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The utopia and its offshoot, the dystopia, are genres of literature that explore social and political structures. Utopian fiction is the creation of an ideal world, or utopia, as the setting for a novel. Dystopian fiction is the opposite: creation of a nightmare world, or dystopia. Many novels combine both, often as a metaphor for the different directions humanity can take in its choices, ending up with one of two possible futures. Both utopias and dystopias are commonly found in science fiction and other speculative fiction genres, and arguably are by definition a type of speculative fiction.

More than 400 utopian works were published prior to the year 1900 in the English language alone, with more than a thousand others during the twentieth century.


Utopian fiction

The word utopia was first used in this context by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 work Utopia. The word utopia means "no place" in Greek, and resembles the Greek term for "good place", eutopia. In his book, which was written in Latin, More sets out a vision of an ideal society. As the title suggests, the work presents an ambiguous and ironical projection of the ideal state. The whimsical nature of the text can be confirmed by the narrator of Utopia's second book, Raphael Hythloday. The Greek root of Hythloday suggests an 'expert in nonsense'. An earlier example of a Utopian work from classical antiquity is Plato's The Republic, in which he outlines what he sees as the ideal society and its political system. Later examples can be seen in Samuel Johnson's The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia and Samuel Butler's Erewhon, which nearly spells 'nowhere' backwards. This, like much of the utopian literature can be seen as utopian satire which is most notable in the inversion of crime and illness which Butler portrays, with treatment for the former and punishment for the latter.

Dystopian fiction

Dystopias usually extrapolate elements of contemporary society and function as a warning against some modern trend, often the threat of oppressive regimes in one form or another. Many utopias can be seen as dystopias in regard to their treatment of the issues of justice, freedom and happiness. Samuel Butler's Erewhon can be seen as a dystopia because of the way ill people are treated as criminals, but as far as the people 'living' in his novel they are in a utopia. The main point of a dystopia is to make people think about the world in which they live and to see how the idea of happiness can be perverted providing the society know little else. Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World is also often seen as a dystopia because of the conditioning of the society and the loose sexual morals.


Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is sometimes linked with utopian (and dystopian) literature, because it shares the general preoccupation with ideas of the good (and bad) society. Of the countries Lemuel Gulliver visits, only the Country of the Houyhnhnms approaches a utopia; most of the others have significant dystopian aspects.

Many works combine elements of both utopias and dystopias. Typically, an observer from our world will journey to another place or time and see one society the author considers ideal, and another representing the worst possible outcome. The point is usually that the choices we make now may lead to a better or worse potential future world. Ursula K. Leguin's Always Coming Home fulfils this model, as does Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. In Starhawk's The Fifth Sacred Thing there is no time-travelling observer, but her ideal society is invaded by a neighbouring power embodying evil repression. In Aldous Huxley's Island, in many ways a counterpoint to his better-known Brave New World, the fusion of the best parts of Buddhist philosophy and Western technology is threatened by the "invasion" of oil companies.

In another literary model, the imagined society journeys between elements of utopia and dystopia over the course of the novel or film. At the beginning of The Giver by Lois Lowry, the world is described as a utopia, but as the book progresses, the world's dystopian aspects are revealed.

Ecotopian fiction

A subgenre of this is ecotopian fiction, where the author posits either a utopian or dystopian world revolving around environmental conservation or destruction. Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia is an important 20th century example of this genre, as is the California trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson has also edited an anthology of short ecotopian fiction, called Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias. The novel The Bridge (1973) by D. Keith Mano presents a world dominated by a global environmental fascism, where the government ultimately promotes the extinction of the human race by enforced mass suicide, so as to 'save' the environment.

Feminist Utopias

Another important subgenre is feminist utopias and the overlapping category of feminist science fiction. Writer Sally Miller Gearhart calls this sort of fiction political: it contrasts the present world with an idealized society, criticizes contemporary values and conditions, sees men or masculine systems as the major cause of social and political problems (e.g. war), and presents women as equal to or superior to men, having ownership over their reproductive functions. A common solution to gender oppression or social ills in feminist utopian fiction is to remove men, either showing isolated all-female societies as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, or societies where men have died out or been replaced, as in Joanna Russ's A Few Things I Know About Whileaway, where "the poisonous binary gender" has died off. Marge Piercy's novel Woman on the Edge of Time keeps human biology, but removes pregnancy and childbirth from the gender equation by resorting to artificial wombs, while allowing both women and (through unspecified means) also men the nurturing experience of breastfeeding.

