Understanding Utopia

17 Jan

This is sort of a follow up to my earlier post – Dissecting Dystopia – but you don’t need to have read that for this to make sense.

Ever since Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia in 1516 (that was before he was Lord Chancellor of England) the term Utopia has been used to describe an ever growing number of fictional settings which are portrayed as better than the world the author of each work lived in. It became a genre (although technically Plato wrote one first in his The Republic, which I found a more enjoyable read than Utopia, because I objected less to the politics, but that’s just personal opinion). However, in more recent years that slowly growing genre has been inundated with stories which are ever vaguer politically and philosophically. This means, as it happens, that as time has gone by people have started using a looser and looser definition of Utopia, despite the official definition being: any of; the imaginary island in Sir Thomas More’s work of political philosophy in guise of fiction by the same name, an ideal political state or place, or a system of socio-political perfection. That is, given the predominance of political philosophy involved in the descriptions, a far more specific meaning than many people have been using of late.

Lately it’s popular to use “utopia” to describe any in the future setting which is pretty okay – on the assumption that if it is not a “dystopia” it must be a utopia. Worse, most of those so-called dystopias aren’t even dystopias. It’s driving me nuts. So, let’s talk about utopias. Real (that is: fictional) utopias.

1) A utopia is a socio-political philosophy thinly disguised as a story: that means they are the author ranting about what they believe in. Have you ever heard of the word filibuster? Well, it’s not entirely accurate, but it kind of is. At least, one definition of it is (the obstructive legal tactics bit isn’t relevant here). Filibuster, as in an exceptionally long political speech, is a very good explanation for what a utopia really is – because a utopia is (essentially) an philosopher’s long, long, written rant about their socio-political beliefs and their ideal society, with a thin draping of plot (often tour-guide style) and characters (who are primarily there to lecture each other) to disguise it as fiction.

Now, obviously, since the days of More’s Utopia, the genre has diversified to be more akin to fiction with an overpowering socio-political ideology portrayed as ideal within it, rather than a thinly disguised treatise (Star Trek: The Original Series, and the first season of The Next Generation, is a good example of this – it was Gene Roddenberry’s idea of utopia and all the plot conflicts came from one of: technical issues, other societies, or space being weird, rather than the people of the United Federation of Planets). But, the thing that most people right now seem to be forgetting is, IT STILL IS A SOCIO-POLITICAL IDEOLOGY IN A FICTIONAL FORMAT.

This is the key to the genre of utopia which far too many people are forgetting at the moment. A utopia is not just a future-which-is-better setting or a future-which-isn’t-a-hellhole setting, which is the way it being used too often at the moment. For this reason some works which can make you want to gnaw your own arm off from boredom (if you want a good example of a filibuster in fiction, try reading Ayn Rand without gnawing your arm off in boredom and frustration) are utopian fiction, but other stories don’t qualify as utopian fiction because – no matter how perfect they may be – they have no socio-political philosophy to espouse. For example, although Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven deals with trying to create a utopia (in that the main character can change reality with his dreams and is constantly encouraged to make things better), the majority of the setting revolves around major problems and attempts to improve things creating different major problems and not showcasing a specific socio-political philosophy.

