6

I have always been an avid reader of utopian novels. Not necessarily those that advertised themselves as such, but the small utopias, of people doing good, of relationships going right, of a happiness possible in the real world. And I don't mean a happy end, but a happy continuation and a description of how this might be achieved despite the obvious difficulties. A wise book to learn from.

Kim Stanley Robinson said that "[a]nyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard". This is true of any kind of book. It is easy to write a postapocalyptic world, and it is easy to write an abusive marriage. But it is very difficult to write a happy marriage – and make it a suspenseful book worth reading. And it is difficult to write a book where the problems that our world faces today are resolved, as Robinson has tried in his Science in the Capital trilogy, and make it a fun read.

But I am sick and tired of all the negativity in the novels I read. I want something to give me hope and the will and courage to go on and try and do better with my life. As Robinson continues, utopian fiction is "important, because we need to imagine what it might be like if we did things well enough to say to our kids, we did our best, this is about as good as it was when it was handed to us, take care of it and do better. Some kind of narrative vision of what we’re trying for as a civilization."

So why don't we write utopias? That is, why don't we write books that show us how to do things better? How to be better persons both in how we relate to other people and in how we take care of the world.

Do readers not want to read this? Wouldn't it sell? Or are authors unable to write it, because they don't know the answers to the problems, because they are afraid of losing sales by being political, because they don't know how to tell happiness in a non-boring way?

How do you write a genre fiction about good people successfully living in good relationships and leading a good life in a good world, without it being boring or preachy and still full of suspense and thrill?

How do you make a utopia work?

  • “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This is why it is difficult to write about a happy family and make the story interesting and original. – Lew Sep 26 '16 at 15:54
  • 1
    @Lew I actually do not believe that Tolstoi was right. Since people are different, happiness will look different to each of us, too. – user5645 Sep 26 '16 at 17:29
5

I think what's being missed here is the idea that what makes something a "perfect" world is not the same for everyone.

If you want an example of a utopia, try The Wizard of Oz and the subsequent 13 original Oz novels by L. Frank Baum. The Wizard of Oz was once called by a reviewer (whom I can't find at the moment, sorry) something to the effect of "the best kind of fairy tale for children, with all the goodness in and all the bad parts taken out."

Oz as portrayed in all 14 Baum novels is a utopia. Just the right amount of rain falls when it's needed. Everyone has food, shelter, and clothing. There's no money or debt. And yet there's still conflict and adventure, even just within Oz and not having to introduce extra-Ozian characters.

Baum liked to create villages of beings which exemplified some trait he wanted to parody or point out. There was the village of Flutterbudgets, who are people who worry hysterically over nothing, and the Rigmaroles, people who make sequipedalian and unnecessarily long-winded oratories. As long as they stayed in their own villages, the narration noted, they didn't bother anyone else. But when Dorothy came to visit, since she wasn't like them, conflict ensued.

Some of the internal conflict in Oz books came when an individual or a group decided they weren't satisfied with what they had and wanted to take power or possessions from someone else. That group's idea of "perfect" conflicted with the rest of Oz's "perfect."

Just because your world, society, etc. is "perfect" doesn't mean everyone is happy, or satisfied, or content, or fulfilled. The Shaggy Man is very happy in the Emerald City, but he's a wanderer, and insists on travelling even when he has a suite of rooms in the palace and is loved by everyone. His perfect world is to be in motion but to still have a home to return to. Polychrome, the Rainbow's Daughter, constantly slides off her bow and gets lost on land in Oz, and her conflict is that she needs to get home again.

Change your givens and you can usually find what you need to get a story going.

  • 1
    You are right, Lauren. The story will come from people being different as well as from outside of the utopian society (e.g. the comet that will hit the utopian planet). Have you read The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper? It perfectly illustrates your answer. – user5645 Sep 25 '16 at 20:57
  • @what I hadn't seen that before, no; I'll have to look it up. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Sep 26 '16 at 9:49
  • 1
    Don't look it up. Read it and allow the plot to surprise you. The descriptions don't do it justice. I'm pretty sure it will intrigue you. – user5645 Sep 26 '16 at 9:55
6
  • How should I write a utopia?

