Let’s Talk About: Why Utopia Matters

why utopia matters

Two weeks ago, I posted a discussion about Why Dystopia Matters. Some of my biggest points were that dystopia and its portrayals are a way of engaging readers to think about sociopolitical issues, how they can be located in dystopian societies, and how this may relate to real life. Similarly to dystopia, it was the same class, ‘Social Futures’, that inspired my love for utopia. I learned that utopia was more than the not-so-perfect society and that utopia is an important idea in itself. Unexpectedly, learning about utopia inspired me to be passionate about social issues.

As promised, today I am going to be talking more about dystopia’s very misunderstood sister, utopia, and why utopia is more important than people give credit. In this Let’s Talk About, I discuss utopia and how it is more than a seemingly perfect society doomed to fail and become dystopia, the possible conflicts that arise from utopia, and a wonderful thing called the utopian imagination.


UTOPIA: WHAT IT MEANS AND ITS PORTRAYALS 

By definition, utopia is a society that has highly desirable or ‘near perfect’ qualities.

Often when we think of utopia, we think of a society that appears ‘perfect’ and ideal, but is malignant and dangerous underneath. We think of a perfect society that is technologically advanced, has minimal crime, but also has a loss of personhood. These visualizations of utopia encompass a degree of complacence by people to accept the status quo or to accept that ‘it’s just the way it is’, to ensure the functioning of this ‘perfect society’.

Because of this, utopia has given rise to a plethora of ideas, a notable example being dystopia. Funnily enough, most of the ‘utopian’ societies in YA fiction are from dystopian novels themselves. Some examples are:

1. The Giver by Lois Lowry

  • Features a seemingly utopian society where its citizens are content, have a place in society, and have their lives laid before them so there is no suffering in indecision.
  • However, there is strong governmental control despite its benevolent facade, has a Social Darwinism-esque perspective of life and birth, and lacks transparency.

2. Free to Fall by Lauren Miller

  • Has an extremely technologically advanced society where life is made easier with Lux, an app that ensures optimized decision-making, thereby eliminating the struggle of choice for its user.
  • Looks at how, underneath the seemingly perfect society, there are mechanisms of control implanted by a massive corporation, whose interests are power and wealth.

3. Uglies by Scott Westerfield

  • Explores a technologically-advanced society where, after turning sixteen, people become a ‘Pretty’ by undergoing an operation that will ensure that the individual is befitting of a beautiful society, separate to all the ‘uglies’.
  • An analysis of society’s obsession with superficial beauty and duplicitous governmental control and manipulation.

Typically, utopia doesn’t have fantastic portrayals. Whilst we should be cautious of how things can go terribly wrong under the guise of ‘good’ and ‘perfection’, and that we need to be conscious of how our liberties can be taken away under the guise of protection, safety, and justice, the fact that utopia has become demonized and something inevitably evil and false is a little heartbreaking! And whilst I do not believe that a true, realised utopia is possible, utopia can be more than a physical manifestation.

But before I talk about how it can be more, I want to address a very common criticism when it comes to utopia…

utopia dividers

PEOPLE WILL HAVE DIFFERENT IDEAS OF UTOPIA AND YES, THAT CAN BE A PROBLEM

As briefly mentioned before, one problem arises when we think and discuss utopia – the idea of a person’s perfect society may conflict and differ with another person’s idea of utopia. This simple incongruence could entail that utopia is impossible. Similarly to my opinions on dystopia, I believe that it is extremely unlikely or impossible for an author’s imagining of dystopia or utopia to come true. To re-emphasize, often it is the contents of dystopia or utopia’s ideas, themes, or warnings that are important rather than an actual realization of that society.

In attempts to achieve or realise a vision of one’s utopia, this can cause conflict – perhaps unrest or destruction. Looking at utopia with this perspective, it is understandable why people would be cynical of utopia, and why utopia is a fantasy or of a naive dream. As exemplified by the YA books that feature utopia, it also seems that utopia has been tarnished by its association with totalitarianism. In more recent years, the idea of utopia has become a vehicle of cynicism, and I think this is such a shame.

While these anxieties may be valid, to invalidate utopia because of these fears is to invalidate alternatives for a better future. I think the belief that utopia is impossible is more dangerous than the idea that utopia is possible.

