Utopian and dystopian fiction  

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This page Utopian and dystopian fiction is part of the fantasy series.Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès
This page Utopian and dystopian fiction is part of the fantasy series.
Illustration: Screenshot from A Trip to the Moon (1902) Georges Méliès

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The utopia and its offshoot, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. Utopian fiction is the creation of an ideal world, or utopia, as the setting for a novel. Dystopian fiction is the opposite: creation of a nightmare world, where utopian ideals have been subverted. Many novels combine both, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of two possible futures. Both utopias and dystopias are commonly found in science fiction writing.


Utopian fiction

The word utopia was first used in this context by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 work Utopia. The word utopia means "no place" in Greek, and resembles the Greek term for "good place," eutopia. In his book, which was written in Latin, More sets out a vision of an ideal society. An earlier example of a Utopian work from classical times is Plato's The Republic, in which he outlines what he sees as the ideal society and its political system.


Dystopian fiction

Dystopias usually extrapolate elements of contemporary society and function as a warning against some modern trend, often the threat of oppressive regimes in one form or another. Anthony Burgess wrote in Part One of his novel 1985, stating that "I prefer to call Orwell’s imaginary society [in Nineteen Eighty-Four] a cacotopia – on the lines of cacophony or cacodaemon. It sounds worse than dystopia."



Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is sometimes linked with utopian (and dystopian) literature, because it shares the general preoccupation with ideas of the good (and bad) society. Of the countries Lemuel Gulliver visits, only the Country of the Houyhnhnms approaches a utopia; most of the others have significant dystopian aspects.

Many works combine elements of both utopias and dystopias. Typically, an observer from our world will journey to another place or time and see one society the author considers ideal, and another representing the worst possible outcome. The point is usually that the choices we make now may lead to a better or worse potential future world. Ursula K. Leguin's Always Coming Home fulfils this model, as does Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. In Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing there is no time-travelling observer, but her ideal society is invaded by a neighbouring power embodying evil repression. In Aldous Huxley's Island, in many ways a counterpoint to his better-known Brave New World, the fusion of the best parts of Buddhist philosophy and Western technology is threatened by the "invasion" of oil companies.

In another literary model, the imagined society journeys between elements of utopia and dystopia over the course of the novel or film. At the beginning of The Giver by Lois Lowry, the world is described as a utopia, but as the book progresses, dystopia takes over.


A subgenre of this is ecotopian fiction, where the author posits either a utopian or dystopian world revolving around environmental conservation or destruction. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia was the first example of this, followed by Kim Stanley Robinson in his California trilogy. Robinson has also edited an anthology of short ecotopian fiction, called Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias.

Another important subgenre is feminist utopias and the overlapping category of feminist science fiction. Writer Sally Miller Gearhart calls this sort of fiction political: it contrasts the present world with an idealized society, criticizes contemporary values and conditions, sees men or masculine systems as the major cause of social and political problems (e.g. war), and presents women as equal to or superior to men, having ownership over their reproductive functions. A common solution to gender oppression or social ills in feminist utopian fiction is to remove men, either showing isolated all-female societies as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, or societies where men have died out or been replaced, as in Joanna Russ's A Few Things I Know About Whileaway, where "the poisonous binary gender" has died off. Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness does not remove men, but posits a non-human biology in which each individual is usually neuter, and sometimes male, sometimes female. Marge Piercy's novel Woman on the Edge of Time keeps human biology, but removes pregnancy and childbirth from the gender equation by resorting to artificial wombs, while allowing both women and (through unspecified means) also men the nurturing experience of breastfeeding.

Cultural impact

Étienne Cabet's work Travels in Icaria caused a group of followers to leave France in 1848 and come to the United States to found a series of utopian settlements in Texas, Illinois, Iowa, California, and elsewhere. These groups lived in communal settings and lasted until 1898.

Though few would claim "utopian" status, intentional communities are groups of people who strive for a more ideal life in some way, and are inspired by a similar urge to that found in utopian novels. These communities are cultural and social experiments in better living. Some of the better known modern experiments include the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Twin Oaks (inspired by Skinner's Walden II, above) and The Farm in the US, ZEGG in Germany, Camphill Communities (all over, but originating in Europe), and Auroville in India.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Utopian and dystopian fiction" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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