6 Stories That Find Drama in Utopian Settings | Tor.com

6 Stories That Find Drama in Utopian Settings

Imagine a nightmarish future in which the essentials of life are ruthlessly supplied to all—one where each citizen is brutally denied the cliffhanging entertainment of recurrent life-and-death crises, and where there is not even a single genetically engineered hyper-intelligent carnivorous flightless parrot roaming daycare facilities. Benevolent providence has so far protected us from such hellishly stable futures, but it cannot prevent authors from imagining them. But once such utopias are imagined, how is the poor author to squeeze an interesting story out of a world lacking everything that makes life precious (as well as precarious)?

I previously reviewed a series in which this challenge was successfully met and found myself wondering how other authors have handled the problem. Here are a few such works—doubtless there are more, which readers may feel free to suggest in comments.


Tanith Lee’s classic duology Don’t Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine is set on a desert world hostile to unprotected life. Not that this matters, because all of its human inhabitants live in one of three domed cities: Four BEE, Four BAA, and Four BOO. Within those cities, virtually every need and desire is met. Even death is only a momentary inconvenience before one is incarnated in a new designer body.

The nameless protagonist, offered material paradise, commits the unforgivable sin of realizing that while the options offered are pleasant, none of them are meaningful. That realization is the border between life in paradise and life in a cossetted hell. Unfortunately for our hero, the Powers That Be in the three cities are determined to maintain the status quo of their cozy societies, keeping them just as they are…which means crushing (by any means necessary) any pesky aspirations for personal fulfillment.



Pacific Edge is that rara avis, a Kim Stanley Robinson book about which I will make favourable comments. Set in a utopian world in which the excesses of capitalism and environmental degradation have been brought to heel, it’s a setting in which most people can expect to enjoy perfectly acceptable middle-class lives of placid ambitions and ecological moderation. Aside from people with burning desires to build strip malls or dark satanic mills, Pacific Edge’s world seems one where it would be easy to be happy.

Except, of course, if one is an essentially unlovable prig like the novel’s lead, Kevin Claiborne, whose steadfast adherence to the ethic that makes his world the quasi-utopia that it is does not make him one iota more desirable to Ramona, the woman with whom he is smitten. Convinced that he is in a romantic triangle, Kevin contends mightily against the man he sees as his rival. It’s a romance with a happy ending, although not for Kevin.



Hitoshi Ashinano’s Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō is set not long after the end. Events never fully explained led to rising sea levels and the inexorable decline of the human species. Despite this, the era in which protagonist Alpha lives seems to be a tranquil one, in which one day is much like another. It helps that Alpha is not a human, but rather one of the immortal androids who will inherit the Earth once we’re gone.

Nothing much happens in YKK, and what does, happens slowly. The series eschews drama for depictions of life’s quiet moments, moments of melancholy (for the humans, who to be honest do not seem all that bothered by their coming extinction), shared happiness, and (of course) lavish scenery porn. Which gets us to…





Amano Kozue’s Aria is set on 24th-century Mars. Implausibly effective terraforming has turned the dead world we know into an ocean-covered garden world now called Aqua, one across which energetic humans have sprinkled works of impressive civil engineering. One of its jewels is the city of Neo-Venezia, which is as close to a one-to-one scale model of Venice as its architects were able to create. It seems likely that the process of transforming Mars involved many dramatic moments, but all of that is in the past. Modern Aqua cares not for plot-enabling drama.

Instead, the manga follows Akari and her friends as they struggle to master the skills needed to join the upper ranks of Aqua’s Undines (or gondoliers). All that stands between the teenaged girls and the positions they desire is years of hard work. This slice of life futuristic tale is, like YKK, about the quiet moments in life, illustrated by lavish scenery porn: Come to Mars for the gondolas, stay for the exquisite submerged ruins.



Terrestrial humanity is entirely extinct in Arthur C. Clarke’s The Songs of Distant Earth. No doubt awareness of the Sun’s impending nova provoked all manner of drama on Earth. For the people of the exoplanet Thalassa, settled centuries before by a sub-light seedship, the nova is barely a historical footnote. Ocean-covered Thalassa offers its island-dwelling population of decent, sensible people satisfactory small lives punctuated only by small-scale, non-threatening interesting events.

This tranquil existence is disrupted by the sudden arrival of Magellan, the last starship from now-expunged Earth. Forced by mishap to pause briefly at the backwater world, the crew of Magellan appeal to Thalassa to allow them to orbit and rebuild their debris shield from Thalassa’s abundant water. “Briefly” is still enough time for the Thalassan woman Mirissa to notice just how attractive strangers can be (in a world that’s normally entirely lacking in strangers). As the ensuing romance and its repercussions unspool, the Magellan’s crew must decide whether to continue to their intended destination or to stay at Thalassa.




Mods (body modifications) grant the characters that populate walkingnorth’s webcomic Always Human nigh-perfect health and virtually any appearance they desire. These beautiful folks live in a peaceful world filled with ample opportunities for rewarding work. Mods and other high technology also facilitate humanity’s inexorable spread across the Solar System (even if the mods are not yet as powerful as John Varley’s null-suits, as featured in his Eight Worlds books).

When VR designer Sunati encounters university student Austen while riding the lavishly funded public transit, Sunati is intrigued by Austen’s bold decision to not use mods. In fact, Austen has a disability that prevents her from using mods; the excruciating conversation provoked by Sunati’s misapprehension is the meet-cute that kicks off the romance that forms the central plot line of the webtoon. Along the way, walkingnorth illustrates all the challenges that even people in quasi-utopian worlds will inevitably face, from crippling self-doubt to impossible work-life balance challenges. There are moments of gentle drama—true love does not always run smooth—but in the end, all is love and kisses.



All those are from recent reading. What about you?

Originally published in September 2018.

In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.


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