Utopias and Dystopias REVIEW
Time to start a new intellectual interest. A few months ago, I proposed a course addition to the curriculum of my college: Utopias and Dystopias. While I have a number of films and books in my blog that relate to the subject already, I hope to add to my meager folio a growing file drawer of reviews of different works on the subject. I begin with Dr. Pamela Bedore’s lecture series, entitled Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature
But first, what makes me think that this is a course that college students would find interesting? A few reasons come to mind:
First, I think we read these novels and watch these movies because we have hopes and imaginations and we can always imagine things getting worse and hope that they get better. This literature reminds us that we cannot afford to be apathetic and unconcerned about where the world is heading because the costs and benefits of letting contemporary trajectories go unattended can be high.
Secondly, I think we read utopian and dystopian literature as a means of escaping the hardships of the present. We often read about what we most want and most lack. None of us live perfectly happy lives and there is a certain relief to finding ourselves absorbed into a world where all these “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” have been eliminated or grown much, much worse. It can be cathartic to believe that someday all will be better or that “at least we are not living in those conditions.”
Thirdly, I think we read utopian and dystopian literature for guidance. It is in these books that modern day prophets warn us and inspire us to aim above the mire of what is for something higher than we are aiming for now. They function in a way similar to that of the Hebrew prophets who laid out the consequences of not caring for moral concerns. By picking out some trend in contemporary culture to isolate and explore, we can hypothesis for ourselves what the wages of our sin will be if we do not repent. In some ways, this literature replaces the sermon and the Jeremiad in our ever secularized lives.
In the course of her twelve hours of lectures, professor Bedore’s well-researched series, she explains how utopian and dystopian themes can be woven into the fabric of many different hybrid-genres of literature. Dystopian themes can be merged with science fiction stories, post-apocalyptic stories, westerns, romances, young adult fiction, detective fiction, satire, feminist literature, or political and social protest. Utopian and dystopian literature can be used to make statements about economics, class, gender, religion, the environment, technology, identity, race, politics, work, parenting, the media, education, sex, medicine, drugs, entertainment, and much more. In one dystopian comedy I watched recently, adults are given 45 days to find a new partner if their present partner leaves them and if they do not, they are turned into animals. The whole movie was a critique of the way that single people are seen and treated sometimes.
Below is an annotated anthology of the works that Dr. Bedore touches on in the series:
Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk away From Omelas”
This is a story that my son introduced me to a few years ago and that I have been using in my Ethics class. It explores the dystopian results of pursuing a Utilitarian utopia without reference to rights. It might be interesting sometime to write a story that explored the opposite. A world where every wish has been added to the bill of rights.
This is the classic work that may well have given birth to the genre. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates tries to imagine the ideal Greek polis (city State) and comes to conclusions that shocked his own culture and continue to offend our own.
Thomas Moore’s Utopia:
In Thomas Moore’s depiction of the utopian society, we are introduced to some of the problems inherent in literary criticism in this genre. To what extent is the author a fan of the worlds that they create and to what extent are they just being wily? Moore’s main character is given a name that suggests that he is a purveyor of nonsense. The name Utopia means “Nowhere” and suggests that it would be silly to think that such a place as he describes could work or would be a good place to live if it did. And yet, much of Moore’s Utopia look suspiciously like a monastery.
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and “A Modest Proposal”
Gulliver’s travels is more accurately, a travel narrative than a novel of utopia or dystopia though each of the civilizations that Gulliver discovers in his travels has elements of both. Using Gulliver’s travels, Swift can imagine societies much in the same way that goldilocks tries out porridge and beds. Swift’s characters are either wiser than his own society or dumber just as they may be smaller or bigger. He uses his made up people to satirically address his own society’s foibles.