I think the utopian fiction you're describing would be challenging to write because it lacks climactic points. Its predictable. You describe it as if there is no wobbles, no wobbles at all in the relationships or whatever, and everything goes uphill with none who would foil the protagonist's plan.

I don't think this is the right way to go, because its predictable. At some point, in anyone's life, there will be unpredictability. Describing a perfect world where no wrong occurs is too unrealistic, and even if someone had the most perfect life, there would be a problem. The protagonists identifies the problem, and seeks to resolve it.

However, this doesn't have to happen in the form of a tyrant, or something bad. This might be a bit of a generic example, but take this: the protagonist sees a girl he likes, and wants to go out with her. That's the basic idea, and then the story would go on to expand that, and eventually bring them together. This type of thing can be very well executed.

There doesn't even need to be some like a terrible illness to keep your reader interested. There just needs to be tension. I understand that your story might not revolve around a relationship, but I'll go back to my previous example. Imagine the boy and girl being a match made in heaven, but many nice people around them threaten that relationship working. The people are still nice, but tension and intrigue is still given to the reader, because there is inter-character tension.

If you are just looking to write a book which people can learn from, then perhaps write a self help book?

  • Why don't people write utopian fiction? Why is it all negative?

I think the answer to this question boils down to a simple principle. In utopian fiction, the ideals are often met from the beginning. In dystopian fiction, the ideals are not met, and the reader wishes to keep reading to see if the ideals will be met.

The reason authors don't write it, I think, is because it is very challenging. In a dystopia, things need to be corrected. This isn't the case with a utopia, hence the author might find it hard to create a point 'worth working towards' or more specifically, a climax.

I think authors don't write fiction about how we should care for the world, because that's mainly included in self-help books, and a variety of non-fiction works. However, those are often direct instructions. Its not hard to include a moral to the story expressing that these things should be done.

  • Conclusion: how should I make a utopia work?

  • Create characters that give intrigue. Make tensions occur within characters - not negative ones though.

  • Don't make the book pointless. Give the protagonist an ultimate goal, a great ideal, from the very start. Give them something they would really want.

  • Thwart the reader! I realised this just now.

  • Don't make it so predictable we know whats going to happen.

This was an ludicrously, unnecessarily long answer. Sorry for making you read so much, and if I didn't even answer the question correctly. I hope this helped you.

4

Let me give three examples of utopian novels published in the last century: B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Gidon Rothstein’s Murderer in the Mikdash (2005). Each of these novels, I think, illustrates a different way to handle utopia within fiction.

Walden Two has a structure very similar to the “classic” utopian novels of the nineteenth century. A skeptic shows up at the gates of Utopia and one of the residents, functioning as a sort of Intourist guide, shows him all the features and answers his questions about how this can possibly work. The conflict is purely intellectual; the arc of the viewpoint character is from ignorance to enlightenment. It’s not the kind of plot that generally engages readers today, but Walden Two did sell copies, and inspired some real-life communes (including one that is still a going concern almost fifty years later, although it ditched the Walden Two model soon after it was founded).

In Woman on the Edge of Time, the plot tension comes from the utopia being under threat from the outside. But wait—utopia, practically by definition, is the terminal state of humanity, so how can it be threatened? Piercy gets around this by making her viewpoint character a sort of time traveller who visits alternative futures, so the reader sees the dismal contemporary world that character lives in, in contrast with a happy and egalitarian utopian future and a nightmarish dystopian future. The threat comes from how our own decisions, today, could put society on a path towards one possible future or the other.

