Podcast Episode: Utopias vs Dystopias

“It seemed that even in paradise, men would find reasons to squabble and fight.” This is an interesting take on utopian fiction, that poignantly highlights a common opinion—that utopias are quote-on-quote “unrealistic”. But are they? Good question! Let’s get these sub-genre undone.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today I have a more philosophical discussion about a meta topic within sci-fi literature—the readers’ perception of utopian and dystopian settings and, to some extent, some similarities of the latter with grimdark fantasy.

The idea for this episode came after I watched Britton’s channel where he posited a very interesting question: “Why are we so fascinated by tragedy?” I’ll tag his video for you to watch it. Before listening to his take, I had discussed a similar theme in my newsletter, and thought that it’d be something interesting to turn into a podcast episode and attempt to answer Britton’s question.

Before we get started, let me do some disclaimers. First, since we are not touching one particular book but many, I will try my best to keep this episode spoiler-lite. Second, what you will hear is my subjective opinion on this topic; it is fine if you disagree.

Let’s begin by trying to define these terms.

The term utopia was coined in 1516 in a homonym book by Sir Thomas Moore, and it is the mixture of the Greek word οὐ (ou, meaning “not”), plus τόπος (tópos, meaning “place, region”)… and it literally means no place. Back then, it was used to categorise a non-existent society that was world-built in considerable detail. As with any word, it’s meaning changed throughout history, but nowadays, Cambridge Dictionary defines utopia as “a perfect society in which people work well with each other and are happy” or “a perfect society in which everyone is happy.”

On the other hand, the term dystopia was coined three-hundred years after. It was originally spelled as dustopia, and crafted from the Ancient Greek δυσ (dus, meaning “bad”), and τόπος (tópos, meaning “place”). Its first recorded use was in 1868, when John Stuart Mill used it as an antonym for utopia during one of his Parliamentary Speeches. Again, the word evolved since its first use and, currently, Cambridge Dictionary defines it as: “a very bad or unfair society in which there is a lot of suffering, especially an imaginary society in the future, after something terrible has happened.”

Within speculative fiction, utopias and dystopias are often (but not always) associated with science fiction works. However, fantasy has (kind of) its own term for dystopias—grimdark. Grimdark is a neologism taken from the tagline of Warhammer 40,000, a famous table-top game; that tagline says “In the grim darkness of the far future there is only war.” However, grimdark is also one of the most disputed terms within fantasy literature, since almost every reader and writer has their own take on it.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll take the definition given by Professor Adam Roberts, the current vice-president of the H.G. Wells Society. Roberts said that grimdark describes fiction “where nobody is honourable and Might is Right” and that grimdark has little to do with re-imagining an actual historic reality and more with conveying the sense that our own world is a “cynical, disillusioned, ultra-violent place”1. I’d say that if you have read Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, then you have read grimdark.

As I see it, there are two pathways to answer the question of “Why are we so fascinated by tragedy?”. I will summarise them here before starting the discussion.

  • First, because human history has given us (readers and writers) evidence that grim, hopeless, misery-prone settings are more common. Our life amidst our social constructs has taught us that things go wrong more often than they go right, and that terrible things are, unfortunately, more expected to happen.

  • Second, because media has taught us that conflict is amusing… and we somehow perceive that a utopia will have no conflict and will, therefore, be boring.

Let’s start with the first part; how history has shaped us to believe that only a conflict-prone setting is realistic. To this effect, let me recall one of my favourite reads of 2024: Rejoice: A Knife to the Heart by Steven Erikson. This is a social sci-fi book that discusses (in my opinion) that violence and conflict are intrinsic to human identity; I did a whole podcast episode about it.

In Rejoice, one character posits that humanity: “[…] didn’t shelter their own, didn’t feed their own, didn’t heal their own, and yet, in the midst of all this inhumanity, they held themselves as the pinnacle of human civilisation.” This is basically arguing that we believe to have a civilised society while, in reality, we let misery go rampant instead of providing help; in short, this statement is arguing that we, humans, may be aware of the suffering yet do nothing to solve it.

It is… an interesting position, and one that will come back again in this episode. Still within Rejoice, another character, a woman working in the United Nations, elaborates that position by stating that:

"[…]But for too long [humans] have viewed competition solely in the realm of our fellow humans. We have devised an economic system that depends on it. We’ve created social hierarchies that are built upon competition. The problem is: for every winner there are a thousand losers. Our system of competition is damaging us, but we’ve lived with the belief in winning and losing for so long that we don’t know any other way to live."

