I. What is Utopia
A utopia (pronounced you-TOE-pee-yuh) is a paradise. A perfect society in which everything works and everyone is happy – or at least is supposed to be.
Utopias are very common in fiction, especially in science fiction, where authors use them to explore what a perfect society would look like and what the problems might be in such a flawless society. However, very few fictional utopias are true utopias. Almost all of them are revealed to be the opposite of utopia—dystopia—during the course of the story. Utopian literature is generally about exploring real problems facing our world and making political, philosophical, or moral points through storytelling.
II. Examples of Utopia
The central worlds of ‘The Federation’ in Star Trek are often depicted as utopias – they are lush with greenery and beautiful architecture, and there is no evidence of any hunger, poverty, or war. Of course, the planets at the fringes of Federation space are far less utopian.
In The Republic, Plato describes his perfect society. However, it may seem far from perfect to us– for example, Plato’s society outlawed music! In fact, scholars still debate whether Plato really meant it to be a true utopia or whether he meant is as a criticism of utopian ideals, like most such stories.
III. The Importance of Utopia
Utopian stories are generally written to explore ideas about how society should or could be. For example, an eco-utopia would be a story exploring the concept of a society based on perfect harmony with nature. On the other hand, a libertarian utopia would be a society based on perfect freedom and individualism. These stories can be a great way to test out such philosophies by seeing how they would actually affect people in practice.
When you come across a utopian story or image, try to work out what kind of moral, political, or scientific ideal is being explored.
IV. Types of Utopia
All these utopias use and explore questionable morals or ethics, such as the genetic perfection of human beings. They might be about political ethics, environmental ethics, religious ethics, or the ethics of science.
Many utopias are based on a particular political, social, or economic philosophy. The author believes (or at least wants to explore the possibility) that a society following a pure form of their philosophy would be without flaws. Of course, no such utopias have ever existed in real life and in most stories, the society turns out to be very imperfect indeed, usually a nightmare. But they are still a source of inspiration to writers.
In an ecological utopia, humans live in perfect harmony with nature: their society produces no pollution, their food sources are sustainable, and the environment is protected, bringing about happiness for humans.
A religious utopia is one based on the precepts of a particular religion. Christian authors throughout history have written utopian stories about what society would be like if everyone was a perfect Christian. But you could also do the same thing for Islam, Buddhism, or any other religion – the problem, of course, is that it might not be persuasive to readers who belong to a different tradition!
In a technological utopia, scientists and engineers have worked out technological development, such as genetic engineering or total surveillance, perfectly. In these stories, human problems are treated as technical glitches, to be resolved solely through technology.
V. Examples of Utopia in Literature
In Omelas, everyone is happy. There is no poverty, injustice, sickness, or sorrow of any kind. Except, that is, in one tiny corner of a basement somewhere in town, where an innocent child is hooked up to a machine that causes her intense pain. The machine generates all the energy and income for the city of Omelas, and is the source of everyone’s happiness. But their happiness comes at a dreadful price.
This is the setup of Urula LeGuin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. This famous short story raises the question of whether living in a utopia would be OK if the price was torturing an innocent victim. Whether you see Omelas as a utopia or a dystopia, depends on your attitude toward “greater good” theories of morality, such as utilitarianism.
The renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner wrote a book called Walden Two, in which every aspect of human life is dictated by experimentally-verified science. In the book, scientists have discovered ways to raise children so that they are incapable of violence, cruelty, or selfishness. Skinner believed that science would one day be able to create a perfect world for humanity, and he wrote his book to explore that possibility.
Perhaps the most famous utopia / dystopia of all is the future England described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where everything is managed to rational perfection. There is no poverty, ill health, lack of education, or war. They also no longer have romance, marriages, families, or other things that cause emotional conflicts. Everyone is told by the government to take a drug called soma which makes them happy and easy to control.
VI. Examples of Utopia in Pop Culture
Pixar’s WALL-E has another ambiguous utopia on-board the Axiom. The people have all their needs met by robots, and live entirely in comfort and ease. However, this life is also dystopian in a sense – because they have all their material comforts, the people on the ship are fat, lazy, and immature.
In the original Silver Surfer comics, the Silver Surfer’s home-world is a perfect utopia. Everyone on the planet is well-educated and benevolent, and their society runs smoothly. However, the Surfer decides he has to leave once he learns that people on other worlds do not have the same advantages, and he dedicates himself to making all planets enjoy the happiness of his home-world.
VII. Related Terms
A dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. It’s a society in which everything has gone horribly wrong and injustice or chaos holds sway. This might be a post-apocalyptic society where all governments have collapsed and human beings have to fight to survive; or it might be a totalitarian society in which powerful authority figures control every aspect of citizens’ lives. Dystopias are, naturally, more realistic and relevant to most people than utopias because our societies have many problems, and we worry about the future. In fact, dystopian stories are almost always about problems that we already have in this world. Dystopian fiction is far more common than utopian fiction!
In literature, seemingly utopian societies often turn out to be dystopian, as in the case of The Giver by Lois Lowry. In this book, the society at first appears to be perfect and orderly. But slowly we learn that people have gained their security and order by giving up their freedom and creativity, and ultimately we come to see this “perfect” society as dystopian.