What's the most utopian fiction of all?

My latest column for Locus, "Ten Years On," looks back on my first decade as a novelist, and speculates about what a difficult utopia might be, and announces my next novel project:

And then I realized I had no idea what novel I’d write next. I have notes for about five books, but none of them feel quite… ripe. The closest is probably a prequel to Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom – it would be awfully nice to check in on those old friends and see what they’re up to after a decade. Down and Out is a utopian novel, modeled in part on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, a brilliant, absolutely engrossing novel about a zoning fight over a baseball diamond in a small town in a future Orange County where all of humanity’s existential problems have been decisively solved.

Utopian fiction is often characterized as optimistic fiction, because it’s fiction about a future where the existential crisis is behind us – where we know that whatever else transpires, we are likely to survive as a species. Our children and their children will live. Our deeds will not be forgotten. Life will go on.

It’s tempting to say that people who are happy in the midst of peace and plenty are doing nothing much of much. This, of course, isn’t true. Being miserable or happy has as much to do with your internal state as it does with the stuff going on in the rest of the world. Safety and a lack of material want is not guarantee of happiness – indeed, for the traumatized, it’s the quiet moments when the yammering ghosts of past horrors can be heard best.

Ten Years On


    1. A faux Utopia.    

      The writers keep telling us that Star Trek is a post-scarcity society based on humanistic principles.

      But they show us again and again militarism, bureaucratic overreaching  and a people that simply cannot cope with other points of view except with neutral zones and exclusion. 

      FTR: I like Star Trek, but I don’t take it seriously.

  1. The most Utopian work I’ve ever seen is Aria: The Animation.

    It’s a slow, slice of life sci-fi story about a future in which Mars has been humongously terraformed with amazingly advanced technology, and has become a water planet. The city of Venice on earth, having sunk progressively further and further into it’s unstable foundations, was largely disassembled and transported wholesale to Mars and serves as the capital city of the new ocean planet.

    It’s one of the most beautiful and peace-giving works I’ve ever come across. Serene and dreamlike, it concerns itself with people, with the simple, honest challenges and joys of living, learning, and loving.

    1.  There’s a point in KS Robinson’s “Blue Mars” where he reaches a Near-Aria Moment – mediterranean  towns reconstructed on canals in the newly created water system. You can almost see the japanese-themed gondola girls sailing by –

  2. First thing to come to mind is Iain M. Banks’s Culture.

    As for an optimistic future being boring, that’s always sounded insane to me… like saying “Post-scarcity, freedom, boundless opportunity, and self-fulfillment might sound nice to some naive people, but I’d really rather prefer Orwell’s boot stamping my face forever.”

    1. This.  The Culture series, for whatever faults it has, is brilliant.  The Culture is as utopian as it gets.  It take a nearly perfect society where everyone is basically immortal, has nearly limitless resources,  decent moral fiber, and a peaceful anarchist government that is guarded by nearly god like AI that keeps everyone safe… and Banks somehow spins out a story admits perfection.  Generally, Banks spins out a story by having the action happen on the edge of the Culture where you have people form the the Culture dealing with people who are not.

      Everyone should give the series a shot.  It isn’t perfect, but it does Kurzweilish utopia very right while still having an interesting story and world.  I think what I like the most about the Culture books is that you often get a sense that the ‘hero’ was really just being given something interesting to do by the benevolent nearly god like AIs.  The AIs didn’t NEED the hero, but the a citizen was bored and unsatisfied with utopia, and the benevolent AI decided that pretending they needed a hero and dishing out a little adventure is just what the doctor ordered.  

      1. The remarkable part is that plot requires conflict, so you would expect a utopian story to be almost plot-free, like Aria the Animation.  But the Culture stories are filled with conflict and plot and a fair amount of moral horror.

        1. Yes, but that’s because the Culture’s universe isn’t utopian.  Ian Banks has commented on several occasions that the Culture is so utopian he can’t actually write stories there – as you said, not enough plot.

          For those wanting utopianism it’s important to note that none of the Culture novels are set in the Culture.

          (Excession comes closest, and even that is entirely about the Culture’s reaction to other non-utopian things happening.  It’s my favourite Banks novel, but it’s also a terrible first read – you have to already grok the Culture to read it.)

      2. That kind of sounds like the progression of ages (“Yugas”) in Hindu mythology.  Alan Watts explains it pretty well here:


        What he doesn’t say there is that the reason for the transition between the Yugas is that Brahman is, in a way, bored with existence in absolute perfection (Satya Yuga), and decides to gradually “forget himself” and add some surprise into the mix (culminating in Kali Yuga, before it cycles back and starts again).  