Why? Because of a thing called the utopian imagination.

utopia dividers

THE UTOPIAN IMAGINATION: THE DRIVE FOR A BETTER WORLD

When we look at dystopia, it draws our attention to everything that is possibly wrong in society and the questions that remain are often difficult to answer. What comes after awareness? What do we do – what can we do – after learning about the issues that plague our society? Dystopia may teach us about the things that happen within society, but it doesn’t teach us what to do after. What is it that drives us to foster a better world?

I don’t believe that utopia is a destination or a place that society must reach. I do not believe that utopia should be conceptualized as a concrete form of civilization, or an end-goal that we have to reach.

I think utopia is an ideal that we work towards. To borrow a quote from one of my favourite writers:

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias. — Oscar Wilde

And I think that’s a really important thing: working for progress, working towards a better world for ourselves and the people who will live after us is a utopian act in itself. In working towards a better future, we are envisioning a future that is brighter and better. It doesn’t have to be in the future too; utopia can be working towards improving the present.

In most cases, I believe that writing and storytelling is a form of utopia. Utopia is an imagining of alternatives. Such as: What is it that motivates characters, especially those that are going through times of strife and hardship? Even in dystopia novels or books that highlight social issues, what are the characters fighting for? What is it that drives them? What are they protecting and why? It certainly isn’t a drive of pessimism or the cynical belief that the world is doomed to a horrible fate; it’s a drive against that dystopian imagination, to something constructive, better, positive.

Even on a conceptual level, storytelling as utopia can be a way of exploring different ideas, different perspectives and different values. It is a way to embrace and celebrate all those differences whilst also conveying positive messages and alternatives. Political movements and social justice movements themselves are inherently utopian, especially since they encompass views of what a good society may look like and what values that society may possess. From small gestures to big movements, these things can facilitate earnest discussion, and foster avenues of understanding, learning and inspiration.

Utopia matters because it is about creating imaginary spaces that are full of possibility and potential, that can inspire and motivate. To me, the utopian imagination is as simple as having the capacity to imagine a world where things can be better, the drive for progress and to better life for everyone, and that change is absolutely possible and worth striving towards. At the heart of utopia, it is about fostering a healthy sense of optimism whilst being conscious of the obstacles and barriers, but also a fostering a sense of hope.

I do not think it is relevant for us to ask whether utopia is possible, but I think it is necessary that we work towards it.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. — Margaret Mead

utopia dividers

Like dystopia, utopia is an idea that means a lot to me. Whilst dystopia may give us the tools to analyse and gauge people into thinking about sociopolitical issues, utopia is the kindling of hope and aspiration. Where dystopia is the question, utopia is – and can be – the answer.

This post was more of an experimental, explorative discussion on my ideas of utopia, and by no means am I passing anything I have written as fact! My discussion on utopia was largely inspired by letters written by Ruth Levitas and Lucy Sargisson, who wrote to each other about ideas of utopia prior to 9/11 and immediately after. Their correspondence can be found in Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination.

utopia dividers

LET’S TALK ABOUT IT

Utopia is an idea that we discuss less compared to dystopia, so I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts!

  • What do you think of utopia as an idea vs. physical society?
  • What motivates you and drives you to do things in life? If you are passionate about social justice, what drives you?
  • What is a book that you liked (or disliked) that featured a utopian society? What did you like about it/What didn’t you like about it?
  • Do you think utopia – in any degree – is possible?

utopia dividers

IN TWO WEEKS, LET’S TALK ABOUT…

How reading expanded my empathy. It’ll be my birthday when I post the next Let’s Talk About, so I’ve decided to talk about something that I’m super passionate about! Thank you for reading, and feel free to share your thoughts and comments below! ♥

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22 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About: Why Utopia Matters

  1. Yay, part 2 is here! :D

    Well, the only book I’ve read that featured a utopian society I can think of right now is the Uglies series, which I really enjoyed (I think that’s an unpopular opinion though; a lot my friends found the books to be way too weird and disliked them). And I really want to try reading The Giver. I don’t know how I never got to read that (nor To Kill a Mockingbird) in school…

    And like you said a utopia would be quite hard to achieve because everyone’s ideal utopian society would be different and that could cause a lot of problems (also like you mentioned). So I guess it’ll be utopian imagination for now. XD

    Look forward to the next discussion in two weeks, Chooi! :D By the way, did you ever find a place for the birthday dinner? :/

    • I had no idea people didn’t like the Uglies series! I read it a long time ago, but I’ve been thinking of picking it up again because I think I missed all the details and ideas when I read it years ago.