Murderer in the Mikdash is not a book I can recommend on its literary merits, but I find it fascinating as sort of an academic exercise. The author, an Orthodox rabbi, postulated what Israeli society would look like after the coming of the Messiah, and then set a murder mystery in that society. The victim’s friend plays both the amateur-detective role in the mystery genre, and the skeptical-visitor role in the utopian genre. In the course of trying to solve the mystery, she also rubs up against the unique features of this utopian society. So this is a book about a society that is ideal on the “macro” level, but still contains flawed and occasionally malicious humans on the “micro” level.

  • 2
    Thank you. Murderer in die Mikdash sounds interesting. Because utopia does not necessarily imply complete harmony. That is a misconception. There will still be people falling in love with someone who does not love them back. There will still be people you feel discontent at having to participate in society. There will still be the desire to have more. So there will be conflict, even crime. – user5645 Sep 26 '16 at 17:34
  • Re your second example (which I haven't read), a utopia doesn't mean everybody has gotten there. Books like Oath of Fealty and Walkaway depict utopian subcultures set in larger worlds that haven't bought in yet, and the tension comes from those clashes. "Utopia" doesn't have to mean "stagnant end-state". – Monica Cellio May 6 at 15:37
3

Well, a true utopia would have no room for story. Story runs on desire and frustration and the moral challenges that result from the frustration of desire. A true utopia would leave no desire frustrated and therefore no moral challenge to be met.

But given our limitations, and the limited resources available to us, that kind of utopia is impossible. Attempts to build or describe a utopian society, therefore, have to deal with the frustration of desire that is inherent in our limitations. They are about governing our desires harmoniously and justly, and are therefore not really devoid of moral challenge. A utopian novel could deal with such challenges.

But this is a much more difficult kind of writing to do. Dystopias are easy because the present easy desires (food, home, safety) and easy ways to frustrate them. Such problems are tackled with violence, so you get easy action. And most of these books suck because they wither contain no moral challenge, or the moral challenge is hackneyed or facile, thrown in carelessly by a writer more interested in world-building and action than in the essential moral dynamic of story.

Such works are also a relatively easy read for readers who are looking for nothing more than a little visceral sex and violence. A sophisticated utopian novel with involve more subtle moral questions that require a more thoughtful reader.

As a writer, one may choose to be among the many who write for the many or the few who write for the few. Both paths are valid, and both offer economic rewards for those who excel. But you are always going to find fewer utopias than dystopias because the problem is harder and the audience is different.

2

Although I am a bit lost in terminology here, I would still like to board this train–even a bit late.

How do you make a utopia work?

For me the terms Utopia, Dystopia and everything in between are related to the structure of the society, whether it is built as a purely secondary fantasy world of post- or pre- or never- apocalyptic reflection of the real one.

Each and every flavor of the social settings–while (hopefully) contributing to the realism and richness of the story–may have everything to do with your conflict, and just as well may only be a backdrop to the relationships between your characters.

I can imaging a solid and loving family battling the elements in a nuclear desert just as easy as I can picture a relationship conflict in a highly advanced society which had forgotten what war, hunger, cancer and AIDS once were; the conflict will drive your story forward and engage your reader, but there has to be a conflict–and even in the highly Utopian settings unanswered love can drive someone to suicide or murder, which would look even grimmer on such a festive backdrop.

How do you write a genre fiction about good people successfully living in good relationships and leading a good life in a good world, without it being boring or preachy and still full of suspense and thrill?

Well, the way you put it... If everything everywhere is grand, and the most thrilling conflict of the story is whether little Annie makes the Honor Roll, err... it is going to be tough...

Unless it is a comedy (take the TV series Modern Family–it all about a solid and loving family in a good world, and it is brilliant and highly entertaining), where the little conflicts are blown up to ridiculous proportions just to make one point or another (and it is spectacularly well-written, directed and played).

Sorry for rambling. For me, there is no story without a real conflict, unless the narration is deliberately and predominantly humorous. Gerald Durrel wrote wonderful, funny and touching stories without any dystopian elements, and it is his style which made them so enjoyable without being didactic or sappy–and yet his characters still faced illness and death and other characters had to deal with those once in a while.

I guess there is no way around it. One needs a conflict.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy