Utopian and Dystopian Reading Group discussion

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message 1: by D.L. (last edited Mar 18, 2013 01:53PM) (new)

D.L. Christopher (DLChristopher) | 9 comments What is it, do you think, that really makes a dystopia? Brave New World, for example is a dystopia - yet the vast majority of its people seem to live reasonably happily, and the same could be said of many dystopian novels - that there is a majority for whom life is at least as good as it is now, or are convinced by propaganda or otherwise that they are happy. Is it only the reader and the protagonist that can decide upon a books dysoptia quotient? Or is there something about the method of control and its severity that makes a society inherently dytopian?


message 2: by Miranda (new)

Miranda | 4 comments I think that it really depends on the protagonist's and other citizen's agreement with the system of control. It comes down to the bureaucratic influence on the citizens whom are integrated in the society to determine the tolerance of control. This leads to the disagreement between the social classes and rebellions if a cohesive state isn't reached.


message 3: by D.L. (last edited Mar 19, 2013 02:41PM) (new)

D.L. Christopher (DLChristopher) | 9 comments Yet the main threat to the society in Brave New World is external (the savage)? I suppose what I'm getting at is - if the citizens for the most part are subjugated to such an extent that they are unaware of their position (it's been a while since I read it) the Gammas(?) or have been institutionalised - like the Parson children in 1984 - at what point would a dystopia become a successful revolution? A cohesive state in society does not necessarily mean a happy one, but a stable one. Obviously the reader is intended to see the inequality of their own society in a dystopia - but can a dystopia ever be seen to be successful? What about PKD's Do Androids Dream? Another dystopia, yet Mercerism is used to provide the illusion of cohesiveness or social inclusion.


message 4: by Jonas (last edited Mar 19, 2013 01:10AM) (new)

Jonas (jits) | 6 comments I guess that what makes it dystopic is how we read and relate to it as well - and I don't think that it is really ever clear-cut. Dystopias often contain many notions from the Utopic visions and vice versa. That's part of the problem: what is it that is really important in a society for humans? Stability or happiness?


message 5: by Vardan (new)

Vardan Partamyan (vardanpartamyan) the problem is here is absolution,,,utopia is a perfect system and no perfect system or a perfect state is sustainable and any system that strives for perfection eventually degrades into dystopia. Simply put, dystopia is an utopia gone very,very wrong.


message 6: by D.L. (new)

D.L. Christopher (DLChristopher) | 9 comments You see - this is the thing for me. It's something I've been planning to write about if and when I get round to taking my MA. In terms of historical appraisal, the most successful societies are not judged in units of human happiness, but in longevity. As morality tales and political or philosophical warnings, dystopias may be judged immoral - but how would the historians of their future view its dissidents? Would they be lauded as freedom fighters or would they be viewed in the same light as the visigoths that sacked Rome?

From a strictly 'human survival' perspective - how important is the unit of human happiness?


message 7: by Vardan (new)

Vardan Partamyan (vardanpartamyan) define happiness


message 8: by D.L. (new)

D.L. Christopher (DLChristopher) | 9 comments The OED have already done that:

Adjective (happier, happiest)

1feeling or showing pleasure or contentment:Melissa came in looking happy and excited [with clause]:we’re just happy that he’s still alive [with infinitive]:they are happy to see me doing well


(happy about) having a sense of trust and confidence in (a person, arrangement, or situation):he was not happy about the proposals


(happy with) satisfied with the quality or standard of:I’m happy with his performance


[with infinitive] willing to do something:we will be happy to advise you


[attributive] used in greetings:happy Christmas


2 [attributive] fortunate and convenient:he had the happy knack of making people like him


3 [in combination] informal inclined to use a specified thing excessively or at random:they tended to be grenade-happy


message 9: by Jonas (new)

Jonas (jits) | 6 comments D.L. The thing about that is that happiness is also in comparison to another state. A fully functional dystopic society that can provide people with everything they need in an equal manner - thereby eliminating most of the social problems that exist in a society such as ours – could from one standpoint be deemed as a happy one. But if this is due to oppression, "forced communism", or something like that, which dictates a certain way of life for everyone in a setting where people know that it used to be different (e.g. more free) then they could never become happy in that state (or?). I would not deem a society successful just because of longvity but rather judge it on factors such as crime level, the scope of their culture (arts, music and so on) and general level of contentedness.


message 10: by D.L. (new)

