From the neon-drenched noir of Altered Carbon to the technophobic Black Mirror, dystopia is all over mainstream entertainment these days—and considering the current political climate, it’s easy to see why. But when was the last time you watched a utopian show or movie? Unless, like me, you’re watching Star Trek on repeat forever, it’s probably been a while since your imagination took a trip into a better world.
Everything we struggle with today, from climate change, to human rights abuses, to police brutality, is paralleled and explored in countless fictional dystopias. And for many people, this is a welcome outlet for their frustrations. But the more reality starts to resemble the dystopias on our TV screens, the more we need another kind of story. Utopian fiction dares to hope that we can, and will, be better. And I don’t know about you, but I could really use that dream right now.
What happens when the battle for freedom is won?
There are plenty of reasons why dystopian fiction is more popular than utopian fiction. A utopia, in the classic sense of the word, is a perfect society in which there is no conflict, and therefore no drama, leaving viewers unable to relate to the story.
This is not to say that dystopian fiction is all self-indulgent misery porn. On the contrary, the heroes in most dystopian fiction are freedom fighters. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is the face of a revolution trying to overthrow their oppressors. The Handmaid’s Tale sees Offred continue to defy Gilead even in the face of overwhelming adversity.
But these sagas are just the beginning of the story, and we so rarely see what happens after the victory. What’s more challenging, for both writers and viewers, is to see how a better society isn’t just created out of strife and conflict, but how it exists in its almost ideal state.
Redfern Jon Barrett, sci-fi author and self-professed stubborn idealist, believes that creating utopias in fiction doesn’t just inspire people, but also brings these utopias closer to reality. “No work of dystopian fiction has ever stopped the scenarios it portrays from happening,” he argues. “1984 didn’t prevent the surveillance state, and Blade Runner didn’t hinder corporate destruction of our environment.” Barrett feels that while dystopia is reactive, utopia is proactive. “If we present hopeful futures, then I genuinely believe we increase their likelihood.” Barrett theorizes that inspiration is a powerful force for change, and we can already see how fictional utopias have inspired real life innovations.
There is no better example of this than Star Trek, perhaps the most prolific utopia and certainly the one with the most longevity. In the 50 years since Trek’s debut, the franchise’s shows and films have inspired dozens of inventions, from computer tablets (remember Picard’s “Padd”?) to 3D printers. Beyond technological development, Star Trek has also inspired people to reach for the stars, like Mae Jemison—the first African American woman in space, Jemison also appeared on The Next Generation to pay homage to the show that inspired her to become an astronaut.
First conceived during the Cold War, Star Trek dared to dream of a future in which humanity had resolved all conflict with itself, venturing out among the stars to bring that message of peace to other civilizations.
For Rod Roddenberry, son of Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry, taking this utopian idea into people’s homes was the key to the show’s success. “I feel like we as a species need to be inspired by things. It’s nice to see a character who may fall down and make mistakes but who learns from those mistakes, and makes the right decisions for the betterment of the people, not just for themselves, but for the good of the world. And that’s what a people can be in Star Trek...This idea of a future where humanity has grown beyond its fear of difference and change and has come together.”
Although it could occasionally come off as preachy and naive, Star Trek remains inspirational for one simple reason: It allowed us to imagine a happy ending for humanity in a time when that seemed impossible. Now, as we face a future filled with corruption, yet more conflict, and the looming doom of global warming, imagining our happy ending may be the first step to achieving it.
The pitfalls of utopia
Teaching empathy, responsibility, and the importance of diversity, Star Trek’s message of hope continues to endure. But that’s not to say that all utopian fiction, or even Trek itself, is perfect.
A lot of science fiction takes a shortcut in creating utopia, using some cataclysmic event to wipe the slate clean and start again. Both Star Trek and the novel Woman at the Edge of Time use WWIII to achieve this—which is certainly a pessimistic origin story for a better society. Other authors, like Ursula Le Guin, build utopias on different planets to escape humanity’s history and baggage.
