The utopia problem

Any time you want, you can see a sci-fi film about some future dystopia. It’s playing at your local movie theater, it’s on your streaming Netflix account, or Hulu, or wherever else you look.

Dystopias are easy to create stories around. They provide built in social problems, personal struggles, tragedies large and small, tests of human courage. Perfect fodder for storytelling.

But you don’t see many tales set in utopias. Telling a story set in a utopia is a bit like telling a story set in Heaven: If nothing is wrong, how do you build dramatic tension?

Star Trek: The Next Generation tried to convey a sort of utopian vision of a better and more enlightened future. But then they needed to resort to outsized antagonists to mess up the calm utopian order, such as Q and the Borg. So I’m not sure that really counts.

Would there be any way to tell a compelling dramatic tale in a truly utopian setting? If anyone can think of a good example, I’d love to hear about it.

7 thoughts on “The utopia problem”

  1. Deep Space 9 started getting really good when it started moving into territory where they suggested the Federation wasn’t so squeaky clean after all.

    The Iain M. Banks “Culture” series is set in a utopian society, but again, it relies on the Culture’s interactions with other civilizations to provide drama.

  2. Drama requires conflict, so it seems you need something (if not someone) outside the utopia to conflict with. A few ideas:

    1. A scientist living in a utopia tries to test a new hypothesis. The conflict arises not from the society but from natural obstacles to designing or conducting an experiment. If Einstein had lived in a utopia, in order to confirm the predictions of Relativity, he’d still have to have come up with the idea of photographing the stars during an eclipse and gather the resources to mount the expedition. (The actual story is more interesting because it took place in a world far-removed from a utopia.)

    2. Characters living in a utopia strive to help those living outside of it to join them. Imagine the Elysium movie told from the point of view of compassionate characters living in orbit.

    But I think those are dull. I’m in the true-utopias-cannot-actually-exist camp. In the most ideal society, there will always be discontents or disillusionment. Consider Logan’s Run. I’d argue that the City was not a dystopia, but rather a utopia, at least for most of its residents. The story arises from the fact that a few wanted something else.

  3. Avatar? The residents of Pandora were pretty happy until the miners showed up, and presumably happy after they kicked them out again.

  4. No, except for perhaps the last bit of all of these books and stories where utopia is achieved and as that objective has been reached, the story stops. The storytellers do reach the utopia stage, but their stories often end at this point. I am of the opinion that they cannot, for “utopia” is a relativistic proposition at best, and a much more fragmented one from there. Utopias imply homogeneity and preferences for sameness, something that humans just don’t do well.

  5. Yes, I see what you mean, and I agree. It’s sort of like the last scene of the RomCom when the couple finally gets together. That’s not a narrative, it’s the end of a narrative.

    We evolved as a species to be problem solvers, and we are drawn to stories in which there is a problem to be solved.

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