StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Utopian fiction features idealistic places where everything from politics to the laws and societal customs are practically perfect, creating complete harmony.
A relatively new genre, it is closely linked to the even newer genre of dystopian fiction, which portrays the more pessimistic versions of our potential futures.
Utopias as mythical places of the past have existed in many different cultures for centuries. From The Greek Golden Age to the German Schlaraffenland, the concept of an ideal, harmonious society is not new. The difference between utopian fiction and utopian myths tends to be that the fiction takes place in an alternative present or the future.
The Greek Golden Age or, more specifically, the golden age of Athenian culture dates back to 449 to 431 B.C. It was a time of relative peace between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.
Schlaraffenland is the German equivalent of Cockaigne or the Land of Milk and Honey. These are all places of legend, where pleasures are plentiful and the harsh realities of medieval life do not exist.
The word utopia comes from ancient Greek and can be translated literally as ‘no place’ or less literally as ‘nowhere’. The Greek for 'good place’ is pronounced almost the same way in English. This pun or play on meaning and words inspired Sir Thomas More, who wrote the first novel of this genre, Utopia, in 1516. At the core of utopian fiction are the questions 'Is nowhere a good place?' and 'Is the ideal society possible?'
Lyman Tower Sargent, a renowned utopian fiction academic, highlighted potential utopian paradoxes, too. Oscar Wilde had a different view on utopias, believing them to drive progress and always provide something new for humanity to aim for.
There are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, ecological, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, racist, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, Naturism / Nude Christians, free love, nuclear family, extended family, gay, lesbian, and many more utopias [...] Utopianism, some argue, is essential for the improvement of the human condition. But if used wrongly, it becomes dangerous. Utopia has an inherent contradictory nature here. - Lyman Tower Sargent 1
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country in which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias. – Oscar Wilde 2
Whatever the answers to these questions or paradoxes might be, you will find that utopian fiction tends to feature highly detailed imaginary worlds set in a certain time and place, often with an underlying message to share.
Although there are differences of opinion on the possibility of actual utopias and a wide range of fictional utopias depicted, some common threads do run through many works. These include:
There is a wide range of novels in utopian fiction, as this is a broad and not very well-defined genre. Works may include utopian science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction, adventure, or fantasy. Let's look at the first utopian fiction novel in more detail to better understand the genre's development up to where it is today.
Utopia (1516) by Sir Thomas More is considered the original utopian fiction novel. It depicts a largely peaceful and prosperous society based on an island off South America.
Utopian island. Unsplash
As a statesman, lawyer, writer, and one time Lord Chancellor of England, it is unclear whether More intended Utopia to be a satire or the genuine projection of an ideal society. Or perhaps both.
Satire is a form of humour that uses irony and exaggeration to highlight or ridicule politics or society.
Lord Chancellor is one of the oldest roles in England, dating back to about 1066. As a high ranking member of Cabinent, the Lord Chancellor is responsible for the running of the courts.
Many scholars regard his Utopia as a work of pro-Socialist idealism, but many others regard it as a satirical critique of Socialism. Still others view it as a satirical criticism of the existing politics and society that he lived in. It is known that More published many other texts both critiquing and promoting Socialism. It has been suggested that he was perhaps highlighting the difference between the idea and the practice of political and social theories.
Outside of these apparent contradictions, in his time as Lord Chancellor, More was also a persecutor of Protestants, so the religious tolerance of his utopian society is also in contrast to his known reality. Additionally, as a powerful lawyer himself, he magnanimously created a utopia where no lawyers were necessary in his fiction.
There are many different readings of More's work and many unanswered questions, so it is worth exploring a few different perspectives to get a well-rounded understanding of this original utopian text.
In line with current utopian fiction norms, More goes into great detail in Utopia, creating a unique society. Many of his ideas were revolutionary in his time, especially considering his prominent political role. Some of the most discussed, factual elements of his novel include:
There are no lawyers at all in Utopia. The law has been made extremely simple so that anyone can easily understand what is lawful or unlawful.
