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P.H.C. Marchesi

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Utopias, Dystopias, and Why We Bother
10/16/2011 4:50:08 PM

Latest blog post from "The Rift" (

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 No, but it means that ideas are easily outdated, and what’s perfect to one may not be perfect to another.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 them.

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.


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More Blogs by P.H.C. Marchesi
•  Utopias, Dystopias, and Why We Bother - Sunday, October 16, 2011  

• Creativity, empathy, and creating heroes - Monday, October 03, 2011

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