2) A Utopia must provide solutions to socio-political problems: merely removing problems is not sufficient. No solution is perfect – this why no utopian fiction is ever viewed as perfect by everyone who reads it (many, actually, are loathed by most who read it due to their differing socio-political philosophies). Nevertheless, to be a utopia a fiction must present a societal system which theoretically solves all problems. I repeat: solves; not just to remove them or claim they have been fixed without explanation – if there is no reasonable solution offered: it is not a utopia. Also, the word reasonable is important here, because otherwise people claim that “these people are just better because they agree with me”, “oh, these people don’t do that” and “it’s not important, it just is” are solutions. They are not. In order for a work to qualify as a socio-political philosophy portrayed through fiction it must include a socio-political philosophy and that, inevitably, means that the writer’s ideas on what’s wrong with this world and how to fix it. Metaphysics, epistemology and any other none-ethics and laws related philosophies need not be included. To give an example: many stories which are inaccurately described as utopian have societies where there is no poverty or famine but give no explanation as to how this has happened – sometimes “no money” is given as a possible reason, but the fact that this does not explain a lack of hunger or why anyone works at all is ignored. Conversely, in Star Trek – to use an example of something which was a utopia in its original form (Deep Space 9 takes it and makes it darker, Voyager is too far off being an adventure, and Enterprise is debatably part of the timeline and we do not talk about the reboot, all the things that made Trek Trek got thrown out the window to make it cheap space opera) – there is no “money” (although gold pressed Latinum is a thing) and people work for credits which are basically the same as money except that they aren’t needed to have enough to live (and therefore work is about gaining points for luxuries) and all of that, plus no hunger in the world, is made possible because they are a post-scarcity society where matter-manipulating devices (like transporters) and replicators have eliminated them. It’s not a perfect explanation for the perfection of the society, but it is a plausible explanation and thus it works. Just saying “that’s not a problem anymore/there” and not giving a reason is the same as saying “Hiro Hiroson is a good person and heroic” without actually showing your character ever being a good person or doing anything heroic. That is to say: it’s not mere “tell without show” it’s telling which contradicts what is shown and, worse, it annoys readers mightily. In other words: if you want to call it a utopia: it’s got to be about philosophy.

3) Most authors writing utopias know they aren’t really attainable. When Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia he used what is now a well known pun: -topia means “place” and the u came from ou (no). That much people tend to remember – that Utopia means “no place”. But More’s little pun was more than that, as the u could also be from eu (good) making (e)utopia, or “good place”. The thing most people don’t realise is that utopia is a blending of both meanings and that is extremely important to their definition: utopia essentially means “a good place which does not exist”. In other words, Sir Thomas – and those who originally followed in his inky footsteps – knew his vision of a perfect society was but a dream. This connects with point 3 quite well, because it is important to remember that thought experiments, like creating a utopia, still have to be sound of method even when they are impossible to perform in real life.

4) True utopia and dystopia are rare and that’s okay. All of this must make it sound like creating something which genuinely belongs in the utopian genre is much harder than it sounds – and that’s true. The same is true of dystopias; many things called that at the moment do not deserve the term. But here’s the thing: a work doesn’t have to be utopian or dystopian to be a lovely future setting or post-apocalyptic hellhole. Moreover, applying those words doesn’t miraculously change the quality of the work. And here’s another thing: most people get bored reading philosophical treatise disguised as fiction, and that’s okay. Most people read for plot and characters, so a work which primarily about setting – the gerdankenexperiment testing a theory in a controlled environment – is not going to be to most people’s tastes. What’s more, utopia and dystopia are authorial opinion crystallized into a sculpture of words, so when someone does write one; they are constricted by their own socio-political opinions and their own prejudices. This actually means that someone who worldbuilds a better (or worse) setting than their own reality but does not write either –topia is freer to design whatever they think is cool. Utopia isn’t cool. Dystopia isn’t cool. Most writers write cool things – or what they think are cool things. But utopia and dystopia are a thought experiment and a socio-political warning, respectively, and that means they are much rarer than all the cool stories stealing their names. Those stories should stop acting like pseudo-intellectualist pretenders and accept what they are.


Or, simply put: utopian fiction is about the writer expressing a socio-political philosophy, not just any old future setting which is better than now but still kind of sucks or is ridiculously and inexplicably perfect for no damn reason.


Posted by on January 17, 2016 in On Writing


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6 responses to “Understanding Utopia

  1. Sally-Shakti Willow

    January 19, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    I’m really interested in your thoughts here. I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes utopian fiction recently, and though I have a different basic definition of what it might be, I have still come to the conclusion that truly utopian fiction is very rare, if not impossible. Can you recommend any titles that demonstrate genuine utopian fiction in your view?


    • lcmorgenstern

      January 20, 2016 at 5:44 am

      Hi. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you (and to remember that I had to approve the comment). That’s… a good question. Now that I try I find it is easier for me to think of stories – baring the classic Utopian fiction such as Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgis, Tommaso Caponella’s City of the Sun, and so forth – which live up to my standards. I think that’s half a combination of my being more fond of old literature than modern works and half the fact that for all I present my standards as strict it’s chiefly because I’m ranting about those people in the modern day who understand the term “Utopia” so little that they will say that any not-explicitely evil or falling apart future world is a utopia and therefore I give a strict definition knowing that if any of the “but if it’s set in the future/a magical otherworld and things are better that must mean it’s perfect” crowd read it they’ll at least get a little bit of the message. It makes me dread eventually writing and publishing my own sci-fi, because I have a better-than-now-but-still-imperfect society juxtaposed to my own utopia and every time I discuss it with other people in writing groups they assume before I’ve fished talking that either the better-place must be my utopia or that it’s got to be the dystopia to match the other one.

