Last week, in my list of science fiction novels, I included The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin, in which one man’s ability to have dreams that shape reality is used to try and create a better world. The attempt to imagine or construct a better world is known as Utopianism. The term comes from the book Utopia written by Sir Thomas More in 1516. Literally, the word means ‘no place’, but More also used the word ‘Eutopia’ in his book, which means ‘good place’.
More’s book described an imaginary land which offered its people more justice, prosperity and equality than they could have in Europe at the time.
Ever since then, novels that try to imagine such earthly paradises have been called Utopias. Novels which imagine an even worse world are called Dystopias.
Why do people write these books? Usually because they are dissatisfied with the society, politics or culture of today’s world and want to explore how a better alternative might look. Utopias are often driven by specific ideologies — a feminist will imagine a world where women are completely equal to men, or even where they are in charge, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel, Herland. A staunch vegetarian might write of a world where meat is no longer eaten, a socialist might write of a world where capitalism is a thing of the past and so on. Usually these novels are not just pure fantasy; they offer ideas about how a better world may be structured and how it can be achieved. For instance, in a very ancient Utopian text, Plato’s Republic (circa 380 BC), it is imagined that if society is ruled by philosopher-kings, the superior wisdom and knowledge of these rulers will ensure a perfect society.
Why do people write Dystopias?
Dystopias are of two varieties — warnings of what will happen to our world if we are not careful, and satires of things the writer does not like in our current conditions.
Two very famous Dystopian novels were written in the mid-twentieth century, as a response to the new political and scientific developments which were taking place. These are both satires and warnings of where we may be headed.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, published in 1949, imagines a world where there is perpetual war and a harsh, authoritarian government controls people’s minds. People are constantly being monitored with surveillance equipment and their thoughts and ideas are scanned for signs of ideas that the government does not approve; such people are punished for ‘thought crimes’. The justification for stripping away individual liberty is that there is a war going on and society has to be vigilant against threats from within.
Perhaps this reminds you of the paranoia of countries caught up in today’s ‘war on terror’?
The other major Dystopia of the last century was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, published in 1932. This book imagined a future where people are bred in hatcheries, destined from birth to certain professions. People learn in their dreams, those who are bred to the higher castes have easy lives with access to ‘soma’, a drug which gives them artificial pleasure.
The economy is built around mass production and people have little control over their own lives. While that level of genetic manipulation is still not possible, we do live in a world where consuming mass produced goods is a central feature and where large numbers of people numb themselves with popular entertainment, or even drugs rather than lead reflective lives.
Most of the books I’ve discussed were written for older readers, but can be read and understood by teenagers or those just below teenage.
In addition, there are Utopian and Dystopian novels written for younger readers, like the popular Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which is a vision of a Dystopian future, or The Giver by Lois Lowry, which tells of a Utopia which gradually turns out to be a Dystopia.
Reading these books, and others like them, is not just fun, it might make you think about the world you live in and how it can be made into a better place!