Dystopia Week

The Dystopia/Utopia Dichotomy

As I prepare for another evening of Roadburn, let’s talk about roads that burn as we take on extreme points of view. Dystopias represent what could happen if we continue to go down the “wrong” roads, utopias are an idealised endpoint if we unwaveringly keep taking the “right” roads (for whatever your versions of wrong and right).

What typifies almost all those dystopias and utopias is that they either see everything through dark-tinted or rosy-coloured glasses (“Mirrorshades” or “The New Improved Sun”), with precious few nuances. It’s heaven or hell, with nary a purgatory or two and almost nothing else in between: your literary future in starkly contrasted, two-dimensional monochrome. In the meantime, the modern consumer lives in a full-spectrum, super-high definition 3D world (and their gadgets approach it ever closer).

It’s this “let’s-distort-society-to-an-extreme” approach that ultimately renders both dystopias and utopias unrealistic at best, and useless at worst.

And I’m all too well aware of the old “one man’s utopia is another man’s dystopia, and vice-versa” argument. As if that suddenly renders the one-sided approach three-dimensional. As if that magically turns a strawman into a deeply-thought argument.

It does explain why a lot of utopias are basically dystopias in disguise: you are either a sheep kept in good shape on nice grasslands in preparation for slaughter, or you are the wolf liberating the sheep from their illusions (after which they live, fully aware ever after, in the wolf’s dystopia). But it does not explain why neither form tries to hand their misguided inhabitants a guide, or at least a signpost, in how to improve their lot.

So which centripetal force is moving the majority of fiction to the extremes, treating the immensely fertile middle grounds as wastelands?

Because I do wonder why we see so many dystopias (and their post-apocalyptic siblings), the odd utopia, but rarely a future society where there is a mix, and a certain interaction, of the two. Is it because the complexity of today’s societies is too intricate to capture in fiction? Is it because most writers are not ambitious enough to undertake that? Has fiction become a recluse for (cultural) pessimists? Is it not in vogue to depict a plausible near-future world? Is it the fear of being seen as a naive soothsayer (while on the one hand we keep saying that SF does not predict the future, on the other hand we are extremely reluctant to partake in audacious thought experiments, because they might be wrong)?

None of the above? All of the above?

This persistent either/or thinking (if a society in [genre] fiction is not a dystopia, then by default it must be a utopia) is what I call the dystopia/utopia dichotomy: divide the worldviews up in two easy-to-catagorise camps so that you can ignore the actual complexities of real societies. It also seems to work wonderfully well in avoiding to (try to) think of solutions, or even provide examples of solution-based thinking: it’s fine to wallow, extremely deeply in the horrible problems, but when it’s time to face up to them, we log out.

It reminds me of a joke about catholicism: “Catholicism is the perfect religion: you sin, extensively, then you confess your sins, are forgiven, and you can start again.” Typically, one omits the part where one repents for one’s sins and changes ones behaviour. Like modern-day Mardi Gras (Carnival) celebrations: almost everybody does the four days of feasting, but almost nobody follows through with the forty days of fasting. The hard part is skipped, and by partaking in the easy part, the conscience is silenced.

I’m an agnostic atheist, but if I had been a priest “listening” to the written genre as the communal confession of mankind then I would probably say something like, “Yes, you do an excellent job explicating all the sins of mankind. However, would you have more examples of how mankind repents for its sins, makes amends, and changes its behaviour? Judging from the actual progress made in the past 150 years or so, they must be there—the fearless innovators, the tireless entrepreneurs, the selfless volunteers, the joyful community spirit—but they are enormously under-represented in your stories. Is there a separate set of writers doing this, and does there need to be? Why don’t you try your hand at it?”

The idea is that dystopias point to the road that we should not take. Utopia is supposedly the end of the road that we should take, but is perceived to be boring (it baffles me why this perception is so strong: my idea of utopia is not “a place where nothing exciting happens”; to me a boring utopia is an oxymoron). Wiser men, though, have said that for a true traveller the destination doesn’t matter, but the journey towards it.

Here’s to stories about exciting journeys!


Jetse de Vries: technical specialist by day, SF aficionado by night. Editor (Shine anthology—@outshine on Twitter), short story writer (Flurb, Clarkesworld Magazine, Postscripts, others), and various non-fiction (Interzone, NYRoSF, Focus et al.). Total solar eclipse chaser, whisky/cognac/beer & wine connoisseur, heavy metal maniac and more.

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