Accentuate the positive?
December 3, 2009 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Does "utopia" exist in modern/contemporary fiction?

I was chatting with a friend about a potential college seminar about dystopian literature. Both of us rattled off numerous examples of books and movies with wide-ranging dystopian concepts (i.e., postapocalyptic, disease/medical, fascistic government, media domination, etc.)--each of us with plenty of things that the other one hadn't heard of. As we were doing so, I started to wonder: are there contemporary utopian visions? Does that even still exist, or are we so jaded that all we can see is the negative?

I asked my friend and he couldn't think of anything. The only thing that occurred to me was Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time, which was partially dystopian but at least had a competing utopian concept (kind of dated but still interesting). Is there anything else? I'd be willing to accept utopias within the 20th century (around the time of Brave New World or 1984 and beyond, up to the present).
posted by dlugoczaj to Media & Arts (32 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I think you could make a strong argument for Star Trek as a utopian future.
posted by castlebravo at 2:31 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Star Trek is definitely extremely Utopian. It's a post-scarcity society in which there's total equality for everyone, and all conflicts originate from outside - there are threatening aliens, but the Enterprise's crew always gets along incredibly well. This was, fwiw, Roddenberry's explicit intention.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:35 PM on December 3, 2009

The counterpart to Huxley's Brave New World is The Island, which he wrote later in life. Huxley's perfect society involved a lot of drugs, IIRC.
posted by shaun uh at 2:36 PM on December 3, 2009

Although the point of Cheryl Benard's Turning on the Girls is to explore the problems with the feminist/matriarchal society depicted in it, there are a lot of positive aspects to the society as well. I would say it's closer to utopia than dystopia. I saw it as a society working out the kinks on its way to becoming a utopia.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:37 PM on December 3, 2009

Have you looked at Wikipedia? The article has a list of Examples, including several written in the 20th century.

Also, Iain Banks' Culture novels describe a civilization that some, including most of its inhabitants, would consider Utopian; others would disagree emphatically, of course. Speaking entirely for myself, if I found myself living in the Culture tomorrow I'd probably consider myself to have landed in a utopia.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:38 PM on December 3, 2009

Iain M. Banks's "Culture" novels? Always Coming Home by Ursula K. LeGuin? Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach?
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:40 PM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

The book The City and the Stars (earlier version: Against the Fall of Night) illustrates two completely separate utopian societies that have evolved on Earth over a billion years time. One is based on technological advancements and the other more on evolution and nature. Both have eliminated war, disease, famine, racism, etc, but are isolated from one another (I highly recommend this book in general 'cause it's just an awesome story). Arthur C. Clarke wrote this in the 1950s, though, so I'm not sure it really counts as contemporary, but it's the only thing I can think of off-hand. I'm like you, it's much easier to come up with the dystopian novels!
posted by wundermint at 2:43 PM on December 3, 2009

Robert Heinlein describes utopian societies in some of his far-future settings, like the end of To Sail Beyond The Sunset.
posted by agropyron at 2:45 PM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

"are there contemporary utopian visions? Does that even still exist, or are we so jaded that all we can see is the negative?"

This is a pretty naive view of both the present and of the use of utopia in literature. I would suggest looking through some of the critical work on utopian literature; with a better understanding of the subject, it'll be easier to identify contemporary iterations on the theme.
posted by sinfony at 2:46 PM on December 3, 2009

Well, Sheri Tepper's books lead from dystopia to utopia -- usually by rather extreme, uncomfortable methods. It's all a bit axe-grindy, and she seems to want her utopias to involve revenge against "the man," and utopia is achieved nearly always by some unexplained (read magic) technology, but at the end everything is hunky dory forever. I enjoyed The Companions, The Fresco, and The Margarets.
posted by Malla at 2:51 PM on December 3, 2009

Utopian Literature: A selective Bibliography

20th c. is at the bottom.
posted by gyusan at 2:57 PM on December 3, 2009

Ursula K. LeGuin's excellent book "Changing Planes" describes a number of alternate-world societies, some of them quite Utopian, if I remember correctly.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:03 PM on December 3, 2009

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
Robert A. Heinlein

It depends on how you read it though.
posted by digividal at 3:12 PM on December 3, 2009

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is the story of immigrants arriving in an absolutely wonderful Utopia. It's a wordless graphic novel* that features stunningly detailed artwork and a subtle, heartwrending story.

I know exactly the feeling you're describing, btw. After I read the book I went around telling everyone that I couldn't believe how purely hopeful it was, and how I didn't think anything like this could exist in the 21st century.

*yeah, I prefer "comic" too, but I'm trying to play up it's literary value here.
posted by eggplantplacebo at 3:13 PM on December 3, 2009

One of the problems is that good stories, drama, comes from conflict and unsatisfied needs. In a utopia there is no conflict and all needs are satisfied.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:21 PM on December 3, 2009

Ursula LeGuin's The Disposessed envisions a social-anarchist utopia (which I think reflects her actual political beliefs) but asks, could this actually work? and the answer seems to be ... maybe not.

Much of LeGuin's future history has in the background Hain, an ancient, admired, apparently wise civilization, that seems to have learned from it's mistakes. Though we meet it's representatives in her novels and catch glimpses of it, we never really learn much about it. (The idea here might be that maybe we could get civilization to work, but it would take us a couple hundred thousand years, and we can't really imagine what that would be like.)

Kay Kenyon's The Seed's of Time like Piercy's involves time travel and competing possible futures, though her possible utopia is environmentalist rather than feminist.

