The question often comes to me when I’m speaking at libraries and civic groups around the state: “Why are there no utopian novels nowadays?”
I believe the utopian impulse still exists, only in a fashion so modified as to be nearly unrecognizable, but it is true that utopian novels in the vein of Herland or A Traveler from Altruria don’t come out these days. Instead, the dominant literary fashion is dystopian – especially, oddly enough, in books aimed at teenage readers.
The classic utopian novels were designed to present a critique of existing society and an alternative to the ills of that society. Today’s dystopian novels, to some extent, engage in that same critique, but instead of an alternative, they predict the dire future that awaits us if our current ills are not addressed.
The utopian novel arises from faith in human progress; the dystopian novel from its lack.
The utopian novel imagines that our better natures are held down by a faulty social structure; the dystopian novel imagines that the faulty social structure arises from our inner faults.
The absence of utopian novels shouldn’t be construed, though, as a complete absence of faith in human nature. We should remember that the utopian novel also existed as an intellectual argument, and the novel today is much less about argument and more about action. It’s intrinsically more exciting to read about a society in ruins, and the independent survivors who live in its ashes, than about a harmonious society that has solved its problems.
The utopian impulse still exists, though, and I think it has turned inward. What’s one of the largest sections of the bookstore? “Self-help.” We are bombarded with solutions . . . not for the ills of our society, but for those of ourselves. We can, the authors promise us, make ourselves perfect. Or at least darn close.