by Arwen Spicer, Author and Guest Contributor

Image courtesy of Unsplash

In today’s increasingly dystopian reality, readers are hungry for hope, so it’s not surprising utopian fiction is making a comeback. But just what makes a good utopian story, a delight the reader will still think about years later? Let’s explore this.

Broadly speaking, a “utopia”* is an imaginary society that is either “perfect” or very good. In recent decades, however, the word “utopia” has become something of a putdown. When we call an idea “utopian,” we often mean it’s simplistic and naive. Traditionally, utopian novels have been accused of two fatal flaws: they’re either boring or they’re actually dystopian.

Boredom is always a hazard in a society that’s “too good.” Stories are about conflict, right? William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), for example, is a neat thought experiment about a pastoral communist England, but it can be yawn-inducing. Happy farmers and craftsmen go about their happy days in a happy countryside, and that’s about it.

In contrast, Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935), which charts a potential utopia, is a page turner about a persecuted new sub-species of highly evolved humans (think X-Men), who found their own, much better run society, and are quite willing to kill “lower” humans for their aims. If this sounds a bit eugenic, yes, it’s a Homo superior story (in fact, it coined the term); it arguably endorses genocide—or perhaps is just being provocative. In either case, it’s very well written and disturbing as heck.

There is also a genre called “negative utopia,” which leans intentionally into the idea that a utopia really…isn’t. The most famous example may be Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which depicts a happy society of hyper-controlled dimwits addicted to drugs. It’s a fantastic book, but it doesn’t help us write a true utopia. A utopia is a place you might want to be.

Arguably the most compelling utopian writer of the past century is Ursula K. Le Guin, whose 1974 novel, The Dispossessed, popularized the idea of an “ambiguous utopia,” a society better than ours by many measures yet with its own downsides. The anarchic society of The Dispossessed, for example, offers considerable freedom and equality, fair distribution of wealth, and a sense of belonging but can be intolerant of people, like genius physicist Shevek, who want to pursue work outside what the collective deems useful.

The key insight of an ambiguous utopia is that every culture makes choices, and every choice contains inherent strengths and weaknesses. For example, an individualistic culture may honor individual freedom but have difficulty pulling together in need. A collectivist culture may be excellent at supporting communities but tend to enforce social roles on unwilling people. There is no perfect balance. We can generally agree extremes are bad, but nearer the middle, there is endless room for imagining different (ambiguously) utopian possibilities.

My favorite of Le Guin’s utopian writings, however, is not so ambiguous. In the short story “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” (1994), the society of planet O is great: it has community connection, individual freedom, ecological sustainability, effective technology, natural beauty, etc. The story doesn’t really critique the society at all. But where there’s freedom, there’s the freedom to make bad choices, in this case the protagonist’s agonizing realization that he has taken the wrong path in life. The conflict is personal, a consequence of free choice.

Renowned utopian writer Kim Stanley Robinson offers yet another perspective. He argues that utopia and dystopia are not stable states but trajectories. A troubled society that is improving is on a utopian trajectory, a well-functioning society slipping into decay dystopian. By this measure, Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future (2020) is utopian: even as it explores the terrors of our climate crisis, it describes a world learning to improve.

So we have at least three options for structuring a compelling utopian story:

  1. The ambiguous utopia that explores the pros and cons of a society’s chosen way of life,
  2. The conflict that plagues individuals’ choices, even in a kind and well-functioning society,
  3. The utopian trajectory that shows a society working to build a better future.

These, I’m sure, are not the only possibilities. I welcome readers to reach out to me with their own takes on utopian writing.

* It may be noticed that this post cites only white authors, though Le Guin’s work was influenced by her study of Indigenous cultures. The genre of utopia originated in the West and has primarily been developed by Eurocentric writers. Other ways of imagining better worlds, including Indigenous futurism and Afro futurism, deserve their own dedicated discussions.

Arwen Spicer is a science fiction writer and educator from Sonoma Mountain, California. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on evolution and ecology in utopian science fiction. Her recent short fiction has appeared in the Ursula K. Le Guin–inspired anthology, Dispatches from Anarres, Dragon Soul Press’s Timeless II, and the Fabled Collective’s Women of the Woods. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a servant to a feline deity.