Exploring Genre: Utopia
by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Review by Mary Rose-Shaffer
Date: 01 December 2008 /
Who hasn't tried to imagine what a perfect world would be like?
Utopia has been a topic of exploration for many Speculative Fiction writers. Some believe that essentially all fantasy writers are trying to create a version of a perfect world in their created worlds. And doesn't much of time travel or alternate history literatures attempt to improve the world in which we live by changing one element or another?
Most people know that the term utopia was used first by Sir Thomas More as the title of his book, Utopia in 1516 (English translation 1551). And many people know that the word utopia is a created word combining two Greek elements – ou meaning not and topos meaning place – giving a fairly literal translation as "no place". Calling it this, More writes about a perfect society, although he seems to acknowledge the practicality that this paradise does not and cannot exist.
Plato and Sir Thomas More are not the first to envision ideal places. Most world religions have some version of paradise, a promised land of plenty, or Heaven. Visions of idyllic places are also found in myths going back much farther than the Judeo-Christian Eden or Heaven. At times this paradise is a reward for a life well and correctly lived. Other times it is the place from which humanity was expelled as punishment. The persistence of belief in an ideal state, a flawless land with the best possible society imaginable, seems to be universal – cutting across geographical, linguistic, and theological bounds.
Authors' fictional speculations of paradise generally reflect the boundaries of their own time periods and experiences; their imaginings of a better world limited by their present one. Further, Utopian literature generally offers some kind of implicit or explicit criticism of the authors' present environment. One of the common conventions for discussing a utopia involves a "Rip Van Winkle" effect. The narrator goes to sleep for several decades or hundreds of years and awakes to find him/herself in a remarkably changed world, a utopian world. Another approach uses explorers to discover a previously unknown civilization. These approaches give the author the opportunity to discuss the new world and describe the society and its wonders to the audience. Several general categories of utopia are often explored: pastoral/environmental; economic; historical/governmental; religious; scientific/technological. Within these, one may find a matriarchal utopia, although more often it is taken for granted that the story describes a patriarchal system. Racial and gender equity are elements brought to the fore in more modern utopian stories.
A pastoral utopia is often set in the distant past or the imaginary plane of a created world. Fantasy fiction may use a rustic, agricultural vision in an alternate plane or as part of Earth's, perhaps very, distant past. In general, pastoral literature idealizes simple country life. The inhabitants live in peace and in harmony with nature in a land of plenty, free to explore music, art, philosophy and more – the higher spiritual and intellectual pursuits. The environment and humans are partnered to the betterment of both, in perfect balance.
Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy is one version of an economic utopia. The narrator awakens into a future of plenty, where the inhabitants work only at that which they enjoy – labor as pleasure. Economic utopias may eliminate money altogether having socially and culturally grown beyond it. Alternately, ultra-capitalism has proponents; some would call the revolutionary world of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which Heinlein envisions a more libertarian culture, a form of economic utopia.
Political and historical utopias are those which establish the ideal governmental system to the benefit of the entire society. Humans have imagined many variations of government and society – none of them ideal for all of humanity. Even Plato's Republic has distinct ruling and social divisions: a philosopher class, a warrior class, and a working class. Philosophers and authors continue to explore the possibilities, seeking the ideal system – if only in imagination and on paper.
Religious utopias are based, naturally, upon religious or theological ideals. The Puritans sought to create a new world for themselves in North America: a theocracy with legal, governmental, and social order based entirely on the Bible. Other religious groups have attempted to establish actual utopian communities including the Shakers in America and the kibbutz of Israel. And the concepts of a Garden of Eden, Heaven, and Nirvana are the most obvious examples of religious utopia.
Advances in science and technology are often considered harbingers for possible utopian futures. This optimistic attitude envisions science and technology as the helpmate or even savior of humanity. All drudgery is taken care of by the machines; all food and drink provided by the machines. Humankind's only work is to live and participate in leisure activities – often within the technology itself via fully integrated virtual realities.
Perhaps an interesting variation on utopia is the other-world, matriarchal "The Conquest of Gola" a short story by Leslie F. Stone where the non-humanoid Golan, highly technologically advanced and in harmony with their environment, repel an invasion by human men whom they find quite disgusting. It is not an egalitarian utopia; the male Golan are subservient to the female. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland is a matriarchal utopia totally without males until three adventurers discover the all-female nation.
The difficulty in writing a successful utopian story stems from the very nature of "utopian" – if it is a perfect society, then there is no conflict. Without conflict or at least problems to solve, fiction becomes flat and uninteresting. Alternately, the principle-focused utopian story could become didactic and lose the reader in attempting to persuade to the author's cause - feminism, capitalism, individualism, etc.
Where can a person go to learn more about current Utopian theory and research? One could play the online game of Utopia. For more academic approaches, there are several organizations including: The Society for Utopian Studies and Utopian Studies Society and Ralahine Centre for Utopian Studies and the internet community Utopia Pathway Association.
Whatever theoretical approach to a perfect world an author or philosopher may take Utopian fiction is ultimately social fiction. Someone has to live in this creation, this idyllic vision. And in my opinion that is where most utopian speculations stall: who will live in this ideal world? Human beings are all too human, all too erratic, and all too contrary. Even in a world created for perfect contentment there will be some discontented individual or individuals. Even angels are not immune to disgruntlement – Milton's Fallen Angel of Paradise Lost began in the Perfection of Heaven after all. Humans by nature are both social and individualistic. Pessimistic as it may sound, no single paradise will suffice for all of humanity; which may account for the continued attempts at creating a perfect world. One person's paradise is another's nightmare. Next month: the darker side of utopian ideals – dystopian or anti-utopian visions.