“Utopia lies at the horizon.
When I draw nearer by two steps,
it retreats two steps.
If I proceed ten steps forward, it
swiftly slips ten steps ahead.
No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.
What, then, is the purpose of utopia?
It is to cause us to advance.”
What is the boundary between dystopia and utopia? Well, it might not be so easy to make a distinction between them. At a discussion on Beyond the Dystopia at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, the panelists – Juliet Kemp, Joe Abercrombie, Tom D. Wright, Vincent Docherty and Taiyo Fujii – covered various topics related to dystopia and utopia.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of dystopia is as follows: “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives“. According to the same source, the definition of utopia reads as follows: “an imaginary and indefinitely remote place” or “a place of ideal perfection especially in laws, government, and social conditions“.
The panelists argued that there is an element of fear for the future in dystopia and the opposite of dystopia is actually hope, rather than utopia.
Often any kind of positive fiction qualifies as non-dystopian, such as the Star Trek series where the viewer is taken on a moral tour to witness human-alien relations according to the guiding Prime Directive.
The panelists also discussed whether positive fiction can be muddy or a mix of positive and dystopian elements. Abercrombie and Docherty both mentioned Iain M. Banks‘ popular Culture series. In dystopian settings, there is a certain degree of darkness at the heart of the story.
Fujii added that utopian worlds are difficult to create. This could be because utopian settings might require more imaginative thinking whereas dystopian ones can be created from what we know or what we fear might happen in the future.
I do not think, and this seemed to be the consensus among the panelists as well, that there is never a pure utopia or dystopia. There can be a beautifully positive story in a dark society. It is therefore crucial to distinguish between “agency” and “structure” in the story: e.g. in Orwell‘s 1984 the main protagonist finds agency in a grim setting.
“How many British sci-fi writers does it take to change the light bulb? None. We all rather sit in the dark.”
Utopia is often coined together with “perfect” but it is a false concept – kind of a dystopia itself. Wouldn’t a “perfect” utopia be a form of absolute totalitarianism and control over people in order to function – a utopia for the ruler but not the ruled. Somebody’s utopia is most likely a dystopia for the majority of humans. There are always two sides to the story. I guess with a utopia hope goes lost and agency goes to sleep.
Fujii mentioned the process within the character which can prove to be full of hope. Also, Abercrombie stated that in the saddest of sad stories – such as The Road by Cormac McCarthy – there is always a thread of hope and optimism despite the luminous and harsh surrounding world. Irrelevant of dystopia, there can be uplifting and safe elements even in the darkest of stories. Wright stated that he is looking for characters that face tremendous challenges that in the end find a healthier outcome for themselves or the surrounding environment.
Moderator Kemp asked the panelists about the tension between fear and hope and how it relates to the present world. Somebody in the panel mentioned that disappointment brings forth catastrophe. Abercrombie added that powerlessness, such as the tedious fight for power and resources in Mad Max, is crippling at heart. The panelists also referred to Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood as examples of novels covering the dilemma between hope and fear.
“Space operas counterbalance the grim settings.”
~Panel discussion at Worldcon 75
According to Wright, drama is composed of the tension of what is happening to the character and the hope of what one wishes for the character. Handmaid’s Tale offers in this regard a perfect opportunity to explore the power of endurance and the desire to survive.
In the discussion on agency, there can be different outcomes depending on the view-point and standing. What is important is the change for the character. Docherty referred to Ursula K. Le Guin‘s anarchistic and utopian stories in which there are playful solutions to organize society and experimental elements. Guin plays the character through a stress test.
The question remains, where do fantasy and post-apocalypse fit in the scene? And does it really matter since the divisional lines are blurry to start with?
“The future is already here.”
Book recommendations by the panelists:
- Iain M. Banks: Culture Series (1987-2012)
- Becky Chambers: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014)
- Ada Palmer: Seven Surrenders (2017)
- James White: Hospital Station (1962)
Quotes on Utopia
“For if you suffer your people to be ill-educated, and their manners to be corrupted from their infancy, and then punish them for those crimes to which their first education disposed them, what else is to be concluded from this, but that you first make thieves and then punish them.” ~Thomas More, Utopia
“Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.” ~Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
“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. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” ~Oscar Wilde
“You wouldn’t abandon ship in a storm just because you couldn’t control the winds.” ~Thomas More, Utopia
Quotes on Dystopia
“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.” ~Philip K. Dick
“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?” ~George Orwell, Animal Farm
“Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your nervous system. At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom.” ~George Orwell, 1984
“That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.” ~Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
“In the year 2025, the best men don’t run for president, they run for their lives. . ..” ~Stephen King, The Running Man