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Friday, November 26, 2010

"when the real world seems as though it's becoming a dystopia."

20 Essential Works of Utopian Fiction

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Every amateur philosopher has dreamed about what they perceive as a utopian society. It's fascinating to think about a world without the ills we experience today and how perpetually imperfect humans would achieve such an existence. Utopian fiction does just that, enabling readers to travel to a world that will never truly exist. Below is a list of the 20 essential works of the genre. Each are an excellent read when the real world seems as though it's becoming a dystopia.

  1. Utopia, by Thomas More: More's 16th century masterpiece builds a framework for what he viewed as an ideal society; one that is both communal and democratic. The fictional island of Utopia is governed by concepts that were considered unthinkable at the time the book was written but are taken for granted today, such as religious tolerance.
  2. The Commonwealth of Oceana, by James Harrington: Harrington describes in detail a utopian land named "Oceana" that features an enhanced version of 17th century England's government. His mission was to evoke discussion related to change, though the book was originally censored by Oliver Cromwell and its suggestions were ignored by leaders.
  3. Candide, by Voltaire: During his travels to South America, the protagonist finds the utopian city of El Dorado, which is devoid of poverty, crime and prisons. Its citizens live in perfect equality and benefit from rich culture and a superior educational system. It's quite different from the harsh realities of 18th century Europe, in which people must figuratively cultivate their gardens in order to deal with the harsh world, according to Voltaire.
  4. The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, by Samuel Johnson: In a world that's obsessed with the pursuit of happiness, Johnson's novella attempts to find the root of the it. The protagonist Rasselas escapes the boredom of constant contentment and travels with his sister and a philosopher, learning that happiness isn't easily achieved.
  5. The Millennium, by Upton Sinclair: In the year 2000, the ruling class of America's hardcore capitalistic society lives in unnecessary excess, causing an accident that kills all but 11 people in the world. Those survivors were raised in privilege and thus struggle to build a new capitalistic society, eventually constructing a successful utopian communist society instead.
  6. News from Nowhere, by William Morris: Another excellent utopian read in which a man is transported from the 1890s to the 21st century, where capitalism no longer rules society and equality has been achieved. The world is less high-tech and work is done for its own sake. Written during a time when many where romanticizing over the virtues of socialism.
  7. The Coming Race, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton: An underground race known as the Vril-ya is discovered by a man from the 19th century. The Vril-ya people possess an energy source called Vril that heals, alters and destroys, enabling them to enhance their way of life. However, the seemingly perfect society is boringly predictable and it's neighbored by a primitive, animal-like race that hasn't evolved.
  8. Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy: A Boston man falls asleep in 1887 — the time the book was written — and awakens in the year 2000, finding his city as a prosperous utopia devoid of poverty and the ills that plagued society more than 100 years earlier. The ideas brought forth in the book remain relevant today.
  9. A Crystal Age, by WH Hudson: Despite being transported into a peaceful and pastoral society, a young man is unable to find fulfillment, falling in love but failing to adapt to the matriarchal tradition. Readers will be surprised by the gritty and challenging ending.
  10. A Modern Utopia, by HG Wells: In Wells' utopia, national boundaries cease to exist, but competition remains. People have the freedom and time to pursue activities that make them happy. Inequality lingers as the dumb and anti-social are cast away from normal people. Overall, it's a unique look at a society that reflects our own, combining ideas from other utopian works.
  11. Men Like Gods, HG Wells: The World of Utopia is quite different from Victorian England. It has evolved from an Earth-like period known as the "Days of Confusion" and now has a socialist work government and advanced science. A group of English transplants are confused by the selflessness exhibited by the inhabitants, as it conflicts with everything they were indoctrinated to believe in their native land.
  12. Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon: Utopias and dystopias are created and explored by Stapledon, as he imagines society from the present to the distant future. The ways in which different segments evolve varies; some do better than others. The book is highly imaginative and entirely wrong, but it left a lasting impression, inventing concepts later used by numerous science fiction writers.
  13. Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon: This is somewhat of a sequel to Last and First Men — this too was a precursor to the science fiction genre. A man is bestowed with the ability to travel through time and observe the creation and evolution of different life forms, including the peaks of their existences well into the future.
  14. Lost Horizon, by James Hilton: Plane crash survivors in Tibet encounter a utopian civilization in Shangri-La that differs from their own. The protagonist meets with the Head Lama, learns about the history of his surroundings and is given the secret to the monk's longevity. He ultimately discovers there's much more to life than he previously realized.
  15. Walden Two, by BF Skinner: Skinner, a behavioral psychologist, imagines a community in which equality, cooperation and relationships are valued to the highest degree. Told from the perspective of an outsider professor, a detailed description is provided pertaining to the commune's unique practices, which include behavioral-engineering.
  16. Island, by Aldous Huxley: Huxley's final novel reflects his lifetime of thoughts on society as he cultivates a practical island utopia called Pala that heavily subscribes to the values of Buddhism. A man sent to secure an oil contract soon realizes that the island must be saved from the civilization that promises to ravage it.
  17. Ecotopia, by Ernest Callenbach: Northern California and the Pacific Northwest are transformed into a futuristic ecotopia by Callenbach, who established a new genre with this book. His new egalitarian society is characterized by a renewed reliance on nature and an authentic do-it-yourself spirit that seems to have diminished in modern America.
  18. Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A society run entirely by women is free of war and conflict. And although it may seem that Gilman is portraying men as destroyers of the world, that's not her purpose. The books is about exploring the capabilities of women outside of their traditional gender role, when they don't exist simply to please men.
  19. Mizora: A World of Women, by Mary E. Bradley Lane: Lane creates another world without men where the ills of modern society have vanished — the cities are clean, pollution isn't a problem, peace has been achieved, no prisons are in operation and educators are the heroes. This book predates Herland, making it the first feminist utopian work.
  20. The Probability Broach, by L. Neil Smith: Smith authors a work of utopian fiction that doesn't revolve around communal living, but rather libertarianism. A detective is thrown into a society in which selfishness is valued and personal responsibility is a necessary characteristic. Unlike some other works in the genre, it's more than just a lecture on the way people ought to live.

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