D.L. Christopher (DLChristopher) | 9 comments I completely agree, but to play devils advocate - would any earlier group of humans see the enforced working schedule/tax/lack of common grounds as acceptable and will it be seen so in the future? Yet people have adapted so that what is (historically speaking) an unnatural state for humanity is now the norm. As mentioned - the Parson children in 1984 are so well institutionalised that the society of Airstrip One has become normal - it is only the transitional generation (Winston et al) that see it as unnatural. Once a population has had propaganda ingrained in them (as with most of the cast of Brave New World), is happiness then redefined and could not a functional dystopia be viewed as a Utopia within expressed limits?


message 11: by Jonas (last edited Mar 19, 2013 02:33PM) (new)

Jonas (jits) | 6 comments Yeah, that is what I think too and it is a scary thought as well since it seems to be a fact that we can get accustomed to certain states of living more or less fairly quickly. On the other hand, the upshot is that we have our imaginations, and I would believe that when given a glimpse of a better way of life, such a vision would cause a person to strive for change toward that end. A good example of such a story is Kuno in E.M. Forsters 'The Machine Stops' (http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/praj...). A bit of an outsider who gets such a glimpse of an alternate reality, that clings fast to his mind and makes reaching it Kuno's raison d'être (to the disgust of the rest of the society).

But yeah, even if he had not gotten a glimpse of that, isn't there still something in human beings that makes them long for something else - the cause of daydreams of societal changes and so on? In some at least. I would guess that there are people who are easier to satisfy than others.


message 12: by D.L. (new)

D.L. Christopher (DLChristopher) | 9 comments I've not read that (but will do!) I hope so - that's the one thing that seems to pervade dystopian fiction - that something inside people seems to understand that things could or should be better or at least different. Rick's yearning for animals lost in Do Androids Dream, Bernard Marx, Julia, all of whom are inculcated with the mores of their own society still somehow yearn for something else. I wonder sometimes if it's that yearning, like Offred and Moira in The Handmaid's Tale, for something else that really makes a dystopia rather than the actual society depicted.


message 13: by Jonas (new)

Jonas (jits) | 6 comments I agree, and it is so prevalent in many of or current cultures too. The need for new, shiny things and constant reinventions of the self. Maybe it is this feeling that needs to be turned toward something good in order for utopia to occur.


message 14: by Elling (new)

Elling Borgersrud | 14 comments I figure a dystopian novel is basically a critique of the society. The society is the topic of the novel, the writer is against that way to organize, and that is what the writer wants to say with the book.
A Utopia is a political suggestion. Often the best utopias are not really "novels", in the sense that they dont need storylines. Oh, and some of the poor ones too.
The word "utopia" is often used as meaning "an impossible society", but I think really that doesent describe utopias as a litterary genre. On the contrary; the writer goes to great length trying to convice us that their utopia is the best way to organize a society.


message 15: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments A good dystopia has the following elements, IMHO:

1. A social/political/economic critique

2. It should be rooted in contemporary concerns though set in the future or a parallel world - e.g. issues of what consists of humanity, the gap between the rich and the poor/capitalism - they are contemporary concerns upon which the imagined future will be built

3. It should bring out a vision of an imagined future that is not implausible, but highly possible.

Utopia, on the other hand, is idealistic and less plausible.


message 16: by Elling (new)

Elling Borgersrud | 14 comments The thing about the Utopian litteraty genre, is that if it's not created to look possible or plausible, then it's not really that good. If it is really good, you will be ready to beleave it is possible.
Therefore I have to protest against putting "not plausible" as a genre-description. It's like describing crime novels with "it is really easy to understand who the murder is before the detective does".
NO! It wouldnt have an audience if it was that easy. Some people always knows who the killer is, granted, but that doesent change the point of the classical detective/chrime novel: it is a mystery who is the killer. The solving of the murderplot is the central point.

So even if You the reader is not convinced about this and that Utopian society, that does not change the point of the novel: to convince the reader that this perticular society is both plausible and desireable.

That sayd, I truly beleave that we are also fooled by our hidden inner conservative. We might say about resonable concepts that they will never work, because we have never seen anything like it ourselves. We beleave in our hearts, even if we dont in our minds, that the world can never truly change. At least not for the better. This is the precise reason we should really read more utopian books!


message 17: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments That sayd, I truly beleave that we are also fooled by our hidden inner conservative. We might say about resonable concepts that they will never work, because we have never seen anything like it ourselves. We beleave in our hearts, even if we dont in our minds, that the world can never truly change. At least not for the better.