      Hmmm I would go in reading The Giver with a grain of salt. It has a good introduction to its ideas, but it lacks depth and is really, really simplistic. I really agree with what Keely said about The Giver (top 1 star comment on GR) in how it promotes a very naive and facile idea of morality.

      (Don’t worry, I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird too!)

      I think utopian imagination is all you need. c: After all, utopian imagination is a drive, and it’s the idea that we can envision something better than what we are now. And we can work towards it, even if we never achieve it.

      Thanks Summer! ♥ I look forward to writing it. ^_^

      Haha yes! I decided to go somewhere else and they were more than happy to accommodate me. I think I made a good choice too, so I’m super excited to go there!

  2. What an amazing post! I was eagerly waiting for this. I nodding throughout the whole post, it definitely helped me to clear out some facts. And now that you stated it, it’s amazingly how most of the dystopian society actually come from the utopian ones.i do think utopian society is actually possible but not with consequences. But a girl can dream right? :-) Nonetheless, great post! Will be waiting for your next one.

    • Oh gosh, thank you so much, Poulami! ♥ To hear that you were looking forward to this means a lot. :’)

      I think so too, to an extent! And hey, I think dreaming and working towards those dreams are awesome, and what we should be doing if we want to improve ourselves and society! So don’t let go of that, ever!

      Thank you! I look forward to posting it too – I hope it’ll be a good read!

  3. Honestly, I have never given utopia a single thought, probably because it always turns out to be a mask to hide something horrifying going on. I’m not sure about books but my fave utopian story would be an anime called Psycho Pass. They are a technologically advanced society which uses the Sibyl System. The System checks each citizen’s crime coefficient (or their Hue) to analyse if you are a criminal or not. It was the perfect way to prevent crimes. The society also embraced their technology in a lot of ways until it seemed impossible to function without it anymore.
    I marvelled about the concept behind that story, though I know it was fictional there were elements that were similar to how we presently live and rely on computers that struck me. That it’s not that impossible, that we can also attain that level of security and progress in real life. At the same time, the series also made me reflect that all systems have flaws, some more obvious than others, and will always be in a state of reconstruction or updating. I think what you said about utopia being an ideal symbol of hope rings true, it gives us something to aspire for. :)

    • I LOVE Psychopass! I’m so glad you mentioned it, because I think it’s one of my favourite utopian/dystopian worlds. I don’t know, I just loved how they handled the storytelling and setting – that even though there were problems with the Sibyl system, the point of the show wasn’t about destroying the system, but finding justice in it. I think Akane’s actions and ideologies were very utopian – her drive for justice and rightness in a world that is very symptomatic. And yes, you make such a good point – the society embraced the technology, which I thought was an sign of human advancement and innovation, rather than something to fear.

      You are so right; I loved Psychopass for that reason – that it was critical of society and institution without being too radical in its ideas of ‘revolution’ and whatnot. I think that’s the problem with most YA dystopia. They write about rebellion but it is too radical and has no purpose that the whole reason of upheaval is lost.

      I could talk about Psycho-pass all day, haha! It’s one of my favourite animes, and with good reason! ♥♥

      Thank you for such an insightful and thoughtful comment, Joan! c:

      • I’m so glad to meet a fellow Psycho Pass fan! Some people find it “too heavy” to follow, but I enjoyed every episode and I agree that the story and setting were remarkable. I love how Akane and Kogami balances each other, neither’s way of thinking was good nor downright evil. Another example of utopian society that I like is Ghost in the Shell, where they had been living that way of life for so long the cracks were more visible, yet they do not completely abolish their system because it still works, you just do some necessary damage control.

        I agree with you 100% about the problem with YA dystopia. I dislike that the most common theme is oppression or a rebellion to upset a tyrannical government, there must be more ways than one to bring about change in a society, as these anime series showed us.

