I don’t think that word means what you think it means

So, I’ve been thinking about a brief discussion that came up on Twitter the other day. I mean, all conversations on Twitter are brief, what with the inherent limitations of the form. Too limited for big topics, like:

Is it possible to write a utopia?

Is it possible to imagine a utopia?

The thing is, whenever you use the word utopia — I have seen this at convention panels before, too — everyone assumes that you mean a utopia where Everyone Is Forced To Be Happy. Then they get into how all the methods by which you might Force People To Be Happy are kind of not okay and how the society is actually repressive and . . . they are not talking about a utopia at all. They are talking about a dystopia, and they don’t seem able to tell they’ve changed the subject.

You know what you get when you do a google search for “utopia SF”? You get dystopias. I see Lowry’s THE GIVER is listed here, along with UGLIES by Westerfield. I mean . . . really? Why not just take the word “utopia” out of the dictionary if you are going to define it to equal “dystopia”?

Okay, so. Has anybody ever actually written a book set in a utopia? I suspect the answer is No.

Could a utopian setting be devised and could an interesting story be set in it? I suspect the answer is Yes.

1. A utopia is not about forcing people to be happy. Do I even need to say this? If so, why? Let’s all agree that the definition of a utopia excludes horrible repressive governmental systems that crush individual choice and autonomy. THOSE ARE DYSTOPIAS. Just stop with the utopia = dystopia thing.

2. There is always going to be conflict. Yes, in a utopia, too.

For one thing, people are never going to live the lives their parents’ want them to. They are going to insist on wanting to do their own thing. Poof, personal low-stakes conflict.

Besides, people are always going to have legitimate goals and aspirations that are mutually exclusive with the goals and aspirations of those close to them. In fact, people are always going to have legitimate goals and aspirations that are mutually exclusive with other goals and aspirations they also have. You can’t do everything. Even perfect material wealth doesn’t create more seconds in the day.

Besides, there is always potential for conflict from outside. This is science fiction, after all. Aliens! Poof, broad, high-stakes conflict.

3. Material wealth and a life of ease do not create happiness. I mean, sure, terrible, crushing poverty and a life of slavery prevent happiness (to a pretty large degree, anyway). But still. Isn’t it obvious by now that for happiness, what you really need is: a sense that you are a useful, productive person; a sense that you are supporting yourself and your family; a sense that you are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul. In a real utopia, you won’t just feel that way; it will all be true. Then on top of that, but by no means more important than the above: you need material abundance sufficient not to be afraid for yourself or your family.

I think any utopia will fail where it doesn’t take actual human nature into account. And people want to feel like they are in charge of their own lives. By and large, they hate to feel dependent and resent the need to accept charity, and REALLY resent being expected to feel grateful for charity. They hate to feel that they have no choices. They have to have actual accomplishments so that they can feel legitimately proud of themselves. They need to feel positively connected to other people. They need to see the people they love be happy. They also need to not feel bitter because other people are happy, which is something else. They want to have something to strive for, and they want to achieve the things they’re striving for, but not too easily.

Am I missing anything huge? I think that’s most of the essentials. Oh, they need to be in decent health.

People often think they want, or we are told that people think they want, a life of pure leisure. I think that’s clearly not true. Does anyone actually believe it? It seems obviously much more important to your happiness to feel productive and useful than to have empty days filled with nothing in particular, even if your material needs are being met. That’s why long-term unemployment is so psychologically destructive.


4. The hard part about writing a utopian society would be coming up with a way to have excellent material abundance plus good health, AND YET to set up society to allow people to feel like they are — no, to actually BE — productive, useful, and responsible for their own lives and happiness. Getting rid of clinical depression and other emotional disorders would be a necessary step to allow everyone to be capable of happiness, but in a real utopia, perfect universal permanent happiness would not exist. That is not possible without changing human nature, it is not even faintly desirable, and it is not part of the definition.

Has anybody actually written a utopia, that you know of? Or even come close? Iain Banks’ THE PLAYER OF GAMES might be something that attempts to do this — has anybody read it? I’ve just read a description. But even there, the protagonist is apparently bored and jaded — and the utopia has a horribly repressive neighboring empire filled with miserable people. What true utopia would tolerate a neighbor like that?