Yes, that is the precise reason I find utopias implausible - a belief that truly rational and kind beings are in such a minority that they cannot bring about a utopia. For me utopia is as much a dead dream as the ideal Communist govt. It sounds wonderful, but technically impossible.

Because, utopia envisages EVERYONE to be good, fair and just - which is the most impractical thing to happen - if utopia allowed for some diversity the way dystopia does - some good mixed with some bad elements, it would be plausible. But the idea of a living, ideal society in harmony is to ask too much of this generally filthy planet.


message 18: by Elling (new)

Elling Borgersrud | 14 comments Oh, but this is one of the central themes of Utopian litterature! In some novel THE central theme.
I agree that many utopian visions lack diversity and even antisocial behavior and could benefit from more of that, to examine how societys would react to a chrisis or stress, or honestly perhaps just everyday difficoult situations.
But some do!
Beside the current stream of semi-utopian singularity-novels, (including other transhumanist writings, such as the zeitgeist-stuff) my favorites are The Disposessed (ursula le guin) and another book called Voyage from Yesteryear (james p. Hogan).
both include diversity and antisocial behaviour. In Hogans book, it's a war with the Americans. Scary stuff.


message 19: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments Well, I haven't read those, so can't say, but if you look at The Female Man by Joanna Russ, it features a planet Whileaway that has banished men for 400 years and there are only women on it and living happily - now even if we have a planet like that, it is false to assume that simply because only women live there, there is bliss. That is what I mean by the fundamental drawback of utopia. From a certain perspective, it may look ideal, but the very ideal of an ideal society is an improbable one.


message 20: by Elling (new)

Elling Borgersrud | 14 comments Ok. I'll see if I can come across that one. Reminds me of a poor quality norwegian sf novel from the 30's I read in my youth. Can't remember the title, where the hero is the first man to land on an all female planet a 1000 years (or so) after they abolished men. He gets assigned with... Ahem... Impregnate as many women as possible before he can leave.
But a poorly hidden sexual fantasy does not make a utopian novel ;-)

When it comes to feminist Utopias, I guess the Marge Piercy novel "Women at the edge of time" is the greatest. I admit I love the book as a novel and a story, but think there is a bit much technical quick-fixes for me to really apreciate it as a Utopia. Even while I realize that genetic engeneering forexample is not unrealistic for our future, I sort of feel that the "clean" utopian solutions are in the field of economics and politics. (abolish classes, finally manage a real democracy, you know... Stuff like that)
She does all that too, of course. You might like it. It's not an easy care-free society. It is in fact at war, and there is heartbreak and jealusy and all that familiar stuff. Just not rape, gender segregation, money, classes and all of that.

But another book worth mentioning, that might be an inspiration to the one you mentioned for all I know (havent read the one you talked about) is Valeria Solanas "the SCUM-manifesto". It is allso... Eh... Sorta feminist. But not for the weak-hearted. She goes in for a society without men. The title refers to "Society for Cutting Up Men". She is pretty messed up, but its worth reading if your into utopian litterature.


message 21: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments I'm more into feminist dystopian (precisely, feminist cyberpunk - like Marge Piercy's He, She and It or Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott), but I've heard a great deal about Woman on the Edge of Time and am looking forward to reading it.

I'll also look into the SCUM-manifesto. The book I talked about is considered a classic, but I disliked it.

Utopia is a matter of positioning - from a certain perspective, it is utopian, but I suspect it is not a perfect society overall - only from a particular position. Whileaway might be utopian in the sense women are free from men, but it must be far from an ideal society. There will be other women taking over the power from men.


message 22: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments I also can't find either Valeria Solanas or "the SCUM-manifesto". Can you find it?


message 23: by Elling (new)

Elling Borgersrud | 14 comments Well.. The word "utopia" has several meanings and connotations (I hope that is the right english word..?)
in a political or philosophical debate, one might say that a view is utopian, meaning "not remotely possible".
Then you have in socialism or marxism a term called "utopian socialism", a word in itself greatly misunderstood. It does not mean, as one would suspect, "an impossible form of socialism", but refers to a concrete school of socialist thinkers (Fourier, saint Simon, perhaps also prodhou) that beleaves the greatest task of socialism is to point out as precise as possible what kind of society might be achieveble. To confuse things even further, these suggested societies probably are also impossible. But that is not Friedrich Engels and Carl Marx critique of them.
if that is not confusing enough, enter Lenin, who basically used the term "utopian socialism" for any form of socialism that might be left from the SUKP. Therefore you might still find the term in use amongst modern marxists (mostly used in the Leninist sense. I am not sure Lenin himself saw the difference in his use and the use of Engels and Marx. One can imagine that the realized socialism of the Sovjet Union might have had interests in describing "leftwing communism" and anarchism seem very dreamy and far from realizable, and that they therefore tweeked the use of the word a little)
the closest thing we have to the original tendency of utopian socialism today is the zeitgeist-people (at least that I know of). And they are very careful about not using any of the words ;-)
oh, and in the US you allso have all those utopian christian sects like Amish and so forth. Perhaps quakers (?) those exists in real life, so they have got to count!

