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Nick Smith

AP Literature, Period Six

Mr. Price

8 June 2017

Its a Wonderful Life- The Evolution of Utopias in Literature

One definition of the science fiction genre is the description of the possible. It falls between

the outlandishness of fantasy and the realism of historical fiction. It discusses what could happen

in the future and what could have happened in the past. These endless could-have-will-have stories

have given rise to a major trope within science fiction- the concept of an ideal society, or a utopia.

These utopias have undergone serious evolution over time as civilization and philosophy become

more and more advanced. Many of these utopias remain relevant and provide valuable social

commentary, and they can help depict the beliefs and attitudes of their times. Utopias have evolved

quite a bit over the years, from their origins in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to their

relationship with science fiction to the eventual invention of the dystopia.

The first example of a utopia in literature is Thomas Mores helpfully-titled Utopia, which

details the travels of an explorer through a world with no wars and no poverty. This civilization is

explained through flashbacks and philosophical rants by Mores main character, the explorer

Raphael Hythloday. In the book, More highlighted the many social issues that plagued Europe

during the years of the Renaissance- Hythloday explains his discoveries and visions of the world

to many different nobles and luminaries with statements like The price of wool is also so risen

that the poor people, who were wont to make cloth, are no more able to buy it (More, Conditions

in England 1). From the start, the utopia was designed to be used for social satire and commentary.

The word utopia itself is a play on the Greek words eutopia and outopia, meaning good
place and no place, respectively. His title insinuated that this society could never exist in real

life, and that a civilization like the one described in Utopia was unattainable. His description of

this ideal society is long and specific, and contain ideas that might look appealing with the benefit

of hindsight (Every year twenty of this family come back to the town after they have stayed two

years in the country, and in their room there are other twenty sent from the town, that they may

learn country work from those that have been already one year in the country, as they must teach

those that come to them the next from the town) (More, Agriculture, Cities and Government 1)

and ideas that dont so much (Their women are not married before eighteen nor their men before

two-and-twenty, and if any of them run into forbidden embraces before marriage they are severely

punished, and the privilege of marriage is denied them unless they can obtain a special warrant

from the Prince) (More, Of the Slaves and of Their Marriages 1). This contrast between ideas like

universal agricultural education and slavery could be intentional, to show that an ideal society is

truly forever out of reach. The contrast could also not mean anything at all, and the description of

Utopia really is Mores concept of a perfect world. Utopia is a seminal work in speculative fiction,

and established a precedent for later science-fiction writers takes on their own perfect worlds.

Another example of a utopia is seen in H.G. Wells The Time Machine, when the novels

main character travels forward in time to a point where humanity has evolved into an apparently

perfect society of tiny, frail human beings who have evidently abolished conflict, and lived perfect,

charmed lives. On his first day in the future, the protagonist looks around at the beautiful landscape

and thinks about the implications of a world where nobody seems to work or experience pain or

death. All he can see is happiness and calm, as he thinks to himself, We are kept keen on the

grindstone of pain and necessity, and, it seemed to me, that here was that hateful grindstone broken

at last! (Wells 24). Wells character comes to a realization that perhaps a perfect society shouldnt
be concerned with material decadence or the triumph of social ideals, but with simply living the

best life possible. This utopia isnt about the prevalence of a doctrine or a code of ethics, only life.

The protagonists conception of this utopian world is devastated, however, when he finds that the

inhabitants of the surface world that he is familiar with live on top of a race of subterranean

creatures. He is horrified by their appearance and their living conditions, and describes their

underworld as stuffy and oppressive, [with] the halitus of freshly-shed blood in the air (39).

Despite these conditions, the protagonist comes up with a theory- the inhabitants of the underworld

are indeed caretakers (slaves?) of those living in the upper world, but they also live off of the

creatures of the upper world. These upper-worlders seem to have accepted their fate- they dont

fight against those from the underworld, and there is no evidence on the surface of their existence.

The implications of the dichotomy between the underworld and the overworld can be seen in many

other works of speculative fiction, and this dichotomy helped to create the concept of the dystopia.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is an early dystopian novel about a world of pure

genetic and chemical dominance, where classism is literally bred into the population and

reinforced with hypnotic subliminal messages. In this future, class is immediate and visible and

preordained, rather than something based on income, race, or religion. We decant our babies as

Alphas or Epsilons [the highest and lowest classes featured in the novel, respectively], as future

sewage workers or future Directors of Hatcheries (Huxley 23-24). Every person in this future is

a test-tube baby, their lives decided at birth with injections of hormones to promote certain traits

or reductions in oxygen to inhibit intelligence. This has led to a society where there are no class

conflicts because the people in the society have no conception that life could be anything different.