      I had a look at your blog (I’m run off my feet at the moment so I only had a very quick look) to check if I was likely to give you any names that you were already aware of and, given your interests, I doubt I can think of many you don’t already know about, especially given that I tend to favour the classics. Hmmm, William Pene du Bois’ The Twenty-One Balloons (a Newbery Medal winning children’s novel) is gently socio-political, in that very little is about lawmaking but it does spend a great deal of time on the (somewhat frivolous) social structure and follows the very traditional “person from real place returns from adventure and tells others about the amazing visit and tour they had to amazingly good non-existant place” format. I’m not sure if I would qualify it as it is not truly about a socio-political philosophy so much as amusing worldbuilding, but it’s worth the mention, I think. Similarly, the Shire in Arda in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works almost, but not quite, lives up to that standard but while it is an essentially “perfect” set up it falls short as Tolkien’s message – if any – was about saving the environment from industrialisation, not socio-political reformation. Hmmm. I hadn’t quite realised what a snob I can be on the old works vs new works front. Although, even admitting that I do hold that far too many books are getting that charming Greek pun ou/eu-topia slapped on them. It makes me wonder if people would still be so overly keen to use it as a buzz word if More had used the Latin – like the rest of his book was written in – instead of the Greek. Nullusque locus/bonus locus wouldn’t have been as easy to make a pun from, though, I suppose. But I digress.

      An argument could probably be made for those parts of Gulliver’s Travels which involve Houynhnms, although that would be a Utopian section rather than a Utopian work. Likewise, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discouse on the Origin of Inequality isn’t a utopia, although it skirts close to being two. Maquis de Sade had a very political-improvement minded pamphlet in his Phillosophy of the Bedroom, but that isn’t very fictional. Actually, you probably know most of the one’s I’ve mentioned.

      Sorry, that got a fair bit longer than I intended.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sally-Shakti Willow

        January 20, 2016 at 9:01 am

        Hi, thanks so much for your detailed reply. I was interested to read your definition of utopian fiction. My understanding has shifted a lot over the last year or so, and now I would define a utopian narrative as one which has a utopian dynamic (a drive towards the incomplete and unobtainable perfection of the world), rather than necessarily one that has a utopian setting. Partly, this is because, by the same logic – the closer a text comes to creating a utopian setting, the further it may end up from a utopian narrative drive – what is there left to strive for that’s driving the narrative?

        But of course, as soon as I mention utopian fiction, people have a very clear set of preconceived ideas about what utopian fiction should look like, even though the kind of fiction they’re imagining might be very rare or may not even exist at all.

        So I’m interested in exploring a kind of fiction that is able to do both – create the philosophical experiment in a perfected world AND maintain a utopian narrative drive.

        I think it’s telling that every literary utopia we can think of is, in the end, not really a perfect utopia. Whether deliberately or not, the kinds of impossible borders that have to be erected to contain people’s idea of a utopia always end up turning the utopia into somebody else’s nightmare, somebody else’s dystopia.

        I’m interested in fiction that breaks down, rather than constructs, those borders, and I often it find it more likely located in fiction that isn’t necessarily setting itself out to be utopian.

        I’d be really interested to read some extracts or ideas from your utopian novel. Keep writing, and keep working it through – listen to people’s feedback but ultimately create what you need to create 🌍✨

        Would love to share some ideas 😊


        • lcmorgenstern

          January 20, 2016 at 11:05 am

          That’s a very interesting definition. I always viewed utopia as a static (kind of similar to how some people joke that heaven must be boring and they’ll gladly go to hell because that’s where the party people go) and thus while a nice ideal ultimately boring as a story. I’ve always viewed dynamic as something which doesn’t happen in utopia, so I find your idea of utopian dynamic very interesting – the closest to that I’ve ever had in describing fiction was “seeking utopia”, which is rather clumsy. I suppose that in regard to narrative drive the idea with “true utopia”, for lack of a better term, is that no narrative drive is needed for those in the setting and that the ideal itself is enough drive for the readers – which makes the traditional utopia either a tour guide or overly beset by transporter accidents and unenlightened neighbours to run into. What’s left to strive for in the narrative, then, becomes improving neighbours, or escaping natural disaster, or technological problems, or nothing. But that’s just the way I look at it.

