On Writing: Utopia / Dystopia

I’ve recently finished In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood, and while its ostensibly about Sci-Fi, its the author’s insights into Dys and U topias I found more interesting than any treatise on the topic before.

Topias or Ustopias as Atwood calls them, have alrights struck a strange chord with me. It was only in high school, when it was deemed time to start studying novels that I was properly exposed to them, reading the classics like 1984, Brave New World and so forth. Little did I know I’d already absorbed some without fully realizing.

Brave New World hit me particularly hard. 1984 is usually spoken about as a chilling and horrifying premise, and of course I found the tome scary and memorable, however it was Brave New World that I found myself in the far more shocking position of not knowing how to critique Huxley’s world. I knew I didn’t like it, but I also couldn’t find a way to refute it.

Utopias are much stranger in fiction, in the sense that you can pen a complete horror show of a world but in many respects a ‘perfect’ world is always just kind of a dystopia for some, a reveal of the authors bias or just a dystopia in disguise. Gulliver’s Travels is kind of an exploration of different Utopias and I don’t think anyone reads it as a series of perfect worlds!

The challenge for me now though is I find Ustopias incredibly challenging to write, something about setting them up makes me balk. I’m find with apocalyptic fiction, and nasty settings and sci-fi, yet I think designing a world which is either meant to be ‘perfect’ or where people themselves have turned upon themselves and/or embraced something horrid in society (horribly this may be something about it all being too close to home looking at the world?). I think that’s the key specific element of dystopia, is that the misery is not caused by external factors that allow human beings to still be ‘good’, its not aliens, a specific group, a natural disaster its people as a whole that setup the hellscape.

Nonetheless, flicking through Atwoods book made me reflect on a few elements that make a good Ustopia:

The World Needs a Key

Almost all dystopias are thorough and radical, however most of them have some key element underlying the situation. Fahrenheit 451 has its book burning ‘firemen’, 1984 has the omnipresent Big Brother, Handmaids tale has – well it’s in the title-, Brave New World is quite broad but its core concept is manufactured happiness. So I think in writing one its useful to capture some specific element of society and twist that into the created world. Funnily enough, this element is rarely about the story and/or overcoming the world, its more a starting point to hold the fiction together.

Space for individuals

Despite the horror show dystopias usually revolve around individuals who don’t quite fit, or extremely don’t fit. This can be achieved a number of ways in world but its useful to give characters a wee bit of space to play in order to show this. I think one of the reasons I found Brave New World so horrifying, is that society didn’t exactly persecute the main characters the way the world does in 1984, or Handmaid’s tale, rather they were treated with respect and offered residency in places they’d fit in, however its the natural shallow responses of the community to the Savage’s ways lead him to ultimate despair not any attack from authority.

Regardless of the challenges facing the characters there needs to be some space for them to grow against the world and more importantly question it, which leads to…

Some sort of Explainer

In dystopias the traditional ‘sage’ or wise old man trope is turned on its head. Rather than training and helping the hero become strong, the wise old man in dystopias explains to the hero how the dystopia works in usually a climatic speech that sees the hero fail and a return to normality. Its interesting that in many ways the dystopian speech wouldn’t typically be considered good writing, being a combination of info-dump and villain monologue, yet the way that dysoptian novels are written usually leaves us desperate to hear the speech (and hope for a rebuttal)

The Sense of an Ending

Most dystopias do not have happy endings (touching on YA dystopia in a second), death conformity and usually absent any sort of societal change, it feels that dystopias need a gloomy character arc in order to properly communicate the world to the reader. Not all stories are completely bad. Handmaid’s tale (as far as I can tell) ends with an escape for the MC and a future rebuttal of that society. However one has to handle their dystopia carefully, as I think victory against such a world takes away from the suggestion that this world could indeed be real, which takes me onto some recent trends.

In the past few years (Decades??) YA has seen a rise in dystopian fiction, Hunger Games and Divergent standing out as examples. Both of which deal with the premise of nasty future worlds, and of course heroic youths who deal with them. We’ve also got a recent boost in general with NetFlix series like Snowpiercer (Class warfare on a train). I don’t want to sound critical of such series as Hunger Games, because overall as stories are actually pretty good. I’m just reluctant to describe them as dystopian, at least in the same vein as other pieces. Maybe I’m just being pretentious, but I think its about the crux of the story. In Both Hunger Games and Divergent, the crux of the stories is the characters and their Hero’s Journey’s to overcome the adversity of their situations. While I respect that their settings are Dystopian its not really the point of the books. Hunger Games isn’t really exploring the what if’s of a world divided into districts and Hunger Games used to control people, its more the what ifs of Katniss in a challenging situation. Yes there are hints of exploring why the world is like that – but its not really about that, we automatically assume that Hunger Games and the Capital are bad, there’s no real exploration or explanation of how humanity got there exactly.

What I’m trying to say is there is a difference between the specific dystopian story and stories ‘set’ in dysoptias (wow maybe I am pretentious). It’s hard to draw a strong dividing line but I think it has more to do with the challenges and nature of the lesson in the story, so to go back to Hunger Games, yes there is a dystopian horror show which is largely created by people, and Katniss does work to overcome said regime, but the story isn’t really about that setting in itself. Unless I’m foolishly mistaken the lesson isn’t that the hunger games could really happen and/or a cautionary tale. There are of course elements of that, the class aspects, the potential to use blood sports to subdue the masses, but ultimately the climax of the story isn’t an explanation of the world.

Now an astute reader would have noticed that I kind of side stepped half the conversation at this point. Utopias in my opinion are much more confusing in fiction, I mean I get the idea but the execution is that much more strange. Atwood points out a couple of ideas worth stealing, first of all that hidden with utopias are shadows of the opposite, or even more often one persons utopia is another’s dystopia. Utopia is tough in fiction because its typically easier to agree that something is incredibly horrible, but hard to argue that something is perfectly great. That is why I think most utopia fiction is more about critique (e.g. Gulliver traveling the world observing several flawed utopias) or often about the loss or decay of a supposedly perfect world.

Of course stories are about tension and challenge and it can be hard to present a Utopian vision that includes such difficult things. Ironically a Utopian story is much more a theory on what should/could/might be good and thusly isn’t really the opposite of dystopia but a different beast entirely.

I guess all of this is leading up to my own experience where I find such fiction super hard to write. My dystopia ideas just seem too dark and paralyzing to generate stories, and my thoughts on utopia are too enmeshed in my genuine confusion as to what a utopia would even be! Ah well.

Interested to see what others think:

What are your favourite Dystopian/Utopian fiction

What are some of your ideas for said fiction?

What do you think are the key points of said fiction?

4 thoughts on “On Writing: Utopia / Dystopia

  1. Dystopian fiction is often depressing, though I should get around to reading “Brave New World” some time…

    A lot of utopias (as far as I’m aware) take the “revealing the man behind the curtain” route. I still like that the original is a pun (it could mean “perfect world” or “impossible/imaginary world”).

    I agree that “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” have a dystopia as a setting rather than a … I guess character (in the same way that people say “Oh, New York is a character in this movie”). The plot isn’t really about protagonist-vs-dystopian-state; Katniss just wants to be left alone (and doesn’t much care how the rest of society is functioning outside her bubble).

    Divergent is a bit more complicated (spoilers): You could argue that it’s a post-apocalyptic utopia (but rather blatantly showing its flaws) that has created a mini-dystopia in which the protagonists find themselves (and which seems to the extent of the world for the first couple of books).

    Liked by 1 person

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