Even those at the very bottom of this world, the Epsilon Minuses, have been deliberately stunted,

both intellectually and physically, so that resistance is impossible. When a character attempts to
force the lower classes to understand a life free of subjugation and enslavement, his audience,

which consists of the lower class, attacks and tries to kill him. He is told that his gesture was futile-

He laughed. Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! My good boy! (199). Brave New World

is an example of a dystopia perpetuated through benevolence and comfort. The lower classes are

encouraged to remain enslaved to the upper class, and the ideas of freedom and another, better life

are completely unthinkable. Huxleys world does not use terror to create its ideal vision- it uses

encouragement (and lots of prenatal genetic alterations). This is a stark contrast to many other

dystopian novels, whose societies have tendencies to use naked aggression and fear in their

pursuits of perfection.

1984 is one of these novels. The brutal world of Oceania is experienced by the narrator of

the novel, Winston Smith, who despises the conditions of the world around him and conspires to

change them. The book describes Winstons surroundings through his inner monologue, and

provides Winstons driving motivation for his eventual rebellion against the totalitarian world in

which he lives- Always in your stomach and in your skin there was a sort of protest, a feeling that

you had been cheated of something you had a right to (Orwell 59). The world in which he lives

uses lies, torture and manipulation to carry out its ends- but those ends are never really provided

to the reader. The ruling class wants more and more power, but their motivations are never really

elaborated much beyond this. An official of the government discusses this motivation with

Winston- Power is not a means- it is an end the object of persecution is persecution the object

of power is more power (263). This dystopia has no ideals and no morals- the brutal world in

which the characters live is simply a means to the end of the governments neverending quest for

more power. This example of dystopia is unique because most dystopias, and even utopias, in

literature have some kind of ideal that they strive to attain, some kind of future well-being to be
attained. In 1984, the dystopian government is completely nihilistic, believing in nothing but the

certainty of the value of power. 1984 was designed to reflect the totalitarian governments of the

1940s, which believed in nothing but the acquisition of more power, and the novel showed the

consequences of a government with no morals. This dystopia is, again, unique in this regard, and

most other books that depict topias of some kind have a doctrine that the founders of the topia

adhere to.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, is an example of a utopia that is driven by one central tenet-

the idea that the self is the only end that anyone should work for, and that complacence and reliance

are the highest form of evil. The intellectual elite are tired of being taken for granted by the weaker

members of their world, and their unofficial leader decides to stop the motor of the world (Rand

671). This leader convinces these elites- steel magnates, railroad heads, musicians, doctors, poets

and others- to leave their jobs to make the rest of the world see what life is like without them. The

elites retreat to a secret hiding place, where their ideals reign supreme, and watch the world

crumble without them. Atlas Shrugged is a very divisive book with a very divisive message, which

is dictated in an in-book radio address by the leader of the elites, where he condemns those who

the elites see to be parasites and moochers. A statement from the leader during his address runs as

follows- You exist for the sake of avoiding punishment. We exist for the sake of earning rewards

(1024). In Atlas Shruggeds utopia, there is a clear-cut vision for a glorious future where everyone

works for themselves and absolutely nobody else (no exceptions). This is the opposite of 1984s

utopia, where everyone works to serve the ruling class and nobody but the ruling class. The two

sit on the extreme ends of the utopian spectrum, one far to the left in totalitarian socialism, and the

other far to the right in self-obsessed capitalism. So, the utopia of Atlas Shrugged has many features
in common with other utopias, as well as many differences, both in the physical world of its novel

and the ideology of its author.

The concept of a utopia has changed quite a bit over time to include dystopias as well as

the original concepts popularized in the Enlightenment and in modern science fiction. An

interesting note about all of these utopias is that the happiness of the ruling class always comes at

the expense of an underclass. Utopia runs on slaves, The Time Machines world contains two

completely different societies above and under the earth, Brave New World genetically separates

its classes, 1984 beats its lower classes into submission, and Atlas Shruggeds utopia relies upon

the independence of those who have become dependent upon its main characters. All of these

utopias are not perfect for someone, and could perhaps be commentaries on the elusiveness of a

true, real-life utopia. Some could also just be ideological diatribes (Atlas Shrugged). And as

societies continues to grow and change, there will be more and more utopian novels suggesting

methods to fix the problems in those societies. Brave New World focused on the effects of

propaganda and chemical persuasion, and 1984 was about 1940s totalitarianism. Because utopias

always reflect the world in which they were written to some degree, they will continue to change,

and the concept of a utopia will never die.

Works Cited

More, Thomas, and H.V.S Odgen. Utopia. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949. Print.

Wells, Herbert G. The Time Machine. Stuttgart: Klett, 1988. Print.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.

Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet Classics, 1949. Print.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Signet, 1996. Print. 50th Anniversary Edition