Utopia: a usable definition

The question of what constitutes a utopia vs. a dystopia keeps coming up online and in conversation, along with what I think is a reflexive dismissal of the narrative possibilities of utopia. That’s because utopia is presumed to preclude any kind of distress or conflict – and how can you write an engaging story that doesn’t have some sort of strife?

Don’t ask me; I need upheaval as much as the next novelist. However I don’t think that “nothing bad can ever happen” is a particularly helpful definition of a utopia. I’m also annoyed by how easily virtually any science fictional scenario in which there is discord and the risk of things going badly – which is to say pretty much all of them – is labelled a dystopia. I’ve already grumbled about that here, with respect to my own books. This post is a slight expansion of a contribution I made elsewhere earlier today, on the subject of dystopia’s opposite.

A useful concept of utopia is not one in which there is never any crisis or conflict – not least because that sounds to me a lot like being dead (somewhat ironically, the ultimate result of a dystopian state). Instead a practical, achievable and narratively interesting utopia would be a system in which there are clear, legitimate and accessible methods of addressing crises or resolving conflicts. Given that the generally accepted understanding of dystopia (political/ environmental/ economic etc.) is of a state in which there are no legitimate or generally available means of redress, and in which the protagonists have to somehow overthrow, subvert or completely escape the system in order to fix what’s wrong with it or even to survive, its logical opposite would be a state in which problems can be solved without resorting to such measures. But because there’s no guarantee that the problems will be solved, it does not inherently lack the potential for narrative tension. There can still be untold dangers and conflicts; the distinction is not in whether they exist, but in the means available for dealing with them.

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