The John Titor hoax involved some similar ideas about time travel and a possible future.
posted by nangar at 3:42 PM on December 3, 2009

Evangelicals have a whole subgenre of Revelation fiction, of which the best known is perhaps the Left Behind series. These neatly combine dystopia and utopia: readers get all the fun of tearing down the world plus a visualization of God's kingdom arriving.

In s.f. fiction about the Singularity can have a utopian quality (the linked article contains many examples).
posted by zompist at 4:08 PM on December 3, 2009

Lots of SF is utopian. Or at least, involves settings clearly presented as utopian even if readers might differ.

Many, many, many of these are right-libertarian fantasies. I'll haul out L. Neil Smith's _The Probability Broach_ as an example: Our Hero goes to an alternate timeline that's been anarcho-capitalist for a long time. Nothing is subsidized, everyone is rich, everything is cheap, there's essentially no crime, and by some weird mechanism that I don't recall humans being libertarian somehow enabled chimps and gorillas to exercise the sentience and language skills they'd had all along. It's completely bonkers, especially the parts where characters make literal teary-eyed odes to their firearms, but it's presented straightforwardly as a utopia that's only an inch away if only those stupid everyone-else would stop being statist.

There are left-libertarian/socialist-libertarian utopias too. The Culture. Arguably Varley's Eight Worlds setting, though it has its problems. KS Robinson's Red/Green/Blue Mars ends up as that way.

Likewise, environmental utopias are pretty common. _Ecotopia_, most obviously. Also KS Robinson's _Pacific Edge_.

All of them have traits that many readers would point to and say "Therefore, not a utopia," but I think many/most of them are presented pretty straight-up as The Way It Should Be.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:18 PM on December 3, 2009

I know you asked for fiction, but the recent book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit argues that flashes of utopia may emerge in the aftermaths of disasters such as the 1906 earthquake or Katrina (through the refugee communities that emerge). If you're interested in utopian fiction (or refugees or disasters) then I highly recommend it.
posted by acidic at 4:51 PM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Shine is an anthology of "optimistic SF" that should be out soon - maybe what you are after?
posted by Artw at 4:53 PM on December 3, 2009

B.F. Skinner's Walden Two is a behavioristic utopian novel (actually, more of a Socratic dialog disguised as a novel...).

It was actually imitated in real life: Twin Oaks. The real one, of course, couldn't do some of Skinner's ideas (um...separating mothers from their babies at birth?), but it's still interesting and there's a great article online about Kat Kincaid, one of the founders.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:43 PM on December 3, 2009

Gattaca. (There's an argument to be made for Minority Report, I think.)
posted by Jairus at 6:12 PM on December 3, 2009

Gattaca. (There's an argument to be made for Minority Report, I think.)

Those are both extremely dystopian. The Ishmael series might qualify as having a utopian vision, and they definitely inspire a lot of people with specific notions of what a good society will look like.

I suppose you could correlate the shift from predominantly utopian to dystopian work with the fall of absolute knowledge. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it seemed that the human horizon was infinite. In today's world, where we're all acutely aware of our fragility, it seems that visionary literature is either apocalyptic, wildly speculative (in the case of our great science fiction writers like Le Guin), or ideological (the libertarian stuff).

posted by farishta at 7:23 PM on December 3, 2009

Seconding Island; great read.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 7:29 PM on December 3, 2009

You could probably find some stuff in the Faber Book of Utopias, though obviously this isn't limited to contemporary fiction. Unfortunately, neither Amazon nor Google Books nor the Faber website gives a contents list. But it was one of the set texts for a course on utopias that was being taught in the Eng Lit department at Edinburgh University when I was running the literature section of the nearby academic bookshop, eight years ago. I wish I could remember some of the others--though quite a few of them were definitely more dys than u.

I do, however, remember the name of the chap who ran the course. He's still teaching there--drop me a mefi mail and I'll pass on details, if you're interested.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 7:55 PM on December 3, 2009

Those are both extremely dystopian.

This is actually something of a subgenre which includes the opening of The Matrix -- the false utopia.
posted by dhartung at 8:38 PM on December 3, 2009

There are lot of utopias in modern science fiction. There are some reasonable books listed on the Wikipedia page for politics in sf.

Iain Bank's Culture novels are a good example, of course, but I would instead recommend Ken MacLeod's Cassini Division. It's about two (or perhaps three) different ideas of utopia; a post-scarcity Communist utopia, an anarcho-libertartian utopia, and arguably an extropian, post-Singularity techno-utopia; and what happens when they collide. It's an excellent book, and engages explicitly with the idea of utopia, whereas Banks tends to have it more in the background.
posted by siskin at 12:43 AM on December 4, 2009

Usula Le Guin DID write about the Hainish society in A Man of the People

I was very intrigued to read about this society that in all the other Ekumen books are referred to as the classic all powerful all wise Old civilization, and find out it is to some extent working and stable due to the willful ignorance of most of it's people.
posted by Catfry at 1:31 AM on December 4, 2009

posted by Catfry at 1:32 AM on December 4, 2009

Speaking entirely for myself, if I fond myself living in the Culture tomorrow I'd probably consider myself to have landed in a utopia.

Oh god yes.
posted by The Monkey at 7:14 AM on December 4, 2009

Just came in to second Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. The first novel begins in our immediate future. By the end of the third book, the Martian colonists have defeated the evil forces of metanational capitalism and they really seem to have the good life all figured out. They even turn around and save Earth's stinking ass before everyone celebrates their thousandth birthday.

posted by General Tonic at 8:06 AM on December 4, 2009

Gattaca isn't Utopian, it's Danish Modern.
posted by Artw at 11:34 AM on December 4, 2009

« Older Meaning of a sign in Tillamook OR?   |   Quick and easy time-fillers for middle-years... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.