Candide is a bit of a a weird entry in the cannon of Utopian literature. The main character’s travels and experiences constantly reinforce the idea that we live in a wretched world that remains wretched because we are taught to pretend that it is not wretched. Candide optimistically makes his way through one great human generated tragedy after another with the mentality of a Pollyanna. The message seems to be that we all need to stop pretending that we live in utopia when what we do live in is a dystopian mess.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance
This work has often been attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s actual experiences with the utopian community founded by George Ripley at Brook farm in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Hawthorne seems to suggest that character cannot be created by the assembling of less than perfect people into a utopian society. “No clever arrangement of bad eggs ever makes a good omelet” as the saying goes. A society that is based on a belief that humans are essentially spirit and not essentially material may well be as doomed as the society that asserts the opposite. “Utopia” says Hawthorne, “Let them believe in it who can or aid in it if they choose.”
Louisa May Alcott’s Transcendental Wild Oats
Alcott’s story of her father and mother’s brief attempt at creating utopia (at Fruitlands) echoes some of the themes in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance. Louisa May is, however, more satirical in her tone. In her story, the idealistic men get caught up in speculations about the ideal while the women and children must actually do the work needed to keep from starving to death. Alcott imagines a small child in a wagon, hanging on to his father’s bust of Socrates in a rain storm. One is reminded that in the story of Eden (the original utopia) the ideal life was lost when the food was no longer acquired on the “free lunch plan.” In Eden, the crops were amply irrigated by four rivers and there was plenty of time for “walking in the garden.” This is not the case in Massachusetts. Or anywhere else.
Samuel Butler’s Erewhon
Just as Thomas Moore named his ideal society, Utopia (noplace) so also does Samuel Butler name his ideal with a reformation of the letters “nowhere.” Erewhon is a “place” of sorts where all sorts of things are done in direct contrast to the way that they are done in Victorian England when the book was written. The main character of the novel discovers the hidden civilization of Erawhon and perceives it to be a vast improvement upon his own society in England but as the novel continues, he becomes less and less enamored. Erewhon is founded on a suspicion that machines will eventually evolve sentience and will, in time, prove more danger to humans than tool. Its founders sought to create a better world by banning them outright. Time will tell if they may have been right.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward
Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy is a utopian novel that eventually inspired a social movement (Bellamy clubs) dedicated to the pursuit of a better and more equitable distribution of resources for the common good. I have been using segments of the novel in my Ethics classes for years (the parable of the coach). Looking backward is what is technically called a “euchronia” – that is, a story that travels to a better time rather than to a better place. The message is that the better world imagined might actually be possible. It is new move in the world of utopian literature.
H.G. Well’s The Time Machine
Like Looking Backward, The Time Machine is a euchronia. Unlike Bellamy’s work, the travel is based on a scientific discovery rather than a rip Van Winkle-like sleeping disorder. H.G. Well’s story tells of a utopian existence that is based upon a dystopian existence under the ground. It makes the case that all utopias probably depend upon some sort of unseen exploitation. In this story, the lovely lives of the Eloi are made possible by the wretched lives of the Morlocks. Wells has extrapolated from the relationship between the rich and poor in his own era, a world where the two classes have evolved into different species.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland
Herland is a great example of “separatist feminism” arguing that a world without men would be an improvement. The women of Herland are able to reproduce without male gametes to complicate things and as a result, all their offspring are female. The three male explorers who come to see this world of self-sufficient women all react differently to it – their views and evaluations being dependent upon what they came believing women were “for.” In Herland, women become more manly without losing what made them always women. They continue to be maternal though they develop strength and skill in fields once though to be the sole domain of men (engineering, education, etc.). The women of Herland are curious about the men but by no means do they believe that these men bring with them some sort of “salvation.”
Yevgeny Zemyatin’s We
In Yevgeny Zemyatin’s “Onestate” all of life is ordered and scripted by logicians. Freedom is a concept that is regarded as the essential precursor to crime and thus freedom is criminalized. In the Onestate, all sexuality, procreation, occupational pursuits, and diet are controlled and observed (people live in glass rooms and people are named with numbers, none more interesting than another). Even dreams are regarded as suspicious behavior indicative of possible mental illness (for indeed, what is good for any one member of society must be good for all and how could dreams be shared?) Those who refuse to comply with their own dehumanization are rendered “tractors” by an operation. We can be seen as a satirical criticism of communism or of the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor. It sees Taylor’s vision of a workforce deprived of creative influence as fundamentally dystopian. (Note: It might be interesting to read We in conjunction with Ayn Rand’s Anthem).
