Utopias: Do We Need ‘Em’?

J.R.McCulloch
7 min readMay 18, 2021

Why don’t we care for utopias anymore?

It’s safe enough to say we’re inundated with dystopias — with a whole new season of The Handmaid’s Tale now on screen, fans of the speculative have yet another dark society show to watch, on top of Altered Carbon, The Expanse, Westworld, Snowpiercer, Better Than Us, The 100, Colony, 3%, Biohackers, Black Mirror, Tribes of Europa, The One, etc., etc.

If we look at the latest season of Love, Death and Robots, half the stories are about positively dystopian societies. In contrast, last season, only a couple could be called faithful dystopias (although, to be fair, season 2 was pretty slim on stories altogether).

I’ve some thoughts as to why. If you’d rather skip a long history about the subject, scroll down to where I’ve written ‘phew.’ Otherwise, read on.

Dystopias are hardly a product of our age. It has its roots way back when. Before the novel, we have biblical tales of destruction, Revelations, and folklore predicting our cursed downfall due to our incurable sins.

Skip to much later, and many novels are simply stories of annihilation — Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), as an example, features a pandemic sweeping the land. Yet events such as these are outside man’s scope.

However uncontroversial they are now, works such as Jerome B. A Sojourn in the City of Amalgamation, in the Year of Our Lord, 19 — (1835), Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (1861), Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863) and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground (1864) all featured humankind corrupting themselves by adhering to false, or unpleasant, attitudes. The societies they present are ones we’d rather skip. They’re the ones we bring on ourselves.

The Boer Wars, the First World War and the rise of the Soviet Union also contributed to much of the dystopian landscape we see today. To name just the big league guys, this period saw H.G.Well’s The Time Machine (1895), E. M. Forster’s The Machine Stops (1909), Karl Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920), Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1948). All either protest against the rise of machines, large scale wars or totalitarian regimes.

After World War II, a similar wave followed in the Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) tradition. But to follow that pit of despair, we’d need a hundred paragraphs for anti-consumerist SF — and a thousand more for anti-nuclear.

So, it’s pretty clear we’ve always been grim, whichever side of the iron curtain. And even before the iron curtain.

If we think of utopias, we’ve, again, the Bible, the original Garden of Eden, and other promises of heavenly inspired paradise. We’ve also Plato’s The Republic (375 BC), Thomas Moore’s Utopia (1516), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), and Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) — all works which promise a new land of fairness and equality, where humans (and non-humans) have worked out all the kinks.

By the mid to latter half of the 19th century, we’d reached the Golden Age of the utopia, with works such as Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards (1888) and H.G.Well’s The Sleeper Awakes. (1899) — all best sellers.

The other examples are too numerous to list without scaring the uninitiated, but they all generally revolved around the same storytelling plotline that Plato laid down. A character is introduced to a new society and is taken painstakingly through its features. However, the threat of destruction from superpower states brought in a thirst for invasion literature, quickly changing the flow from hopeful to fearful.

But that didn’t stop writers from trying to preach utopia. Wells would write The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Robert Heinlein For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs (1939, unprinted), B.F.Skinner Walden 2 (1948) and Aldous Huxley Island (1962). All had the same disgust and concern shared by the 19th-century writers and promised better ways of doing things in the same precise detail.

Phew.

Here I end the history lesson. As exhausting as it was, it helps to know we’ve never been genuinely original in our grim thinking. What has changed, in my opinion, is the fact that we no longer have the time for, or the belief in, utopias. They’re scary, someone’s bound to be lying to us, and it just isn’t good drama.

Let’s deal with these points separately.

First, they’re scary. For anyone familiar with the Fallout (1997) games, they’ll know the mishmash of 1950’s friendly advertising and post-apocalyptic landscape make for a terrifying gaming experience. That’s partly, I’d argue because we appear to have changed so much looking back. No one seriously believes cigarettes are good for you. We’re less susceptible to advertising. We’re also out of the duck and cover madness of the atomic age — all of which seems so much like a fever dream that got recorded on tv and in print. What was sold to us then, as common sense, goes over like a cold bucket of Carrie’s blood now.

It’s scary, and we don’t like it. Next.

So, secondly, someone’s lying to us. Trust in governments has plummeted for years, as they’ve done so since the French Revolution. But now we understand covert operations. We’ve been through a cold war and several hot ones. We’ve seen dictators rise and fall in the name of communism, socialism and even democracy. We know that governments lie. They promise us a paradise, but at the cost of what? It’s some small irony that Hitler’s favourite film, reported to be Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), showed not just the incredible might of a future Germany but also the subjugation of millions of lower-class citizens to build it.

The last point, however, is probably the most important. In true dystopian fashion, I’m pointing at the massive capitalist giant that is the market, which in the end determines what we consume.

But who decides what the machine produces? We do. And utopias aren’t great drama.

Let’s take the most successful utopian series of all time, Star Trek (1966). Earth had solved all its problems and lives in peace, building starships to explore strange new worlds. But just about every episode filmed has featured conflict — and lucky it did so, or it would have been off the air decades ago. The only way we’ll swallow the message of equality and goodwill, it seems, is if it’s wrapped in the delicious baloney of civilised Captain Kirk decking a Klingon for being too warlike.

And so it goes. Utopias leave minimal conflict unless someone wants to come to blow them up. Otherwise, we’re being talked through systems of politics, economics and societal structure — fascinating if they’re your topics, but not exactly something to unwind and instil a sense of murderous thrill.

That said, should we try to indulge more in utopias? After all, they allow us to think critically about systems of government we’d rather see, offering solutions where dystopias often point the finger.

Perhaps not. Utopias only make sense when they’re true to our beliefs. If we believe a system to be better, if we have an idea that a particular method of economics can solve all humankind’s woes, then it deserves to see print. But the twentieth century saw many nightmarish utopias collapse under ruthless leaders. Systems of free exchange haven’t solved the fundamental problem of housing and human rights for all.

So, perhaps the mass market isn’t wrong on this one. Maybe the reason we don’t see bestselling utopias, pure utopias, is because they’re getting harder to believe in.

--

--

J.R.McCulloch

A literary student by nature (and training), with a splash of ad experience, I’m setting out to make passion my career — reading, writing and SF.