This year is the 500th anniversary of a book by political philosopher Thomas More, entitled Of a Republic’s Best State and of the New Island Utopia (full text). In it, he critiqued what he saw as the evils of society in his time, and proposed an ideal civilisation in which these evils would be resolved. The Greek name translates to “nowhere”, but is also a homonym of another Greek word meaning “good place”, or in More’s words, “a place of felicitie”.
The concept of an ideal society goes back to the ancients. Hesiod, Plutarch and the Bible all conceived of a mythical golden age irretrievably corrupted by humanity. Some were cast as political ideals that ought to be attainable, such as Plato’s Republic. But it was More’s name “Utopia” that has become widely used to describe imagined perfect social organisation.
Each new imagining – or occasional practical attempt – tends to follow the precepts of a particular ideology. To quote political science professor Lyman Tower Sargent, “There are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, ecological, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, free love, nuclear family, extended family, gay, lesbian, and many more utopias.”
More tries to create a society that features peace, stability, prosperity and equality. Although these might seem worthy objectives, his prescription for achieving such a state was strongly authoritarian. More’s Utopia was a planned community in which everyone wears the same clothes, nobody owns property, meals are communal, and everybody works. Perhaps not surprisingly, More’s strict Catholicism filters into his Utopia. The island resembles nothing so much as a monastery, filled with pious and regimented monks. Places of entertainment that might corrupt people, such as bars, were not permitted, and there was no privacy in which to hold seditious meetings in secret. Before marriage, men and women were presented to each other naked, lest there “be some such deformity covered with the clothes as may totally alienate a man for his wife when it is too late to part with her”. Lawbreakers and adulterers were sentenced to slavery, to complement the slaves imported from conquered lands abroad.
Totalitarianism, slavery, communism and pious morality were the guiding principles of More’s Utopia. If freedom and human rights are a part of your ideal society, Thomas More is not your man.
Much subsequent utopian fiction has relied equally on the idea of a powerful but benevolent state, isolation from the corrupt influence of the outside world, and communal economics in which greed or status do not exist. Some replace the state with an anarchic, but still largely socialist, society.
Few utopian conceptions emphasise liberty or privacy as a precondition for a just and happy society. HG Wells was a notable exception in the early 20th century, with books such as A Modern Utopia (1905) and Men Like Gods (1923). Although he based his economics on revolutionary socialism, Wells posited “Five Principles of Liberty”, namely privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness and free discussion.
Yet his enthusiasm for addressing the ills of the world through utopian fiction quickly waned. In the preface to an anthology, Wells wrote of Men Like Gods: “It did not horrify or frighten, was not much of a success, and by that time, I had tired of talking in playful parables to a world engaged in destroying itself.”
Aldous Huxley parodied “the horror of the Wellsian Utopia” in his much more successful 1932 book, Brave New World. A future of scientific utopianism under a one-world government, Huxley argues, would be a nightmare of insipid faux-happiness achieved through indoctrination, genetic engineering and mood-altering drugs. He feared the rampant consumerism, industrialisation, and mass production of the age. His book was set in the year 632 AF (After Ford).
Sixteen years later, after the intervention of World War II, George Orwell published his famous warning about the power of propaganda and mass surveillance, Nineteen Eighty-four. His work expressed the public’s shock about Nazism, and fear of Stalinism. Totalitarian power, Orwell thought, was a much bigger threat than consumerism and hedonism.
Both writers felt strongly about the dangers of propaganda and mass surveillance, and Orwell’s book would later influence Huxley’s views strongly. After writing a series of essays entitled Enemies of Freedom, he gave a television interview in 1958 in which he expressed the fear that standards of living in the developing world would fall, giving rise to ever-more-powerful governments, which would ultimately lead to communist totalitarianism. Moreover, he felt dictatorships of the future would not need physical violence or terror to impose themselves onto the citizenry. Just as the advertising industry manipulated consumers, so political movements would, too.
“[I]f you want to preserve your power indefinitely, you have to get the consent of the ruled, and this they will do partly by drugs as I foresaw in Brave New World, partly by these new techniques of propaganda,” he said. “They will do it by bypassing the sort of rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions, and his physiology even, and so, making him actually love his slavery.”
Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-four had become the most famous dystopias since Gulliver’s Travels, but the post-war era with its fears of nuclear war and environmental destruction would provide fertile breeding ground for moralising fiction that predicted dissolution and decay. Comparatively little literature has been optimistic about the future. On Wikipedia, you’ll find 16 utopian book titles published since 1945, but 203 dystopian titles.
