Way With Worlds: Welcome To Utopia
This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
Let’s talk Utopias in the worlds you make.
Utopias seem to be less popular in fiction of all kinds as I write this in 2014. Sure we’ve got plenty of dystopias; it seems that there’s always a fire sale on at the Life Sucks Dystopia Department Store. But Utopias, not so much.
However, sometimes your worldbuilding is going to involve Utopias or at least Utopia lite. I’d like to address how to design good utopias, but first a little detour into just why I don’t think we see them.
A Lack Of Paradise
So, as noted, I don’t see a lot of Utopian fiction outside of a few books, tracts, and philosophical/religious writing. I’d like to present my theories on the subject for discussion, and to help you as a writer.
Now this being said, these are my theories and experiences, and I admit their limitation. Thus I’m not trying to construct a strawman, and though you might have a whiff of hay, I don’t expect my ideas to go help a nice girl and her dog get back to Kansas.
So I think we don’t see Utopia in fiction or worldbuilding because:
- Utopias are seen as boring and most fiction is based on some kind of conflict. I argue that bad Utopias are boring, which is really. . .
- Because most people are terrible at visualizing a better world, at writing, about it, or both. I suspect many potential writers of Utopian fiction are probably more busy trying to bring Utopia about than anything else.
- Much Utopian writing is just plan bad and some of it is outright creepy because it’s about the Utopian vision and not the people in it. Someone’s got an idea in their head, but the inhabitants are automatons and stereotypes.
- Some Utopian writing is massively agenda-driven, making the bad and creepy even worse. When you’ve got a political screed done as a story everyone notices except the people it’s designed to appeal to.
- Finally, due to bad writing, bad agendas, and a perceived lack of conflict I don’t think Utopian worlds are actually seen as having market appeal. So the commercial aspect comes in.
I hate to focus on what not to do, so instead let me say that I’d like to see more effort in building good, positive settings. I’d like to see people explore good civilization-building without worrying their work basically has the problems that are so common. Check against my little list above after you get going.
I think there are reasons to explore Utopias in fiction, games, and world-settings. So now that I’ve talked about why it doesn’t work, let’s talk why we should as worldbuilders.
Why Make Utopia?
So why do I suggest you shrug off the naysayers and the worry that a Utopian setting may be seen in a negative light? Well, of course I have a reason.
First, because in some cases it works. Your setting or part of your setting may involve a positive civilization and society. If that fits, then you should do it – as opposed to finding ways to make it “less so” just because Utopias are uncommon or poorly implemented. If you shy away, you’ll just limit yourself.
Secondly, because being able to speculate on functional settings and societies makes you a good worldbuilder. Any extreme, unusual, and ultimately unexpected setting is going to really stretch you and make your world and the media involved in it ore interesting. Moreso because Utopian writing is rare as noted.
Third, because I think a goal of creative people is to help us imagine differently. If you can imagine something despite the barriers, imagine a believable Utopia, that’s inspiring. Maybe you’ll really inspire people.
Building A Utopia In Your Setting
Here’s the thing – why should building a more ideal place in your setting be any different than the rest of your world?
Really, I think most barriers to Utopia creation are just due to cultural baggage, much of it noted earlier. We spend too much time not doing things because we think they shouldn’t be done. Maybe a Utopia isn’t the point of your writing – but if you find yourself creating one then so what? Go for it.
However, it’s not always easy for people, so here’s a few bits of advice cobbled together over the years and from my own experiences:
- A functional civilization/setting is rarely an unconscious act, but instead a conscious one. You have to ask how people set their goals and achieved them – and the repercussions of said goals.
- Just because a Utopia is a happy place doesn’t mean it had happy origins or that there’s not unpleasant things in the past that were done. Sometimes the price for Utopia is paid in sorrowful ways, after awhile, or with terrible deeds not admitted.
- To maintain a happy and functional setting, you need to know how it is maintained (or was maintained if things start falling apart).
- A highly functional setting is almost certainly one of high awareness in order to maintain it. Of course if there’s a lack of awareness or shadowy forces set it up then you may have a story where the Utopia is part of a much larger picture . . .
- A Utopia may not always seem so to others on the outside. There are always tradeoffs or things that may seem odd to outsiders. Utopia involves a point of view.
- *A Utopia needs a strong “passing of the torch” to ensure it continues. Thus there’s going to be some kind of communication, education, succession, etc. to make sure it keeps going.
- Good times don’t have to last forever, but I think believable Utopias are resilient. Merely ask yourself how many things you’ve see in the news, disasters, that would have been devastating mitigated by functional emergency response or emergency management. Now imagine that on a setting/world/planet/whatever size scale.
- Because of this not everyone will know how the Utopia runs. Which could be a good plot point.
So in short, I’d suggest a Utopian setting may be created (or may evolve) in a situation where people with goals and awareness consciously create a society. Now maybe they created it “around” another society, or there’s something behind the scenes . . . but that’s part of he larger setting.
Things To Avoid
However, here’s some warning flags to make sure your Utopia in your writing is interesting and believable as opposed to an embarrassing disaster:
- Not everyone is going to be happy. There’s always differences.
- Happiness isn’t weakness necessarily – a lack of maintaining the Utopia is.
- It’s unlikely any functional Utopia will have a weak leader/leadership/management structure. Utopia takes work. Of course the power may not always be obvious . .
- Utopias don’t have to be pacifistic, and depending on setting probably can’t be.
- Single point of failure. In general (but that depends on your setting), the Big Thing That Ends the Happy is a bad plot contrivance. As a functional society requires resiliance, it’s probably going to be built into the society, so a single point ot failure may come off as unbelievable. Think carefully.
Moving To Utopia
So, go on, unleash your inner worldbuilder and make Utopias if it really fits what you’re doing. Just make sure you make it part of good worldbuilding, and keep the above advice in mind.
Oh, and I wouldn’t call it a Utopia, since it’s a loaded word o many. Just a bit of advice.
On the other hand, Dystopia is a world people love to throw around, and we’ll discuss that next . . .
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.