This morning over at Vulture, Adam Sternbergh wrote about the dystopian novel craze — and the fact that we have, in his words, “hit Peak Dystopia.” True enough — even Lois Lowry says so. He suggests that if we’re burned out on dystopian novels, “there might be an opening for a return to Utopian novels — if such a thing as ‘Utopian novels’ actually existed anymore.” Towards the end of the article, he writes, “increasingly my hunch is that the next Great American Novel, or earth-rattling film, will be a Utopian one. Wouldn’t you love to read a modern Utopian vision by Margaret Atwood? Or Zadie Smith? Or Cory Doctorow?”
Well, not really. The reason that utopian novels are far and few between is that a utopia is, on a very basic level, just not a good topic for a novel. Intrinsically, utopias have no problems, so there is no meaningful conflict for the novel to play out — and most novels require meaningful conflict of some kind. If a book were to describe a true utopia, it would be a glorified anecdote, or snapshot: “This world is perfect. Here are the ways in which it is perfect. The end!” If the conflict is just that someone is discovering the utopia and they don’t ruin it, that’s not very good conflict. If the conflict is that someone is discovering the utopia and they ruin it, it probably wasn’t a very good utopia to begin with. If the utopia is secretly not all it’s cracked up to be and that’s the conflict, well, that’s a dystopian novel.
That’s why of the utopian novels that do exist — Thomas More’s Utopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Aldous Huxley’s Island, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which Sternbergh cites — are usually political or philosophical treatises in disguise, something I, at least, don’t feel a strong need to see any more of. On a literary level, they’re little more than exercises in world-building, which can be delightful, but not very narratively compelling — think The Silmarillion without The Lord of the Rings. And I’d argue that we don’t even turn to books for this kind of straight conflict-less world-building, or at least not anymore, in the time of RPGs and expansive sandbox video games. Just order Skyrim and make potions and armor for the rest of your days.
I’m not saying that contemporary thinkers shouldn’t be turning their minds to how our world might be improved — they should be. (Please, contemporary thinkers, we desperately need your help.) I’m just saying that whatever answers they come up with probably won’t make very good novels. And unlike dystopian fiction, which is engaging and terrifying and makes us feel better about our current lives (hey, at least there’s no reaping this month, right guys?), utopian fiction seems like it would just be depressing, something we can imagine but not touch, like a mirage in the desert.
So if the cure for our dystopian fatigue isn’t utopian fiction, what is it? Eco-fabulism? A return to the intimately-sprawling family epic? Novels that take place entirely inside their characters’ heads? I’m not sure. But there must be something good on the horizon, oh yes, right there next to that mirage.