XXI century: in search of Utopia

I abhor the idea of a perfect world. It would bore me to tears. Shelby Foote

Imagine you walk into your friend’s apartment on a dark, cloudy evening – head bowed and hands trembling. You sigh softly and say, “Friend, I have some good news and some bad news. Which would you like to hear first?” Now, people have their different ways of approaching this kind of question. To most people, it’s best to hear the bad news first. That way, the coming good news can soften the blow and cheer them up. Smart, right? Well, others belong to a different school of thought. Depending on the specific context, some people believe that hearing the good news first can help motivate them to overcome the coming bad news. Fair enough!

Let’s get back to your imaginary friend. 😉 What if his response is: I want the bad news! “The bad news first?” you attempt to clarify. “No, the bad news ONLY!” he retorts. If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend the next few seconds picking your jaw from the floor, thinking about your life’s choices – or better still, friend choices.😯😂

Here’s the shocking part: we are all collectively that weird friend. We’re obsessed with the bad news! Before you unsheathe your swords and pick up rocks to haul at me, ask yourself this: where are all the utopian fiction stories nowadays if we actually like good news? Since fictional works are a near-limitless way for our subconscious to express itself, why don’t more authors create perfect worlds or paradises in their writing? With the chaotic state of the world we presently live in – pandemics, wars, global warming – shouldn’t authors be working harder to give us some ESCAPE through fantasies of an ideal world? 🔆 Why are fictional utopias so few and far between today, even though most people can list a large number of contemporary dystopian fictional pieces? Not to take anything from dystopian fictional works; many of them are indeed creative masterpieces. George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’ or Asimovs ‘Nightfall’ comes to mind amongst many others. But such is the rivalry between the speculative fiction siblings – utopian fiction and dystopian fiction –  it’s tough not to take notice of the inequality in their respective representations. At this moment, dystopian fiction remains the favorite son! And it’s not shy in making its presence felt…

Before we go much further, why don’t we explore the origins of both genres – surely, we’ll find some clues. Utopian fiction has existed for a long time and has had a remarkable evolution through the centuries. The very term “utopia” was first coined by Sir Thomas Moore in his 1516 book of the same name. The word is from the Greek word eutopia, which means “good place”. Before you smile, imagining such a “good place”, I’ll have you know that the word is a pun that also inculcates the Greek word outopia, which literary means “NO PLACE.” This is presumably because no place so perfect can ever realistically exist. I see what you did there, Thomas Moore… having us going on wild goose chases, huh?

While it would seem that Sir Moore is simply a proverbial zoo keeper dangling an elusive carrot at the animals, what if his coinage was designed to be a warning to humanity? What if he’s speaking as a prophet and saying:

We would never have UTOPIA!
It doesn’t exist, fools!

History would suggest that he’s right. Through the passage of time, many national leaders have sought earnestly for utopias, and just as Thanos found out – too late – in the Avengers movie series, such effort often come with complexity and chaos. Several times in the past, the very efforts at creating utopias have so disturbed the fine balance of things such that dystopias have been formed. Perhaps, through the centuries, people have learned to react fearfully to promises of utopia. After all, the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t. 

Dystopia, which means “bad place”, came about a few hundred years after utopia. Like the newborn younger sibling who suddenly begins to get all the attention from the family, dystopian writing became steadily popular. By the mid-1920s, it had gained traction: writers loved it and found more utility in the genre. It was a way to highlight real-life issues, to warn about problems that might happen in the future if humans neglected to deal with existential threats. In his classic novel titled 1984, George Orwell masterfully painted a grim picture of a possible future, highlighting the dangers of governments being in complete control of the people. Another possibly underrated advantage of dystopian fiction over its utopian sibling is the amount of armory it provides the writer. The best fictional pieces create lasting imagery and evoke emotions. What better way to achieve that than to write on chaos and the natural yearning for survival! It’s no wonder that more people can relate to it on an emotional level. Also, dystopian writings can sometimes be comforting… especially when they realize that their present world isn’t as terrible as the one they see on the pages of the novels.🤔😬

So dystopian writers aren’t necessarily hateful sadists who churn out writings of a gloomy world from the dark corners of their basements.☝️Many of them write from a place of urgency and social responsibility! Others prefer to take their readers on a grim roller-coster rather than a trip to paradise. The bigger question is a philosophical one.

What do you want from your fiction?

Do you want the escapism and fantasy of a feel-good world OR you prefer the visceral emotions that are often evoked by human misery and oppression? Either option is fine. By now, the siblings are used to the rivalry.

P. S. from Ray: Personally, I recommend reading Utopia, by Merlin Coverley (non-fiction), 165 pages tiny book 📚 – about the concept of utopian worlds in classics, and the discussion ‘why Utopia is non-existent’? 

#guestpost written by Laolu Ogundele 

Next post – The Story of Harmless Bullet. Day 9

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