Utopia, dystopia and other monsters

“Where in fucktopia are you, Dexter?” Yells Debra Morgan, obviously searching in vain  for her brother.

Sure thing, Debra did not hint at anything sexual here – even though there are some fictional versions of the universe where sex has an essential part.  Not relevant here: more interesting is the whole utopia stuff in the first place.  Do we have any? It seems rather not, at least in SF. Dystopia seems more the name of the game.

In case you wonder, utopia as a concept is an old one. I said old, and I mean it: while the definition comes from Thomas Moore’s Utopia, 1516, the first utopia as we know it comes back in time – at least to the Ancient Greeks. Plato’s Republica is allegedly the first coherent utopian society described with some degree of accuracy. Dystopia as a concept is allegedly more recent,  proposed in 1818 by Jeremy Bentham – even though under a slightly different name – but the vision of a dark future is not. (I could argue that the reason why the Ancient Rome had no literature of dystopia is not because its citizens were too optimistic for that. On the contrary: it was not literature, it was reality. And it was satire, as you can read in Juvenal – http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Juvenalhome.htm. Some people – like Suzanne Collins – understood it so well to use it as a solid inspirational ground for their own dystopia, like in the Hunger Games Trilogy  – http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2012/03/bread-circuses-the-hunger-games-ancient-rome).


Thus the claim that dystopian visions of future realities are nowadays more common than ever is not preposterous; maybe because our troubled present and even more uncertain future invite gloomy scenarios. Margaret Atwood – author of the famous (and indeed very dystopian) The Handmaid’s Tale – has certainly a point when saying these apocalyptic visions function as blueprints and that “they allow us to sketch out how things could be, should we continue down an extension of the road we appear to be on, and therefore to decide whether that is the road we want to take.” (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/cc4a4c26-aaff-11e3-be01-00144feab7de.html#axzz34pkqjU2k). Others rightly find that “the most shocking dystopian novel is the first one you read, when the whole idea of the arbitrariness of human arrangements comes over you, with the realization that the future is contingent on the present, and can be affected by something you do or don’t do now.”  (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jun/05/chang-rae-lee-dystopia/).


It’s impossible to deny the popularity of the dystopian discourse as a whole. A good look at this list from Wired – http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2014-05/21/10-best-dystopian-works – will prove how pervasive in our contemporary culture the theme is, in books, movies and video-games. It might be a telling sign that a current show in the UK, called Utopia, is actually a quite frightening dystopian and violent thriller. (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/utopia).

Troubles start, so to speak, when people decide to overly criticise this attitude, and to consider it a sort of cheap&easy recipe for success, especially when SF is concerned. I have noticed that reviews of some contemporary authors – like Neil Asher or Richard Morgan, only to mention two I especially like – often point this out with an insistence not, or not always, justified.


Is a dystopian depiction of the future commonplace? So be it. Are you surprised, seriously? It should be the other way around. I simply don’t see any reason for optimism regarding what lies ahead, as much as the (ancient) Romans with their present: does our recent history – say, the last 10,000 years – give you any? You don’t need to be an historian to know one thing or two about past horrors.  Of course, you can imagine, and write about, different scenarios. Clean water, blue skies. Millions of species living in harmony. Humans that have learnt the value of life, how to care for their only (for now) planet and to preserve the rest of the biosphere. Happy and benevolent societies thriving in diversity and mutual respect. And, as we said here in old Britain, pigs well fed and ready to fly.

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