Welcome back my friends! A funny thing happened just this morning. I was looking at an old article – titled Dystopian Science Fiction – and realized that something was missing. Yes, this is the article that earned me most of my current followers and the bulk of my traffic on this site, but I quickly came to the conclusion that there was a hidden voice in that little study that never got a chance to have its say.
Basically, when I was looking into dystopian literature, I realized that it and utopian literature are almost the same thing. You might say that they represent two sides of the same coin, not so much opposites as interchangeable facets where one can become the other with a simple turn of the wheel. So I asked myself, why then haven’t I compiled a list of the most popular Utopian literature to go along with my dystopian one? Having read Thomas More’s seminal book that started it all, I’m nothing if not incredibly fascinating by the subject. And anyone who knows me knows that I’m a nerd for research and can’t resist sharing what I find.
So why the hell haven’t I done this yet?! Don’t know, probably got swept away with all those posts about robots, ships, and guns. In any case, it’s a mistake I rectify here and now. Using the same format as my article on dystopian sci-fi, I’ve come up with a tentative list of the greatest forerunners, classics, and modern examples of utopia in literature. The list is by no means complete, but I feel it is a faithful sampling. You be the judge, here goes:
The first acknowledged examples of utopian literature come to us from classical antiquity, when scholars reached beyond the old strictures of writing about dynastic struggle, great wars and the foundations of their empires to tackle issues such as justice, morality, and the driving forces of history. By asking these questions, and offering up possible explanations, they were to have an immeasurable effect on subsequent generations of intellectuals, statesmen and social reformers.
Written around 380 BCE by Plato, this is perhaps the oldest example of utopian literature. Written as an account of one of Socrates many dialogues, the chief purpose of this book was in finding the true definition of justice and what it takes to achieve a just city-state and a just man. As Plato’s best known work, it is also one of the most influential philosophical and intellectual texts in the history of western society and maybe even the world.
Made up of ten books, the account follows Socrates and his Athenian and foreign guests as they discuss various topics. Amongst them are whether or not the “just man” is happier than the “unjust man”, the theory of forms and universality, the nature of the soul, the role of the philosopher in society, and finally, what the different types of government are and what makes them just/unjust.
From Plato’s account, Socrates and his peers proposed that philosophers are the ideal statesmen and that justice can best be summed up by considering the common good rather than common sense definitions having to do with personal justice. In addition, the allegory of the cave – how we are all essentially prisoners and merely going by projections of truth rather than truth itself – was advanced. And finally, they listed the four predominant forms of government (timocracy, oligarchy, democracy and tyranny) and how they tended to devolve into each other.
Ultimately, the value of this work was in how it showed the connection between political cause and effect, and how it sought to create guidelines for good governance. It’s identification of the four major types of government has been used over and over in the history of political discourse and even became the basis of modern political sciences. And because of its focus on things like the common good and the idea of philosopher statesmen, it was also to have a profound influence on later generations of scholars, particularly Sir Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx.
The City of God:
Written by St. Augustine of Hippo in the early 5th century CE, The City of God is considered one of the most important texts in the history of Christianity. Written after the Visigoth sack of Rome, the text was intended as much as a consolation to Christians as it was a discourse on theological matters. Basically, Augustine claimed that though the city of Rome had fallen, the City of God, the “eternal Jerusalem” still stood strong and would endure.
Essentially, Augustine advanced a perception of history in this book that was characterized by a dialectical process, or a conflict between opposites. On the one hand, there was the City of Man, characterized by earthly pleasures and decadence, and the City of God, dedicated to eternal truth. The conflict, he claimed, would end with victory for the latter, where people would throw off the bonds of an earthly paradise in favor of a spiritual one.
Thought it did not concern itself with matters of practical governance or how an ideal state could be created in the here and now, Augustine’s treatise was to have a profound effect on the fields of theology and philosophy. Basically, his idea of a city where spiritual purity could be attained became the basis for a theocratic state, while his theory on the dialectical process of history would go on to inspire men like W.F. Hegel and (again) Karl Marx.
Tao Hua Yuan:
Otherwise known as “The Tale of the Peach Blossom Spring”, this book is considered the quintessential utopian book by Chinese scholars and historians. Written in 421 CE by Tao Yuanming, it is an epic poem of how a traveler accidentally discovers an ethereal paradise where people live an idyllic existence, unaware of the world outside their walls.
