Utopian Fiction

From Gerald R. Lucas

The pronouncement that “God is dead” is commonly attributed to Nietzsche, though it is not his alone. Nietzsche’s observation is not a personal one, but a realization that God can no longer provide a moral center or structural order to modern humanity at the end of the nineteenth century. The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution championed reason and technology above superstition and a simple life. Scientific observations about the universe, nature, and humanity superseded the traditionally accepted ideas of a beneficent God who directed the machinations of the creation. However, the exponential rise of technological sophistication as a result of scientific progress led directly to a revaluation of humanity’s place in the world. This disruption provide the fulcrum for the rise of many personal and political systems that sought to instill a new order on the chaos. In other words, could new systems replace an absent God?

Their Refinement of the Decline by Michael Kerbow

The Age of Reason challenged traditional religious notions, but it did not fully discount the existence of God. Even though Galileo and Newton observed that earth is not the center of the universe and that the heavenly objects seem to be guided by a mathematically predictable physics, the new science did not explain the origin of these systems. The church could survive a challenge to its geocentric view of the cosmos—though it did its best to suppress and heretical views that contradicted its dicta.

It wasn’t until certain thinkers in the nineteenth century challenged the foundational tenet of the church: the genesis of humanity. In this way, I tie together our subject matter for this semester: the unique place of utopia in the twentieth century. I contend that even though many of the human systems of the past, coupled with the nostalgia of many politicians and public figures, seem to offer answers to human community and progress, none of them can withstand the reality of technological and scientific progress beginning before the twentieth century.

Thinkers like Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein challenged the traditional assumptions of the West by positing alternative views of human society and progress based scientific methods that eschew superstition. Briefly, Darwin indirectly challenged the idea of a creator and the narratives that posited humans as the center of that creation; Freud’s interpretations of dreams and subsequent founding of psychoanalysis suggested that humans may not be as rational and reasonable as they think; Marx examined capitalism in the west and asserted that humans’ material conditions contribute to their well-being and their behavior — capitalism may not be the best system for social happiness; and Einstein posited a new physics with relativity at its center: perhaps seeing is believing only tells us about our local position in the cosmos — that maybe we know nothing about objective reality. Certainties like human altruism, reason, and idealism no longer seemed to make sense.



While these new perspectives contributed to Nietzsche’s pronouncement that “God is dead,” the first World War certainly seemed to validate the reality of that notion. WWI was the first world-wide conflict that used advanced technologies — like combat planes, flame throwers, tanks, trench warfare, and chemical weapons — to deal death to more than 20 million people (soldiers and civilians) world-wide.[2] As a result of the war, the US became the world’s mightiest military force, and the borders for many countries were drastically altered. Inherited values ordered around lineage and national identity were also exploded by the realities of war: intellectual disillusionment and cynicism replaced the ideals of religion and the Age of Reason. After the war, Gertrude Stein said to Ernest Hemingway: “You are all a lost generation.” (Hem liked it so much, he used it as the epigraph for his modernist classic The Sun Also Rises.)

Some traits of modernism are of specific interest to our study. Artists who are traditionally called modernists, like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, produced works that:

  • undercut and destroy the authority of the past, like country, church, and family — this is an end of innocence, hope and idealism — one can no longer trust anything as solid or permanent[3]  — distrust of conformity and group consciousness;[4] contrasts an orderly past with a disordered present;[5]
  • attempt to find meaning within the individual — in a relativistic universe, the internal becomes the reality — reality is in flux, so absolute positions lose their authority; individual and subjective experience becomes the new touchstone, but it is always provisional;[6] time is in-flux and often non-linear and subjective;[7] Butler posits the modern character is “a perfect instrument for registering the variety, the flux, the interpenetration, the simultaneity and randomness of experience”;[8]
  • create art (like the psychological novel) based on the sensibilities of the individual artist; the self represents an artistic ordering[9]  —  grand narratives are gone or reinterpreted;[10] the epiphany allows the individual to intuit the nature of reality on a local level;[11] often reply earlier traditions in art with complex and wide-ranging allusion or a new mythology — cry “make it new”;[12] art is difficult and prefers the concrete to the abstract;[13]
  • reinvent the external world to match their internal order—particularly when discussing artistic expression; there is no longer one way to art: many realities and meanings need many different expressions, and each relates to society in a different way; what makes art valuable?[14]

Much more has been written and debated about modernism — all worthy of your time and consideration, but for our purposes, consider modernism as a quest for order in the midst of chaos. It’s an attempt to artistically reconstruct Western civilization after the devastation of both recent intellectual revolutions and the literal devastation of World War I. Much of the practices of modernism — like the rise of the strong individual, the mythologizing of the community, and a disregard for the sanctity of life — could be traced to the rise of fascism.[15] Here’s our connection with utopia.