When creating a perfect world, there are many dangerous pitfalls to trip writers up. Glossing over societal inequalities, ascribing to an exclusive ideology, or just straight up whitewashing the future (looking at you, The Jetsons), many utopian shows and films give utopia a bad name. Feminist writer Laurie Penny says there’s a good reason for this, arguing that “true utopia is fascism.” And this is a fair point, considering that the drive to create a perfect society has lead to some of the worst human rights violations in history, and those responsible for many dystopias, both real and fictional, believed them to be perfect worlds.
“Utopia, as most people understand it, would mean a society of stasis, where nothing could or should ever change. Fossilized and airless,” Penny continues. “Utopia is the search for utopia. It is a point on the map where the journey is what matters.” Rather than perfect futures, Penny explains that she is “far more interested in societies that want to be much better than they are now.” And maybe that is the key to making a utopia that is relatable to modern audiences—to show how a better world can grow out of dystopia.
Utopia is a conversation
Utopian writing doesn’t need to create a masterpiece society in order to inspire us to build a better tomorrow. At its core, utopia is just the idea that we can work together to create something wonderful. And this is something mainstream fiction excels at. From Avatar: The Last Airbender to Steven Universe, we are presented again and again with micro-utopias, groups of people working towards a brighter future. In both shows, the core main characters are seeking to establish a better world: The Gaang seek to prevent the Fire Nation from taking over the world, and the Crystal Gems hope to protect Earth from the violently oppressive Diamonds. Using pacifism, quick wits, and the good old power of friendship, these heroes are utopian in the truest sense, even if the situation in which they exist is not yet perfect.
Interestingly, these are shows aimed at children, which carries an uncomfortable message about our own society—that we package utopian ideals as fodder for children’s stories, but deem them too childish for adults. Is this cynicism, or just realism? To a pragmatic mind, utopia does not seem attainable, and we don’t just want to feed ourselves fairy tales. Yet, perhaps wallowing in dystopias is actually the easier choice. After all, our lives certainly look rosier after we’ve spent an hour watching how much worse off we could be. And that’s the crux of the issue: We don’t want to watch perfect worlds when we aren’t living in one.
Even Roddenberry finds it difficult sometimes to believe in a better future, as our world’s imperfections become all the more apparent. “I’ll be honest and say that I’ve been discouraged in recent years, with the political climate here.” Although it can be concerning to think about the future, Roddenberry still believes we can achieve his father’s vision of a better society—as long as we make some changes. “I do think we’re capable, but I don’t know if we’re making the kind of decisions right now to get us there. Now I think we need to play the long game, investing in a long term future.”
But how do we do this? If we are to create fictional utopias, how to achieve them has to be part of the story, or else their inspirational nature is lost. We see this kind of balanced, politically-minded futurism in The Expanse, which isn’t a dystopia or a utopia, but somewhere in between. Black Panther also toyed with this idea, showing us the idealistic Wakanda in contrast to the oppression taking place elsewhere in the world—and proving that even Wakanda, a relatively utopian society, can always improve itself.
Barrett calls this concept “ambitopia,” storytelling that shows us better societies as well as oppressive regimes. In this way, we get the best of both worlds, exposing what we need to change via dystopia, while demonstrating the better world we can build together. Because that’s the secret. This perfect society we’re striving towards should always be a spot on the horizon, something we’re still moving towards even if it seems like we’ve fixed everything. Utopia is a journey: not the happy ending, but the continued improvement of ourselves.
As children, we are told to dream for better futures; as adults, we are told they are unrealistic. If all we see is an onslaught of depressing news as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, we might give into the idea that a better tomorrow really is just a fairy tale. Yet, in such a bleak reality, hope is radical. And the more we dare to dream about our own utopias, then we might just be inspired to stop the end of the world—as impossible a dream as that may seem to be.