Written after the collapse of the Han Dynasty, a period marked by civil war and unrest, this poem tells the tale of how a fisherman sailed up a river that was entirely surrounded by blossoming peach trees. At the end of the river, he finds a village where the people, thought surprised to see him, welcome him and treat him as one of their own. He quickly realizes that the community is an idyllic one, where people live in harmony with nature and one another.
In time, he learns from the villagers that this place was established by their ancestors during the last civil war when the Qin Dynasty was conquering all of China. Since that time, they have been cut off from the outside world and know nothing of its political shifts and wars. Upon leaving, he is told that it would be pointless to recount his discovery of the village to others. He nevertheless makes a note of the village on his map, but when he tells others of it, their attempts to locate it prove unsuccessful.
In essence, the poem suggest that this place, the idyllic village, was otherworldly, and the man’s voyage up the river was in fact a voyage into the afterlife. It also advances the idea that it is only in being cut off from the outside world that an earthly paradise can exist, and those that leave it will never be able to return. This idea was to have a profound influence on Chinese and Asian culture, no doubt inspiring such myths as that of Shangri-La. In addition, the Chinese expression shìwaì taóyuán, which refers to a remote paradise – and literally means ‘the Peach Spring beyond this world’ – has its roots in this poem.
By the time of the Renaissance (14th/15th century CE), Europeans began to have a renewed interest in classical learning. At first, this consisted of merely adapting and translating previously lost texts from ancient Greek and Arabic to Latin and other European languages. However, by the time of the Enlightenment (18th century CE), European scholars were adapting and expounding on classical ideas, bringing them forward into the modern age with new speculations and examples on how a perfect society could be created, or whether or not one was even possible. It was also the age that the term Utopia began to be used popularly.
Ah yes, the man who gave it a name! Sir Thomas More, otherwise known as Saint Thomas More, was a Renaissance humanist and THE man who brought the word Utopia into modern usage. Written in 1516 CE, his seminal study on the perfect society has influenced all subsequent generations of social critics, employing social criticism, history and of course, delicious irony to make a series of points about the ideal society and whether or not it can even exist.
The story is told (much like Plato’s Republic) as a dialogue between the author and a fictitious man named Raphael Hythloday, a world traveler and tradesman. In the course of recounting his tales of all the places he’s seen he brings up one in particular place, the island nation of Utopia, which he hails as the best of all possible societies. As the story goes on, he details exactly what it is that makes it an ideal place, and by comparison, all others flawed.
To break it down succinctly, the Utopians do not value gold and silver because they long ago discovered that there worth is merely an extension of their rarity. Instead, they choose to value iron and bronze as precious and keep jewels, gold and silver in reserve in case they need to bribe foreign princes or armies. In addition, their economic activity is based on an egalitarian principle, where all people rotate from one service to another so that no sense of class hierarchy ever becomes permanent.
What’s more, when it comes to education, the Utopian have made it manifest that all people be taught to read and educated on basic matters of logic, philosophy, numeracy, etc. This is to prevent the creation of a philosopher caste which is concerned solely with matters of thought while others toil away and provide for them. Much like with their policy or rotating labor, it is customary that all people divest themselves from their tasks every now and then to pursue matters of art, science and other intellectual pursuits.
And of course, politics, property ownership, and all other forms of activity on Utopia are considered communal. There is no such thing as private property, rule is exercised by council and not by kings and a court, and membership in this council is rotational, popular and considered a civic duty. In short, Utopia is an ideal society because rule by the few, greed and ownership are all forbidden. And though there are few laws to speak of, all of these practices are contained within a strict code of conduct which was passed down by the island’s founder, King Utopus.
And last, but certainly not least, is the issue of religious tolerance. Written during the time of the Reformation Wars, More claimed that in this ideal society, no one’s faith was ever held against them. Provided they believed in a higher power, no discrimination or persecution were allowed under the law. However, there was one exception, which applied to atheists (!). Essentially, it stated that anyone who did not believe in the hereafter, where they would be answerable for their sins, would be allowed to hold public office.
In the end, Hythloday claimed that there was no reason why other nations could not adopt these same principles which benefited the nation of Utopia so. The only reason, he claimed, was because all other nations of his day were “conspiracies of the rich” where enlightened reform is avoided because of greed, vanity and pride. Ultimately, More chooses to disagree with this fictitious character on numerous points as a way of distancing himself from the critique.
