Utopia Versus Dystopia: The Impact of Social Science Fiction

Utopian Future

– By Jacob Foxx –

Speculative fiction is an excellent vehicle for social commentary. Rather than demonstrate the flaws of current society through contrived narratives, speculative fiction offers the opportunity to skip past all the contentious fact patterns to create a new world. Many works of social science fiction have stood the test of time and are required reading in high school and college English courses. Others are much more controversial but have proved effective tools in affecting social change.

Two potent narrative platforms for social commentary are utopias and dystopias.

Most works classified as utopian are more accurately eutopian meaning good places rather than utopian which is derived from the Greek for “no place.” The original Utopia, written by Thomas More, was so preposterous that most of his contemporaries probably found it an amusing place rather than a paradise. It included several satirical elements suggesting the fake country was not meant to be taken as his ideal society but a reflection in a fun house mirror. His utopia was an absurdity, not an exemplar for social change.

An example today would be the film Idiocracy. The main character travels to the future to find human intelligence has dramatically declined. The world is inhabited by the lowest common denominator with billboards for junk food, beer, and hand jobs. The President is a pro wrestling superstar who gives an address to Congress after firing a machine gun into the ceiling as part of his entrance. The entire society was the result of stupid people breeding while the most intelligent chose not to reproduce leading to a gradual decline in average IQ. It was not a perfect or ideal society, but rather an absurd one that pointed to some of the idiocy in our current society, namely the glorification of celebrities, sexual deviance, and the lack of regard for intelligence.

The eu-topian style, meanwhile, has been in disfavor for some time. Readers tend to see it as political propaganda. Some may feel they are being lectured or in some way manipulated. The future societies are the result of events that coincide with the author’s worldview, which undermines her credibility.

It is unfortunate given the many quality eu-topian novels out there. Works like Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed are deserving of greater attention.

Despite the hostile marketplace, I believe there are ways for more works to break through. First, stories that are closer to the original utopian (no place) concept rather than eutopian (good place) concept has a better chance of overcoming the propaganda stigma. Absurdity is better than plausibility. Science fiction isn’t particularly effective at this but the suggestion only applies to utopian stories.

Utopian literature can play the role of the concept car at auto shows. Most concept cars will never see the road. In fact, some are merely display pieces without an engine. They are put in car shows to generate interest in new design concepts. A great utopia presents intriguing new concepts, not the next model to hit showrooms.

Another way to get past the propaganda stigma is to avoid depicting the society as omnipotent. One way is to take a protagonist from the real world and place him in a small, remote utopia such as an island paradise. The conflict could center around the real world discovering the paradise and bringing corruption to it. Examples include The Road to Eldorado, Last of the Dogmen, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. The other common structure is the protagonist being either a traveler or journalist such as in More’s Utopia. A reporter has more authority and the aura of objectivity that a regular protagonist lacks.

While utopian fiction is in disfavor, dystopias are widely popular today. Most Americans have read 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World in school. Some may have read More’s Utopia but more as a literary curiosity than a classic. Why do readers enjoy reading about bad places instead of good places? Certainly dystopian novels have agendas.

Modern dystopias tend to utilize common or consensus evils. The bad societies resemble the bad guys of history such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The evil society is simply amalgamation of bad things and are not meant to in any way resemble a plausible future scenario. Examples of this include the ludicrous societies of Divergent and The Maze Runner. The world famous Hunger Games sticks to a non-controversial totalitarian state that in some ways resembles the Soviet Union but never engages in a discussion on communism or the police state.

Modern dystopias, especially young adult dystopian fiction, tend to use flawed or bad societies as setting rather than the focal point. They are not absurd in the comedic sense, rather implausible. In some cases the dystopia is symbolic of a general evil such as the psychological pressures placed on young people to conform to societal norms. Many popular dystopian novels are classified as young adult novels, which emphasize themes of coming of age, etc. For example Divergent, is largely a story about defining one’s identity and breaking away from familial and societal constraints.

Along with the YA best sellers and movie adaptations, there have been some idea-based dystopian novels in the past few decades as well. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy is an excellent example. MaddAddam is a graphic picture of a world dealing with climate change, dominant corporate power, inequality, and sexual deviance. It is neither implausible nor absurd. Others include The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

While we seem to disagree strongly on the nature of paradise, there is clearly some agreement on the nature of hell. The evils of totalitarianism, fascism, corruption, corporate greed, inequality, sexual exploitation, and religious persecution are familiar experiences to many of the 20th and 21st century. At the same time we seem unwilling to recognize the tremendous human progress that has taken place such as the dramatic increase in life expectancy, improved education, the end of colonial domination, and the expansion of liberal democracy onto several new continents. Deaths from war or internal conflict was in decline until recently, thanks to the Arab Spring and Syrian Civil War. Other than that troubled region, the world is in a state of historic stability and prosperity compared to previous generations.

Despite these facts, we just don’t seem interested in recognizing the progress we’ve made toward eutopia. Instead we fixate on our flaws and remain fearful of old habits coming back to haunt us. Maybe its time we spend a little more time examining what has worked in the past two centuries instead of what hasn’t.

Science fiction typically emphasizes plausibility in its world-building. However, to take full advantage of the great potential of the genre, authors must learn to build shadow worlds and absurd worlds to best relay their ideas without coming across as a propagandist. Such stories could resurrect the utopian subgenre and open up a whole new store of possibilities, allowing us to move away from revisions, reboots, and retreads of old stories. As a sci-fi fan, I would love to see this.