Everyone likes a good dystopia, don’t they? Or at least, taking a brief glance at popular culture, they do. Everywhere you look there seem to be films, books, games, etc. that are dark and edgy, full of Orwellian surveillance, totalitarian brutality and oppressed citizenry. It seems especially popular in ‘young adult’ fiction at the moment, probably sparked off by the run-away success of The Hunger Games and Katniss Everdeen’s struggles against the Capitol. Even media franchises that aren’t usually dystopian or dark have been given a grittier lick of paint – look at the new DC Comics superhero movies, or even the rebooted Star Trek films. Plenty of dark and dystopian fiction, then – but where are all the optimistic utopias?
It might be just the zeitgeist of the age, and an indication that our jaded post-modern, post-2008 palates prefer dark and miserable dystopias to the optimism and hope of utopias. The financial crisis, terrorism, climate change, vicious political partisanship, a growing wealth gap – all seem to contribute to the idea that our future is going to be relatively grim, or even a post-apocalyptic hell. However, all the most famous dystopian fictions – Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. – were written in the 20th Century, so this is certainly not just a recent phenomenon. Indeed, dystopias seem to have always been more popular than their positive counterparts, at least at a casual glance. Put it this way – basically everybody has heard of the three works I named above (or one or two of them at least), but how many famous utopian novels can you name? Hmm.
‘I wonder if part of the reason is that utopias are just so bloody hard to write. For a start, nobody has the same concept of a perfect society. Yes, I am sure we can all broadly agree that such a society would be one in which the citizens were relatively happy and free from want, but at what cost? Some might be happy to live in a society where they have all their desires catered for, but run by benevolent computers. Luxury at the price of political power? May sound fantastic to some, not so great to others. Some might see utopia as one where business and money is abolished, others would hate the idea of a society without enterprise – it is entirely subjective, and one man’s utopia may be another’s dystopia. Secondly, the problem with a perfect society in fiction is that it is, well, perfect. Fiction runs on problems and conflicts, and if these are eliminated you don’t have much to go on. That is why pure utopian works tend to be more akin to political treatises, and as such are often incredibly boring. Finally, the very best utopian works are often ambiguous, and can be read as satires to a certain extent. Pride of place in this category is Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, which coined the phrase itself. To give you an indication, Utopia broadly translates as ‘no-place’ in Greek (though it is also a pun on Good-place’ as well), and the main character’s name means something similar to ‘speaker of nonsense’. Perfection seems doomed to be unattainable, and so pure utopian works very rarely work out.
Compared to all these pitfalls, dystopias are far easier to write. While it is hard to agree on what constitutes a utopia, it is quite easy to design a society that basically everybody would hate to be in. I can’t think of anyone in their right mind who would want to live in Orwell’s Airstrip One, for instance. Dystopias also fit nicely into the ‘little guy sticking it to the Man’ trope, and gives plenty of scope for plucky rebels resisting the authority of a tyrannical regime. Even better, dystopias provide plenty of opportunities for filmmakers to cram Nazi-esque goons into a movie as possible (dystopic films always seem to revert to the Nazi or Soviet chic), as everyone appreciates a good Nazi shoot-em-up, don’t they?
I jest, but there is some truth in the suggestion (I believe by Neal Stephenson) that dystopias are so popular that they have now become a ‘genre’ or a ‘setting’ in which to place stories. Dystopias provide dark, grey backgrounds with ready-made tyrannical baddies for the characters to fight; however, this muddies the original purpose of dystopia. The best dystopias have the actual society as one of the key elements of the work, and are meant to be reflections on our world today. The World Society of Brave New World – my favourite dystopian novel – is not simply a backdrop against which John’s problems are explored, it is the main element of the work, painting a dark picture of what Huxley thought of as the consumerist excess of his time (it reads just as poignantly today, believe me). Similarly, 1984 is not just a crapsack world against which Winston and Julia’s love story can be played out, it is a nightmare of – amongst other issues – the Stalinist totalitarianism that was current at the time of writing and the possibility of constant government surveillance.
The same is actually true of good utopian fiction. They are often reflections on our society today, as well as on new problems we might face once those that plague us now are sorted. The original Star Trek is one decent example – a multicultural, multi-ethnic crew exploring the galaxy in peace, to compare with tensions and conflicts of the real-life 1960s. Ian M. Bank’s brilliant Culture series is interesting in that it portrays a genuine utopia, but in often quite a dark and gritty manner, and is especially interested in the utopian Culture’s interactions with less-advanced societies, perhaps a reflection on today’s rich nations and their relationship with the developing world.
Through writing this piece it has started to become clear to be me that the line between dystopia and utopia is a fine one. The best works straddle this line tenuously – utopias point out their flaws, while dystopias nod towards the attractive aspects of their structure. Even in Brave New World and 1984, nightmarish as they are, there are many characters who are perfectly happy to exist in their present state; even in the utopian Culture, there are outcasts and renegades who hate it. Life is not painted in black and white, but shades of grey, and the best utopian and dystopian works – indeed, the best fiction in general – acknowledges and accepts this.