It was about this time 500 years ago that Thomas More set out for Bruges. He was part of a delegation sent to negotiate a trade deal, but he ended up having time on his hands. Travel being what it was in those days, it was a couple of months before the people he was supposed to be negotiating with showed up. So he took a holiday, travelling to Antwerp to visit a friend, Peter Giles. And it was there that he met Raphael Hythloday; or at least it was there that he began to develop the idea for the book that would feature Hythloday: Utopia.
The title entered the language almost immediately, and the idea of a perfect society entered European cultural currency at the same time. For the next few hundred years a whole succession of utopias were being written in just about every country in Europe. And the idea that society could be structured and shaped to ensure order and well-being and happiness entered political thinking; from the revolutionary ideas of Gerard Winstanley to the early socialist thinkers, Utopia was the foundation upon which their thoughts were based.
In fiction, utopias were used to propound scientific ideas (New Atlantis by Francis Bacon), to satirize contemporary society (Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift), to extol feminist ideas (Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman), or to propose the notion of a bucolic future recreating a medieval past (News from Nowhere by William Morris).
But the one thing all of these different utopias shared was that they were all static. The stories took pretty much the same form: a traveller would arrive from outside, someone would take him on a tour of the wonders which would of course be catalogued in the narrative, then the traveller would leave to tell us all about it. By the early 18th century, critics were already beginning to say that utopia must be boring.
Then, in books like A Modern Utopia, H.G. Wells introduced the idea of the dynamic utopia. Like any society, it is changing and will continue to change, but it has the idea of perfection dangling in front of it like a carrot. In novels like this, Utopia becomes not a place but a target, something to aim for. But the very act of aiming to achieve perfection makes things better.
To be honest, there weren’t that many dynamic utopias written, other than by Wells, because this was the beginning of the 20th century and the First World War, the rise of the Soviet and Nazi states, the Second World War, the Cold War and so on created an atmosphere that was far more conducive to dystopias. There were hardly any dystopias before the beginning of the 20th century; now we can hardly move for them, and more optimistic utopias were rather swamped by them.
But utopias are still being written, and late in the 20th century they underwent another change in characters, becoming what the critic Colin Manlove has christened “critical utopias”. These are works that present a better society, either in whole or in aspiration, but also question that perfection, make us see the dream world in a different light.
The archetypal critical utopia has to be Ursula K. Le Guin’s astonishing short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (collected in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters). The story takes us on a tour of the utopia state of Omelas, a place of beautiful buildings, colourful street festivals, happy people. But at the end we venture into a dark place at the heart of the city, a small room where one solitary child is maltreated. It is the unhappiness of that one child that guarantees the happiness of everyone else. And it is because of that singular cruelty that there is a steady stream of people who walk away from happiness.
But there are plenty of other critical utopias around, some of which may surprise you.
Look to Windward by Iain M. Banks
Okay, if you were asked to name the biggest, most glorious utopia in modern science fiction, it would have to be the Culture. Let’s face it, what’s not to like. People live for 400 years, and even then there are all sorts of ways of avoiding death. Nobody has to work; it’s a universe of plenty, so anybody can get whatever they may want whenever they want it. Everybody can change their appearance more or less at will, and everyone changes sex at least once in their lives; which means that sex is guaranteed to be wonderful. There are drug glands, which means you never feel pain and highs are just a thought away. AIs do all the tedious work. And the sheer size of the ships and the Orbitals means that you can always find a place that suits you perfectly.
That’s utopia, yes? Nothing critical about that! Except that it’s not as simple as that; Banks introduces subtle doubts and uncertainties throughout the Culture novels.
In Surface Detail, for instance, we learn there are digital heavens whose various attractions are pretty much identical to the supposed attractions of the Culture; but we also learn that most people who die and find themselves in one of these digital heavens only stay there for a certain time before choosing to die for real because too much of this perfection becomes boring. And in Look to Windward, more of which is set in the Culture than in any of the other novels, practically every Culture citizen we meet is taking part in life-threatening sports or choosing to die for real rather than being backed up or cloned or any of the other options. Only the prospect of death stops life in utopia from being unbearably boring.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson
Like Banks, practically everything Robinson has written has been utopian in one form or another. But utopia is never a straightforward of unalloyed good. In the Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) the colonists are, against the odds, making a better world for themselves, but there still needs to be an endless and in the end unresolved debate about whether it is right to build this better world by terraforming the planet.
