Utopia & Dystopia

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.

– Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

Histories of utopias and dystopias tend to treat them seperately (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, for instance, has seperate entries for ”Utopias” and ”Dystopias”) but I want to look at them side by side, partly because utopian tradition is often satirical but mainly because one writer’s paradise on Earth is usually another’s living hell.

Plato’s The Republic.

The term ‘utopia’ first appears in Sir Thomas More‘s Utopia (1516)

The Fantastic Voyages

The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage thither by Domingo Gonsales (1638) by Francis Godwin

Cyrano de Bergerac‘s L’Autre Monde: où les États et Empires de la Lune (The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon, 1657) and Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662).

Jonathan Swift‘s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships (better known as Gulliver’s Travels, 1726, revised 1735)

The 19th Century: The Age of the Utopia

Over 100 Utopian novels appeared in the latter half of the 19th Century, most of which have been forgotten. Among the earliest and most successful was Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s The Coming Race (1871) which became an international best seller.

Samuel Butler wrote the early Utopian sf novel Erewhon: or, Over the Range (1872) and its belated sequel Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later, Both by the Original Discoverer of the Country and by His Son (1901).

Edward Bellamy‘s Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1887) was a technocratic utopian novel.

William MorrisNews from Nowhere (1890) was a pastoral response to Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Morris had been highly critical of Bellamy’s novel in his review.

“Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: the rational utilization of these forces on a global scale would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future.”

– Herbert Marcuse, ”An Essay on Liberation” (1969) (p.4)

Isit still necessary to state that not technology, not technique, not the machine are the engineers of repression, but the presence, in them, of the masters who determine their number, their life span, their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and restriction in the repressive society which makes them into vehicles of domination?”

– Herbert Marcuse, ”An Essay on Liberation” (1969) (p.4)

The 20th Century:  The Age of the Dystopia


H.G. Wells‘ The Time Machine (1895) The War of the Worlds (1998) and The First Men in the Moon (1901). When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) was a dystopian novel. Wells revised it in 1910 as The Sleeper Awakes.

The first major dystopia was Jack London‘s The Iron Heel (1908)

Dystopia was a common theme of Modernist writers such as Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We (1921), Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World (1932).

Karel Čapek‘s RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920) and War with the Newts (1936)

Katharine Burdekin‘s Swastika Night (1937)

Franz Kafka‘s short story ”In the Penal Settlement” (1919), The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927)

Mikhail Bulgakov‘s  The Master and Margarita.

George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

One person’s utopia is another persons dystopia: behaviourist B. F. Skinner‘s Walden Two (1948), which was inspired by Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau‘s Walden,  presents a ‘utopia’ in which the classical conditioning demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov in 1927 was used to create ideal citizens. Skinner himself rejected negative reinforcement in favour of positive reinforcement and his work was an attempt at portraying a utopia, not a dystopia.

The sociologist and educationalist Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (1958) as a warning.

Anthony Burgess‘ A Clockwork Orange (1962) and 1985 (1978)

Nigel Kneale‘s television play The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) is set in a hedonistic dystopia similar to Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World (1932).

A number of dystopian movies were made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Stanley Kubrick‘s controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971) was adapted from Anthony Burgess’ novel.

George Lucas expanded his experimental student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967) into the feature length THX 1138 (1971). It was novelized by Ben Bova.

Ursula Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) and Samuel R Delany‘s Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (1975)

The Guardians

Wilfred Greatorex‘s Orwellian TV series 1990 (1977-78). Greatorex novelised the series himself.

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) gave us a dystopia on a galactic scale.

Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 attempted something similar.

Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), both directed by Ridley Scott, are set in a future dominated by vast, international corporations. Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil (1985) offers a more surreal, Kafkesque bureaucracy. 12 Monkeys (1995) is partly set in a post-apocalyptic future.

Paul Verhoeven‘s ultraviolent RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997).

Notable feminist sf novels of the ’80s set in patriarchal dystopias include Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009) and Suzette Haden Elgin trilogy of feminist sf novels Native Tongue (1984), The Judas Rose (1987) and Earthsong (1993).

Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy

When we first arrived, and for twenty years after that, Mars was like Antarctica but even purer. We were outside the world, we didn’t even own things—some clothes, a lectern, and that was it!… This arrangement resembles the prehistoric way to live, and it therefore feels right to us, because our brains recognise it from three million years of practicing it. In essence our brains grew to their current configuration in response to the realities of that life. So as a result people grow powerfully attached to that kind of life, when they get the chance to live it. It allows you to concentrate your attention on the real work, which means everything that is done to stay alive, or make things, or satisfy one’s curiosity, or play. That is utopia, John, especially for primitives and scientists, which is to say everybody. So a scientific research station is actually a little model of prehistoric utopia, carved out of the transnational money economy by clever primates who
want to live well.

—— Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

Paratexts and Metacommentaries

A common feature of Utopian literature is the paratext or metacommentary. The main narrative in De Mille’s Strange Manuscript found in a Copper Cylinder is framed, or embedded, within the story of those who found the cylinder and interrupted by their comments on the source, meaning or truthfulness of More’s story.

Jack London‘s The Iron Heel (1908) is framed by the commentary of a historian.

Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) includes Winston Smith’s diary entries, fragments of his dreams (as does  Gilliam‘s Orwellian film Brazil), and lengthy excerpts from the fictional Emmanuel Goldstein‘s Trotskyite tract The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.