In addition, there are several ironic points which seem to indicate that he was also questioning whether or not such a place could even exist. The name Utopia for one translates from Latin to mean “No Place”. In addition, many of the customs he describes sound less than ideal and would seem to suggest that the only way to create a perfect society is to force people to comply with strict rules, which in turn can create its own problems. In the end, it was not clear if More was saying that such a place does not exist, could exist, or will never exist. All that is clear is the influence it had, once again by expounding on the virtues of collectivization, popular sovereignty and the removal of class distinction.
Though I included this novel in my previous list as an example of dystopian fiction, there are many elements of Gulliver’s Travels that fit into the category of utopia as well. For example, between every voyage Gulliver undertakes which brings him to a land that parodies some aspect of English and European society, there is a corresponding trip to a comparatively idyllic place.
After traveling to the land of the Lilliputians, a land of moral midgets who’s size matches their outlook, he travels to the land of Brobdingnagians where the same rule applies, only in reverse. Whereas he was denounced by the Lilliputians for not helping them to subjugate their neighbors, to the Brobdingnagians he was considered a novelty and his own moral outlook was received with horror.
In addition, after traveling to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib, and Japan, all of which are seen to be inherently flawed in some respect, he travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms. These horse people, who boast rational capacities that put humanity to shame, are seen as the perfection of nature whereas humans are seen as brutish. What’s more, Gulliver’s time amongst them makes him inherently sympathetic to them, but in the end they deny him the right to live amongst them since they see him as a danger to their civilization.
Ultimately, Swift did not give any details as to how the morally upright societies which stood in contrast to his parodies achieved their current state. But by including them in his story, he was employing a decidedly utopian tactic – using a fictitious, ideal society to point out the flaws in an existing one.
Also known as “Over the Range”, this novel by Samuel Butler is renowned as a prime example of utopian literature (though there are some dystopian elements as well). Published in 1872, the bulk of the story is an account of the fictional nation named Erewhon which is located within the mountains of New Zealand. Often compared to Gulliver’s Travels and Letters from Nowhere (1890) the tale is about a seemingly perfect society which proves to be less than all that.
In describing Erewhon, Butler paints the picture of an idyllic society where people live close to the land. There is also no machinery because the people of Erewhon fear that it will someday become intelligent and supplant them – a rather unique take on Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection.
However, in time, the author notes several odd customs in this land involving their justice system, religion and system of coinage. For example, criminals are treated as invalids in their society, whereas invalids are treated as criminals. In addition, religious institutions offer their own coinage and act like banks, but are immune to charges of counterfeiting because they are religious institutions. These practices were meant to satirize certain aspects of Victorian society at the time, including its religious hypocrisy, intolerance and anthropocentricism.
Clearly inspired by other utopian writers, Butler even went as far as to borrow a page from More who was also ironic with his choice of title. The name Erewhon, an anagram for “Nowhere”, makes the deliberate point that this society is fictitious, and therefore its better elements are not to be found anywhere. Though by no means a dystopian story, it is nevertheless a poignant allegory for the British Empire during the time of writing, an empire that for all intents and purposes did not live up to its own ideals.
Though by no means as popular as dystopian literature, utopian novels were still a very common feature in the 20th century. And like dystopian lit, it was used repeatedly by authors to mock and satirize the world of their day. By showing a society that had overcome mankind’s traditional flaws, some sought to demonstrate how society could be bettered. Others, however, liked to juxtapose the belief in a perfect society with the reality of an imperfect one, as a way of demonstrating how the quest was noble but was sure to encounter problems.
Men Like Gods:
Published in 1923, this work of science fiction by the venerable H.G. Wells explores an parallel universe where human beings live in a world without government. Much like the time machine, the book contains equal parts speculative science and social commentary, involving a world in the future that parodied his own.
Taking place during the summer of 1921, the story opens with a cynical English journalist named Barnstaple who is mysteriously transported through time to an alternate world named (interestingly enough) Utopia. Essentially an advanced Earth, Utopia is three thousand years ahead of humanity, where people live in a perfectly realized anarchy, no government or sectarian religion exist, and scientific research flourishes.
All Utopians live by the “Five Principles of Liberty”: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. After a month of staying amongst the Utopians, Barnstaple asks if he can stay amongst them but is refused. According to the people of this world, the best thing for this journalist is to return to his world. This he does, renewed of vigor and committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.”
This was not a political revolution, in Well’s eyes, but rather the march of progress which he felt was already very much at work in society. In essence, such a revolution that was guaranteed by scientific and rational progress, he surmised, would one day wipe away all the current problems of the world. Namely, petty nationalism, sectarian turmoil, and irrational fear.
