Utopia is one of the oldest sub-genres of SF. In fact, many people consider Thomas More’s 1516 treatise that introduced the term to be one of the earliest evidences of the beginning of science fiction.
It’s easy to see why utopia was a popular concept in literature- especially utopias set in the future of our own planet and civilizations. The basic premise is that things will get better. People will get along. Everyone will have enough to eat and a place to live. Wars won’t be fought anymore. Life will be easy and work will be pleasurable. People will live without disease, and live longer–maybe even forever.
These seem to be some of the common promises of Utopian literature, though the methods and politics of the future societies differ according to each author’s philosophical leanings. During the Industrial Revolution, two broadly defined schools of thought–the empiricists and the romanticists–pulled utopias in two directions.
In 1888, American Edward Bellamy published the utopia, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, which describes a carefree, luxurious millennial society powered by advanced technology and socialist ideals.
In response, British author William Morris, disappointed that Bellamy’s socialism was so tainted by consumerism, wrote the strikingly similar News from Nowhere. This future vision is far more decentralized and pastoral. While technology exists on the periphery, people prefer to provide for themselves and one another with their own hands.
Probably the most recognizable Utopian future in the last half-century is the one in Star Trek the original series. While the galaxy of Trek‘s 23rd century isn’t as tamed as Bellamy’s or Morris’ future, it does seem that at least Earth and it’s fellow Federation-members have achieved the goals of peace, prosperity, and long life. The characters also have the privilege of spreading their peaceful way of life among the stars.
I don’t think I need to explain the reasons why people like the idea of utopia. It is more interesting at this point, to consider why I am writing about the popularity of Utopian literature in the past tense. Other than Star Trek, how many truly Utopian societies are part of our public dialogue today? Even recent Trek incarnations have become more dark and cynical.
Perhaps part of the shift is due to the fact that the promises of turn-of-the-century and mid-century utopias didn’t come true. The empiricists built the atom bomb, and the romantics ‘turned on, tuned in, and dropped out’, leaving their successors more likely to believe stories like 1984 and even The Hunger Games, than News From Nowhere.
Maybe, instead of showing us the best of what humanity could be, ‘looking backward’ at old Utopian stories only seems to remind us of the worst of what humanity is. We look into the jeweled mirror of utopia; and its peace, equality, and prosperity reflect back our war, injustice, and poverty.
What happens next?
I can’t say. All I know is that a new year tends to bring a fresh sense of optimism- at least at first. Maybe somewhere, hiding in the shadows of the grittiest alleyways of our dystopias, our dreams of utopia are waiting to be found again.