Then the term "utopian" allso refers to the litterary genre. Thomas moores book "utopia" both made the book, and spawned the genre, utopian socialism in all its forms, and all the meanings of the word.

To top it alll of, you have this modern ideological hegemony that says that another world actually is not possible. The "liberal democracy" won, all alternatives is impossible, and perhaps chriminal. Any revolution that has been seems inevitable, and any revolution that havent, seems impossible. This is the way of things ;-(

the litterary genre does not have to describe a good society in my opinion, or even a workable one. But the writers goal is to convince us that her suggestion is a good society. Read forexample the most important american utopia (I think) called looking backwords by Edward Bellamy. Utopian as they come, but a horrible, undemocratic hell of a society if you ask me. But it's not up to me alone if it is a utopia or not.


message 24: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments yes, utopia is often associated with Marxism/Communism - but I was talking solely in literary terms. And the meaning of utopia has changed over the years, hence there are debates over what the term exactly means and for whom it is a utopia - as they say, one person's utopia is another's dystopia. Talking about utopia/dystopia is like walking on a double-edged sword - but since we're talking about utopia as the radical opposite of dystopia, I guess the definition of a happy, ideal society for utopia works fine, socialist or not.


message 25: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Murphy (bmzmurphy) | 9 comments Coming back to "Brave New World", wasn't Huxley asserting that utopia is impossible for human beings because of the fact that we die? And however much you disguise it by inventing religions that promise after-lives or by thanking those nice people who have just helped society by snuffing it, it remains, from the human point of view, a Bad Thing?


message 26: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments Well, who doesn't want to live forever? How many actually want to be mortal? Immortality, I think, has been rooted out long ago as a feasible possibility, and the believers in Utopia are now more concerned about making the most of whatever span of life they have - have you seen the movie 'In Time'? It deals with immortality, and how then life not only becomes useless for those blessed with an endless life, but also burdensome. One part of being essentially *human* lies in our inescapable death.


message 27: by Elling (new)

Elling Borgersrud | 14 comments nature is cruel.
But human society can also be pretty cruel. I think we need to take out the term "perfect" from the definition of utopia. Remember that even the Thomas Moore book from 1516 had death, war, chrime, slavery and punishment. (the criminals where shamed by having to march around town dressed in gold! Thats harch!)
I think of utopia-creating as an attemt to minimize man-made suffering to it's minimum. The society is so good the author can imagine. Nothing more.

I am not totally convinced that there will allways be unwanted death in real life. (ray Kurtweil amokgst others suggests how it can be avoided.) However, I would prefer that immortality is kept out of a utopian novel. It strikes me as a quick-fix. It's litterary cheating.


message 28: by Bryan (new)

Bryan Murphy (bmzmurphy) | 9 comments I think that "One part of being essentially *human* lies in our inescapable death" was part of Huxley's point. If he had spoken the English of today, he could well have added "So deal with it." I haven't seen "In Time" yet [thanks for the recommendation!] but I do remember "Zardoz", in which the immortals had become the "Apathetics" - seen it all, done it all, wanting only release. I don't want to be immortal. Do you?


message 29: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments Not so sure - perhaps :)


message 30: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments But I would love to choose my death.


message 31: by Elling (new)

Elling Borgersrud | 14 comments I would like to be immortal personally, but I confess I am a bit scared of what it would do to human society.


message 32: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments Elling wrote: "I would like to be immortal personally, but I confess I am a bit scared of what it would do to human society."

Then you should see In Time - there's a good answer too that.


message 33: by Lit Bug (new)

Lit Bug | 15 comments I think Utopias, as represented in literature, are really disguised dystopias - everything is fine superficially, rationally - but a deeper look reveals the less-perfect, actually dystopian elements to it. The idea of utopia is to satirize the ideal of perfection, I would like to think.


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