“God created man in his image;
in the divine image he created him;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply;
fill the earth and subdue it.'”
Dystopia: an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives; opposite of utopia.
The word utopia was first used in direct context by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 work Utopia. The word utopia resembles both the Greek words “no place”, “outopos”, and “good place”, “eutopos”. In his book, which was written in Latin, More sets out a vision of an ideal society. As the title suggests, the work presents an ambiguous and ironic projection of the ideal state. The whimsical nature of the text can be confirmed by the narrator of Utopia’s second book, Raphael Hythloday. The Greek root of Hythloday suggests an ‘expert in nonsense’. An earlier example of a Utopian work from classical antiquity is Plato‘s The Republic, in which he outlines what he sees as the ideal society and its political system. Later examples can be seen in Samuel Johnson‘s The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia and Samuel Butler‘s Erewhon, which uses an anagram of “nowhere” as its title. This, like much of the utopian literature, can be seen as utopian satire which is most notable in the inversion of illness and crime which Butler portrays, with punishment for the former and treatment for the latter.
Dystopia is defined as a society characterized by a focus on mass poverty, squalor, suffering, or oppression, that society has most often brought upon itself. Most authors of dystopian fiction explore at least one reason why things are that way, often as an analogy for similar issues in the real world. In the words of Keith M. Booker, dystopian literature is used to “provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable”. Dystopias usually extrapolate elements of contemporary society and are read by many as political warnings. Many purported utopias reveal a dystopian character by suppressing justice, freedom and happiness. Samuel Butler‘s Erewhon can be seen as a dystopia because of the way sick people are punished as criminals while thieves are cured in hospitals, which the inhabitants of Erewhon see as natural and right, i.e. utopian (as mocked in Voltaire‘s Candide). The 1921 novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin predicts a post-apocalyptic future in which society is entirely based on logic and modeled after mechanical systems; also, George Orwell cited it as an influence on his Nineteen Eighty-Four. Aldous Huxley‘s novel Brave New World is a more subtle and more threatening dystopia because he projected into the year 2540 industrial and social changes he perceived in 1931, leading to a fascist hierarchy of society, industrially successful by exploiting a slave class conditioned and drugged to obey and enjoy their servitude. Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel about a coercive and impoverished totalitarian society, conditioning its population through propaganda rather than drugs. Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale describes a future North America governed by strict religious rules which only the privileged dare defy. Examples of Young Adult Dystopian Fiction include Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, and Delirium by Lauren Oliver. Video games often include dystopias as well; a notable example is Bioshock by 2K Games. Dystopian literature is a modern fad because there are four aspects of dystopian literature that apply to us as a consumer-oriented society, according to Rachel Wilkinson, a high school English teacher. These four aspects that are applicable to our society are advertising and industry, instant gratification, reliance on technology, and decline of language. She has decided that it’s important teenagers especially come into contact with these four aspects, because they are a warnings against such traits from novelists such as Huxley and M. T. Anderson in his novel Feed.
Jonathan Swift‘s Gulliver’s Travels is sometimes linked with utopian (and dystopian) literature, because it shares the general preoccupation with ideas of the good (and bad) society. Of the countries Lemuel Gulliver visits, Brobdingnag and Country of the Houyhnhnms approach a utopia; the others have significant dystopian aspects. Many works combine elements of both utopias and dystopias. Typically, an observer from our world will journey to another place or time and see one society the author considers ideal, and another representing the worst possible outcome. The point is usually that the choices we make now may lead to a better or worse potential future world. Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Always Coming Home fulfils this model, as does Marge Piercy‘s Woman on the Edge of Time. In Starhawk‘s The Fifth Sacred Thing there is no time-travelling observer, but her ideal society is invaded by a neighbouring power embodying evil repression. In Aldous Huxley‘s Island, in many ways a counterpoint to his better-known Brave New World, the fusion of the best parts of Buddhist philosophy and Western technology is threatened by the “invasion” of oil companies. In another literary model, the imagined society journeys between elements of utopia and dystopia over the course of the novel or film. At the beginning of The Giver by Lois Lowry, the world is described as a utopia, but as the book progresses, the world’s dystopian aspects are revealed.