          If a world is perfected, how can it have a utopian narrative drive, though? I’d love to know more about how you define that since, although it could just be that it’s too late at night and I need to think about it when I’m more awake, the only way to (assuming I understand your termonology correctly) strive for an ideal in an already perfected world is to be expanding it to other places, else you’d be striving for it because it’s not a perfected world yet and it’s up to the author’s optimism whether or not sucess comes at the end.

          I couldn’t agree more.😊 Both because of differences in morals during writer’s upbringing (Plato, for instance, was writing against a very different moral basis than any modern writer) and the fact that there is more than one basic personality type in humanity and therefore no such thing as a place which is perfect for everyone – thus easily makign the extremes of utopia into dystopia for others. The only utopia I can think of which comes close to acknowledging natural psychological differences (healthy ones, I mean) is Plato’s Republic with it’s “noble lie” and even that doesn’t really work for accepting all personality types. In fact, I’d be inclined to go as far as to say that a utopia is only ever utopia for the author – one person’s utopia is always “one person’s” utopia – because everyone has such different views.

          Breaks down rather than constructs? Does that include the thought experiment works that present a society and let people draw their own conclusions or only ones that deliberately set themselves up to blur the line between utopia and dystopia?

          Feedback I don’t mind – it’s just that some people make assumptions and then give advice based on that instead of anything related to my work (when describing one sci-fi setting I mentioned that certain crimes get the death penalty and the person I was talking to replied that utopias shouldn’t have death penalties). Thankfully, I’ve got a couple of not-utopia related books I’m working on first, so I have time to work on not being afraid of that. …I’m one of those people whose talents sometimes contradicts their ethical views (I’m good at seeing how to be ruthless so I see the consequences as well and view it poorly). As a result I have one utopian setting (which, true to classic form, is static and – then reversing the classic form – most of the plot revolves around a character going on a world tour of other non-utopian cultures and comparing them before going home) and one better-than-now-but-in-a-if-we’re-going-to-have-these-evil-in-society-at-least-utilise-them-properly-you-idiots sort of way. I hope that makes sense. To give a perhaps clearer example: I’m an anarchist; so my utopia has no laws and no government but works just fine, while the better-but-not-utopia set up is my “if we have to have government make it one that works” standpoint and is much closer to tyranny (in the classical meaning “absolute rule by expert elected during crisis” meaning, not the modern “despotic evil overlord” meaning).

          Umm, other than that in as cliff-notes as possible format? Utopia (not on Earth): anarcho-pacifist, no concept of money, work done because it needs doing and weight is pulled by all because empaths can’t really ignore the guilt of causing others to be overworked as humans would, very clean, highly intellectual, no concept of religion, no official family set ups, no gender inequality because gender is irrelevant, learning and discovery as one of life’s highest goals along with happiness. Not-Utopia-But-Better (On Earth): money only needed to buy luxuries, which is why people work, post-scarcity society, very clean, death penalty for severe crimes (definition differs significantly to our own but takes waaaay to long to explain), more government survalience but less crime, environmentally friendlier cities, Secret Service not up to anything shifty, but secret secret service is. Dystopia (On Earth): very much like modern world, except that class distinctions are bigger and modern technology meant to help patients with brain-related issues has been repurposed by the government (+long explanation), democracy still very much a thing, governmental and corporate survalience so bad that you need to pay to not be bothered by adds while showering, knowledge all electronic and subject to government meddling… Um, yes, I think that’s the basics? The alien society is being watched by human society, but not meddled with.

