Quoted in I09*:
Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization.
It’s a slim tradition since [Sir Thomas] More invented the word, but a very interesting one, and at certain points important: the Bellamy clubs after Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward had a big impact on the Progressive movement in American politics, and H.G. Wells’s stubborn persistence in writing utopias over about fifty years (not his big sellers) conveyed the vision that got turned into the postwar order of social security and some kind of government-by-meritocracy.
So utopias have had effects in the real world. More recently I think Ecotopia by [Ernest] Callenbach had a big impact on how the hippie generation tried to live in the years after, building families and communities.
The general theme here, that we would benefit more from utopian fiction than from the other kind, is not just off base but dangerously wrong.
It lets off utopianism far too easy to say that it works less well than dystopian thinking to make society better. Without exaggerating, I could fairly say that utopian thinking sparked some of the worst things that humans have ever done. It is not even a debatable point. Communism started as a utopian ideal. Gated cults that commit mass suicide (or worse) nearly always stem from a utopian vision. In general the concept of utopia is one of the most efficient means ever found to get well-intentioned people to do awful things.
Fictional dreaming of dystopia is not just less dangerous, it has the polar opposite effect.
Think of the most influential fiction of the twentieth century. Can you remember one utopian work? 1984 and Animal Farm weave so deep in the western psyche that almost every criticism of government that doesn’t go straight to Hitler (that is to say, the effective ones) references Orwell instead. Ditto Lord of the Flies for group psychology. Brave New World looms over every discussion of science ethics since the year it was published. Maybe hippies cared about Ecotopia, but environmentalism has Silent Spring to thank. I read it part way through an ecology degree at an extremely liberal school, in 1998, and the book still punched me in the gut. Has the kook right attacked Edward Abbey lately? I doubt it. They love him just like they love Earth First! and the ELF and any other group that follows Callenbach’s utopian line of thought. If you want to know why the pollution lobby and their GOP pets still throw hate at a marine biologist who died in 1964, read her book. Fifty years later and it still changes minds.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that writers must shelve whatever book project or the world will end. On an average year the United States prints over 150,000 books. The UK prints over 100k more. Throw in the hundreds of thousands printed everywhere else and you have almost a million, save four or five, that people a century from now will never know existed.
It doesn’t bother me that Kim Robinson doesn’t roll with the dystopian cool kids. Admit it, zombies and Atwoodian parables and world-ending Emmerich movies are getting stale. The prob here is that Robinson took it one step further and justified his artistic (or commercial, whatever) decision with an academic argument that could not be more wrong if he took the truth and made a photographic negative.
(*) Although our current version of WP hides it for some reason, this is a link.