Thursday, May 20, 2010

Utopia-Dystopia: One man's Utopia is another's Hell

Thomas More's Utopia is arguably the first science fiction ever written, because the piece is effectively people living in a perfect world. Plato's Republic doesn't count because it's a treatise on how to create Plato's vision of a perfect world.

The fact that I find both these perfect worlds horrifying is actually not that uncommon: no matter who builds a perfect world, we imperfect humans will always go and mess it up. On top of that, my idea of perfection is not going to be someone else's - quite possibly anyone else's.

So naturally, any kind of utopia is actually going to read as a dystopia to most people.

On the flip side, dystopias have a long history in literary, sometimes as moral lessons of the 'if this continues' type, satires, and of course the mess the heroes have to try to fix.

Okay, this ramble does actually have a point. Just let me find it again. Oh. Yes. Literary utopias are usually a resounding failure because either they're assuming humans... aren't, or because they just can't work with human nature. Or - more usually - both. (Funnily enough this applies to political utopias too. Whodathunkit?)

How often have you read about the idyllic lifestyle of this or that people and thought there was no way that kind of society could work because people just aren't like that? If you're anything like me, it's more than a few - but if we sat down and compared notes, there's a good chance that you'd like some of the ones I hate, and vice versa.

So, let's take a look at what makes a Utopia/Dystopia.

Start with the theoretical one size fits all, which in practice quickly turns into one size doesn't fit anyone very well and doesn't fit some people at all. If you're one of the ones that it more or less fits all right, you can probably live with the place, but if it fits too badly or doesn't fit at all the place quickly becomes sheer hell (this, incidentally, is one of the reasons I loathe pantyhose. I'm in the 'sheer hell' group). Not even clones will flourish in a monoculture - there will be enough experiential difference to ensure that some are misfits.

Now add human nature, which isn't changing any time soon. We're social critters, with all that implies: namely hierarchical and with deeply ingrained enforcement behaviors. Whether they're instinctive or not isn't relevant, because they're so strongly wired that they might as well be instinctive. No matter how you raise your kids, how carefully you keep them from the whole notion of competition and leaders and such, within seconds of meeting a new person they're sizing that person up and figuring out where they 'fit'.

When you watch someone - anyone - meeting a new person, a lot of what goes on in the first few seconds is working out whether that person is above, equal, or below in the social hierarchy. If the two have different ideas of who belongs where, there'll be quite a bit of work on the part of whoever thinks they should be superior (i.e. both of them) to establish superiority in a way the other recognizes. The winner will stand a little taller, the loser slump a bit - and as often as not neither one is consciously aware of what just happened.

That covers the leaders and followers (shepherds and sheep). There's two other very general 'types' you'll find in any large enough group. They're rarer than shepherds and sheep (this is why you need a larger group), and both of them will get attacked by shepherds and sheep if they reveal themselves. Predators (wolves) are kind of obvious. They pretend to be sheep so they can profit from other people. And no, this does not mean profit per se is evil. Using other people is - if you get all the benefit and don't pay any of the costs, you're a predator. If it's a crime with a victim (and yes, this includes running a company into the ground to get everything you can from it then walking away and leaving a bankrupt company and thousands of ruined lives), it's a predator thing. So is mooching off someone all your life - although that could be argued as a more parasitic behavior.

Then there are the goats - the independent-minded explorers and questioners who won't go with the herd unless they've decided independently the herd is the right place for them. No-one likes them: they often identify predators first, they make the sheep uncomfortable, and they question the shepherds. This is why you get a lot of misfits in certain areas - they identify each other and band together for their own protection. (As a side note: the USA is a nation settled and founded by goats. Over 200 years after the war of independence, that still shows - and is why the other 'colony' nations have the most in common with the USA. It's also why a heck of a lot of the inventions that materially changed people's lives originate in the former colonies. Penicillin: USA and Australia, cars: USA, planes: USA, drought-resistant damn near anything, Australia (Yes, I've left a lot off. It's not meant to be exhaustive)).

There is no such thing as a society where even all the sheep are happy. The best thing you as an author can do is build something that mostly takes into account human nature and has a whole bunch of incentives that tend to guide human nature towards improving things for their fellow-humans rather than destruction or power games (trying this in real life tends to end badly. We're perverse critters).

Some of the best fictional societies are - of course - Pratchett's, which take all of the variety and perversity of human nature into account. Sarah covers some interesting ground with Eden and Earth in DarkShip Thieves, and what Dave does to all the cultural myths about who is superior, the noble/innocent savage, the simple religious folk, the - oh, the heck with it, what Dave does to practically every cultural myth ever in Slow Train to Arcturus has to be read to be believed (if you haven't already read it, go and buy it. It's worth it.)

Who else has good fictional societies? Conversely, whose alleged utopias horrify you?


plutosdad said...

