Utopia vs dystopia smackdown: Guess who wins.

Utopia, Texas, sign
Utopia, Texas. Image courtesy University of Houston, Clear Lake.
Too dark. Too depressing. Too frightening. These are the comments some critics and authors apply to the crop of movies and novels drawing viewers and readers to the multiplexes and bookstores these days. From the Maze Runner to Divergent, dystopias dominate the best-seller and blockbuster categories, and culture watchers wonder if the public has lost hope in the future.

Could it be that dystopia’s opposite–utopia–is simply boring?

Today’s complaints about dystopian stories originate with the movie made from the novel the Hunger Games, about a young woman who challenges an autocratic society that oppresses weaker communities with a blood sport. It’s really a classic “us-against-the-world” teen rebellion story, but the environment is dystopian, so it gets mentioned in the same breath as 1984, a gross injustice to George Orwell.

Nonetheless, some science fiction writers see fit to combat the dystopian trend with something more upbeat. That’s the impetus behind the new anthology Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, “inspired” by scifi master Neal Stephenson, who reportedly “got into a little bit of a rut” (felt guilty?) writing dark stories. I haven’t read the book, but press reports suggest the stories focus on a technological utopia in which every new gadget moves humanity toward a mechanical or digital version of Heaven.

In fiction on climate change, a theme that interests me, only one attempt at utopia comes to mind: The World We Made, by environmentalist Jonathon Porritt. Therein lies one of the many problems with utopian literature: They’re written by non-fiction writers and typically have dull stories and sleepy characters. By definition, conflict is muted. Going back to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, these works of fiction violate almost every rule of drama, including the first rule: Don’t be boring. Even recent works cited as utopian, namely the Star Trek franchise, have many more dark threads than fans want to admit.

Dystopias attract writers because they are crucibles that illuminate the parts of our lives no one wants to talk about, such as human society’s tendency toward totalitarianism if there are no institutions to check the tyrants. Unlike utopias, dystopias exist now and in history. Today, in the Middle East, religious terrorists are fashioning their twisted vision of utopia by decapitating hostages and dissenters. And who cannot discuss dystopias without remembering Nazi Germany? Perhaps young people are attracted to dystopian stories because these dramas reflect the world’s social state as it is, not as a fantasy.

Utopias are possible to imagine, but impossible to make work in the real world, as the history of American utopian communities demonstrates. The larger society may adopt utopian ideals, such as religious tolerance, or technological trappings, such as cell phones (reportedly inspired by Star Trek’s communicators), and that’s the true utility of utopian speculation. But in the ring of fiction, where drama rules, dystopias will always score a knockout win.

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