Thursday, May 17, 2007

Utopias of Yesterday are the Dystopias of Today

It is certainly noticeable today that dystopias, anti-utopia tales, are very popular. I wonder, why the utopian novels are disappearing. Are they simply too unbelievable? For countless centuries there were a string of “utopias,” with everything from philosophy, social order to science as the glue that held them together. But in the last half-century, they have started to vanish, being replaced by a darker version of the story – one where hope seems lost, but is found in rebellion, revolution, and sometimes destruction. Seldom do these works follow-through with what happens after the customary thwarting or overthrow of the powers that be.

As readers, have we reached a point where it is no longer possible to consider utopia? (Utopia here being a condition of living on this world, or any other, in an "ideal" state). Have we become more “realistic”? Or are dystopias simply more entertaining? Some reference works are Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984, a novel and film) and Equilibrium (the film). There are countless others, but these works are intended as popular and not-so-popular examples. Perhaps hiding in every utopia is a dystopia?

As a musical reference, I've posted the lyrics from a Marilyn Manson song that is a touch dystopic, focusing on commercialism, but that can be read as an attack against the "sales pitch" for a utopia as well:


This is the New Shit (Marilyn Manson)

Everything's been said before
There's nothing left to say anymore
When it's all the same
You can ask for it by name

Babble, Babble, Bitch, Bitch
Rebel, Rebel, Party, Party
Sex, sex, sex, and don't forget the violence
Blah, blah, blah
Got your lovey-dovey sad and lonely
Stick your stupid slogan in
Everybody sing along
Babble, Babble, Bitch, Bitch
Rebel, Rebel, Party, Party
Sex, sex, sex, and don't forget the violence
Blah, blah, blah
Got your lovey-dovey sad and lonely
Stick your stupid slogan in
Everybody sing along

Are you motherfuckers ready for the new shit?
Stand up and admit it, tomorrow's never coming
This is the new shit
Stand up and admit it
Do we get it? NO!
Do we want it? YEAH!
This is the new shit
Stand up and admit it

... (the song ends with the refrain):

Let us entertain you
Let us entertain you
Let us entertain you
Let us entertain you
Let us entertain you

11 comments:

Jeff Edwards said...

I'm a fan of the dystopian genre and have never read a Utopian story. Partly, this is because of a pessimistic outlook. But also: Where is the dramatic tension in Utopia? If everything is perfect, wouldn't we just be reading a description of how wonderful everything is and how happy everyone is? If there's no conflict, then what is the plot? Perhaps the plot would be someone who wants to break the Utopian system for the sake of breaking it.

-Jeff

William Jones said...

Good question, Jeff. As they these types of stories/works are not popular today, I should have referenced some. Actually, a few of the more popular writings on utopia are ancient -- we just don't see them as "utopian." Plato's Republic is certainly considered one (the epic of Gilgamesh is also). But Sir Thomas More gets the credit for creating the word, and naming a fiction work Utopia.

Skipping ahead, The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton is a tale of discovered utopia (here is a SFNET review: http://www.sfsite.com/01a/cr215.htm

And in the early 1900s, there is Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, and H.G. Well's A Modern Utopia among others.

If those are not familiar, which I could understand why, then consider the tension in a Utopian tale/work to be the finding of "paradise." A true happy ending story. Or it could be a contrast of the imperfect world against the perfect world. In the past, there was a notion that progress brought humanity improvement, and with that will come the "perfect" society. However, it seem that the notion of progress no longer includes that aspect.

Jeff Edwards said...

There's a recent article at Salon that ties into this discussion:

http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2007/05/12/jetpack/index.html

"Today we seem to have trouble picturing the future, except in cataclysmic terms or as the present gone worse."

-Jeff

Mark said...

I don't think I'd like a utopian book. I don't think there can be a perfect world, so reading about one seems like it would be boring. It's scary to think, but I'd bet that some of these uptopian books are the cause of real historical dystopias.

Lucas Pederson said...

I need chaos. Utopian stories drive me nuts. Although some are quite entertaining, I prefer dystopian. Dystopians, in my opinion, are much truer to life as we know it. There are no real paradises out there. Looks are very decieving.

I like that Maryln Manson song. It's one of his better ones.

Great post! Talk to ya later!

William Jones said...

Jeff,

Thanks for the article URL. It is very much related, and I found it quite interesting. There was that moment in the last century when the future was bright and filled with jet cars, and electronic books. :) I guess we did manage to get cars that use fuel like a jet and electronic books. Close.

William Jones said...

That seems to be the consensus today, Mark and Lucas. I wonder what it is that is more appealing about dystopias? Well, I suppose they are more appealing in fiction than in life.

A few people have emailed me, surprised by the Mansion lyrics. I’m surprised how many Mansion fans are wondering around here.

Jon said...

It seems one yearns for what one dosn't have. In an America with a massive overabundance of everything, we seem to yearn for chaos.
(If you're one of the Americans living in the warmest corner of a cold, deserted building, I'm pretty sure your stories would center on your unattained, perfect world.)
If I were a betting man, I might wager that Jeff grew up on "RainTree Lane," or some such avenue rather than "Herman Street."
But what do I know...

Anonymous said...

MM fan standing up!

I read the Republic in college. Maybe it would be different if I studied philosophy, but it's a utopia for only a FEW people, not everyone. I do yearn for dystopian books, still that doesn't mean I want to see the world go down in flames. They usually have the people who are not a part of the utopia winning. If a salesman came by selling utopias, I'd have to pass because I know there's going to be a masterplan hidden in there and I'd be the person not included.

-^Amy^-

Scott Lette said...

William,

historically the 'Utopian vision' has been a non-fictional work, often political and philosophical in nature. These have often appealed to the 'Left' in politics historically, the Conservative/'Right' factions politically favouring a 'here and now pragmatism of improvement'.
At least, that's the British/Commonwealth tradition I know and have read. Trying to fathom US politics from the outside isn't easy, so I'll not comment on the relationship between political leaning and 'yearning for Utopia' beyond what I know.

Dystopias are however a different mixed bag. They're warning signs for all of us, often encapsulating a 'vision of the future' that scares, alarms and warns.

It's a filmic adaptation of a not-so great novel, but Children of Men is easily the best dystopian film I've seen in a decade. And like most good dystopian yarns, it's a piece that explores a frightening future based upon the fears of today. Pointless authoritarianism and brutality mixed with chaos, dread, hopelessness, alienation and inevitability; that's probably the best way to describe the Britain of the film.

Utopians are fictional abstracts that we yearn, or should yearn, to work towards. The dream of what could be.
Dystopias are warnings for now, playing out today's fears with a future fictional context to ease us into what ails us.

Jeff Edwards said...

Someone pointed out this article, "Why Don't We Love Science Fiction?", and it is slightly relevant to our discussion here.

"A collapsing environment, a hyperconnected world, suicide bombers, perpetual surveillance, the discovery of other solar systems, novel pathogens, tourists in space, children drugged with behaviour controllers – it’s all coming true at last. Aldiss thinks this makes SF redundant."

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article2961480.ece

-Jeff