By Bryn Glover
The word ‘utopia’ was coined by Thomas More in 1516 for his book of that name in which he described a fictional South Atlantic island paradise. The implication was that such a place could never exist but even More realised that his word derived from the Greek ou-topia, meaning ‘no-place’, could easily be confused with eu-topia, meaning a ‘good-place’.
In the half-millennium since Utopia was published, many authors have revisited the idea of a good place, usually to attack the concept as dangerous or futile.
In the nineteenth century the word ‘dystopia’ was coined to mean the opposite of eutopia. One of the first people to use it was John Stuart Mill in a parliamentary speech of 1868. Denouncing the Tory government’s Irish land policy, he said: ‘It is perhaps too complimentary to call them utopians, they ought rather to be called dystopians or cacotopians. What is commonly called utopian is something too good to be practicable, but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.’
Caco, like dys, is a Greek prefix meaning ‘bad’ (as in cacophony) but with stronger overtones of wickedness, which may explain why Anthony Burgess, the author of the dystopian masterpiece A Clockwork Orange, preferred to describe George Orwell’s 1984 as cacotopian.
In fact there are more dystopian books than (e)utopian ones, possibly because it is easier to destroy than to create, and more fashionable to be a cynical iconoclast than a wishy-washy idealist. Utopian projects are always flawed, as Orwell observed in 1984 and Animal Farm. The latter was intended as a children’s book but it doesn’t pull any political punches as a parody of the Soviet system.
Other dystopian books include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009), H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (2008), John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955), J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962), and of course, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which has just been adapted into a rather salacious television serial.
Utopian stories are harder to find on the bookshelves – and, once found, also harder to read due to the excess of idealism. Take More’s Utopia, for example, which addresses such matters as government by reason and consent, religious pluralism (including non-religion), women’s rights, state education, and issues surrounding the justification of warfare and anti-colonialism. Such hefty topics don’t make for a page-turner.
In 1890, William Morris published News From Nowhere, and around the same time H. G Wells brought out A Modern Utopia, and there was also Looking Backward (and its sequel Equality) by Edward Bellamy, and A Traveler from Altruria by William Dean Howells.
Half a century earlier, the writer Henry David Thoreau had swapped his job in Concord, Massachusetts, for a life of isolation and simplicity in a shack on the shores of Walden Pond. In 1854, he published his account of the experience in Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Having rejected the consumerism of 19th-century America, he wanted to describe his sense of fulfilment.
Obviously inspired by Walden is B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two, first published in 1948. A professor of behavioural psychology at Harvard, Skinner wrote a number of academic works, but Walden Two was an attempt to explain his theories in the form of a work of fiction. The plot is simple: a group of academic friends visit a rural commune by the name of Walden Two, and are shown around by its founder Frazier who explains the socio-political and economic principles behind life and work at the commune (‘from each according to ability, to each according to need’, in a nutshell). Compared to Brave New World, which is full of sex and drugs and plotting, Walden Two reads a bit like a Screwfix catalogue. It’s not just that Huxley is a more imaginative novelist than Skinner. The difference between the two utopias is rooted in one of speculative literature’s main distinctions. Both writers described a world in which life is pleasant, but whereas Skinner wanted his ‘good place’ to become reality, Huxley warned against a ‘no-place’ of undemanding totalitarian pleasure in which sex and drugs and social media operate as mind control. The message of the book, according to Huxley, was, ‘This is possible: for heaven’s sake be careful about it.’
Bryn Glover is a member of the AGS national committee