One often mentioned is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I am pretty libertarian, but even to me it goes pretty far and might be more described as anarchy. But one thing I always thought was funny was that even in the world Heinlein made his colony only worked if they killed one half of the immigrants.

It made me wonder if Heinlein did that deliberately, was he trying to state even he thought the ideas we normally think of as him cherishing were unworkable without mass murder to kill off the people unwilling to live that way? Or did he even notice what he wrote about the execution rate?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


except that you forget in TMIAHM the "immigrants" are convicts. That ratio is what you need to eliminate the predators which -- duh -- are rife in any prison population. Frankly, the reason that they can salvage 50% in TMIAHM is that they include political prisoners, which arguably are not normally predators.
TMIAHM is my idea of utopia in that there is no great enforcement from above, so you can create your own little utopias at will.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem with utopias is that:
a) we generally think that utopias are places without conflict,
b)novels demand conflict, so
c) a utopia is going to be crapped on in a novel, no matter what.

I think Walter Jon Williams came close to a functioning utopia in Aristoi, but the requisite rotten heart was excised and replaced by citizen uprising for once, rather than by the society collapsing.

It's out of print, of course

WangZheng259 said...

I used to read a lot of Dinotopia, but eventually got frustrated with it. (The pictures are still almost pretty enough to make me forget about things.)

I tend to mention Tom Kratman a lot. I find his societies very easy to believe. They are fairly unpleasant, but my own models of real world societies are not exactly sweetness and light either.

One thing I would like to see more of in dystopias is an optimistic and cheerful attitude, oriented towards making the most of things and finding what happiness can be found, rather than wallowing in the despair. People in the real world do not uniformly just give up on being happy in difficult circumstances. I also think there is untapped potential in dystopian comedy. (For example, SuperScience! might allow functioning adults to be grown in a vat quick and cheap enough to greatly decrease the value of human life, but play it for laughs.)

And the perfect marriage is between an accordion and a 87kt nuclear explosive. :)

Anonymous said...

Lois Bujold's Beta Colony is a very seductive utopia until you see the degree of social conformity that is imposed. One must be tolerant of everything, except the things that the government wants you to be completely intolerant of.

Barrayar is a different sort of utopia, with the government staying outside of your head, but with much more crime, poverty, social stratification. I think she may have started with it as a dystopia, but it evolved swiftly into something else.

I like the contrast of the two, to see the potential and the problems of each.

Stephen Simmons said...

Kat - You left out the sheepdogs. Those of us who generally aren't interested in "leading" (well, some aspire to it), but feel an inescapable compulsion to defend the sheep.

We've talked about Donaldson's "Covenant" series before. The Land is a pretty good representation of a doomed Utopia, I think. I know I would probably have a hard time with the whole "born to do this" aspect, anyway.

There's also the planet of the Little People, where Lazarus Long left Elder Mary Sperling. Heinlein does a pretty good job of illustrating the dangers there.

Weber's portrayal of the utter failure of the Utopian ideal in the People's Republic of Haven springs to mind, too.

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. A subtle subtext in a lot of Jack Vance's books (his societies in the Planet of Adventure series - City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh (I kid you not) etc. was the idea that from the inside hell-societies were often percieved as right and normal. Speaking as an escapee from one, I can say he got it right.

Kate said...


I find it more likely that - given that the "immigrants" were convicts - more than half of them weren't capable of dealing with that kind of society: mostly, as Sarah says, because they're predators and you want to eliminate those as fast and as much as you can.

What I wonder sometimes is how much Heinlein knew about Australia when he wrote that book. It's a little difficult to enforce laws when the majority ignore them... But that's a lecture for another time and probably another place.

Kate said...


Without enforcement, and allowing the predators to be eliminated, you do get the ability to create your own little utopias.

Of course, then they bump into other people's idea of perfect, so you've got to have a strong ethic of accepting that other people don't like what you like - something humanity is very bad at, as a whole.

Kate said...

Nonny mousey,

Since utopias are by definition perfect societies, it tends to follow that there is nothing bad happening. Mostly that means no conflict, or at least, nothing large enough to interest your average SFF fan :)

It's much more fun to write something horrible and redeem it than it is to write something wonderful and leave it more or less intact, especially when we can usually agree on what makes for "horrible" but get very tetchy about the details for "wonderful".

Kate said...


Um. Despite the title, I never thought of Dinotopia as either utopian or dystopian. Plain old-fashioned cool as all get-out, sure, although it's much better as art than books in my oh so very humble opinion. Moving on...

By definition optimism and cheerfulness are going to be thin on the ground in any dystopia. Denial will be there, in spades, right beside a kind of shallow "pleasure" that's really more a way to distract oneself from the reality. I'm not going to hammer you with real-world examples: there are plenty of them. You won't find much optimism or cheerfulness in any of them. Just ask anyone who used to live in any of the Warsaw Pact nations.