A subgenre of this is ecotopian fiction, where the author posits either a utopian or dystopian world revolving around environmental conservation or destruction. Danny Bloom coined the term “cli fi” in 2006, with a Twitter boost from Margaret Atwood in 2011, to cover climate change-related fiction, but the theme has existed for decades. Novels dealing with overpopulation, such as Harry Harrison‘s Make Room! Make Room! (made into movie Soylent Green), were popular in the 1970s, reflecting the popular concern with the effects of overpopulation on the environment. The novel Nature’s End by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka (1986) posits a future in which overpopulation, pollution, climate change, and resulting superstorms, have led to a popular mass-suicide political movement. Some other examples of ecological dystopias are Wall-E, Robocop, Avatar‘s depiction of Earth. While eco-dystopias are more common, a small number of works depicting what might be called eco-utopia, or eco-utopian trends, have also been influential. These include Ernest Callenbach‘s Ecotopia, an important 20th century example of this genre. Kim Stanley Robinson has written a number of books dealing with environmental themes, including the Mars trilogy. Most notably, however, his Three Californias Trilogy contrasted an eco-dystopia with an eco-utopia, and a sort of middling-future. Robinson has also edited an anthology of short ecotopian fiction, called Future Primitive: The New Ecotopias. There are a few dystopias that have an “anti-ecological” theme. These are often characterized by a government that is overprotective of nature or a society that has lost most modern technology and struggles for survival. A good example of this is the novel Riddley Walker.
Another subgenre is feminist utopias and the overlapping category of feminist science fiction. Writer Sally Miller Gearhart calls this sort of fiction political: it contrasts the present world with an idealized society, criticizes contemporary values and conditions, sees men or masculine systems as the major cause of social and political problems (e.g. war), and presents women as equal to or superior to men, having ownership over their reproductive functions. A common solution to gender oppression or social ills in feminist utopian fiction is to remove men, either showing isolated all-female societies as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman‘s Herland, or societies where men have died out or been replaced, as in Joanna Russ‘s A Few Things I Know About Whileaway, where “the poisonous binary gender” has died off. Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time keeps human biology, but removes pregnancy and childbirth from the gender equation by resorting to artificial wombs, while allowing both women and men the nurturing experience of breastfeeding. Utopias have explored the ramification of gender being either a societal construct or a hard-wired imperative. In Mary Gentle‘s Golden Witchbreed, gender is not chosen until maturity, and gender has no bearing on social roles. In contrast, Doris Lessing‘s The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five (1980) suggests that men’s and women’s values are inherent to the sexes and cannot be changed, making a compromise between them essential. In My Own Utopia (1961) by Elizabeth Mann Borghese, gender exists but is dependent upon age rather than sex — genderless children mature into women, some of whom eventually become men. Utopic single-gender worlds or single-sex societies have long been one of the primary ways to explore implications of gender and gender-differences. In speculative fiction, female-only worlds have been imagined to come about by the action of disease that wipes out men, along with the development of technological or mystical method that allow female parthenogenic reproduction. The resulting society is often shown to be utopian by feminist writers. Many influential feminist utopias of this sort were written in the 1970s; the most often studied examples include Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Suzy McKee Charnas‘s Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. Utopias imagined by male authors have generally included equality between sexes, rather than separation. Such worlds have been portrayed most often by lesbian or feminist authors; their use of female-only worlds allows the exploration of female independence and freedom from patriarchy. The societies may not necessarily be lesbian, or sexual at all — Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a famous early example of a sexless society. Charlene Ball writes in Women’s Studies Encyclopedia that use of speculative fiction to explore gender roles has been more common in the United States than in Europe and elsewhere. Feminist dystopians have become prevalent in Young Adult, or YA, literature in recent years, focusing on the relationship between gender identity and the teenager. For instance, the Birthmarked trilogy by Caragh O’Brien focuses on a teenage midwife in a future post-apocalyptic world while the second novel in the series places the teenage heroine Gaia in a matriarchal society.
Étienne Cabet‘s work Travels in Icaria caused a group of followers to leave France in 1848 and travel to the United States to found a series of utopian settlements in Texas, Illinois, Iowa, California, and elsewhere. These groups lived in communal settings and lasted until 1898. Though few would claim “utopian” status, intentional communities are groups of people who strive for a more ideal life in some way, and are inspired by a similar urge to that found in utopian novels. These communities are cultural and social experiments in better living. Some of the better known modern experiments include the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, Twin Oaks and Los Horcones (inspired by B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two) and The Farm in the US, ZEGG in Germany, Camphill Communities (all over, but originating in Europe), and Auroville in India.
For many Americans it must seem that with the success of the sexual revolution which started in earnest after the Second World War has produced utopia. Sexual liberty or license would seem to those Americans to promise the evolution of the ideal society in which everyone can do sexually whatever they want. The paradox is that while America is rushing headlong into an uncertain future with uncontrolled sexual activity, Japan is rushing headlong into an uncertain future with the abandonment of sexual activity; both societies seemed destined to end up in a dystopian future. Read Mark Steyn’s essay “Sex at Sunset” below.
