Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible?

I used to struggle to explain the Aligare world, particularly when trying to pitch it to editors or other Actual Publishing People. Aemets, korvi and ferrin work together. That means they don’t have senseless wars, or petty racist hate, or plots to kill an authority figure and seize power. They work together — which some people interpret as, “So, everything is perfect? That’s boring.”

And I used to sit there stunned at the thousand-mile logic leap that just happened. If a world isn’t completely overwhelmed with social problems, it must be flawlessly happy? I’m … I’m pretty sure there are stages in between, you guys.

Part of the issue might be the vocabulary. We often describe troubled societies as “dystopias” and seemingly peaceful ones as “utopias”. From my Macbook’s Dictionary function:

An imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one. The opposite of Utopia.

An imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. The word was first used in the book Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More. The opposite of dystopia.

We have these concise, evocative words for the polar extremes of society. But how do we describe a society with a plausible mixture of problems and good points? There isn’t a snappy term. It’s just a society. And when we’re trying to sum up a story in one compelling sentence, we don’t have space to talk about every facet of economics and social interaction. It’s easier to just say that it’s a world where everything is terrible. I’m wondering if that’s part of why dystopias are so popular nowadays: they’re easy to describe and easy to market.

Pictures like this are worth a thousand words, after all.

But I’m not convinced that our fictional dystopias are true dystopias. Is it possible for every single thing to be simultaneously bad? Can the author decisively say that no one in an entire fictional country has anything good going on in their lives? I haven’t read the Hunger Games series but it’s often described as a dystopia, and from what I understand, Katniss is able to go out into the forest and hunt animals for food. Some fictional societies don’t have any unspoiled forest left and are dependant on processed food. They’d probably consider Katniss very lucky.

In the same way, I don’t think fictional utopias are really possible, either. Nothing goes according to plan 100% of the time, and they say that in a true compromise, no one gets exactly what they want. My stories of Aligare are an exploration of that. Sure, the three peoplekinds don’t openly try to murder each other, but they still need to distribute supplies in times of plague where there isn’t enough to go around. People still need to balance their personal desires with the needs of their communities. Peregrine loves Tillian but thinks that pushing her away to live her own life will ultimately be better. Doing the right thing isn’t always easy.

I guess we just want fiction to be simpler than real life. There are plenty of misconceptions that certain Earth countries are purely good or bad, so fictional places must be even easier to make assumptions about. And if we’re going to escape into a story, why not go to a place where the world can be easily defined? That’s a fantasy in itself.

At any rate, my Aligare world is positive but not perfect. I’ve been working on how to describe that.

11 Comments on “Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible?”

  1. yourothermotherhere says:

    Interesting post. I was going to comment that the only place we will ever be able to live that’s perfect is within our own minds, but come to think of it, that’s not possible either.

  2. […] Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible? ( […]

  3. […] Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible? ( […]

  4. Good post Heidi. I think one can draw scales of a utopia dystopia nature on various aspects of a world and place those aspects on the scales. Thus you could have a utopia for personal freedom that is rife with crime because the police are completely disempowered. A simple truth is that some of the elements that go into a society are mutually exclusive. Such as freedom and law and getting the balance right is the trick. Also different nations in a world might have different locations on the multiple scales. I do agree with your central premise that there are no purely utopian or dystopian worlds.

    • Hey, Stephen. Thanks for dropping by!

      That’s a good point, that some social concepts oppose each other. Unless a fictional society has a radical difference from ours (like a robot society lacking free will or something), sliding scales are probably necessary to describe a society with any amount of accuracy.

  5. […] Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible? ( […]

  6. […] Are utopian and dystopian worlds even possible? ( […]

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