A Point of View: Our present-day utopia

Utopia sign Image copyright ALAMY

Visions of utopia tend to address current realities rather than future visions, says author Will Self.

A couple of weeks ago, over several nights on British television, a drama series was aired entitled Utopia. The premise of the drama was that a secret cabal of ruthless and powerful operators had dedicated themselves, over decades, to inoculating 90% of the human race with a drug that would render them infertile. The aim of the would-be utopians was to avert the environmental catastrophe implicit in the population explosion. Of course, the title Utopia has an ironic cast, for - depending on your perspective, and how you view the moral relation between means and ends - this is surely a dystopian as much as a utopian vision.

But then utopias and dystopias, indissolubly linked, both have a long and honourable cultural history in the English-speaking world. We can go back as far as Thomas More's novel of the early 16th Century - which coined the term - and we can come forward to the present day Utopia on television. The future - whatever it may hold in terms of social reality - should contain plenty of fictive utopias and dystopias.

As to what this kind of speculative fiction actually says and does for us, what function it fulfils for the collective psyche, one thing is clear - it's not about our future, but what's happening to us right now. This is as clear in the case of More's imaginary island as it is in that of the contemporary televised Utopia.

More's targets were - among others - abuse of the royal prerogative and the depredations of land enclosure, both hot topics in the England of the 1500s. The fantastical air of his invented non-place, with its bizarre social mores and customs, shouldn't blind us to the very immediate and polemical purpose it served - this was a fiction intended to effect immediate changes in the realm of the real.

However, inasmuch as invented utopias articulate contemporary anxieties, they also hamstring their own ability to alter our thinking by offering solutions that, having been relocated in time, space, or both, aren't felt to be altogether applicable to the here and now. A familiar British plaint takes the form of pundits argufying over whether or not our society has become truly Orwellian yet - in the sense of conforming to the totalitarian society depicted in his dystopian novel 1984.

Thomas More (1478 - 1535)

Image copyright Getty Images
  • English lawyer, scholar, writer, member of parliament and chancellor in the reign of Henry VIII
  • In 1516, he published his most important work Utopia - a description of an imaginary republic ruled by reason and intended to contrast with the strife-ridden reality of contemporary European politics
  • When Henry declared himself supreme head of the Church in England - thus establishing the Anglican Church and allowing him to end his marriage - More resigned the chancellorship. He continued to argue against the king's divorce and the split with Rome
  • Executed for refusing to recognise Henry VIII's divorce and the English church's break with Rome

Find out more from BBC History

Yet there was an era during which utopian fictions achieved rather more torsion on political change. During the late 19th Century fictions imagining possible futures underwent something of a craze. Literally hundreds of novels were published depicting potential worlds - there were so many of them that entire sub-genres were created, including a series of feminist utopias of which the most famous is probably Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. The entire craze reached a sort of bathetic crescendo in 1893 with the staging of Gilbert & Sullivan's operatic take on the genre entitled Utopia Limited, which employed an imaginary society to satirise limited liability companies.

The etymology of utopia

  • Coined by Thomas More in his novel of the same name
  • Derived from ou, meaning not, and topos, meaning place, hence a literal meaning of "nowhere" or "not-place"
  • But there's also a pun - it is a homophone for eutopia, which would mean "good place"

Of all these speculations, light and dark, little remains save for the techno-ruminations of HG Wells, yet by far the most influential of them was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, which was the third bestselling English-language novel of the 19th Century.

Published in America in 1888, Bellamy's novel inspired the formation of a network of discussion clubs that coalesced into a full-scale political movement. Bellamy, who was a Boston lawyer, had an avowedly didactic and polemical intention, which was to offer his readers a solution to the looming conflict between organised labour and hegemonic capitalism.

His protagonist, falling asleep in the Boston of the 1880s, awakes 113 years later to discover a world in which all social divisions have been resolved by a corporatist system that integrates private enterprise and universal welfare through rigorous centralised planning. But in the interwar period, with the grand socialist experiment of the Soviet Union transmogrifying into a production line of tyranny, and then Nazi Germany ascendant, social utopias darkened - the dystopian visions of Zamyatin and Huxley were purely monitory, offering no form of political alternative other than the will to resist. In 1948, when Orwell took on the role of Cassandra, for all its high sales no-one set up 1984 discussion clubs.

Image copyright AFP

Throughout the Cold War the existence of a bowdlerised utopia on the far side of Checkpoint Charlie allowed for the steady production of utopian speculation in the West, including reams of the darkest possible post-apocalyptic prophecy.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 the American political theorist, Francis Fukuyama, predicted what he termed "the end of history" - this being the resolution of all social and geopolitical conflict in a great melting pot of free market liberal democracy. Of course this didn't ensue. What Fukuyama would've been better off predicting was an end to prediction itself - or rather, a cessation in the prediction of the kinds of utopias and dystopias with which we were familiar.

This is not to say that utopian and dystopian prediction has ceased - far from it; but the social changes now imagined for the future, or for societies that bear a strong resemblance to our own, are not remotely constructive.

Even the post-apocalyptic reveries of the Cold War had a definite and discoverable purpose. Humanity, whatever its suicidal propensities, deserved to be saved, but the current crop reflect a different form of anxiety about a future in which class divisions will, quite frankly, be the least of our problems.

Which is not to suggest that utopias and dystopias that find their animating principle in environmental devastation haven't been with us for a long time. Richard Jefferies drowned London in a poisonous sludge of its own making in his 1885 novel After London, then resurrected society in what, a century or so later, would be termed the M4 corridor. Naturally, Jefferies's post-environmental-apocalypse society had the faux-medieval furnishings favoured by the Arts & Crafts and guild socialists of his own era - toxicity overlain by tapestry. But although some sort of large-scale, anthropically-triggered environmental disaster has been a mounting threat since the late 19th Century the more pressing fear of nuclear devastation kept collective anxiety at bay.

Image copyright Science Photo Library

There's no plausibly optimistic future-scenario consequent on the up to four-degree global temperature rise predicted for the end of this century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - a warming world is unlikely to cool social antagonisms. Moreover the sheer scale of the looming disaster militates against traditional narrative forms that rely on redemption for their emotive effects.

If humans have, inadvertently, critically poisoned the earth simply by virtue of our nature and our survival strategies, then what possible way is there out of this cosmic impasse? In the heroic age of science, when meals-in-a-pill and interstellar travel were expected imminently, technology was the answer. But another thing the Cold War annihilated - by reason of the mutually-assured nuclear Armageddon it was predicated on - was the idea of technological advance being an unproblematic sequel to human progress. Nowadays the whacky idea of the "singularity" whereby human consciousness is uploaded, en masse, to the worldwide web - or some version of it - is the sort of optimism that's on offer, and to most this seems like very a cowardly new world indeed.

Image copyright 20th Century Fox

No, the dystopias and utopias of today are bizarre and magical imaginings - a preoccupation with the zombie apocalypse, or a lycanthropic takeover is, I would argue, a sign that in the absence of any optimism our desire for a way out of this impasse is satisfied only by fairytales of the non-human, or, still more radically, alternative histories hypothesising what it might be like if a less environmentally destructive species were to be in the ascendant - hence this summer's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

If we do fashion more traditional utopias they tend to be like the one recently televised, the production design of which was a stylised realisation of the recent past, complete with melamine and shag pile. This signalled the truth about our aimless zeitgeist, which is that never before has the future appeared quite so dated.

A Point of View is broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays 08:50 BST or listen on BBC iPlayer

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