bellamy clubs that popped up in the US, believing that ‘nationalism is economic democracy. It promises to deliver society from the rule of the rich’.
Charlotte Perkins Gillman 1915 Herland designed a world where all inhabitants are women, motherhood is converted, everyone is vegetarian, employs sustainable farming techniques and focuses on experiential learning. There is no depression and no conflict as there are no mates to fight for and plenty of resources to share.
In Ursula le Guins 1974 Dispossessed a branch of humanity living on the moon have an anarchist customs — women are equal, people own nothing, exams are ridiculous, money isn’t an issue — people are free to work when they like on what they like as the foundation of a productive, cohesive society. Crime rates are low because community is essential for survival on the desolate landscape of the moon.
In Octavia Butler’s 1987 Xenogenesis trilogy aliens have created a Utopia on post-apocalyptic earth so that humans can live long, healthy lives in harmony with their people, and humanity struggles to adapt to the new reality. The alien Ooankali are masterful environmentalists, have perfect recall, are incapable of deception and are unwaveringly curious with a deep love of life and living things.
- Utopias restore that which existing societies have lost, rejected or violated.
- They are a fruitful imaginative process
- They are a heck of a lot of fun to think about, and why not imagine what could be possible?
How often in the history of human invention have we doubted the possibility only to land on the moon?
What would happen if you got everything you want from your life, society and the world as a whole? What would that look like?
I don’t know why I can’t find many Utopias, but recently I’ve been craving a new one.
Check out my website for news on my Afrofutures utopian sci-fi project, “Letters from Jada”.