This quote brings the core idea of Rejoice—that conflict is so central to humanity’s identity that every social or political construct depends and relies on conflict to work. Our legal system is based on punishment (don’t do this, or you’ll face a penalty), our academic settings are based in punishment (don’t get grades lower than this, or you’ll be penalised), our careers and the social ladder we have constructed is based in punishment… just as the quote says, all our constructs (regardless of the ideology) are based in competition and conflict, thus leading to winners and losers.

This setting in which we live makes it very easy for us (humans!) to believe that any type of conflict, alongside hopelessness and misery, are normal. Why? Because we have the quote-on-quote “evidence” of our own lives backing that up!

Author Stewart Stafford once wrote that “Man’s Utopian dreams get circumvented through compromise and disappointment into a tolerable reality” meaning that we know that we are never going to get a perfect world, and then settle for good enough… whatever that means at a given moment in time. In turn, in The Running Man, Stephen King famously wrote: “In the year 2025, the best men don’t run for president, they run for their lives…” indicating (in my opinion) that society is not kind towards those that try to steer it in the path of a utopia. Again, I’m not talking about ideologies, you can assign your own beliefs to its meaning.

Author Kameron Hurley, who won both the Hugo and Locus Award (and a bunch of other awards) wrote in her novel The Stars are Legion that, “Perhaps every society is a utopia when you fail to peel up all the layers and look at what’s underneath” ultimately implying that humans are not capable of creating a society that is not violent. We can only create a facade that looks like a perfect world… but that is corrupt and broken underneath its nice cover.

One way or another, all of these quotes demonstrate how little hope we have for ourselves—and for the societies we can build. But let’s keep looking at other quotes.

In his famous series of Mistborn: Wax & Wayne, Brandon Sanderson had a character, Wax, who expressed something along these lines. Wax, thought that: “It seemed that even in paradise, men would find reasons to squabble and fight.” That statement reinforces the point—we, humans, seem unable to create and sustain social constructs that are anything but violent. We may achieve it, but the feat will be temporarily and we will soon destroy that idyllic place, whatever it is.

In her book November Snow, Shannon A. Thompson had a character that supported this idea by asking, “What fueled this hatred? Society” basically arguing that it’s our fault. We, humans, have so little hope that we can do something different, that we can change and evolve… that we truly have no hope for the future nor for us to change the course of our history.

In Erikson’s Rejoice two characters talk exactly about this. Not book genres, mind you—but about possibility and hope. Without spoiling, one character says that the first contact had given humanity hope that change (into a social identity not based in conflict) was possible. However, another character, Kolo, counter-argues that “I learned many years ago to hate that word. Hope is an enemy to truth, an enemy to the world and how it is.”

In Abercrombie’s The Wisdom of Crowds, a character named Orso thinks that, “He had tried to do the right thing, he thought, in his own rather ineffectual way, but it was strange how circumstances would rarely let one be the hero, however much one might want to be. However much one might deserve to be.” This is a bit poignant because, who hasn’t tried to help someone else, only to come off worse? How many times did you assist someone with something only to not even be thanked or acknowledged?

Unfortunately, those things happen… and they may even affect someone’s desire to help. Why do so, if you won’t even be thanked for it? Why do so, if nobody will help you when you need it? If you felt hopeless in those situations, or if you abandoned the task—that’s exactly what I’m taking about. That’s the quote-on-quote “evidence” that builds up and tells us, unconsciously, that we are closer to a dystopia than a utopia; that we, perchance, are outright incapable of crafting a utopia.

Kolo’s and Orso’s comments resonates so much with us because their positions are likely the reader’s—that utopias are unrealistic because it is not feasible given humanity’s nature. Someone may argue that Rejoice’s non-conflict scenario is impossible because it contradicts what we have been through in real life, or that Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is unfeasible because that’s not how human works. Likewise, many people still fear that Orwell’s 1984 make come true (or that it has already come true)…

Let’s pause that idea there, and move to the second type of comment about utopias—that they are boring.

For example, in Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke wrote that “Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom,” while Shelby Foot, a historian of the American Civil War, stated that “I abhor the idea of a perfect world. It would bore me to tears.” These two quotes somehow imply that we have nothing else to do except fight and damage each other; apparently, unless we are directly or indirectly damaging each other, our lives will be boring! Or, in Foot’s case, that a peaceful history of progress is not worth documenting or studying.