Released in 1953, this story is perhaps Arthur C. Clarke’s best known novel outside of the Space Odyssey series, and the one which established him as a writer. Embracing many themes which would show up in numerous sci-fi franchises, the book deals with the near-future possibility of contact with an alien species and the profound effect it will have on humanity. Broken down into three parts, the book begins with the arrival of aliens, moves onto the effect they have, and concludes with the aftermath of their experimentation and their departure.
The story opens with the introduction of the Overlords, a space faring race that appear suddenly in orbit around Earth in the late 20th century. With their ships poised over every major city on Earth, they issue a simple directive: End all war, now and forever. They assume a sort of indirect control over human affairs, preferring to stay aboard their spaceships, and communicating directly with only the Secretary-General of the UN.
Though many suspect of them of malicious intent, the Overlords influence is largely indirect and they promise to reveal themselves in 50 years. In the meantime, the suppression of war leads to a sort of golden age where prosperity flourishes, but at the expense of creativity. When 50 years is up, the demon-like Overlords emerge and begin conducting some seemingly benign psychic research.
Generations pass and humanity grows antsy due to a general feeling of stagnation. However, many children begin to be born who demonstrate telekinetic powers. Finally, the Overlords reveal that they are representatives of what is called the Overmind – a vast cosmic intelligence created from alien races that have all shed matter’s restrictions and become cosmic beings. The Overlords, for whatever reason, cannot join the Overmind, so they act instead as a bridge, seeking out intelligent life and fostering cosmic evolution. Humanity is now set to join this intelligence, having become post-human and ready to embrace their full potential.
Though some would see this concept of Overlords, Overminds, and tampering with evolution as a negative, Clarke presented it as an unequivocal positive. To him, the idea that humanity would need to be forced to become enlightened seemed like a perfectly plausible means of overcoming its inherent flaws. This is in keeping with Clarke’s Futurist mentality, where progress is not only inevitable and desirable and human antipathy towards progress is based on irrational fear.
Published in 1974, this novel is one of several utopian science fiction books published by famed author Ursula K. Le Guin. Written during the Vietnam War, the story takes place in a distant solar system (Tau Ceti) where two empires with diametrically opposed views become engaged in a proxy war when a neighboring state undergoes a revolution.
Set in the same universe as her critically-acclaimed story Left Hand of Darkness, the Tau Ceti system consists of two major worlds – Anarres and Urras. Urras is the focal point of the story, a planet which is dominated by two major nations which are rivals. The A-lo nation (which represents the US) is capitalistic and patriarchal whereas the Thu nation (Soviet Union) is run by an authoritarian regime that claims to rule in the name of the proletariat.
To complete the analogy, both states become embroiled in a war when an underdeveloped nation named Benbili experiences a revolution which prompts both sides to invade. Thus, Benbili comes to represent South-East Asia at the time of the Vietnam War, just as Urras represents the world at the time of writing – a world divided between two diametrically opposed empires, both of whom seem to think they are the example of a perfect society (or as close as one can come to it).
As the story goes on, we learn that Anarres, the other major world, was settled long ago by a group of proto-Anarchists who left Urras to escape the planet’s divided nature. Since that time, the Anarrean people have created an egalitarian society which maintains contact with Urras only through its capitol-city spaceport. In keeping with the story, this alternate planet can be seen as a third option for humanity, which finds itself otherwise torn between two extremes.
This calls to mind Brave New World, where Huxley had created a planet torn between madness and insanity, or primitive freedom and “civilization”. In the end, the character of John the Savage, a man who had a foot in both worlds, could not reconcile himself to either and killed himself. Huxley had long expressed regret with this outcome, thinking that he should have offered a third option in the form of the exile communities that dotted the world in his story. Seen in this light, Dispossessed seems to offer solutions to the problem of two civilization fighting over who’s “utopia” is better.
Published in 1975, this novel is considered a pre-eminent work of utopian fiction and a fitting commentary on the green movement and counter-culture of the 1970’s. In it, author Ernest Callenbach describes a new society which has been founded in the Pacific Northwest by groups of ecological secessionists. Interestingly enough, his critique of this fictional society was based on environmental science and descriptions of actual communes that were being established across the mid-western US at the time.
Set in the year 1999, the story takes place from the point of view William Weston, a reporter named who is the first American to travel to the new country of Ecotopia. Most of the narrative consists of his cables back to the fictitious newspaper he works for, but other details are filled in by his diary entries. These include an affair with an Ecotopian woman, an experience which leaves him transformed and opens him up to the Ecotopian way of life.