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
Huxley referred to his novel as a “negative utopia” – a setting where utopian thinking and utopian ideals lead to a world you would not want to ever find yourself living in. Huxley attempts to follow out the lines of contemporary trends into their logical conclusions. Trends in pharmacology, in eugenics, in assembly line production, etc. are analyzed by imagining where things will end if left on their present course.
George Orwell’s 1984 (1948)
Like Huxley’s novel, Orwell’s 1984 pictures a future where the present has become “more so.” Written in 1949 at the dawn of Cold War repressions, the novel explores what life has become in societies where security inevitably trumps freedom. Through this novel, the word “Orwellian” has entered the English language as a way to describe a government that rules by misinformation and language corruption. The Ministries of Peace, Plenty, Love, and truth oversee matters of war, rationing, torture, and propaganda for example.
John Wyndham’s The Crysalids (1955)
The Crysalids is set in a world where all mutation, all change from original created order is regarded as evil. All appreciation for adaptation is regarded as heresy. It is not difficult to see the novel as a condemnation of conservatism in all its forms, political and religious. The main characters have developed a unique trait (telepathy) that could and perhaps should, be regarded as an advance towards a better form but in this world of post-apocalyptic religion, even slight variations of the norm must be suppressed. Those who control the social order are determined not to provoke another “tribulation” by an excess of tolerance for innovation.
Philip Dick’s The Minority Report
Is the intent or plan to do something a crime in and of itself? In Philip Dick’s Minority Report pre-cogs are able to know before crimes are committed that they are about to be. In the novel, the three pre-cogs who determine that the main character will commit a murder are not unanimous in their determination. This is the consequence of their looking into three potential futures, each of which is caused by different scenarios founded on knowledge of the pre-cog’s reports themselves. The novel is an exploration of free-will and determinacy as well as potentially being a speculation on the future of the power of computer predictions.
Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange
Burgess’ novel is about an ultra-violent sociopath named Alex who is convicted of murder and then allowed to go free if he agrees to a procedure of psychological conditioning that will make him physically ill if he considers any violent act (ironically, much like the procedure Peeta is subjected to by Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games to turn him into a killer). To establish that Alex is indeed a violent irredeemable psychopath, the opening chapters of the novel take you through a series of sadistic crimes. The novel asks the question: Is a society permitted to tamper with a person’s free will if that will is devoid of empathy and remorse?
Feminist Utopians: The Female Man – He, She, and It – Native Tongue series, Adore Into Ocean, The Shore of Women and the Gate to Women’s Country – Starfarer series,
Bedore mentions and describes a number of works by Feminist Utopian writers. These various novels describe worlds without men or without gender at all.
Ursula Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed
The utopia of Le Guin’s novel, the Left Hand of Darkness, is produced by a people who are ambisexual. Le Guin poses that science fiction stories are thought experiments that explore potential consequences of change. In the world of this novel, people are androgynous (without sex) for 24 of 26 days of the month and then for two days, they become males or females (depending on their circumstances) for purposes of reproduction. In the author’s words, “she eliminated gender to find out what was left.”
Samuel Delaney’s Trouble on Triton (1976)
Trouble on Titon is a utopia of absolute freedom where people can make choices about anything, including where people wish to live, what laws if any they wish to have, what they look like or what gender or sexual orientation they want to have from day to day.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Fledgling, and Bloodchild
In Bloodchild, Octavia Butler experiments with male/female role reversals, imagining a world where insect like aliens create a symbiotic relationships in which they are permitted to impregnate male humans with their eggs. Bedore refers to this as intersectionality, the exploration of the other where the other is different in more than one way. Butler writes as a black women and writes in such a way as to ask the white male readers of science fiction, “How would you feel if you had been my slave grandmother?” Bedore talks about Butler’s ability to create “cognitive estrangement” – to essentially get you to think in ways that make you feel a stranger to yourself.
