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The Dystopian Consequences of Utopian Societies

Since the dawn of civilization, we as human beings have been assigned the seemingly impossible duty to create the ideal utopia. Our founding fathers wanted to present future generations with a nation founded on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but as our country ages, so do some of its original values. We now understand the extensive list of flaws in the nation’s original Constitution and since then have revamped to mold it into the current understanding of human-worth within modern society.  So what have we found? Mike Daisey shows us the commercialized attempts at a utopia: Disney World, Burning Man, etc., but what about the Everyman’s utopia? As in most scenarios, when we have nothing left, we rely on the teachings of literature and the arts as a form of escapism—specifically the genre of utopian fiction.

First used by Sir Thomas More in 1516, the word utopia derives from the Greek word “eutopos,” translating simply to “good place.” More’s work of fiction, A Truly Golden Little Book, No Less Beneficial Than Entertaining, of the Best State of a Republic, and of the New Island Utopia, otherwise known as A Fruitful and Pleasant Work of the Best State of a Public Weal, and of the New Isle Called Utopia, otherwise known as Utopia, is believed to be the first published piece of utopian fiction. The novel caused quite a stir during the 16th century because although some of the successful Utopian practices were comprehensible, More also demonstrated the ease of sac-religious institutions; divorce, euthanasia, and marriage within the parish. On top of that, More was also a devout member of the Catholic church—this did not go over well. Although Utopia has become less common in the world of academia, it is still viewed as the novel that really started it all, inspiring many of the utopian novels we read today.

blog photoMap found in Thomas More’s Utopia

The 1931 utopian fiction novel, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley has become a staple in high schools’ literature curriculum. Exploring a world compacted with reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and operant conditioning, Huxley paints a portrait in which the arts are almost non-existent. Instead, society is governed by science, technology, and manual labor. Before birth, embryos are assigned a caste and their lives follow the path laid out for them by the government. Freedom to choose your own life is gone, but what Huxley makes us question is the value of knowing the truth. Would you rather know what could be or continue your life in unknowing blindness?

Similar to Huxley, Suzanne Collins explores the same consequences of a genetically altered society in her 2008 trilogy, The Hunger Games—yet it is not studied in public schools. In a post-apocalyptic nation striving for order and progress, The Hunger Games displays the social stratification of predetermined castes when each year 24 children from 12 districts are placed in an arena and forced to fight to the death. The game is always televised as a reminder to the rest of the country that the Capitol holds all the power. It is no surprise that this attempt at a utopia quickly turns into chaos, disorder, and dystopia very quickly. But even with all of the violence and mature themes, The Hunger Games is still classified as a young adult novel.  In the last few years, Katniss Everdeen has become a pop culture icon of strength, skill, and bravery of the millennial generation and District 12 has become a common metaphor for poverty and oppression. There is even a Hunger Games inspired theme park in North Carolina where for four days you can learn archery or indulge in luxuries of the Capitol, all at your own risk of becoming Tribute.

So what is it about these works that draw us to them? Time and time again we see utopian fiction result in dystopia, yet it is a genre that thrives in our society. Are we trying to convince ourselves that we are capable of creating our own Utopia? Or perhaps we believe that through the power of text, action can be invoked? Each work shows us the dire consequences of such an attempt. Maybe what makes utopian fiction so enticing is that no one has yet to actually achieve it. Once we reach our utopia, then what?

– Emily Wilson, Communications Assistant

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