Anyway. I insist on reclaiming the concept of a utopia, as distinct from a dystopia.

Please Feel Free to Share:


17 thoughts on “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”

  1. Robert+Massey

    I definitely think of Bank’s Culture novels as a utopia. Of all the futures I’ve seen in SF, that’s the one I’d most like to live in.

    Most of the Culture novels are how they interact with their non-utopia neighbors. The Player of Games is a great example of this. It’s probably also the best novel to start with, and a pretty engrossing read.

  2. Yeah? Well, FINE, I guess I will add it to my TBR pile then, because it will definitely interesting to see how Banks builds a real utopia.

    Privacy issues aside, Andrea Host’s Touchstone universe offers a world I wouldn’t mind living in. Provided I got to move in AFTER the trilogy is over. Have you read that? Could you stand the lack of privacy?

    Other than that . . . not thinking of very many SF worlds I’d like to live in.

  3. I’ve read several of Banks’ Culture novels, as well as an essay in which he explicitly said he designed the Culture as a utopia; that is, he cannot think of any way to make it better. And to be fair to the Culture, it *doesn’t* tolerate horrible neighbors: most of the books are about their Contact section, which flies around doing good. They claim to have mathematical proof that their actions are beneficial in the aggregate.

    That said, I think the Culture falls down rather badly on your points #3-4. Although Banks would presumably have disagreed, I think the Culture is better conceptualized as a society of AIs than of human beings: it has a large human population, but they aren’t usefully productive and it’s highly dubious whether they’re meaningfully in charge of their own destinies. (Banks also thinks the Culture has a fully post-scarcity economy, but hasn’t really thought it through.)

  4. The Golden Oecumene in Wright’s Golden Age Trilogy has some interesting similarities with the Culture — AIs are a very big deal — but I find it more successful than the Culture, partly because his supertech is less magical and mostly because his view of human nature is closer to my own. I’d prefer to live there. (It is a far, far nicer future than the Count to the Eschaton sequence.)

    Honestly, the United Federation of Planets from STAR TREK is a pretty good utopian SF vision, except for the unnerving impression that if you start to ask questions the whole thing will fall apart from sheer illogic.

  5. I was going to mention Star Trek, too. (Specifically Next Generation onwards, as I don’t think they had eliminated the concept of money in the Federation in The Original Series. Of course, as Craig indicates, when you start asking questions, there are some serious issues, such as how members of Starfleet aboard DS9 can afford to drink at Quark’s.)

    Piers Anthony’s Viscous Circle contains a utopian society of creatures. But they aren’t humanoid.

  6. You’re so right about the meaning of utopia, and that even in its real meaning it cannot be totally conflict-free.
    The one book I think of in answer to this question is Adiamante, by L.E. Modesitt jr.
    There are natural constraints on that society (dangerous wildlife and some scarcity of natural resources) that mean that everyone has to be productive, in their own way and according to their own capacity. There are sources of conflict, in the dangerous elements of nature, in the balancing of individual wants and needs with those of the community, and in contact with outsiders who do not believe in the way this society has structured itself.
    But it’s a long-postapocalyptic society, which as a result of that apocalypse chose to use the available technology of genetic modification on themselves to avoid ever getting into another such apocalyptic war, by genetically tying the individuals’ well-being to that of the whole, through their consciences – doing something that harms others will cause yourself hurt.

    One of the causes of the apocalyptic war was a very great disparity between the haves and have-nots, with the haves even developing some psychic abilities through costly genetic manipulation. Those abilities gave a better chance of survival, but were also a cause of resentment; so after the war they linked those abilities genetically to the ‘collective conscience’ and offered this modification to everyone. After ages of the survival advantage offered by this modification (some of the predators have also evolved to be psychic) it has long become universal, though individuals can be stronger or weaker in their abilities.

    There is individual choice; people can choose a level of (telepathic) linking to the collective conscience and to others, which has consequences for the level of trust and responsibility they will get (for jobs with important decisions which impact others’ lives you need a higher level of non-trickable accountability and thus a higher level of mental-linking-to-society) and results in more or less available extras. They can even opt out of the bond completely, but that means they also opt out of the support of society, and considering the natural hazards that is not something to choose lightly. Within the two constraints of not harming others, and being a productive part of society (both ‘policed’ internally, by being part of the linked societal conscience), there is a lot of freedom regarding all the rest anyone chooses to do.