          I’m also happy to share ideas (as this long, long, reply probably indicates – due to my unfortunate habit of being overly verbose). 😊

          Liked by 1 person

          • Sally-Shakti Willow

            January 22, 2016 at 8:15 am

            Thanks for sharing your ideas with me here. I like your concept of a kind of graduated utopian fiction, where there are different stages of progress going on in different places – that helps to give the narrative a dynamic and sets up plenty of scope for antagonism. One way I was thinking that a utopian setting could be played out with a utopian dynamic would be to establish the setting and then present the backstory of how the utopia came to be created – that gives scope for a narrative dynamic to propel the story, with conflicts and challenges etc.

            I share many of your ideas about what would make a better, or perhaps even perfect, world. Although I have a feeling that even if we achieved all those things, they’d bring their own challenges and there would always still be something more, new and better to strive for. That of course means that the utopian dynamic would continue, even after we’d achieved a state that would appear to be perfect from this vantage point. I think we’ve had many of those mini utopian moments in the world – medicines and technologies that we’ve dreamed into being to make the world a better place, only to find that there are further problems to be addressed and challenges to be overcome. That’s why utopian philosopher Ernst Bloch describes utopia as ‘the unfinished dream’. It’s a dream that’s constantly in the process of being/becoming, but it can never fully be completed. Completion would equal negation of itself ultimately.

            I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what my own utopian fiction/poetry looks like, and why it doesn’t present the same kinds of ideas that you’ve described, and I’ve realised that for me utopia is more a state of consciousness than a place or a social definition. So in my utopian experimental writing, I’m aiming at a glimpse or experience of that state of utopian consciousness, which maybe presents itself in very different kinds of scenarios. I’ll post some examples and some more thoughts on this soon, so that I can explain what I mean more clearly.

            I’ve found that sharing ideas with you and others through the blog is really helping to clarify my own ideas and understanding of what I mean by utopian writing and what other people expect when they expect to encounter utopian writing, and where the meeting points are between the two.

            It’s a fascinating process of discovery and I look forward to sharing more and reading more from you soon. I’d definitely love to read some of your fiction if you post any.



            • lcmorgenstern

              January 22, 2016 at 10:55 am

              No problem – as you can probably guess from the length of my replies; I really like talking to people about interesting subjects like this. Thank you – although I have to admit, at least in terms of the universe I’ve been describing, there actually isn’t much antagonism between the different graduations of -topia, because the off-world ones don’t know humanity’s observing them, the better-but-not-utopian ones have a strict non-interference rule (I don’t know if you’ve ever read a worldbuilding advice book Aliens and Alien Societies, but the author said in it that you couldn’t have humans and aliens in a story and not have them interact – I took that as a challenge) and while they have a slight antagonism with the dystopic country …the dystopia isn’t powerful enough to be a threat, so they’re juxtaposed but not antagonistic, if that makes any sense. Your idea of establishing the setting and then showing how it came to be could work very well – although, like the tour-guide utopias of old, the tension of will there be sucess is lost by revealing the ending at the beginning. A different approach that, potentially, could keep some of a narrative tension and a utopian dynamic would be to present a utopia and then have external forces put it in a situation of ugly choices and risk ceasing to be a utopia.

              I’m sure they would bring their own challenges. And even if somehow perfection were achieved there might still be the dynamic because some people are by nature inclined to shake up society and question everything (they keep it from stagnating).Then there’s the quesiton if humanity would still have its humanity if it had nothing left to seek to improve – for some the very imperfection of humanity is an intrinsic part of human nature and they would object to utopia being completed on that principle. Bloch was very right about that. So was More – no doubt it was understanding the unfinishable dream that utopia is which made him blend the Greek for ‘good’ with the Greek for ‘no’ when he created the name Utopia.

              More of a state of conciousness? Hmm, I’d be very interested to read what you have to say about that. It also reminds me of something I read about being described as a utopian story – but I can’t quite remember the name. I think it was ‘The Tale of the Peach Blossom’, but I can’t be sure.

              I’m glad to be a help and I enjoy discussing it with you. 😊

              …Despite thinking the world would be better without money, I do need it to survive, so apart from things like cut-snippets and occasionally a teaser page or such right before I publish a work, I’m probably not going to be putting up any stories for free. I’m trying to/hoping to make a career out of writing. But I will continue to put up blog posts about all sorts of subjects in writing; especially worldbuilding, which utopian ficiton is a subset of, because I love to worldbuild for the sake of it.

              Liked by 1 person


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