George Lucas‘ THX 1138 (1971) begins with an excerpt from the Buck Rogers’ serial which, itself, features a clip from Just Imagine.

Verhoeven‘s RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990) and Starship Troopers (1997) feature excerpts from advertisements and propaganda films.

  • Atwood, Margaret (1985) The Handmaid’s Tale
    • (2003) Oryx and Crake
    • (2009)  The Year of the Flood
    • (2011) Other Words
  • Bellamy, Edward (1887) Looking Backward 2000-1887
  • Bergerac, Cyrano de (1657) L’Autre Monde: où les États et Empires de la Lune (The Other World: The States and Empires of the Moon)
  • Bergerac, Cyrano de (1657) Les États et Empires du Soleil (The States and Empires of the Sun, 1662)
  • Bulgakov, Mikhail, The Master and Margarita
  • Bulwer-Lytton, Edward (1871) The Coming Race
  • Burdekin, Katharine (1937) Swastika Night
  • Burgess, Anthony (1962) A Clockwork Orange
  • (1978) 1985
  • Butler, Samuel (1872) Erewhon: or, Over the Range
  •  (1901) Erewhon Revisited Twenty Years Later, Both by the Original Discoverer of the Country and by His Son
  • Čapek, Karel (1920) RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots
  • (1936) War with the Newts
  • Chomsky, Noam (1991) Language, Politics, and Composition: Noam Chomsky interviewed by Gary A. Olson and Lester Faigley” in Journal of Advanced Composition, Vol. 11, No. 1
  • Delany, Samuel R (1975) Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia
  • (1977a) ”To Read The Dispossessed” in Delany, Samuel R (1977b)
  • (1977b) The Jewel Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction
  • Elgin, Suzette Haden (1984) Native Tongue
  •  (1987) Judas Rose
  •  (1993) Earthsong
  • Godwin, Francis (1638) The Man in the Moone or the Discovrse of a Voyage thither by Domingo Gonsales
  • Greatorex, William (1977) 1990 (Novelisation)
  • Hoyle, Trevor (1977) Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 (Novelisation)
  • Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World
  • Jameson, Fredric (1975) ”World Reduction in Le Guin: The Emergence of Utopian Narrative” in Science Fiction Studies #7, Volume 2, Part 3, November 1975
  • (1991) Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism
  • (2004) ”The Politics of Utopia” in New Left Review #25, January-February 2004
  • (2005) Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions
  • Kafka, Franz (1919) ”In the Penal Settlement”
  • (1925) The Trial
  •  (1926) The Castle
  •  (1927) Amerika
  • Le Guin, Ursula (1969) The Left Hand of Darkness
  • (1975) The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
  • Marx, Karl The Communist Manifesto
  • Morris, William (1890) News from Nowhere
  • Marcuse, Herbert (1969) “An Essay on Liberation” (pdf)
  • More, Sir Thomas (1516) Utopia
  • Orwell, George (1948) 1984
  • Parrinder, Patrick (ed., 1972) H.G. Wells: The Critical Heritage
  • (1974) News from Nowhere, The Time Machine and the Break-Up of Classical Realism” in Science Fiction Studies #10, Volume3, Part 3, November 1976
  • (1991) ”News from the Land of No News” in Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction #51, Spring 1991
  • (1995) Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction and Prophecy
  • — (ed., 2000) Learning from Other Worlds: Estrangement, Cognition and the Politics of Science Fiction and Utopia
  • Robinson, Kim Stanley (1993) Red Mars
  • — (1994) Green Mars
  • (1996) Blue Mars
  • (1999) The Martians
  • Russ, Joanna ”When it Changed”
  •  (1975) The Female Man
  • Skinner, B. F. (1948) Walden Two
  • — (1948) ”News from Nowhere, 1985” in Skinner, B.F. (1987) Upon Further Reflection
  • Suvin, Darko (1974) ”Radical Rhapsody and Romantic Recoil in the Age of Anticipation: A Chapter in the History of SF” in Science Fiction Studies #4, Volume 1, No. 4, Fall 1974
  • Swift, Jonathan (1726, revised 1735) Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships 
  • Thoreau, Henry David (1854) Walden; or, a Life in the Woods
  • Threall, Donald F. (1975) ”The Art of Social-Science Fiction: The Ambiguous Utopian Dialectics of Ursula K. Le Guin” in Science Fiction Studies #7, Volume 2, Part 3, November 1975
  • Webb,  Belinda (2008) A Clockwork Apple
  • Wells, H. G. (1895) The Time Machine
  • — (1898) The War of the Worlds
  •  (1899) When the Sleeper Wakes
  •  (1901) The First Men in the Moon
  •  (1904) The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth
  •  (1905) A Modern Utopia
  •  (1906) In the Days of the Comet
  •  (1908) The War in the Air
  •  (1909) Tono-Bungay
  • . (1909) Ann Veronica
  •  (1910) The Sleeper Awakes (1910, revised edition of When the Sleeper Wakes, 1899)
  •  (1914) The World Set Free
  •  (1923)  Men Like Gods
  •  (1933)  The Shape of Things to Come
  • Young, Michael (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy: 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality
  • Zamyatin, Yevgeny (1921) We

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