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…
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.
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
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.
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?
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! ♥