Utopia and Dystopia – The Many Faces of The Future

utopia dystopia
Utopia/Dystopia by Dylan Glynn

These two extremes of speculative fiction have always provided a stark contrast to modern reality, and have fascinated through their often “visionary” aspects. Anyone interested in science-fiction or modern fantasy has stumbled upon stories that paint the future in a decided color. Such stories always awaken a powerful curiosity in us, and we often close the book with a changed perspective on life.

But how many types of future are there? How do utopian storyworlds differ from the dystopian ones, when it comes to their purpose and meaning? And wherein lies the fascination for readers?

 

Utopia

Our Golden Age lies right before us.

Utopian fiction depicts a future in which humanity has reached a state of balance and peace, and where all life is valued and maintained. There is no more suffering and injustice, no more ignorance and violence. We have reached our full potential. The overarching message of utopian stories is one of hope and faith in humanity. Utopias remind us of our inherent instinct to crave peace, to regenerate and to evolve past our short-comings.

The grandest categories of utopian fiction (which can also be found—profoundly altered—in dystopian fiction) are the following:

Ecological Utopia

Depicts a way of life in which man is close to nature, respects and protects it, and all life is in harmony. Ecological utopias are often marked by a strong message encouraging unity with nature—both external, and internal (human nature).

Economic Utopia

Society has evolved toward an equal distribution of goods, the abolition of money and unpleasant or forced labor. Society enjoys an increased value attributed to arts, sciences and individualism. All efforts to improve life are voluntary, joint efforts, and there is no such thing as personal profit.

Political Utopia

Frequently marked by world peace (or even galactic peace), oneness and the abolition of cultural, racial and gender-based prejudices.

Spiritual Utopia

A future in which humanity has evolved past its basic needs, and is united by a common aspiration to reach enlightenment. This kind of utopia can have a religious flavor or not, but the central message is one of departure with physical nature and dedication to spiritual well-being, or a higher plane of existence.

Science and Technology Utopia

Humanity has solved all of its problems and has expanded beyond its old limits with the help of sensibly developed and used technology. In the case of self-conscious technology (such as intelligent robots or incorporeal AIs), there is a peaceful coexistence with humans and sometimes even equality in rights, though usually technology reveres and chooses to serve mankind.

 

Dystopia

Our Golden Age is long buried in our ashes.

Dystopian fiction depicts a future in which humanity has fallen into decline and ruin, and where life and nature are recklessly exploited and destroyed. The overarching message of dystopian stories is one of warning and mistrust in humanity. Dystopias criticize current trends through an exaggeration of their consequences.

Ecological Dystopia

Humanity has destroyed nature and/or our relationship to it. Ecological dystopias range from partial or total estrangement from nature, to the catastrophic destruction of our natural environment, up to where it can no longer sustain life.

Economic Dystopia

One or more large corporations completely rule the world, to the detriment of mankind. They can dominate the human mind through manipulation, propaganda, intrusive advertisement and even through implanted technology, or they can dominate the human life through absolute control of resources and a strict limitation of available comforts.

Political Dystopia

The government is the root of all evil. It can be the government of a single nation, or a global government, in which case dystopia crushes an otherwise utopian premise of unity. In political dystopias, society is controlled and limited by the very institutions that are supposed to protect it, ranging from presidents down to policemen. Personal freedom is a myth, trust is a commodity no one can afford, and the government disregards human rights down to treating people like livestock.

Spiritual Dystopia

You could call this type of dystopia “a dangerous idea gone viral”, but it comes in many shapes and sizes. Generally, it treats a future in which society is controlled by a dangerous ideology or religion which slowly destroys everything humanity has built along the road.

Science and Technology Dystopia

Contrary to a economic and political dystopia where a bunch of people control all others by means of technology, technological dystopia deals with the consequences of technology itself ravaging our lives. It ranges from man-slaughtering robots and man-enslaving AIs, to humankind becoming entirely dependent upon technology to accomplish even the simplest tasks. A variant of this kind of dystopia is the science-turned-rogue kind, where usually a virus or genetic modification destroys humanity.

 

Of course there are many stories that combine elements from different types of utopias or dystopias, and some that even successfully mix the two. Yet, it’s the extremes that polarize the audience the most, and draw the most attention.

But what’s the fascination with these absolutes?