Happy Warrior • November 11, 2013, ISSUE
To Western eyes, contemporary Japan has a kind of earnest childlike wackiness, all karaoke machines and manga cartoons and nuttily sadistic game shows. But, to us demography bores, it’s a sad place that seems to be turning into a theme park of P. D. James’s great dystopian novel The Children of Men. As readers may recall from earlier citations in this space, Baroness James’s tale is set in Britain in the near future, in a world that is infertile: The last newborn babe emerged from the womb in 1995, and since then nothing. The Hollywood director Alfonso Cuarón took this broad theme and made a rather ordinary little film out of it. But the Japanese seem determined to live up to the book’s every telling detail.
In Lady James’s speculative fiction, pets are doted on as child-substitutes, and churches hold christening ceremonies for cats. In contemporary Japanese reality, Tokyo has some 40 “cat cafés” where lonely solitary citizens can while away an afternoon by renting a feline to touch and pet for a couple of companiable hours. In Lady James’s speculative fiction, all the unneeded toys are burned, except for the dolls, which childless women seize on as the nearest thing to a baby and wheel through the streets. In contemporary Japanese reality, toy makers, their children’s market dwindling, have instead developed dolls for seniors to be the grandchildren they’ll never have: You can dress them up, and put them in a baby carriage, and the computer chip in the back has several dozen phrases of the kind a real grandchild might use to enable them to engage in rudimentary social pleasantries.
P. D. James’s most audacious fancy is that in a barren land sex itself becomes a bit of a chore. The authorities frantically sponsor state porn emporia promoting ever more recherché forms of erotic activity in an effort to reverse the populace’s flagging sexual desire just in case man’s seed should recover its potency. Alas, to no avail. As Lady James writes, “Women complain increasingly of what they describe as painful orgasms: the spasm achieved but not the pleasure. Pages are devoted to this common phenomenon in the women’s magazines.”
As I said, a bold conceit, at least to those who believe that shorn of all those boring procreation hang-ups we can finally be free to indulge our sexual appetites to the full. But it seems the Japanese have embraced the no-sex-please-we’re-dystopian-Brits plot angle, too. In October, Abigail Haworth of the Observer in London filed a story headlined “Why Have Young People in Japan Stopped Having Sex?” Not all young people but a whopping percentage: A survey by the Japan Family Planning Association reported that over a quarter of men aged 16–24 “were not interested in or despised sexual contact.” For women, it was 45 percent.
The Observer seems to have approached the subject in the same belief as P. D. James’s government porn stores — that it’s nothing that a little more sexual adventurism can’t cure. So Miss Haworth’s lead was devoted to the views of a “sex and relationship counselor” and former dominatrix who specialized in dripping hot wax on her clients’ nipples and was once invited to North Korea to squeeze the testicles of one of Kim Jong-il’s top generals. In other words, as the Observer puts it, “she doesn’t judge.” Except, that is, when it comes to “the pressure to conform to Japan’s anachronistic family model,” which she blames for the young folks checking out of the sex biz altogether.
But, if the pressure to conform were that great, wouldn’t there be a lot more conforming? Instead, 49 percent of women under 34 are not in any kind of romantic relationship, and nor are 61 percent of single men. A third of Japanese adults under 30 have never dated. Anyone. Ever. It’s not that they’ve stopped “having sex” — or are disinclined to have hot wax poured on their nipples. It’s bigger than that: It’s a flight from human intimacy.
They’re not alone in that, of course. A while back, I flew from a speaking engagement on one side of the Atlantic to a TV booking on the other. And backstage at both events an attractive thirtysomething woman made the same complaint to me. They’d both tried computer dating but were alarmed by the number of chaps who found human contact too much effort: Instead of meeting and kissing and making out and all that other stuff that involves being in the same room, they’d rather you just sexted them and twitpiced a Weineresque selfie or two. As in other areas, the Japanese seem merely to have reached the end point of Western ennui a little earlier.
By 2020, in the Land of the Rising Sun, adult diapers will outsell baby diapers: The sun also sets. In The Children of Men, the barrenness is a medical condition; in real life, in some of the oldest nations on earth, from Madrid to Tokyo, it’s a voluntary societal self-extinction. In Europe, the demographic death spiral is obscured by high Muslim immigration; in Japan, which retains a cultural aversion to immigration of any kind, there are no foreigners to be the children you couldn’t be bothered having yourself. In welfare states, the future is premised on social solidarity: The young will pay for the costs of the old. But, as the West ages, social solidarity frays, and in Japan young men aren’t even interested in solidarity with young women, and young women can’t afford solidarity with bonnie bairns. So an elderly population in need of warm bodies to man the hospital wards and senior centers is already turning to robot technology. If manga and anime are any indication, the post-human nurses and waitresses will be cute enough to make passable sex partners — for anyone who can still be bothered.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).