        (btw, like everyone else, I seriously love your discussion posts <3)

  4. Once again, this is such a great discussion post, I loved reading it! :) I read all the books you mentionned, and agree with you, underneath the utopian society, there’s always a shadow, slowly creeping in, and breaking everything. That is probably a way for us readers to keep on reading. It’s probably because, too, we need to see the cracks in “perfect societies”. It’s kind of sad, though, this idea conveyed by all these novels, that the utopian society doesn’t really exist, and there are always issues.
    I absolutely agree with you when you say that utopia is such a subjective idea, because everyone has, in his mind, his own idea of what utopia is supposed to be.
    But, as you said, too, I think that, the simple idea of utopia, (despite it being an ideal that we, apparently, can’t reach anymore), drives us in life. We all have our own idea of happiness, and trying, with every step and every day, to reach that goal,… well, by doing that, we’re all trying to get to our own utopia! :)
    In books, I really like that, even if, like in the books you quoted, the idea of utopia is always struggling against bigger, meaner forces,there are always people fighting for a better world. This is what’s so amazing, and so inspiring for us, too.
    Sorry for the big rambling thoughts, ahah. Loved reading your post! :)

    • Oh my gosh Marie, I love your comment! Thank you!!

      I agree, and I think a little caution with anything societal is healthy. It is sad, but I think readers should see it more as… utopia is something that we can envision, but we must be cautious too, rather than utopia is absolutely impossible, it is bad, etc.
      More so, I think the act of discussion is pretty utopian too – we come together to seek truth or share understanding, and it’s like, converging together to create some degree of harmony.

      Utopia does drive us! And honestly, I am a bit tired of the rampant cynicism. I think a little cynicism is good, but too much just creates apathy and misanthropy (which I cannot stand).

      I agree – I think the core idea of utopia is the notion of possibility – that things are possible, and that extends to imagining a better world, rather than being paralyzed by can’t, won’t and shouldn’t.

      I love rambles! Don’t ever apologize, I love hearing your thoughts. ♥ Thank you Marie! :’)

      • I agree with you so much about this, too much cynicism is not healthy at all, and it tends to annoy me more and more.
        And I love thinking just that things are possible, it drives us through life and makes us feel better at any times. Even just thinking that you can eat chocolate and read books makes the world a better place, haha :)
        Thank YOU for this amazing discussion, I love it! ♥

  5. Another great post CW!
    I’ve never thought of writing as a form of utopia. As a matter of fact, I never really give much thought about utopian imagination. But you’re right, everyday we fight the injustice in life because we dream of something better. It’s a shame that utopia is now treated like dystopia evil sister when the important thing is the journey and not the existence of the a real utopian society. I’ve read a few utopian books, one that you’ve mentioned is Uglies and I also read his novella, Stupid Perfect World. I quite enjoy both books, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I cannot help but think that I’ve only seen utopia from one side of the story so thank you for raising this issue.

    • Aw, thank you Windie!

      I know what you mean! I never thought about utopia that way until my professor brought it up. I was so inspired when I learned about it though. And yes! I think when we think about how things can be different, we’re thinking about a better world, and I think to be able to envision something is a great act in itself.

      I haven’t read Uglies in a loooong time, but I’m thinking of reading it again! I read it when I was very young and probably missed all the nuances and ideas.

      You’re so welcome, and thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment yet again! I appreciate that you share your thoughts. ♥

      • Totally! Now that I know that this concept exist, I’m going to be on the lookout for more utopian-related issue in books and in life. Ahh, this is the beauty of reading. To get perspective from something that one doesn’t normally encounter in real life. 💖
        I haven’t read Uglies in years too. I just remember the general idea and the plot twist. I cannot even recall the MCs names. lol.
        Awww, thank you for writing such great discussion posts. :)

  6. Utopia for me is a much better concept in idealistic terms rather than a physical one. It’s more attainable and not far off to reality as well. I think you’re absolutely right on this one, that dystopias do have utopias in them somehow- a driving force. With that, I could say that ideally I’ve read a lot about utopia because of the characters’ vision of a ‘perfect world’. Does Divergent count as a utopia? I mean, it IS dystopian, but I guess a utopian society where people, regardless of their genetic makeup, could live in peace together. I haven’t read the Giver yet, but I have been given a “Giver guide book” years ago so I am curious about it and would want to read it and also the utopia it features! :)

    As always, another post commendable for congratulations, CW!!! You argue very eloquently and I look forward to your future discussions! :D

    • Awww thanks maan!! ♥♥

      I agree – I truly believe a physical utopia is possible, or even a good idea. Though, I believe we can come very close to it – a world with equality, where difference is celebrated. At the end of the day, it’s about the ideals you want to flourish, and it is those ideals that will be passed onto the younger generation.