Why do we love to dive into such extremes, even if for only a day or two (okay, a week or two, if the book is door-stopper)? Is it the escapism? The vision of a future come true between the pages? The possibilities to explore the consequences of our ways without actually being affected by them? Or maybe it’s just the fascination with society models that differ from ours, despite the common foundation. Whatever it is, utopian and dystopian fiction exert their very own kind of fascination from a psychological point of view, and therefor attract very different audiences.

To simplify very roughly, I’d say utopian fiction, with its focus on the full realization of human potential and the appreciation of nature, typically attracts optimistic adults, who’d love to see the faults of our past undone. It attracts the idealists and visionaries among us, who seek inspiration to do good or simply to renew their hope in mankind. Utopian fiction is more philosophical and cerebral, and thus appeals to the thinkers and dreamers among readers.

Dystopian fiction, on the other hand, is much more attractive to young adults and teenagers, who often feel oppressed by their environment and empathize with the dystopian protagonists’ fight against extreme odds. Fans of dystopian fiction are usually in it for the thrill and danger, for the horrors that let their own life—however miserable at the time—feel like a blessing. And of course dystopian fiction also attracts the more cynical and pessimistic adults among us, who secretly wish to see their fears realized, but preferably not in reality; who subconsciously seek to learn from the experiences of others and keep their awareness sharp.

Maybe we’re seeking ways to understand where we’re headed, to compare the advantages and disadvantages of our decisions and remind ourselves of the huge impact we have on our world and our future. Maybe it’s the desire to understand our present and change it, that lets us envision such futures. Maybe it’s simply our love for the otherworldliness of fictional realities that draws us toward utopias and dystopias. But regardless, they are the most impressive visions we create, and as such, they will always draw us in and release us with a deeper understanding of ourselves.

What’s your preferred type of futuristic story? Do you like utopias more, or dystopias?

19 Replies to “Utopia and Dystopia – The Many Faces of The Future”

  1. I think your analysis is spot on. My son is the Utopian and I am the Dystopian. Mind you, there is another factor at large here too – writing a story. It’s said that the Devil has all the best tunes – and this is reflected in Paradise Lost. Milton’s portrayal of satan and hell is far more powerful than the rather bland Heaven that relentlessly wins. The human mind is more attuned to dystopia than utopian dreams. Where’s the story in perfection? I’d rather read Brave New World than Saint Thomas More’s Utopia.

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    1. You’re right, the human mind is much more responsive to threats and warnings, than to reassurance and hope. It’s in our genes, it’s what allowed us to survive through the eons. It’s also part of the reason why dystopias are so fascinating, even to people otherwise disinclined to listen to doomsday predictions.

      Thanks for the comment, Mike! 🙂

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  2. Interesting questions and analysis. Difficult to answer, because I’m an idealist and visionary, but also a cynical and pessimistic person. 🙂

    I think I’ve read only some dystopian novels.

    I have a question for you: what do you think about ecopunk stories? Can we say that Ecopunk genre is between Utopia and Dystopia? I’ve written 3 posts about Ecopunk, but in italian 🙂

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    1. I have not read any Ecopunk yet, so I can’t really tell. But you’ve definitely sparked my interest.

      *googles for ecopunk fiction*

      Thanks for the comment, Daniele!

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  3. Thoughtful post as always, Veronica. If I was to pick a fictional time for utopia, it would be the earth of Star Trek’s Capt. Picard, where humans are close to the utopian world (never perfect, but close). We live in interesting times. We stand at a crossroads today, one foot on the science and social fabric that has brought us lightyears forward from only a few hundred years, but still the darkness hovering the horizon of human excess, misused power and greed. We know what the answer is, but are we capable of obtaining it? In an article I wrote last November, Maslow and the Apocalypse, we have to climb all four Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs first to acheive that final fifth step of enlightenment. Too much of our world is still mired in Tier One. http://dtkrippene.com/2012/11/28/maslow-and-the-apocalypse-2/

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    1. Thanks, DT!

      We are indeed living in an era between utopia and dystopia. We can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we know how to get there, but we’re still chained to the darkness because we are not all equal, we are not all privileged and educated, we are not all running in the same direction either. We’re still brawling and fighting in the tunnel, in the dark.

      Thanks for the link too, I’ll go check it out right away.

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  4. The road to hell is often paved with good intentions, and for me the most convincing form of distopian vision is where most of it’s subjects think they’re actually in a utopia. Brave New World is the obvious example of what amounts to an exclusive utopia for an elite (though 1984 remains my favourite). I must stop now, as I could talk all day about this!