Oh, and it's been done. You must have missed the black humor in Brave New World - and any number of other books along the same vein.

Kate said...


Get thee behind me, temptress, lest I stray into the fouled waters of politics!

Absent genetic engineering or a way to get out, no society is going to be massively conformist without a lot of applied force. Which, as you pointed out, does not necessarily need to be physical.

PTerry's metaphor of the bucket applies here (it doesn't have a lid because they'll pull back any of theirs that try to get out).

Every society in Slow Train was someone's utopia. And every one of them was its own version of hell for those who didn't fit in.

Kate said...


Good point. I did forget sheepdogs. They aren't necessarily the shepherd's allies, either - if the shepherd endangers the sheep, the sheepdogs will take down the shepherd.

Donaldson's Covenant Chronicles, and The Land especially does seem like a dying utopia, or possibly a poisoned one. It's a long time since I've read that series, though.

I'm going to be quite evil here and suggest that Weber portrayed several failed utopias. Haven isn't the only one - and besides, the puns embedded there really should disqualify it :)

Kate said...


Servants of the Wankh? Did they have large upstanding monuments with somewhat bulbous tops? Phallic deities?

Um. I'd better stop right there. I mean, what would you call their leader, the Wankh King? And are they all Wankh-ers?

(forcibly wrenches self onto more or less clean ground). Okay.

Good point: from the inside, especially when you've grown up with it or the decay is gradual, the hellish places do seem normal - especially when you don't have any other points of reference. We're adaptable critters.

Which probably goes some way to explaining why a lot of these regimes last as long as they do.

(will not ask if the Chasch and the Wankh are neighbors. It would explain so much dysfunction....)

Anonymous said...


Your Utopian Sheepdog/Police/soldiers are my Dystopian Death Camp prison guards. Their teeth are used daily to intimidate the sheep into proper behavior, and only rarely on a wolf. They are the neutered slaves of the murdering lamb eating shepherds.


WangZheng259 said...

I was knocked out of following Dinotopia by what I read as a wallbanger in Gurney's third, fourth, or fifth picture book, I'm not sure which. I'd read a bunch of the kid's novels, and one or two of the adult ones also. Anyway, I tend to see about three or four assumptions in the setting that make me classify it as at least a partial utopia. One, that the Dolphins can and will sort the good from the evil. (Dolphins seem to tend towards the evil end of the spectrum to me.) Two, that a population sorted in such a manner won't tend to redevelop the evil component as the generations go. Thirdly, the 'talking animal' assumption where everybody eats but nobody eats meat. (Yes, they do say that they replace that with fish in the diets, but the economics and logistics don't seem really plausible to me.) Fourthly, well, this might be overthinking again, but I don't think that many dinosaur populations that small could maintain healthy genetic diversity over the time periods in question.

Yeah, well, even in the communist countries, not everyone was entirely devoid of a sense of humor, the desire to procreate, or the desire to continue to live. (Otherwise, in WWII, Europe's eastern front would have probably ended up in Siberia) Even if every man, woman, and child is always drunk, whiskery faced, and recovering from a beating, some of them will have something to hope or look forward to. Maybe a lighter beating, or sunglasses, or a long dark coat. Maybe even a razor. :) Just because it is a dystopia does not mean that the characters know.

As a youngster with too little respect for my elders and betters, I'm afraid I haven't read 'A Brave New World' as well as a host of other general classics and classics of Sci Fi. I did finally track down and read some Agatha Christie a few months back.

I think Ciaphas Caine and Discworld might actually be better models for what I am talking about. Book one Ankh-Morpork seems to have been built along the model of a degenerate, murderous hellhole of a sword and sorcery city. Such a place could well function as a dystopia if that style of storytelling is used, but Pratchett tells a comedy instead. A comedy in a setting that is a dystopia if you stop laughing at the explosions/bloodbath/action and think about it, rather than a dystopia with comedy in it. Would we have laughed at burning down the city for insurance fraud if we had known it from Thud! and Making Money and such first? A dystopia gives us a certain freedom to wreck the lives of very many people for the sake of what is funny, perhaps because we don't automatically assume that they are worse off, the way they would be in a normal setting.

WangZheng259 said...

Because I don't know if I can get back to sleep without it: I now think the story can't have been earlier than the fourth picture book. It is the one I think of as Dinotopia Magic Bird China. Lee Crabb is the goat of Dinotopia. He doesn't feel that he fits in, and tends to view it as a prison. In the mainline picture books, you have him, the happy peaceful people of Dinotopia, and the main charector. Anyway, in this particular book I felt that Lee was being treated as a cardboard cutout, undermining some of the integrity of the setting, and causing anger and disenchantment on my part. Still, the pictures are pretty, and I've tolerated far worse off of the internet for the sake of entertainment.

