Our media is so violent. From video games and pornography to movies and books – not to mention our sensationalist 24 hour news cycle – violence is all around us. We don’t want violence in our personal lives, but we gobble up the horrible tales that surround us like circling wolves. It is interesting that we choose such material for “escapism” when in reality it is very similar to the world we now inhabit.
My point here is not to criticize or ask why – I’ll leave that for you to ponder. But my question is this: why is the opposite – peace, cooperation, mutual aid – comparatively rare in our media?
I’m interested in a different way of writing stories, one that doesn’t rely on violence or arguing for creating tension. James White – author of “The Genocidal Healer” – wrote his successful series because, as a pacifist, he was tired of interpersonal violence and sought a new way to create engaging stories. I love destruction and violence as much as the next person, but I too am curious about creating a completely different world, one where competition is replaced with cooperation, and hate with respect.
It really says something about our collective consciousness when writing tips claim that there must be some kind of conflict or violence in order for a story to be interesting.
This just isn’t true. My introduction to utopian fiction was the classic novel Daughters of a Coral Dawn. My favorite parts were when the characters were on their new world, living in peace and harmony. This story engaged me because it had what I will call “interest.” This, I believe, is the component that any good story possesses. Interest is:
- Characters you enjoy reading about: they may be characters you love to hate or that you just love. Either way, they propel the plot and are well-rounded.
- An intriguing plot: “anti-novelists” and their experiments in plotless stories notwithstanding, to create interest, most authors choose to create a plot, even if it is fairly simple.
- A fascinating world: by creating a world with vibrant and evocative images, authors can create a story that readers want to delve into time and again.
- Anything that compels you to read more
It’s easy to make a violent, gory, scary story. Plenty of tips and manuals exist to do just that. What’s challenging is coming up with a realm that is happy, peaceful. It is so removed from experience that perhaps it can be difficult to make such a world seem realistic or relatable.
Everything in our society strives to make us scared and fearful of ourselves [particularly if you are a minority] or each other. But what if we could imagine a society where we had grown beyond such base impulses?
In writing classes, utopias and dystopias are taught to be two sides of the same coin. If you have one, dig a little deeper and the other will reveal itself. There are many examples of these “false utopias” in fiction:
The world of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin is a utopia of sorts…until you realize how they achieve their perfect realm. Or how about this sentiment:
“Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Another example would be the short-lived TV show Terra Nova. The show is set in the future, where humanity’s baser instincts have destroyed the planet. A “fracture in time” has opened up, connecting the present with the Cretaceous, giving a lucky few the chance at a new life in the seemingly paradisiacal colony called Terra Nova. But digging below the surface we find that everything is not as it seems.
Thomas More wrote the book on utopian fiction – literally. He coined the word with his work Utopia, deriving it not from eu-topia “good place” but from ou-topia “nowhere.”
So it is ingrained in us that beautiful utopias could never exist – this is perhaps another reason for their absence in media.
Critics of utopian fiction confuse how their society has taught them to behave with some nebulous ill-defined concept called “human nature.” You hear it all the time, an excuse for why the world is the way it is – world peace will never be achieved because it is “human nature” to be violent, lazy, cruel, greedy, and selfish. With this kind of thinking, no wonder we are as far as ever from world peace – too many think it is impossible. [Religion certainly has a part to play in the negative portrayal of human nature by claiming such absurdities as even unborn fetuses are tainted with sin and so on. But that is beyond the scope of what I am getting at here.]
It is my opinion that human nature is actually extremely flexible and doesn’t just encompass one type of behavior. Yes, humans can be all the negative things listed above. But they can also be thoughtful, compassionate, brave, loving, and industrious. Fiction that portrays thought out, realistic “true utopias” may help change people’s minds about how our world could be.
After all, a utopia is simply the best in humanity allowed to blossom. And we have plenty of terrifying ideas – from 1984 to “The Purge,” we have no shortage of negative ideas of the future.
Renowned writer Kim Stanley Robinson had this to say about the importance of utopias in fiction:
Anyone can do a dystopia these days just by making a collage of newspaper headlines, but utopias are hard, and 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.
It is simply a lack of imagination that causes writers and readers to assume that a utopia would be boring.
Here are some ideas to add interest to a utopia:
Remember that utopia doesn’t mean a world without interpersonal conflict or a world without danger and mystery. These are people who are perhaps better equipped than we to handle conflicts, but arguments still happen and maybe there will even be a few fights. But in a utopia people know how to handle their anger and they know how to talk things out – or at least bargain things out.
- The element of mystery is a powerful tool in creating an interesting world, utopia or not.
- Humanity versus natural calamity is a technique that can add a lot of drama and tension to a story.
- Utopia is a concept – one that is in the mindset of the characters. Things are “challenges to overcome together” not reasons to betray the group, for example. With that in mind, a lot of new doors for “conflict” ideas open up.
- The element of wonder is one of utopian fiction’s biggest draws. Imagine an adventure where the characters uncover magical relics, fascinating/scary creatures, beautiful realms, fun, dangerous natural formations [such as volcanoes], and new discoveries. Dinotopia is one of my biggest inspirations in this regard.
- Humor: if you are good with humor, it can be an excellent way to add interest to your story.
- Children are mischievous and curious. They can get in trouble or danger without being malicious.
- Defending the utopia from outsiders is a well-worn way to add true interpersonal conflict and violence to utopian fiction.
- Creation of the utopia: settlers must learn how to cope in a strange, beautiful new world.
- Flashbacks could be used to show a less idyllic previous world.
- People in a utopia would have different morals and values than people in real life. This could be an interesting point to explore – particularly when their values seem very alien to ours. They may have no problem with a wide variety of sexualities, including polyamory, various kinks, or even zoophilia.
- In a similar vein as the above point, sex and romance can be used to create interest.
- Ecotopias are common: places with little technology, living in simplistic harmony with the planet. Rarer are places where “green technology” has allowed humanity to overcome evil.