Future City.jpeg


Any discussion of utopia is intrinsically political. Think of literary utopia as an artistic experiment in social perfection or an ideal state. If is it meant to be taken seriously, it is likely propaganda or wishful thinking of a group who has delusions of grandeur. Or, if it is satirical, not ideal, or a warning, then it is called anti-utopia or dystopia. Some suggest, like James and Mendlesohn, that the genocide and totalitarianism of the twentieth century killed the idealism necessary for utopian expressions today,[16] so now we only get dystopias, or “feminist critical utopias” of the 1960s and 1970s.[17] I’ll let you be the judge: perhaps only dystopia is possible in a (post?) postmodern world.

The problem with most expressions of perfection is that they are imagined by imperfect creatures: humans. They are often products of ideology, of some imagined, future “good place” (eutopia) where society has been cleansed of its flaws and reality has been transformed into a true mirror of perfection. Utopias are political in that they propose and uphold a set of values by which people should live and be happy.[18]

Likewise, the urge to utopia is often akin to a religious longing for perfection. James and Mendlesohn point out that More’s utopia is like a Benedictine monastery: both men and women wear monastic habits, live together, work for the common good, and are self-policing.[19] Like a religious order, many utopias were village-like communities that eliminated private property, and therefore, greed, poverty, jealously and the strife that they precipitate.[19]

In “Atavism and Utopia,” Eric S. Rabkin argues that utopias belong to the future — to a distant time that expresses both a collective yearning that strikes an emotional chord with individuals.[20] While the utopia is forever located in the future, continues Rabkin, it signifies an idyllic past before the fall precipitated by sexual maturity and loss of innocence.[21] He further discusses Eden as the most common vision of eutopia: a garden of innocence and abundance under the protection of a benevolent authority — free of knowledge and the pain and death that it derives.[22] In addition to being out-of-time, utopias are often out-of-place; i.e, they are geographically isolated lands located elsewhere from where the protagonist and/or us readers are familiar.[23]

In utopias, knowledge of the self and that things might be otherwise are enemies of the perfect society.[24] Citizens, therefore, are returned to an atavistic state — they become children under the rule of the authority figure that gives them certain responsibilities that distract them from individual desires, like sexual intimacy and individual expression. Therefore, in an effort to impose and maintain its social perfection, many utopia/dystopias end up making a basic change in human nature.[25] Yet, as Susan Bruce points out in her introduction to Three Early Modern Utopias, while these utopian societies might seem authoritarian, they may not be as bad as the society they are mean to critique.[26]

Recent visions of the perfect society are often pastoral, a reaction to the twentieth-century’s increasing technology and urbanization. High-tech worlds usually fit well into the utopian/dystopian dichotomy in that they often offer solutions that have plagued humanity for centuries, but alter humanity in some monstrous way. Donna Haraway discusses the “informatics of domination” as one possible way that governments and corporations might exert increasing control over its citizenry.[27] While upholding digital technology as a potential instrument for self-expression, she warns that it may also be employed by those that seek ubiquitous surveillance and control. For Haraway, any utopia is a totalizing mythology that should be avoided. James and Mendlesohn call this urge of science fictions writers to create a better world — instead of a perfect one — as “technological utopianism” through science and alternative possibilities that its technology makes possible.[28]

The problem with utopias is that one person’s heaven is another’s hell, so intrinsic in all utopia is a paradox. Perfection can only be achievable is everyone shares a similar set of values; thus the Shining City upon a Hill is built and maintained on a dubious foundation. Cuddon reminds us that even the prototypical utopia, Plato’s Republic (from the 4th century bce), depicts a poetry-free state where women are owned, slavery is commonplace, and eugenics determines the breeding of children.[29] Plato’s vision of perfection looks like a totalitarian state run by elite philosopher kings. Even More’s Utopia (1516) proposes a communistic state where citizens lives, work, and even sexual activity are regimented.

Many utopias, perhaps best expressed in Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, are just dull. Perhaps Clarke is illustrating his difficulty with utopia in “The Golden Age.” With no contention, life begins to become stagnant, lacking adventure and challenge: “When the Overlords had abolished war and hunger and disease, they had also abolished adventure.”[30]

It seems like contention is perhaps an integral component of being human? Without it, we become something else, and it’s usually not positive. Without his violent impulses, Alec, in BurgessA Clockwork Orange, becomes just another mindless cog — or, to tease the title’s metaphor, a predictable and programmable, farmed piece of fruit—forced to what others consider right and proper. Along with his violence goes his creativity and individuality. Yes, he was dangerous, but he was also alive. Life, it seems, must be accompanied by a bit of risk. Those who promise to make us safe will also remove our freedom and choice. Without risk, James and Mendlesohn assert, a society becomes static, so utopia is often rejected so humanity may struggle to progress.[28] Indeed, have you ever though about actually existing (you wouldn’t say “living,” would you?) in the popular notions of the christian heaven? Eden? Both seem like very mundane places. Perhaps this is why Lucifer and the first humans decided to leave.

Utopias are often built on the pragmatic details of social organization, so they might read like how-to manuals for building your own perfect society. Like a philosophical thought experiments, they push dominant social ideas to an extreme or present alternatives to current political orders.[31]

Hitler Youth.jpeg

Utopian Thinking

My current interest in utopia might be called “utopian thinking” that seems present in much (post-)postmodern culture. By this I mean, overt utopia in science fiction has become, well, a bit tired and juvenile; e.g., The Hunger Games and The Divergent Series. I’m not suggesting these texts aren’t valuable and rewarding in their own right, but they lack a certain subtlety that, in my view, is much more interesting and potentially threatening. By utopian thinking, then, I mean a thread of nostalgic tradition akin to Rabkin’s atavism that can be traced in narratives that might not traditionally be considered utopian or dystopian. These texts address authoritarian ideas and propensities that affect various characters and the choices they make which affect others. Put simply, it’s a quest for the “good old days” that threatens the growth and health of the text’s characters and society.

For example, this semester, we’ll consider utopian thinking in more overt texts, like Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Zamyatin’s We, and Niccol’s Gattaca, but we’ll also consider novels like Mailer’s An American Dream and Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day through the lens of utopian urges that drive the characters’ choices and actions, here through the protagonists Rojack and Stevens, respectively. Through this examination, perhaps we will be more apt to recognize utopian thinking in our everyday lives.

I hope to write more on this as the semester progresses. Keep up with student posts about utopia and dystopia in the Humanities Index. They will be posting all semester.

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  1. Written in the fall of 2016 for my (Post)Modernism and Utopia course.
  2. "World War I: Facts, information and articles about World War I, aka The Great War". HistoryNet. 2014. Retrieved 2019-06-19.
  3. Butler, Christopher (2010). Modernism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 1–2.
  4. Butler 2010, p. 55; Whitworth, Michael W. (2008). Modernism. Blackwell Guides to Criticism. New York: John Wiley & Sons. p. 14.
  5. Whitworth 2008, p. 11.
  6. Butler 2010, pp. 51–58.
  7. Whitworth 2008, p. 12.
  8. Butler 2010, p. 64.
  9. Butler 2010, pp. 57–58; Whitworth 2008, p. 7.
  10. Whitworth 2008, p. 9.
  11. Butler 2010, pp. 55–56.
  12. Butler 2010, pp. 41, 30.
  13. Whitworth 2008, pp. 11, 15.
  14. Whitworth 2008, pp. 8, 10.
  15. Butler 2010, pp. 83–87.
  16. James, Edward; Mendlesohn, Farah (2003). The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 219.
  17. Murphy, Graham J. (2009). "Eutopia". In Bould, Mark; Butler, Andrew M.; Roberts, Adam; Vint, Sherryl. The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. London and New York. p. 481.
  18. Masri, Heather, ed. (2008). Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. New York: Bedfors/St. Martin's. p. 702.
  19. 19.0 19.1 James & Mendlesohn, p. 220.
  20. Rabkin, Eric S. (1983). "Atavism and Utopia". In Rabkin, Eric S.; Greenberg, Martin Harry; Olander, Joseph D. No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. pp. 1–3.
  21. Rabkin 1983, p. 3.
  22. Rabkin 1983, pp. 3, 2.
  23. Murphy 2009, p. 478.
  24. Rabkin 1983, pp. 6–7.
  25. Rabkin 1983, p. 7.
  26. Bruce, Susan (2008). Introduction. Three Early Modern Utopias. By Moore, Thomas; Bacon, Francis; Neville, Henry. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. xxvi.
  27. Haraway, Donna (2013). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge. p. 161.
  28. 28.0 28.1 James & Mendlesohn 2003, p. 222.
  29. Cuddon, J. A. (1979). A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Revised ed.). New York: Penguin. p. 743.
  30. Clarke, Arthur C. (1990) [1953]. Childhood's End. New York: Del Rey. p. 85.
  31. Masri 2008, p. 702.