    The conflict in the story comes when a distant ex-colony, which never took part of the genetic modification and doesn’t know about it, becomes warlike and sends an expedition looking for excuses to invade. There’s a balancing necessary within the protagonist’s and other main players’ own consciences, and them with the collective sense of right and wrong, between what is acceptable in self-defence – not so much personal as societal – and what becomes unwarranted violence to pre-empt expected-but-not-guaranteed violence from the other side: pre-emptive strikes trigger violence that might have been avoided, and are thus not tolerated by the collective conscience; but self-defence is allowed, and dealing with a threat in a way commensurate with the threat is accepted (i.e. killing a murderous attacker doesn’t cause any problem, once he has launched his attack – but until he does he might still call it off, and you are not allowed to kill him; though capturing and securing him may be warrantable, depending on the circumstances).

    I found it thought-provoking.

    The society works, for those within it, because everyone has that modification; and manages to (barely) maintain itself against outside forces because the modification also introduces collective mental powers for those who fully opt into the link.
    At the end, the writer seems to think it will be able to spread to the colony worlds, if they can slowly introduce their genetic modification, but I can’t see that happening. I think people with that modification will be at a disadvantage among unmodified humans: if others can strike at you, and you can only do something about that after the first strike (not even actively set a trap), in a violent society you could get badly hurt or killed. Even getting some telepathic potential (in a society where that is unknown or feared) would not compensate enough, I think.

  7. Cory Doctorow’s book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom probably counts. All hunger, illness, etc has been eliminated, and if you get bored you’re allowed to put yourself in cryogenic freeze for a set time, or until particular parameters are met.

  8. I may go on a utopia reading kick later this year and see how everyone works out their futures and whether any of them seem psychologically plausible. Especially The Golden Age and The Player of Games, since those sound like very serious attempts to build utopias.

    I’m sure we all know a lot of people who are not hungry or ill, but who sure seem to have unhappy lives. Any attempt to build a utopia without regard for the way people are actually put together emotionally, and how people actually behave, just isn’t going to get anywhere.

    Hanneke, I think you are right and that society which has made all its citizens obligate pacifists is doomed. They would sure make an ideal slave population for any neighboring society that leaned that way.

    The Star Trek universe, eh. Impossible to take seriously. But then it was never meant to be plausible, just entertaining.

  9. Well, they aren’t quite pacifists, they are capable of committing violence; they just cannot start it. The book looks at the work needed to stay honest and unthreatening while both giving an opponent every chance to demonstrate whether they are planning violence, and not giving them a glimpse of what your own capacities in that direction are; without being such an obvious target that you’d lure them into violence as that would be considered starting it.
    It was a clever mental and organisational balancing act, and made me think about what being a true pacifist would entail, and what a pacifist society would need to encompass to be viable.
    I’d always vaguely considered myself more-or-less a pacifist, but never really thought that through to what it would entail if carried through to an entire utopian society.
    And apart from the built-in retribution for violence your own conscience considers excessive, it did try to stick with real human motivations and feelings, taking into account people’s human emotions and the different ways people will choose to act.

  10. Hanneke, if you can’t respond to a clear and obvious threat, I think you are headed for disaster. But it does sound like an interesting thought experiment.

  11. I remember thinking that I’d love to live in William Morris’ utopia in News From Nowhere: it definitely meets your criteria 3+4, as the whole point of is is that everyone gets to use their talents to create beautiful and useful things.(I also remember that it didn’t make a great novel, so it probably didn’t meet #2.)

    I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged when I was a teenager, and I remember being intrigued by her utopian society (which, if I remember correctly, solved all those annoying societal problems by not inviting anyone poor or sick etc., so it wasn’t a great example of a true utopia!), but I thought it was very odd that they still used money.

    I think all utopias end up being political tracts of some sort or another, because of the whole human nature thing: politics is all about defining human nature a certain way and then saying “this is what will work best because this is the way humans are.” Interesting that some of the sci fi utopias discussed here seem to think that changing human nature is what’s required to achieve their fine utopian visions!