There is also no private land ownership in More’s Utopia. Houses are rotated between citizens and no one locks their doors. Goods are stored in warehouses and distributed on request. Gold and silver are used solely for chamber pots, chains for slaves, and potentially bribing other countries. In addition, More's Utopia has a limit on permitted work hours, free hospitals, and euthanasia is legal.
All religions are tolerated and there are many religions practiced in Utopia. The only stance that is disapproved of but tolerated is atheism. Priests can marry and widows can become female priests. Divorce is permitted. In contrast, there are severe punishments for pre-marital sex, and women are required to confess their sins to their husbands once a month.
War is condemned and viewed as something to be avoided at all costs. Enemies are captured and turned into slaves rather than killed.
Would you like to live in More's Utopia today? Which parts would you choose or not choose?
Closely linked to utopian fiction is utopian science fiction. While utopian fiction deals in a general way with utopias, utopian science fiction usually focuses on ideals of science and technology.
The definitions of what constitutes science fiction are more blurred than those of utopian fiction, but many novels and series have been clearly classified as utopian science fiction. These works tend to feature ideal societies, are often set in the future, and usually depict harmonious, prosperous societies with highly advanced technologies.
Science fiction is a subgenera of speculative fiction that depicts often futuristic societies and technologies that don't exist in the real world.
Many utopian science fiction novels are pure utopias, but some are utopias within dystopias. The interplay between dystopias and utopias in science fiction can get a little complex.
Pioneering examples of utopian science fiction include some of HG Well's works such as Men Like Gods (1923).
A few more recent pure utopian science fiction books or series include The Culture Series (1987-2012) by Ian M. Banks and the Commonwealth Saga (2004 - 2010) by Peter F. Hamilton. These series both depict largely peaceful human and humanoid societies that have achieved near immortality, post-scarcity economies and highly advanced technologies used for the betterment of their citizens.
Some science fiction novels that feature utopias within dystopias are Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower (1993). In this dystopian post-apocalyptic novel the protagonist, Lauren invents her own utopian religion, Earthseed.
Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) has also been portrayed as a dystopia with utopian elements. The people in Brave New World are happy and prosperous, but the way that this is achieved is generally what classifies it as a dystopia.
1. Sargent, Lyman Tower, Utopianism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010.
2. Oscar Wilde, Concept of Utopia, Man's soul under Socialism, Fortnightly Review, 1891.
Utopian fiction features idealistic locations where everything from politics to the laws and societal customs are perfect, resulting in complete harmony.
Utopian fiction is closely linked to dystopian fiction, which portrays the more pessimistic versions of our potential futures.
Utopian fiction depicts harmonious, near perfect societies.
There are many examples but Sir Thomas More, wrote the first novel of this genre, Utopia in 1516.
Utopian fiction is more idealistic and portrays peaceful or harmonious societies.
Dystopian fiction is more pessimistic and depicts societies were the worst elements of the present are taken to greater extremes.
This depends on the author and the work but generally utopian fiction tries to create ideal societies that humanity can learn form.
What is the first utopian fiction book written?
Sir Thomas More, who wrote the first novel of this genre, Utopia in 1516.
What are some mythical utopias from the past?
The Greek Golden Age
What is the opposite or antonym of utopian fiction?
What other profession did the author Sir Thomas More have?
What are some common utopian characteristics?
Freedom of information.
Which of these authors is considered to have written some utopian science fiction novels?
Which novel is considered an early example of utopian science fiction?
HG Wells's Men Like Gods (1923).
What does Utopia translate into in English?
What are some modern utopian science fiction series?
The Culture Series (1987-2012) by Ian M Banks and the Commonwealth Saga (2004 - 2010) by Peter F Hamilton.
What types of societies exist in The Culture Series (1987-2012) by Ian M Banks and the Commonwealth Saga (2004 - 2010) by Peter F Hamilton?
Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.
Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.
Create and find flashcards in record time.
Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.
Have all your study materials in one place.
Upload unlimited documents and save them online.
Identify your study strength and weaknesses.
Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.
Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.
Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.
Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.
Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.
Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.