      Divergent is a pretty weird one. In a way, it has a utopian sort of idea, but it doesn’t really contribute to ideas or narratives about how to improve society. I think it has merits on an ‘ideal’ level, but not much else. I haven’t read it, but I heard The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin is a great utopia book, as well as Island by Aldous Huxley.

      Hmmmm, I think The Giver is worthwhile in its ideas and what it suggests, but I didn’t like it at all LOL. I really agree with what Keely said about The Giver (top review for The Giver in GR), and how it’s way too simplistic.

      Thank you SOOO MUCH MAAN!!! ♥♥ I’m so glad you think so; I wasn’t feeling very happy and confident with this post but I really appreciate your comment – it means a lot. ♥

  7. I really enjoyed reading the second part of this discussion! I can only agree that it’s sad to think that people don’t necessarily associate positive things with utopia anymore, but that they always expect evil lurking behind the next corner. Thinking about it, I haven’t read all that many utopian stories, but I did read the Giver. I enjoyed how much it made me think about the life of the people in that world. Everything that gets you thinking is usually something good!
    As always, this was a really great post! I can’t wait to read your next discussion post in two weeks time :D

    • Aw, thanks Kat! ♥ I’m super pleased that you enjoyed it! I wasn’t feeling very confident posting this so I’m glad!

      It is sad! I think this delegitimization is partly political, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

      Funnily enough, I wasn’t a big fan of The Giver! I suppose I appreciate what it was trying to say though, and agreed – any book that gets you thinking (about good ideas) is always great. c:

      Thank you so much! I look forward to it too – super excited to write it! ♥♥

      • I have to say that the Giver wasn’t my favourite book either, but that was mostly due to the ending. I was kind of mad at that. However, I thought that the concept was really interesting and frightening too in a way.

  8. I love your thoughtful posts CW! I was listening to an author talk about her favourite influential books from her childhood and the moderator commented the author’s current work did not closely resemble her favourite books from her childhood/teen years. The author explained that she believed her work was in conversation with her favourite books from with past but with notable differences like putting protagonists with mixed backgrounds like herself into these stories. She wanted to bring her work into another present/future.

    Perhaps, storytellers who are aware of how they contribute to that conversation of books that talk to each other. Maybe utopian seeds of thought in certain stories are always in conversation with the dystopian to progress forward. For example, the creator of Star Trek fought hard to push their tv show vision of a diverse future in a very unequal ’60s American society. The show’s vision ended up inspiring writers and actors (like Whoopi Goldberg). On the other hand, current fans of the show are aware of the problematic imperialist nature of the show and its limitations in contributing to equality.The fans that are also writers seek to address those elements in their own work, so I agree that the development of utopian literature can be a progressive one because it is always in conversation with the past. I recommend this video panel featuring Zen Cho among a panel of authors discussing scifi for social change. (This panel is why Star Trek is the example I reached for) – http://www.stream.aljazeera.com/story/201512101712-0025112

    As soon as I read this post, I also thought of how solarpunk is the current sustainable green movement/response to dystopian future in both literature and technology: http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2014/11/10/4122309.htm

    • Oh gosh, thank you Glaiza! I always look forward to your comments; so thoughtful and I get some awesome resources/readings! c:

      I love everything you said, and I completely agree that utopian works are always in conversation with different moments in time. I’ve always perceived utopia has something that’s mindful of all aspects too – knowledge of the past, conscious of the present and mindful of the future. More so, I wish nowadays dystopians were more progress-orientated, but more often than not they seem to have this legitimizing quality. Particularly in YA dystopia, i.e. Divergent, The Giver, Matched, etc. there’s always a’revolution’ but it lacks the ideology or the precision of an effective one. It comes off naive and unambitious.

      THANK YOU FOR THE LINKS!! ♥♥ I loved Sorcerer to the Crown so anything with Zen Cho is a must read/watch for me.

      I’ve never heard of solarpunk and am completely unfamiliar with it so thank you for the article! I shall acquaint myself with it! :D

      • I’m in the middle of reading Margaret Atwood’s non-fiction book, ‘In Other Worlds: SF and The Human Imagination,’ and there’s an essay on utopias and dystopias which you might like called ‘Dire cartographies: The Roads to Ustopia.’ ‘Ustopia is a word I made up by combining utopia and dystopia – the imagined perfect society and its opposite – because, in my view, each contains a latent version of the other’ ~ Margaret Atwood.

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