Some of the warnings are well worth heeding. Ever more powerful governments remain a threat to the freedom and privacy of citizens. Faceless and sprawling bureaucracies seem to care more about their own survival than public service, and people are increasingly powerless against them. Terrorism has become a widespread strategy to fight against powerful nation-states, successful companies, and foreign cultures. Advertising is ubiquitous, and corporations as large as governments sell superficial gratification to the masses. Widespread surveillance and forceful police action, until recently dismissed as the exaggerated paranoia of loonies who wear tin-foil hats, have proven to be all too real. There even is a real, nonsatirical group called the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
However, much of the doom and gloom, technological luddism and economic prognostication in dystopian literature has turned out to be without merit. Contrary to Huxley’s beliefs, for example, the developing world has not become poorer. Standards of living everywhere have risen, by almost any measure one might use. The exceptions are places such as Venezuela, where despite abundant natural resources and great climate, the people have been trampled into poverty by grandiose socialist schemes and large-scale government corruption.
The public fear of nuclear apocalypse during the Cold War was a common theme. The Earth is devastated by nuclear war in the 1959 book Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, and in the highest-rated television film in history, 1983’s The Day After. This overflowed into books and films about nuclear power, such as the outrageously panicky 1979 film about nuclear meltdown with Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, The China Syndrome.
Environmental disaster, often coupled with either fear of scientific and technological progress or a guilt-complex over economic prosperity, has also very often been explored. As long ago as 1951, the novel The Day of the Triffids featured carnivorous plants that are the product of genetic engineering. It was made into a film in 1962. Eco-catastrophe also strikes in books and films directed at children, such as the 1971 Dr Seuss classic The Lorax.
Sometimes, the fevered imaginations of authors ran in entirely opposite directions. In 1962, The Drowned World by JG Ballard explores a world in which the polar ice caps have melted because of global warming caused by the sun. Also in 1962, The World in Winter by John Christopher explores a world dumped into a new ice age because of global cooling caused by the sun.
Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth imagined a world choked by corporate tyranny and consumerism in their 1952 book, The Space Merchants. Earthworks, written by Brian Aldiss in 1965, is set in an overpopulated world inundated with garbage and riven by ecological collapse, in which food is scarce and fertile soil is exported from Africa to the rich world.
John Brunner is famous for almost perfectly predicting the world of 2010 in his 1968 book Stand on Zanzibar. His list of preternaturally accurate predictions includes the formation of a European Union, rivalry between the US and China instead of the USSR, the downfall of Detroit and the rise of techno music, personal video recorders, satellite television, hookup culture and gay lifestyles in the mainstream, price inflation, laser printers, inflight entertainment systems, and legalising marijuana while marginalising tobacco.
He couldn’t keep it up, though. In The Sheep Look Up, a novel published only four years later, Brunner has cities being overwhelmed by severe pollution, because corporations sponsor governments and can do as they please. The main character is an academic who predicted all sorts of social ills as a consequence, but whom nobody will heed. Society eventually collapses into illness, violence, starvation and anarchy.
George Lucas’s first film as director, THX 1138 in 1971, partly reprises Huxley’s dystopia, positing a world in which identically-dressed people have become worshippers of the state, drugged into compliance and productivity, and prohibited from engaging in intercourse or reproduction. Ridley Scott imagined the future to be a dark, neon-sodden police state in Blade Runner.
In our imagined future, we are forced to resort to extreme measures, such as cannibalism, in the 1973 film Soylent Green, or killing everyone at 30, like in the 1967 book and 1976 film Logan’s Run. Dread disease decimates us in The Stand, The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak and 12 Monkeys. In Elysium, Neil Blomkamp foresees a crude class war, in which the rich live well and the poor are slaves – a theme borrowed from The Time Machine, written by HG Wells in 1895.
We like to imagine dystopian futures. We wallow in fears about technology and guilt about the environment. We imagine the worst-case scenarios, and ponder how to avert the apocalypse, or what we’d do if we survived. We fear the future, and we fear death.
Sometimes, prophecies of doom dressed up in the devices of popular literature or film are thought-provoking. Rarely, the dire predictions come true in some way. But for the most part, it’s just entertainment. By the standards of dystopian fiction, the world in 2016 is in fairly good shape. DM