The other day, I was
discussing Sir Thomas More’s Utopia with one of my English
classes. Sir Thomas More, of course, wrote in the 16th century,
under the rule of the often unpredictable and ruthless Henry VIII (yes, he was
the one who had six wives and had several of them executed). My students were
quick to point out that this was a period full of war, social injustice, and
political tyranny. All of that is true, and it looms in the background of Utopia,
the name of More’s fictional country. The word “Utopia” has also become
synonymous with an ideal society, though More’s ideal society is far from ideal
these days: though it promotes then-radical ideas such as freedom of religion,
it still contains slavery, as well as a myriad of practices and concepts that
are no longer palatable to the modern reader. In the end, the class concluded
that Sir Thomas More’s Utopia becomes a kind of dystopia,
a society full of rules that are meant to liberate its inhabitants from oppression,
but that in the end become oppressive themselves.
So we started discussing
the contrast between “utopia” and its now-more-popular relative
“dystopia.” Could one ever create a perfect society in fiction? No.
Why not? Because things change, and what applies to people at one historical
time may not apply to those living at later periods. Ok, but is this
necessarily a bad thing? No, but it means that ideas are easily outdated, and
what’s perfect to one may not be perfect to another. Overall conclusion: it’s
pretty much impossible to write in the utopian genre. Dystopias, on the other
hand, work because there’s no pretense of them being perfect. It’s easy for
readers to see what’s wrong with them. We then debated the irony
inherent in dystopias: the heroes of dystopian literature often
fight against their dystopian society in the hopes of making it more like a
utopian one. Yet the moment you start devising detailed rules about everything,
society becomes oppressive.
Does this mean that we
should give up on the idea of a utopia? The question went round and round in my
mind in the days after our discussion. I decided I didn’t want to give up on
the idea of a utopian society – whether fictional, or for real. Maybe the real
mistake was equating “utopian” with “perfect.” Nothing is perfect. Even the
Garden of Eden – one of Western civilization's earliest utopias – contained the
element of danger, of betrayal, of deceit. An ideal place is not necessarily a
perfect place. But idealism is key: what would our society be like
today, for example, if people hadn’t started imagining civil rights for all?
All big ideas promoting freedom, equality, and compassion are at heart utopian
ideas, because they envision a world where life is better for everyone.
And so it doesn’t matter if our fictional utopias don’t apply in 400 years.
What mattered is that we had the vision to create them, and the hope to live in
And how, you may ask, do
I imagine a utopian society? Well, to find that out you'll have to read Shelby
and Shauna Kitt and the Dimensional Holes. Planet Miriax is not a
perfect world, and certainly contains a lot of danger -- but I hope you will
find it exciting, different, and (hopefully) out-of-this-world.