        If you have the time, you might enjoy this long read from Watts (as I think it speaks to that conceit in even more detail):

        Cosmic Drama

        He even touches on a tech-controlled utopia:

        “So if our technology were to succeed completely, and everything were to be under our control, we should eventually say, “We need a new button.” With all these control buttons, we always have to have a button labeled SURPRISE, and just so it doesn’t become too dangerous, we’ll put a time limit on it—surprise for 15 minutes, for an hour, for a day, for a month, a year, a lifetime. Then, in the end, when the surprise circuit is finished, we’ll be back in control and we’ll all know where we are. And we’ll heave a sigh of relief, but, after a while, we’ll press the button labeled SURPRISE once more.”

  3. It’s not so much that utopia would be boring, it’s just that it would seem boring from the perspective of an outside observer.  Which is the problem for anyone writing a utopian novel.  Without obvious conflicts to drive the plot along, how would a writer tell the story?

  4. “Utopia” is what other successful people have.

    I’m pretty sure that even if we were to achieve a utopian future, we wouldn’t realize it.  I’m not sure greed can be overcome.  We have a significant number of people today who believe it’s no good to be rich unless we’ve got a sufficient number of poor people around.  For contrast.  How can he be rich unless there are poor people to lord over?

    Add to that the ideology that believes a struggle to survive is somehow ennobling.  Who believe that the poor just have it too damn good, is the problem.

    1. Greed for power has existed as long as humans have existed.  This, more than greed for cash, will prevent anything close to utopia among our species.  

      1. Yes, but we’re better at channelling it harmlessly than we used to be.  A utopia would be a society that’s (a) learned to deal with it harmlessly, or (b) re-engineered humans to be civilised.

  5. D’oh, someone already said Star Trek. Well how about a future that seems chaotic or dystopian until it gradually becomes apparent that the narrator is one of the few remaining assholes/psychos in a utopian/perfect society?

    1. In a sense, that novel exists, and Jayyy mentioned it below: Ernest Callenbach, /Ecotopia/ — which happens to be one of my 10 favorite books ever. The narrator is a New York Times reporter who’s a stooge for the White House (and, informally, a spy for the CIA) sent into the break-away republic of Ecotopia (Northern California, Oregon, and Washington) 10 years after secession. He arrives full of the usual anti-hippy, pro-business, anti-secession, pro-American prejudices … and (minor spoiler) slowly comes to realize that everything he knows about American economic, social, technological, cultural, and military superiority is just dead wrong, that as an American dumped into Ecotopia, he’s the ignorant and dangerously crazy person.

      1. Great as the thought experiment was in Ecotopia, I did find the prequel Ecotopia Emerging to be a better read. Partially I suspect it was because it was a more event-driven plot, but mostly I think Callenbach wrote it as a storyteller, while the original he wrote as a philosopher.

  6. I’ve suggested before that Damon Knight’s “I See You” is a utopian short story.  That got me a horrified reaction from at least one commenter.

    “I See You” posits a society where surveillance technology is not only omnipresent but available to EVERYONE.  With the “ozo” you can not only see what ANYONE, ANYWHERE, is doing, but you can also use it as a time viewer and see what they (or their ancestors, back to dinosaur times and further) were doing in the past.  Secrets are no longer possible.

    We’re already caught in a tsunami of pervasive surveillance tech.  Would it be a better future to try and fight the wave, or to embrace it and seek a society where that tech is available to anyone and everyone?

    In Knight’s story, Ceiling Cat can  watch you masturbate.  But you can watch Ceiling Cat masturbate, too, if you’re so inclined.

  7. Well, of course The Dispossessed – Anarres is not perfect, it’s filled with unpleasant people and petty bureaucrats, and yet as Shevek gradually comes to realize, it is a utopia by comparison with the dystopias that Urras (and Earth) are.  [For you pedants who think Earth isn’t in the book – we get to hear about Earth from the Terran ambassador; reread if you missed it.]

    But that wasn’t what I came here to say. I came here to quote you:
    “Safety and a lack of material want is not guarantee of happiness – indeed, for the traumatized, it’s the quiet moments when the yammering ghosts of past horrors can be heard best.” This. Wow. Few people see that. That took me a long time to even start to get through.

    1. Urras is in turn presented as near-Utopian in contrast to Earth, almost a post-scarcity society.

      LeGuin has repeatedly commented that her central preoccupation is the nature of Utopia. Any random LeGuin novel will probably tackle utopianism. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a thorough deconstruction in probably less than 1000 words.

      Her most utopian work — perhaps the most utopian work I can think of, in fact — is Always Coming Home, set unimaginably far in the future. To first appearances it’s “simply” an anthropological text about a hippyish agricultural people. (Then you notice they share their world with an autonomous, interstellar, self-aware information network that houses all accumulated knowledge.) Always Coming Home derives a share of its conflict in a recurring story about conflicts with a neighboring warlike people.

  8. Define utopian.

    Some would consider Galt’s Gulch quite utopian.  I might be one of them.

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