Amongst the differences he notes between his world and this ecological utopia are the policies of universal health care, liberal cannabis use, fitness, local art and fitness (as opposed to television and spectacle sports), sexual freedom, and voluntary mock warfare. Curiously enough, they also celebrate gender roles and believe in racial separation. Not sure how those are meant to be utopian, but okay…
In the end, the narrator comes to see that the Ecotopians are not a backwards, regressionary people but simply individuals who want to live a healthier existence closer to the Earth. In addition to using modern technologies, provided they are ecologically friendly, they also maintain an advanced arms industry and stockpiles of WMD’s, a means of ensuring that a potentially revanchist US government doesn’t try to take back their territory by force. In the end, Weston chooses to stay in Ecotopia and act as a sort of cultural liaison to the outside world.
Aside from the issues of gender roles and racial segregation, this book seems to fit the description of an ideal society quite well. By demonstrating that a better life need not mean huge sacrifices or the denial of technology, Callenbach was basically arguing for an open mind when it comes to the ecological and social experiments which were taking place in the US at the time. His idea of an outsider coming to respect and embrace this culture also calls to mind More’s Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels, where the narrators did the same. He also seems to be arguing that a better society is not only possible, but within our reach.
Although classified as a dystopian novel by some, this 1993 piece of YA fiction has undeniably utopian elements, and therefore confounds simple classification. Taking place in a fictional community where pain and strife have been eliminated through “Sameness” and people’s roles are selected by a council of elders, The Giver begins as a description of a utopian society which gradually becomes more dystopian in its outlook.
Enter into this world Jonas, a young boy who has been selected by the elders to serve as the next “Receiver of Memory”. This person occupies a venerated position in their society since they are responsible for storing all memories that predate Sameness, just in case they are ever needed to aid in the decision making process.
As Jonas receives these memories, he comes to understand just how powerful knowledge is. People in his society are happy, but only because they are ignorant to any way of life that runs counter to their own. In the end, he faces a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he could release the memories and enlighten his people, though it will surely mean chaos. On the other, he can keep them ignorant, thus ensuring stability for the time being.
Written for young adult audiences, but intensely mature in its outlook, this story not only examines what it takes to create a perfect society but what the costs of that might be. It is also very poignant in the way it addresses a theme which is crucial to growing up – how the end of innocence is a necessary step to becoming a mature and responsible individual. This is a step we frequently wish we could avoid, but seems inevitable in the long run.
Looking at the extensive list of utopian fiction that has been produced across time, I am once again reminded of just how closely linked it is with dystopian fiction. It seems that all utopian commentaries emerged out of a problematic world, where authors felt the need to offer up a better or even ideal society as a means of satire or consolation. Though they differed in that they were not quite cautionary in nature, they shared the same basic purpose as dystopian tales. At once, they offered people a chance to examine this thing we know as the human condition and ask if something better were truly possible.
Overall, I’m not sure which I like better. When I was penning the article on dystopian literature, I could honestly say I preferred it because it seemed more realistic. Now, I wonder if there is not a profound sense of genius and realism to utopian literature that I was perhaps overlooking. Sure, one could make the argument that works like the Republic and Utopia were simple in their intent, claiming that society could be turned into a model of justice and fairness through basic reforms. But upon closer inspection, one sees the unmistakable presence of irony. In all cases, it seems like the author is agonizing over the question of whether or not such changes are even possible.
Sure, greed could done away with if collectivization were enforced. Sure, if money were abolished, there would be far less in the way of crime. Sure, if people were made to rotate between professions, there would be less class conflict and snobbery. And of course, if government were truly representative and those in power were closer to the governed, there would be less abuses of power. But how do you go about making that happen? How, without resorting to force or Draconian measures, do you get people to treat each other as equals and respect each other.
Like it or not, the question “can’t we all just get along?” has been dogging humanity since the beginning of time. Many solutions have been suggested, like the expropriation of the ruling class, a certain means of production, or a certain way of living. But inevitably, all these proposed solutions get tied up in moral considerations (i.e. killing is wrong), or questions of practicality – i.e. getting rid of all the cars, central heating, AC and electricity will lead to millions of deaths worldwide. So really, is utopian literature meant as a proposition for change, or is it merely a tool to make us contemplate the tougher questions?
I know my answer, but in the end, the point is simply to ask, isn’t it? It’s the exploration that counts, which is precisely why such literature has been penned over the centuries. Waiting for heaven to come might be a pain in the ass, but trying to make it come can also be a ticket to hell!