Apr 16 2011 3:51pm

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.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Mary Catelli
1. Mary Catelli
There are dystopias that change. Poul Anderson's "Sam Hall" for instance. In my experience, these works tend to be written by genre authors whose other works are neither dystopian nor utopian. Possibly because they treat dystopias as an obstacle, not a life sentence, as they treat other problems in other works.
Mary Catelli
2. Janette Rallison
You need to look at it from the writer's perspective. We write about settings that people find exciting. Dystopias are interesting, thought-provoking and provide the sort of conflict that we need to move the story along. A more balanced society isn't nearly as interesting--that's what we live in now. (This is the same reason you find lots of historical fiction that was set hundreds of years ago, but not much that was set twenty years ago.)

The amount of dystopian novels that are popping up now are most likely a reflection of: Hunger-Games-did-really-well-so-lets-publish-a-bunch-more. It's the same reason there were so many vampire novels in the wake of Twilight. It doesn't mean they're not good books, it just explains the trend.
Mary Catelli
3. Edward Brennan
It may also be that when telling stories about societies, utopias and dystopias are the writers way of raising the stakes. We have tons of stories of personal dystopias and frequently they may lead into a personal utopia. Murder, abduction, illness, love failing.Finding great success, beating the bad guy, overcoming an illness, finding love that lasts till forever after. Fiction is frequently about our hopes and fears.

It is "War and Peace", not a slight disagreement that ends where people agree to disagree for the sake of the children. Yes, we have those stories too, fiction being broad and deep. But I can say that those smaller stories require a Virginia Woolf like elegance which is equally good yet quite different. But then, sometimes I want pizazz. I want a murder I want high stakes. I want drama.
Mary Catelli
4. Megaduck
"Is it because the complexity of today’s societies is too intricate to capture in fiction?"

Not at all. I think the problem that you're having is one of definitions and that you're limiting yourself. Liturature is not broken into Utopia/Dystopia stories but rather those are two small subcatagories in a much larger body of work.

Utopia fiction is where socioty is all good, Dystopia fiction is where the socioty is all bad, mix the two and you get fiction where socioty is in shades of gray. A description that could match 90% of the written work out there. At that point you're no longer writing about Utopia/Dystopia at all and the work turns into something else.
Paul Howard
5. DrakBibliophile
I agree with Megaduck. I've read plenty of books set in future worlds that were neither Utopias or Dystopias.

For example, in the Honorverse Haven could be considered a dystopia but is currently in the process of becoming a better place to live.

While Manticore (the good guys) is a much better place to live, David Weber never wrote it as being a utopia.
Chris Modzelewski
6. elflands2ndcousin
For a much more complex view of the utopia/dystopia dichotomy, I strongly recommend Ian M. Banks Culture novels. Banks' Culture is utopian, however it has to constantly interact with outside (non-Culture and non-utopian) societies. The interaction between a theoretical utopia (and the ethically questionable steps the utopia must take to maintain homeostasis) really gives the books some interesting philosophical depth.
Mary Catelli
7. DarrenJL
Are there any utopian societies which aren't ultimately shown to be dystopias? This is true of future and past, as well. From the Atlantis of myth to Krypton in the comics, the society of the Eloi in the Time Machine to the Garden of Eden; they wind up rotten at the core (pardon the pun) and are destroyed because of it.
Jer Brown
8. designguybrown
I would say that a Utopian novel is far harder to write and appeals to a smaller group that would more likely appreciate the nuanced conflicts. This of course is disaster for career authors and publishers, financially.
I think the only reason that much of the popular science fiction was so successful in television is that it portrayed us, the future successful and well-balanced society, as the ones that were teaching the less sophisticated and simpler societies how to function properly. Though only a popular set of examples, I think therein lies a solution. Give in to our eventual well-balanced utopian future, but introduce other apparently dysfunctional elements at the periphery. Perhaps this is not as emotionally compelling, almost suggesting a happy ending from the start. But I think that dystopian futures that directly follow from our time require a lot greater ability to suspend disbelief. Unless of course you simply desire the darkness, i suppose. I for one wish that more authors would take up the chalice of emotionally and intellectually compelling Utopia.
Jer Brown
9. designguybrown
One of my favorite 'veiled' criticisms of society occurred during a dialogue in the popular movie The Matrix. One of the Smiths, the simulacrum keepers and enforcers, indicated to the protagonist that the current virtual reality for the enslaved populace had been revised because the earlier versions had been too utopian and therefore not embraced as realistic. This desire for a certain amount of unfairness and disorder is truly saying something about the typical mindset. A certain disbelief tha a utopian society is possible can only seem to mean that we are keeping ourselves from utopia due to fear. Of what, I cannot guess. However, it has certainly provide us with a comfortable escape, a refuge, through the numerous examples of dystopia out there.
Mary Catelli
10. Thursday
I like to think of it the way GK Chesterton put it, paraphrased due to remembering it from 1981:
"We all can agree on what is wrong with the world; we can't agree on what is right with the world."

Every ( wo ) man and his/her dog/bitch can agree on how bad the world is, and is getting, ergo the dystopias - but try to make a better world ... for whom?

And try to balance it ... when nobody's even sure of what is going to keep working ...

The art of story telling is to put a ( wo ) per ( descendant ) up a tree, throw stones and him/her, and then let him/her get down somehow ... dystopias are just a special case of that; utopias are more a case of proving that a given piece of bread is actually a stone that can't be eaten. Everything else is mostly icing or some other form of condiment.

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