The natural, unruined landscape of Mars becomes the ill-treated child at the heart of Omelas. In 2312 we are taken on a typical utopian tour through a variety of ideal societies, the constantly moving city on Mercury, the terraforming on Venus, the re-wilding of animals on Earth and so on. But always there are threats and upsets and moral questions, and we are left with the impression common to many critical utopian writers that it is human being who prevent any society becoming a utopia.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin is another writer who has consistently examined utopian themes throughout her fiction. The Dispossessed is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and it is in that ambiguity that the critical element lies. Classical utopia are unambiguous: where can doubt lie when we are told from the start that this is a perfect society. Perfection cannot be ambiguous. But once you allow the messiness of humanity into the clean, clear perfection of your state, then questions inevitably start to arise. What is perfect for one may not be perfect for another. We don’t need the boy from Omelas to make the very notion of utopia a questionable idea.
Le Guin illustrates this uncertainty here by offering two parallel societies, the capitalist A-Io and the communist Thu, on Urras. These represent the two ideologically opposed attempts to create a better society on Earth, the United States and the Soviet Union, and both are necessarily flawed. In opposition to this is the anarcho-syndicalist world of Anarres, which is presented as utopian in that there is no government, no oppression, no restriction on thought. But this turns out to be no ideal world either, the central character, Shevek, comes up against opposition when conducting his research and has to travel to Urras to develop his ideas. Again, humanity is what calls utopia into question.
Trouble on Triton by Samuel R. Delany
Delany is not usually a utopian writer, but this novel, with the subtitle An Ambiguous Heterotopia, was clearly written in dialogue with Le Guin’s novel. Here, Triton has a radically libertarian society, which, coupled with the ability to freely change one’s gender, appearance, sexual preferences and so forth (not unlike what is enjoyed by citizens of the Culture), means that everyone is, at least theoretically, in a position to construct their own personal utopia. But what we see throughout the novel is what occurs when these different utopias, different ideas about society, rub up against each other.
Utopias tend to be on the left politically. The right tends to regard the ordering of society as something tending towards consistency, efficiency, controlability, the ordered society itself is what is important; the left regards the ordering of society not as an end but as a means, a well-ordered society should tend towards the greater happiness, the greater well-being of its citizens.
Utopia, therefore, is a model more likely to be taken up by writers on the left than by writers on the right. Given that basic political dichotomy, the most sustained critical utopia that has appeared on television in recent years has been the series The West Wing. At a time when the presidency of Bill Clinton was coming to an end amid scandal and disarray, only to be replaced by the presidency of George W. Bush, which was considered illegitimate by many, and that was marred by accusations of stupidity and warmongering, The West Wing offered an image of an America ruled by clever people.
The Catholic, morally upright, and maritally loyal president stood in stark contrast to Clinton, while his Nobel Prize in Economics, his clear mastery of the various technicalities of his office, placed him in similarly stark contrast to Bush. What was unquestionably utopian about the series was the idea of what might be achieved, what America might aspire to, in the hands of thoughtful, intelligent people eager to work for the good of all.
The one-off episode produced in response to the attacks of 9/11, one of the weakest single episodes in the entire series, is nevertheless instructive in the way it responded to terrorism with nuance and analysis, and painted a knee-jerk militaristic response as simply wrong, at a time when the actual government was embarking on just such a knee-jerk militaristic response. What was critical about this utopianism is the way that aspiration is constantly blocked by reality, that compromise regularly becomes the necessary order of the day, that even a straightforward good might on reflection turn out to be not so good. Utopia does not survive contact with reality; but the aspiration towards utopia is still what give the show its impetus.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.