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Writing

What Is Utopian Literature? Examples of Utopia Fiction

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Many twenty-first century readers are familiar with the genre of dystopian fiction, in which stories are set in bleak worlds where the future has gone off the rails. Fortunately, dystopian fiction has a far less bleak sibling in the broader world of speculative fiction, science fiction, and fantasy; this sibling genre is called utopian fiction. Utopian literature has existed for decades, spanning a range of cultures and philosophies.

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What Is Utopian Literature?

Utopian fiction is a style of fiction that takes place in an idealized world. The author of a utopian novel sets their narrative in a world that aligns with their broader ethos and personal philosophy. This does not mean that utopian works are free from conflict.

The same core elements of fiction—compelling storytelling, a well-developed main character, and problems that must be solved—apply to utopian literature. The difference is that utopian novels are often set in a perfect society or ideal state. The injection of conflict into an ideal society may seem antithetical, but as utopian authors demonstrate, human beings have a knack for creating conflict if given enough time.

The History and Origins of Utopian Literature

The term “utopia” was invented by the English philosopher Sir Thomas More, recalling ancient Greek words meaning “good place” and “no place.” More’s book Utopia, published in 1516, describes an ideal utopian society, and his vision has ever since served as a touchstone for philosophers, public servants, and fiction writers alike. To this day, utopian studies is offered in philosophy departments at major universities.

Although More coined the term “utopia,” the examination of perfect societies predates him by many centuries. In roughly 370 BC, Plato published Republic which described attributes of an ideal state. Plato’s Republic inspired philosophers of other nationalities such as the Roman Plutarch to envision a best case scenario future civilization.

Post-More, utopian fiction emerged in works like New Atlantis (1627) by Sir Francis Bacon. Meanwhile The City of the Sun (1623) by Tommaso Campanella further expanded More’s utopian philosophy.

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Characteristics and Types of Utopia Fiction

Utopian literature typically isolates elements of present day reality that need improvement, and it then conjures worlds that feature that improvement.

  • Ecological utopia stories present worlds where climate and natural resources no longer face the dire crises they do today.
  • Feminist utopias offer worlds where women and men are fully equal.
  • Technological utopias depict advancements in computing, robotics, and transportation that are mere dreams in the present world.

Examples of Utopian Literature

Utopian literature really began to emerge roughly a century after More’s Utopia was published, but the genre didn’t fully blossom until the eighteenth century and beyond. Utopian novels became particularly associated with English language writers in the United States and Great Britain. Here are some prominent utopian works from the eighteenth century onward.

Eighteenth Century Utopian Fiction

  • Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • A Description of Millenium Hall and the Country Adjacent by Sarah Scott

Nineteenth Century Utopian Fiction

  • A Crystal Age by W. H. Hudson
  • Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy
  • Equality by Edward Bellamy
  • News from Nowhere by William Morris
  • Erewhon by Samuel Butler

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Twentieth Century Utopian Fiction

  • A Modern Utopia by H. G. Wells
  • Men Like Gods by H. G. Wells
  • Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Island by Aldous Huxley
  • Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Walden Two by B. F. Skinner
  • The Star Trek sci-fi television series created by Gene Roddenberry

What Is the Difference Between Utopian Fiction and Dystopian Fiction?

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Utopian fiction is set in a perfect world—an improved version of real life. Dystopian fiction does the opposite. A dystopian novel drops its main character into a world where everything seems to have gone wrong at a macro level. Much like utopian novels, dystopian novels can take place in the distant future, the past, or an alternate present. Some may feature altered versions of real world cities like New York and London; others may be set in fully fictional locales. Here are some highlights of dystopian fiction:

  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Both utopianism and dystopianism blur the boundary between fiction, philosophy, and political science. For instance, much of George Orwell’s writing is steeped in all three. Whether describing a modern utopia, an imagined lost golden age, or a future ecological utopia set on a verdant space station, utopian stories have endured for centuries. And unlike their dystopian cousins, they provide a reminder of the positive potential of humankind.

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