(As an aside, I think most fictional settings would be pretty hellish for me because I am so poorly suited for anything other than the real world. Anything that varied in anyway major way would probably make things worse for me, and I would function portions in large portions of the real world anyway.)

Kate said...


Shepherd's pie, anyone?

Kate said...


I never looked at Dinotopia as anything other than a Vernian pastiche around the seriously cool concept of dinosaurs still being around. That and eye candy.

Now, repeat after me. Sense of humor does not mean optimism. Life goes on does not mean cheerful. There is a difference, and as someone who's experienced it in a much milder situation, it's not bloody subtle.

In a dystopian setting, people do not smile at strangers. They avoid eye contact. Everything is blocked off, hidden, kept inside. In a healthy setting, people smile, they wave, vehicles stop for pedestrians. It's so obvious that if you haven't seen it, I can only assume that you've either spent your entire life in one place, or you aren't looking.

As for the incarnation of Anhk-Morpork in The Color of Magic, I'm utterly at a loss as to how you could mistake the pasted-together cliches of 'fantasy city' for anything dystopic. It wasn't until later books that the city began evolving into the real (in the sense of complex, functioning place that feels like somewhere that you could visit - if you dared) city it's become in later books.

With respect to your addendum, in Dinotopia Lee Crabb exists to be the token "nasty person" for the kiddies to hate. There is no more depth to it than that, never was, and never will be. The stories are nothing more than something to tie the - gorgeous - artwork together. I've seen worse.

Your aside suggests to me that you're projecting your maladaption to the real world into any and everything you encounter. In my experience, people who do that have a nasty tendency to turn into killjoys who live to piss on anyone who's having fun, because they're not. I do hope you're not headed in that direction - your chosen handle is not a good sign.

Anonymous said...


And lets not even think about Rocky Mountain Oysters.

I like the sheep-goat mindset metaphore, but really, you've got to not analyze to too far.

Kate said...


Thee Joye of Thee Overdone Analogy - yep, that's me all over.

WangZheng259 said...

Okay, so Dystopias and Utopias have to be serious or something like that, and farcical stories, and stories which otherwise do not develop their human systems well do not count because they are outside that category?

I figure that as humans seem to be non-uniform, and as I have seen variation in ability to make a bad situation good or a good situation bad, surely Dystopia must include some situations and governments not capable of making 100% of humans lack whatever positive emotion I want to write about, even if the exceptions are crazy. I may just be using a sloppy definition of Dystopia.

Both assumptions about why I don't seem to get that part may be correct. I am not a traveller, and I am a very poor observer of humanity.

(Re: Dinotopia. I get all that, now. I was reading Dinotopia when I was a kiddie, so that may be screwing up my emotional reactions. When I first read it, across 15-20 or so books, it felt fairly real and serious to me. As an adult, Journey to Chandara read like a political strawman, and felt like Gurney was telling me he didn't want me as a reader.)

I should have deleted or never written that last post of mine. After finally getting a full night's sleep last night, I see a lot where I went wrong. The last portion especially, as it appears to be a result of a bizarre misreading. No one appears to have asked the question I think I thought I was answering. (Writing the first bit didn't get me back to sleep, so it also failed.)

I also hope I don't end up that way. I do not know that I am doing it, but either way, I do not want to end up there.

Kate said...


I think you've got the whole idea of a dystopia by the prickly end. The dictionary definition is: "An imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible" - the whole point of a dystopic vision is to show how utterly all-encompassing the worst of the worst is.

There is no bright side in a dystopia. That's the whole point, and why it's been thirty some years since I last read 1984 or Brave New World but both books still give me the horrors with everything they imply. The classic dystopias end badly. Their more optimistic "phoenix from the ashes" cousins destroy the dystopia and leave a devastated people with a long and difficult task of rebuilding - but now they have hope for the future.

You probably need to read more widely to really understand how these kinds of literary devices work, because not everyone is going to discuss things with you and take the time to figure out where you got hold of the pointy part of the pineapple.

Heck, I run out of patience too, especially when I'm fighting something like the ear infection that's been playing havoc with my ability to concentrate and my balance for the last two weeks.

WangZheng259 said...

Okay then. I was working off the idea that a dystopia describes a setting suitable for those sort of scary-depressive stories, without the understanding that the setting must also only be used for those sorts of stories. (I may also have been combining my nitpickery over the cognate of the 'as possible' clause with my own tendencies to meld optimism and pessimism, and other such personal baggage that I can't back up with logic.)

I've found that I haven't the heart to completely maximise the bad, so I guess the most that is going on is dystopian flavor. (I can make myself scared or depressed easily enough without a story. My taste in stories runs to happier things, or at least I think it does.)

Ear infections are nasty. Good luck with it. Thanks for bothering with my oddness on top of that.