Many of us are familiar with the classic dystopian works
by George Orwell and
Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley, and a number of modern examples have recently popularized the genre as well (e.g.,
The Hunger Games
). A look into the origins of utopian and dystopian literature quickly shows us that this is the tip of the iceberg, and that this can be a very fruitful area for both the avid reader and the serious collector.
The word "utopia" was coined by Sir Thomas More, who used it as the title for his 1516 work of philosophy. The etymology is Greek, and translates as "no place." More's work described a fictional island community, which he used as a framework for describing the ideal society.
The influence of this work, combined with the efforts of French philosopher Charles Fourier, inspired the creation of numerous utopian societies (e.g., the Hancock village of the Shakers in Massachusetts; the Oneida Community; etc.). The idea of a utopian community was attractive to intellectuals and free thinkers, and many of their innovative ways of organizing their lives proved influential. For example, John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, coined the term "free love" far before the age of hippies, in his 1847 work
These societies inevitably inspired novels, most notably
Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887
by Edward Bellamy, in which a 19th century man visits a society far in the future, which has solved the problems of social inequality, hunger, etc. His work encouraged the publication of many similar works, but eventually spurred authors to write anti-utopian fiction (now called dystopian) as a reaction to what many viewed as unavoidable flaws in these communities.
The function of both utopian and dystopian fiction seems to be an analysis of the goods and evils possible within human society, in an attempt to look forward to what may be possible in the future, and what must be avoided in the pursuit of it.
Orwell depicts expertly the pitfalls of such a regimented society, describing the ways in which the populace can be manipulated by those in power, citizens pitted against one another, historical records expunged, and logic turned on its head. Huxley envisions a different future with a focus on eugenics and control of the masses by pharmaceutical means. While the works of these two authors are now the most recognized examples of dystopian fiction, they were not the first. In fact, both were arguably inspired by the 1921 Russian novel
by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
Whatever the case, they were certainly not the last. Speculative works such as
by Ray Bradbury depict specific types of damage that might be caused by attempts to create futuristic utopias (in this case, the destruction of books in favor of an endless barrage of visual images - sound familiar?). Works like
The Iron Hee
l by Jack London and
It Can't Happen Here
by Sinclair Lewis show how easily an otherwise advanced society can fall into the grips of a fascist dictatorship. Margaret Atwood's
A Handmaid's Tale
envisions a society in which women are inferior citizens, intentionally drawing direct parallels to today's world. The
by Edward Bulwer-Lytton and
by Samuel Butler, both originally published anonymously, depict futures similar enough that the latter was mistaken as a sequel to the former.
Each work approaches its subject differently, but the underlying theme of the quest for the ideal, and the dangers that quest entails, persists. As long as we live in an imperfect world, it is certain that works such as these will continue to be produced, and will find an eager audience.
Here is a short list of works to seek out, for those interested in reading and collecting utopian and dystopian works. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will get you headed in the right direction:
Utopian Literature by Glenn Robert Negley
British and American Utopian Literature 1516-1975 by Lyman Tower Sargent
Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887 by Edward Bellamy
Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The Coming Age by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
Erewhon by Samuel Butler
1984 by George Orwell
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
Works about, or associated with, Utopian Communities:
The Berean by John Humphrey Noyes
The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth-Century America by Carl J. Guarneri
The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier: Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction. by Charles Fourier; et al