Author Robert Silverg, the past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the winner of five Nebula Awards and five Hugo Awards, stated that “Utopias are boring. Dystopias on the other hand, are interesting” because, clearly, reading about a conflict (of any type) is more interesting than a world where the plot may unfurl around something that is not violence.

I find this type of comment more distressing than the pervasive lack of hope we have.

Furthermore, if you look at writing advice, it always highlights the need for a conflict—especially in fantasy and sci-fi. Within this genre we like big stakes, huge conflicts, and universe-upending chaos. There is always war and misery, and there are always societies modelled with the same traits that we humans have now… even when those stories are in secondary worlds, or when happening thousands of years in the future.

You may argue that conflict in literature does not always imply violence and misery—and you’d be correct. Let’s take, for example, After the Syzygy by self-published author J.D. Sanderson; this book centres around a three-centuries-long tension, without violence, yet steering humanity towards a utopia. Or, The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss. It is a quaint little novella where the gist of the book does not imply violence; there are two moments of tension, but there is still no war… and a lot of people will argue that both books are boring.

For example, regarding Rothfuss’ Slow Regard, one reviewer in GoodReads wrote that “There’s absolutely no plot, it’s just ~150 pages of a girl running around in the sewers”. Another reviewer said that, “Nothing really happens. There is no plot driver or reason to read; it’s a waste of time.” I wholeheartedly disagree, to me, Slow Regard is the best book Rothfuss has written, but at the same time I can see their point—that book has no conflict as we are used to reading about; it has tension, granted, it has two clear peak moments I will not spoil… but no conflict.

I think that, ultimately, the fact that we find wars more entertaining to read than anything else speaks volumes of us—humankind. Take this with a grain of salt. I am a writer myself and quite often I find myself embroiled in writing (and reading!) about war and hopeless settings; several of my published books and books-with-choices lean towards the grim.

Am I contradicting myself? No!

We can learn so much when writing and reading about war, violence, and the likes. We can bring awareness, we can investigate why we feel one way or another, and we can tell stories that otherwise we wouldn’t be able. We can create settings that explore specific ethical aspects, or that delve in a life philosophy that is otherwise impossible. We can tell cautionary tales, or even explore our own fears…

What I am trying to say is that we should approach these settings in more mindful way. By asking ourselves: why do we like these settings so much? We should read them and enjoy them critically, while aware at all times of the biases that may condition us to prefer a type of setting over another. This approach may slowly help us accept other types of storytelling.

Ultimately, both dystopias and grimdark are based on exploring humanity’s darkest corners. From leadership to common people, from political structures to pure mayhem, from hopelessness to futile attempts to improve… these two settings cover all of those points and more. Yet terrible as it sounds, we feel closer to those darker realities first because of our life experiences, and second, because the media trained us to enjoy entertainment about violence without pondering why we like it.

“Why are we so fascinated by tragedy?” My answer is simple. Because it’s supported by our collective life experience; because we all know that terrible things happen more often than good things—which some people never even experience. That evidence, in turn, ends up squashing our hope thus making books with darker endings or settings, to feel as more believable…

In turn, that tendency makes utopias difficult to accept. The reader has to think out of the box and accept that (as impossible as it sounds!) humanity can get out of its cycle of never-ending conflict as a basis for its identity to create a society where people can thrive. A utopia demands that we unconsciously contradict the experience we painstakingly collected throughout our life and not judge a character’s action based on our real world, but on the utopic world they live in.

To close off, let me say that this was quite an amusing episode to prepare, and a topic that I’m keen on continuing discussing. Both Utopias and dystopias intersect with social sci-fi which is a whole sub-genre of its own and definitely worth analysing. Likewise, I did not delve into hopepunk and noblebright, the two fantasy subgenres that were born as a counterpart to grimdark.

Do let me know if you’re keen on listening to more episodes like this. This type of discussions, alongside bite-sized prose analyses and cat photos, is what you will find in my newsletter; the link will be in the episode’s description.

That said, if you liked it, please like and subscribe, review the podcast if possible and let’s continue the discussion in the comments! Thanks for listening, and happy reading~

  1. “Get Started in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Adam Roberts. Hachette UK↩︎