Margaret Atwood’s Orynx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale
In the Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explores a dystopian future where a radical ISIS like sect of Christians has taken over America (or at least part of it) and used the Bible to impose a social system that sets women’s rights back a thousand years (or more). Wherever justification for reducing women to the role of domestic childbearers can be found in the Bible, it is found and enforced. The main character is a handmaid, a women chosen to bear children for elite men now that it has become so difficult for couples to conceive. In Orynx and Crake, Atwood asks us to consider if the elimination of the human species might be regarded as a utopian mission, given humanity’s impact on the environment.
Suzanne Collins and the Hunger Games
The world of the Hunger Games is a world of imbalance. Exploitation of the 12 districts of Panem by the Machiavellian leader Coriolanus Snow includes yearly gladiatorial combats to the death that star children from the districts and provide entertainment to the people of the capital. The trilogy explores the dystopia that emerges when aristocratic 1 percenters actively encourage cut-throat competition between their lower class subordinates.
James Tiptree (Alice Heldon) and Houston, Houston Do you Read …
Houston, Houston, do You Read sounds like a hard-line feminist separatist Utopian novel to me. The story is about three men who are stranded on a spacecraft and are rescued by a civilization of women who, it appears, are quite happy to clone themselves and make adaptations to a few of their cloned females to make up for what they might need not having men around. The question is, will these men prove to these women that they are missing something? Or will they confirm them in their estimations?
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother
Doctorow’s novel is something Bedone refers to as “cyberpunk.” The novel is dystopian but takes place in the very near future. Its themes are clearly subversive of the government in the face of the author’s apparent belief that civil rights are being violated in the interest of national security. The “bad guys” in the story are the department of Homeland Security. The “good guys” are tech savvy teenagers. It seems to be an example of how revolutionary and critical the utopia/dystopia form can be of present actualities. The author, a Canadian, gives access to the book on his website for free and dedicates chapters to various bookstores.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer
Like Little Brother, Neuromancer is categorized as “cyberpunk” and I wish I could explain what it is about and why it is so widely read. At the moment, the plot seems complicated. My son, who is a fan of the book, says that it is the definitive cyberpunk novel and when I asked him what that means, he says that it has something to do with giving the very best of present technology to the very worst people (or at least, to everyone) and then guessing what that will do to your culture.
Cormic McCarthy’s The Road
The Road, falls under the category of “post-apocalyptic.” I have not read the book but I have seen the movie. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It certainly presents us with a dystopia world in which nothing good seems to exist besides a father’s undying love for his son and son for father. The dystopian setting strips away all pretentions and explores what it means to be human when there is little or nothing in the world that encourages or supports humanitarianism.
Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies
Dr. Bedore spends at least one of her lectures on Young Adult Utopian and dystopian literature. Imagine a post-apocalyptic world where peace and equality are assured by making sure that every teenager is pretty by the time they turn sixteen and that “pretty” is a defined aesthetic. “In a world of extreme beauty,” we read on the cover page, “everyone normal is ugly.” This is a classic example of how one might take a single unhealthy trait of contemporary society and extrapolate what impact it is having by exaggerating its prevalence in some future or past or distant place.
Ally Condi’s Matched series (Matched, Crossed, and Reached)
Here we get to imagine a world where your life partner is chosen for you when you are a teenager and everything in your life is regulated for you to maximize your life’s potential and happiness (at the expense of your freedom in the most basic decisions). The cover of Matched is a picture of a teenage girl trapped in a glass ball. In Crossed, she is breaking the glass. In Reached, she is stepping out of it.
At one point in time in her lectures, Dr. Bedore mentions that it is hard for someone who holds power to assess how that power functions. “A man who is warm cannot understand the one who is cold” Solzhenitsyn says in Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. In many respects, good literature gives the reader a chance to see himself or herself or their world differently. Whether the reader wants to stay there is up to them. “There is always a utopian yearning along the road that leads to dystopia,” Dr. Bedore concludes.
Question for Comment: If you had to write about a utopian world, what would be the one thing that you would make the cause of it? If you were writing about a dystopian world, what detail of life today would you use as the cause of it?