    (Which, if you think about it, is the central message of most religions, too: heaven or Nirvana or what-have-you is only achievable once you’ve been redeemed/enlightened/transformed. Perhaps a more realistic view of human nature than the Star Trek one, alas.)

  12. Well, Atlas Shrugged was certainly a political tract. Iain Banks’ books? It sounds to me like they are more an attempt to tell an entertaining story in a plausible far-future, rather than the kind of future where thousands of years pass but technology remains about the same. I really am going to read some of the suggested utopian novels next and see what I think.

  13. I’m currently reading Jo Walton’s THE JUST CITY, about an experiment by the goddess Athena to set up a working model of the ideal society as described in Plato’s REPUBLIC. I’m finding it fascinating so far.

  14. I always thought Chesterton nailed the problem with literary utopias with:

    “[A Utopia] is generally called a Republic and it always is a Monarchy. It is a Monarchy in the old and exact sense of the term; because it is really ruled by one man: the author of the book. He may tell us that all the characters in the book spontaneously delight in the beautiful social condition; but somehow we never believe him. His ideal world is always the world that he wants; and not the world that the world wants. Therefore, however democratic it may be in theory or in the book, it is always pretty despotic when it begins to be approached in practice through the law. The first modern moves towards any Utopian condition are generally as coercive as Prohibition. They are, as I have said, despotic, because the whole design is despotic. It is despotic because it is a dream; and a man is always alone in a dream. All that we call Utopia is but the rather evasive and vague expression of the natural, boyish, and romantic sentiment, ‘If I were King.'”

    I think most utopias have that at their heart: they’re one person’s “best possible world” and that can never really be everyone’s best possible world. (Where dystopias can be broadly horrible for nearly everyone. :-) ) Conflicting goals are going to prevent relative wealth, safety, etc. from feeling utopian to many of its inhabitants (just as our own historically wealthy, safe, etc. civilization doesn’t feel utopian to us). So the tendency is to marginalize or dismiss (or convert in ways that seem either unconvincing or creepy) anyone who doesn’t fit in. (Which the classic utopian writers tended to be more than happy to do.)

    (That’s something I liked about the “ambiguous utopia” in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: things like the childhood indoctrination scene, the overall rigidity and poverty of the society, and the fact that the protagonist finds it so hard to fit in. I suspect that we’re still supposed to find Anarres more attractive than I do, and I don’t think it would actually work. But it doesn’t have the usual utopian issue that only villains and the temporarily misguided see much problem with it.)

    In practice, the simplest option is to keep the utopia mostly offstage, which is what both Trek and Banks generally do. The main action of the story is off at the interface between the utopian society and outsiders. My problem with that setup is that the central characters can seem insufferably smug.

    (Especially when it’s aimed directly at us, as when Trek characters went back in time to the 20th century or in Banks’ “Greetings from the Culture”. It often feels as if the author is, effectively, blaming contemporaries for not having access to the technological and social handwaves that he or she made up to permit utopia to exist.)

    Somtow Sucharitkul had a series of stories about Utopia Hunters, who would travel between the stars looking for utopian societies, uncover the inevitable flaw, and use it to bring the society down. (It’s been much too long since I read it to remember the details. I seem to recall there was a story in which the central character discovered a utopia without a flaw he was able to uncover, so he joined it.)

  15. Oh, is that what The Just City is about? Hmmm. I may have to shuffle it up the TBR pile . . .

  16. Yes, I’m pretty sure you’re right about the “one man’s dream” component in utopia-building. I expect it’s tough for an author to truly let go of that idea that all right-thinking people pretty much agree about everything (and agree with the author, naturally), and therefore in a perfect society, everyone would just be happy to move in lockstep . . . and from there you dismiss actual human nature and it’s impossible to get it back.

    It’s been so long since I read The Dispossessed. Or, hey, maybe I never *have* read The Dispossessed. It sounds to me, though, that Le Guin knew very well that she was not actually building a utopia.

    Personally, I suspect that a good many Utopia Hunters would discover utopias where they saw a central flaw, but decided it was all right with them, and joined it anyway.

  17. By halfway through THE JUST CITY, it’s fairly obvious that Plato didn’t really know a lot about human nature, or as one of the characters says, “what Plato knew about love and real people could have been written on a fingernail paring”.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top