Utopias have explored the ramification of gender being either a societal construct or a hard-wired imperative. In Mary Gentle's Golden Witchbreed, gender is not chosen until maturity, and gender has no bearing on social roles. In contrast, Doris Lessing's The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980) suggests that men's and women's values are inherent to the sexes and cannot be changed, making a compromise between them essential. In My Own Utopia (1961) by Elizabeth Mann Borghese, gender exists but is dependent upon age rather than sex — genderless children mature into women, some of whom eventually become men.

Utopic single-gender worlds or single-sex societies have long been one of the primary ways to explore implications of gender and gender-differences. In speculative fiction, female-only worlds have been imagined to come about by the action of disease that wipes out men, along with the development of technological or mystical method that allow female parthenogenic reproduction. The resulting society is often shown to be utopian by feminist writers. Many influential feminist utopias of this sort were written in the 1970s; the most often studied examples include Joanna Russ's The Female Man, Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. Utopias imagined by male authors have generally included equality between sexes, rather than separation. Such worlds have been portrayed most often by lesbian or feminist authors; their use of female-only worlds allows the exploration of female independence and freedom from patriarchy. The societies may not necessarily be lesbian, or sexual at all — Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a famous early example of a sexless society. Charlene Ball writes in Women's Studies Encyclopedia that use of speculative fiction to explore gender roles has been more common in the United States than in Europe and elsewhere.

Cultural impact

Étienne Cabet's work Travels in Icaria caused a group of followers to leave France in 1848 and come to the United States to found a series of utopian settlements in Texas, Illinois, Iowa, California, and elsewhere. These groups lived in communal settings and lasted until 1898.

Though few would claim "utopian" status, intentional communities are groups of people who strive for a more ideal life in some way, and are inspired by a similar urge to that found in utopian novels. These communities are cultural and social experiments in better living. Some of the better known modern experiments include the Findhorn Foundationmarker in Scotlandmarker, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Twin Oaksmarker and Los Horconesmarker (inspired by B. F. Skinner's Walden Two) and The Farm in the US, ZEGG in Germany, Camphill Communities (all over, but originating in Europe), and Aurovillemarker in India.

See also


  1. Sargent, Lyman Tower. "Themes in Utopian Fiction in English before Wells.", pp. 275-76, Science Fiction Studies Vol. 10, No. 3, pt. 3 (November 1976); pp. 275-82.
  2. Attebery, p. 13.
  3. Gaétan Brulotte & John Phillips,Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature', "Science Fiction and Fantasy", p.1189, CRC Press, 2006, ISBN 1579584411
  4. Martha A. Bartter, The Utopian Fantastic, "Momutes", Robin Anne Reid, p.101 ISBN 031331635X
  5. Martha A. Bartter, The Utopian Fantastic, "Momutes", Robin Anne Reid, p.102 ISBN


  • Applebaum, Robert. Literature and Utopian Politics in Seventeenth-Century England. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 1991.
  • Booker, M. Keith. The Dystopian Impulse in Modern Literature. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Booker, M. Keith. Dystopian Literature: A Theory and Research Guide. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1994.
  • Ferns, Chris. Narrating Utopia: Ideology, Gender, Form in Utopian Literature. Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1999.
  • Gerber, Richard. Utopian Fantasy. London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1955.
  • Gottlieb, Erika. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. Montreal, McGill-Queen's Press, 2001.
  • Haschak, Paul G. Utopian/Dystopian Literature. Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow Press, 1994.
  • Kessler, Carol Farley. Dare to Dream: Utopian Fiction by United States Women Before 1950. Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  • Tod, Ian, and Michael Wheeler. Utopia. London, Orbis, 1978.
  • Sargent, Lyman Tower. "Themes in Utopian Fiction in English before Wells." Science Fiction Studies Vol. 10, No. 3, pt. 3 (November 1976); pp. 275-82.
  • Szweykowski, Zygmunt. Twórczość Bolesława Prusa (The Art of Bolesław Prus), 2nd ed., Warsaw, Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1972.

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