The Uses of Optimism: Utopias

Roy Thomson Hall
Shiny postmodern buildings: the go-to visual metaphor for utopias

Utopias use ambitious world building to get to the root of some truth about society. They imagine a better world to explore what could be fundamentally different about our own. Utopias, then, differ in tone but have a similar purpose to serious dystopian works like The Handmaid’s Tale. Utopian and dystopian traditions, at their best, are partners tidally locked; circling, facing and influencing each other.

Herland, a story written in 1915 about three male explorers encountering a remote advanced civilization made up entirely of women, gave Charlotte Perkins Gilman a way to interrogate gender roles, and vividly imagine how women could thrive if they were not forced into an unnatural state of legal dependence on men.

In The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells wrestles with the specters haunting the 1930s, imagining a future historical process by which war and want are defeated, and religion and the state have been abolished. It is a world where all humans are geniuses, and there is no underclass.

You might have noticed that Wells is imagining a world populated exclusively by people very similar to himself. Some utopias have an earned reputation for intolerant universalism. But the imaginative exploration in a utopia isn’t necessarily and always a literal plan of action, it can be a move to abstraction to bring certain ideas into focus. This may have been clearer when utopias were set typically set in vaguely located distant lands, before globalization pushed them into the future, with its implications of progress and teleology.

Regardless, some utopian visions are cosmopolitan and embrace plural conceptions of the different ways good lives can be constituted. This is even true of pop culture stories that imagine human progress while also being concerned with telling an interesting yarn. Sometimes this is as simple as the original Star Trek’s celebration of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. As Roddenberry described it, if we get to the 23rd century: “We will learn that differences in ideas and attitudes are a delight, part of life’s exciting variety, not something to fear.” If this has a whiff of articles in bourgeois lifestyle magazines, it is still opposed to the ethno-nationalisms of its time and ours.

The challenges of cosmopolitanism can also be explored in more depth, as in the nuanced way Iain Banks in the Culture novels grapples with an advanced post scarcity utopia interacting with other societies. A particularly amusing example is his short story The State of the Art which inverts the prime directive dramas of Star Trek by having an advanced society encounter 1970s Earth, with characters arguing about how best to deal with such a violent and inequitable world. In the end, our planet is left alone and uncontacted. We will be a control group used to judge the impact of their interventions helping other civilizations. Samantha Power would not be pleased.

In writing the Return the Stars space opera RPG, I wanted to make sure that valuing and respecting difference was an important concern for the player characters, and so is universal respect for human rights. There can be a lot of drama and perhaps something to learn when transcendent ideals clash. Taking a Sophoclean (philosophically, if not dramatically ) approach may not be a normal move in game design, but hey, that’s why indies exist!

Some object to utopias because they see fiction itself as disconnected from social issues (the “get your politics/existence out of my <insert media category here>” mobs.) Others, perhaps, are concerned because they worry that utopias are a species of escapism that promotes quiet acceptance of the way things are.

Begum Rokeya
Begum Rokeya

But consider the case of Bengali feminist and political activist Begum Rokeya, who fought for women’s education and employment. Her 1905 utopian satire Sultana’s Dream reverses traditional society and portrays a world where men are forced into seclusion while women run the world. It not apart from but rather stands as a part of her activism writting essays, founding schools and the Muslim Woman’s Association. Every year Bangladesh celebrates her accomplishments by awarding a prize in her name to women for outstanding contributions to society and the empowerment of women.

While Bangladesh honors Begum Rokeya, few Americans today even remember Edward Bellamy, although he is arguably one of the most important, influential and successful authors in the nation’s history. His 1888 utopia Looking Backwards demonstrates all the imaginative innovation that would, decades later, be the hallmark of the so-called “golden age” of pulp science fiction. He foresaw that by the next millennia there would be credit cards, shopping malls, and even a sort of on-line communication derived from the then newly invented telephone.

But these ideas were in the service of a broader agenda—fighting the inequality, wage stagnation and corruption of the first gilded age of robber barons.  Looking Backwards thrusts its protagonist a century into the future, where capitalism is abolished and industry nationalized. It is a world where “The nation guarantees the nurture, education and comfortable maintenance of every citizen from the cradle to the grave.”

the front cover of Looking Backwards

It is hard to overstate the contemporary impact of Looking Backwards. It was the second American novel (Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin being the first) to sell more than a million copies. It is said that the book could be found in every union hall. Within a few years, a mass movement of at least 165 political clubs across America were founded to spread the book’s ideas. Tolstoy called it “exceedingly remarkable” and insisted that it must be translated. It was. Widely. Looking Backwards was one of the first works of western science fiction published in China. John Dewey and Charles Beard both ranked it  second only to Das Kapital among the important books of their time.

In 1890, a young Charlotte Perkins Gilman joined a Bellamy Club, and quickly became a featured speaker, starting her career by writing poems and essays in the movement’s publications.

She was not alone. The clubs and the associated People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, were short lived, but they were the catalyst for the next 30 years of progressive politics—and nearly every important progressive activist, politician, and union organizer of the era read Bellamy. Prime Minister Clement Attlee described the eventual socialist government in Britain as “a child of the Bellamy idea.”

It may be hard for you to imagine any novel, much less a science fiction utopia, being anywhere near as influential today. If so, consider how doggedly the post war establishment worked to destroy the vital connections between culture and politics. Blacklists and the House Un-American Activities Committee were the stick.  The “professionalization” of writing was the carrot.

As Eric Bennett describes in Workshops of Empire money poured into MFA programs from foundations (and, in one noteworthy instance, a CIA front organization) as part of the cold war agenda to create a de-radicalized literature that values “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies.” It is perhaps telling that Paul Engle, longtime director of the Iowa Writers Workshop, wrote in a proposal: “It is important that these most articulate of all their generation should write and study far from both coasts, where foreign students have tended to concentrate. Here they will learn the essential America.”

If today we fail to see the full potential of both utopian and dystopian genre fiction to strengthen and inspire people working to create a better and more just world, it may be because we have been carefully taught that interiority and artful subjectivity are the true hallmarks of literary fiction, and that the only real purpose genre can serve is entertainment.

Speculative fiction is a great way to explore political ideas and cultural norms. Utopias are part of its toolkit. I believe there is value in picking up this tool and trying to learn how best to use it.

Sensible Gen Xers enjoy this video ironically, if at all. I do so unreservedly.


  • Utopia is a unclear/contested term. People who express a dislike of utopias or otherwise differ with what I’ve writting may have in mind a definition different the one I express in the first sentence. (Alternatively, I’m more than capable of being wrong.)
  • Note specifically I’m considering utopian literature to include better worlds, not only thought exercises that imagine “perfect” futures without any conflict or struggle.
  • Hat tip to Mimi Mondal, who wrote an article that led me learn about Sultana’s Dream.
  • It will not surprise you that as a man who lived in the 19th century, Bellamy had some problematic ideas. One thing that is interesting about him is that he was willing to change his mind and grow in response to feedback. Looking Backwards had a very sentimental view of women. Three years later he would write “Some men oppress other men, all men oppress women.” It is interesting to speculate how he might have continued to evolve and grown if he hadn’t died of tuberculosis in his 40s.
  • You may be interested to compare and contrast utopias with hopepunk.

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