    Keep up the great writing posts, hopefully it gives you a break from your editing…

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    1. “For me the most convincing form of distopian vision is where most of it’s subjects think they’re actually in a utopia.”

      Oh, that’s a great base for conflict right there, Mark! And a great way to combine the two. I love stories where the perception of reality differs from the actual thing, whether it’s only in the protagonist or the entire cast. Makes for a terrific read.

      Thanks for the comment & appreciation. 🙂 I haven’t come as far as I had hoped with my editing/rewriting, but setbacks have nothing on me.

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    1. Dystopias are certainly the tenser of the two, but utopias have their own types of conflicts—usually generated by terrible threats about to destroy all the awesome that humans have achieved. I think, ultimately, it’s all in the quality of the concept and the skill of the writer. So far, the dystopias in modern culture have been far more interesting than their counterparts, but that can always change in the right hands. 😉

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  5. I think for me, the setting has a lot to do with which I enjoy more. Utopian societies are the most fun to root for in big galaxy spanning space operas, where all the work that humanity (or whoever the protagonists are) has done is threatened by some external force. Dystopia works well with this setting too, but most of the dystopia I enjoy are those with a tighter focus and smaller scope, like one planet or even one country. I think dystopia tends to have a greater (or easier, at least) opportunity for character development. We get to watch the protagonist “wake up” and then root for them as they struggle to effect change.

    But really, I enjoy them both! I think I’ve read more dystopia than anything though. Then again, I think dystopia is more commonly published, especially these days.

    Great rundown, Vero!

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    1. Yup, indeed, the utopias I know are all galaxy spanning future societies where mankind is threatened by something external, usually an alien species. Dystopias are typically fights between humans, or humans and their own mistakes—global war, rogue AIs, etc. It’s true that typically dystopias seem to present more opportunity for conflict and character growth, and I generally enjoy them (though I never seek them out on purpose), but I just can’t shake the feeling it’s an illusion based on the fact that our futuristic fiction is dominated by dystopias in numbers, and thus most people are unfamiliar with the true potential of utopian fiction. There can’t be just positives in a balanced society… that means the author didn’t dig deep enough into the human psyche.

      Thanks for the comment, James!

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  6. Great analysis, thank you. This is a subject that interests me in that I really do not like the extremes and often wonder what I’m missing by not reading them. I do love extrapolations of scientific and technological potential advancements, so if I would tend more toward the utopian model and fit your categorization of ‘optimistic adult,’ although I feel that when I write fiction that’s what I’m fighting for, not what I believe in carte blanche. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Linda. I’m glad you found the post informative.

      I’m not a huge fan of dystopias, to be honest, I’d rather read about a glorious future galactic society in peril. But I find it interesting to investigate other people’s fascination, and since it’s fiction—and more, speculative fiction—that’s at the heart of the issue, I’m all eyes and ears. 🙂

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  7. I don’t agree with your classification of audiences. It seems to me that teenagers prefer dystopian fiction because it most often involves a rebellion, which leads to a lot of action, special effects and scenes of destruction. It is, in a way, as idealistic to dream of a big rebellion than to dream of an utopia. But there are also many dystopian novels that don’t involve any rebellion, that are truly pessimistic descriptions of the future, and as “philosophical and cerebral” than utopias.

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    1. So… basically you’re saying dystopias are preferred by teenagers and cynical, pessimistic adults who are interested in what can go wrong with the world. 😉

      Philosophically speaking there’s something idealistic in dreaming of fighting against impossible odds, and something pessimistic in believing that even when we reach an utopia, there are still threats that could destroy it. But that’s not the topic of my post. WHY exactly people read what they read is simply a matter of identification. We read stories we can relate to, either through our hopes or our fears. 🙂

      The dystopian fiction I considered is not preponderantly about rebellion (I believe you think of popular American movies there) but survival, social decay and what makes us human. It’s about trying to hold on to our humanity in an inhuman world. Victorious rebellions of unlikely heros are a subset, not the majority, and they are indeed idealistic. I agree with you on that one. Hollywood generally chooses to make idealistic movies. But I’m talking about novels, and mostly science-fiction novels. Think… “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “The Running Man” by Stephen King, “Neuromancer” by William Gibson, or “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.

      Thank you very much for your comment, Christophe!

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