EN 4241  SF II:  Utopias and Dystopias

Rajeev S. Patke 



Working definitions and descriptions



The concept of utopia or “Ideal State” is linked to religious ideas of Heaven or the Promised Land and to folklorist ideas like the Isles of the Blessed, but it is essentially a future-historical goal, to be achieved by the efforts of human beings, not a transcendental goal reserved as a reward for those who follow a particularly virtuous path of life…. It can be argued that all utopias are sf, in that they are exercises in hypothetical sociology and political science. Alternatively, it might be argued that only those utopias which embody some notion of scientific advancement qualify as sf… Frank Manuel 91966) argues that a significant shift in utopian thought took place when writers changed from talking about a better place (eutopia) to talking about a better time (euchronia), under the influence of notions of historical and social progress. When this happened, utopias ceased to be imaginary constructions with which contemporary society might be compared, and began to be speculative statements about real future possibilities. It seems sensible to regard this as the point at which utopian literature acquired a character conceptually similar to that of sf…. Utopian thought in the last half century has to a large extent dissociated itself from the idea of progress; we most commonly encounter it in connection with the idea of a “historical retreat” to a way of simpler life… 


… the class of hypothetical societies containing images of worlds worse than our own…. Dystopian images are almost invariably images of future society, pointing fearfully at the way the world is supposedly going in order to provide urgent propaganda for a change in direction. AS hope for a better future grows, the fear of disappointment inevitably grows with it, and when any vision of a future utopia incorporates a manifesto for political action or belief, opponents of that action or belief will inevitably attempt to show that its consequences are not utopian but horrible…. The single most prolific stimulus in the production of dystopian visions has been political polarization of capitalism and socialism… the central features of dystopia are …: the oppression of the majority by a ruling elite … and the regimentation of society as a whole…. Suspicion of technology … is surprisingly widespread in early Genre sf…. Revolution against a dystopian regime was to become a staple plot of Genre sf… The standard scenario involves an oppressive totalitarian state which maintains its dominance and stability by means of futuristic technology, but which is in the end toppled by newer technologies exploited by revolutionaries. 

(Source:) The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1993, 2nd edition, 1995.)



For Discussion: Possible Worlds Theory & its relevance to SF


“The notion of possible world was developed in philosophical logic to resolve a number of problems to do with determining the truth or falsity of propositions. The basic premise of all possible worlds theories is that our world — the actual world — is only one of a multitude of possible worlds. To say that, ‘Former president of the United States Ronald Reagan was an alien’, is false in our everyday reality. The opposite (‘Reagan was not an alien’) is true. Our actual world is non-contradictory in this respect: only one of these statements (and not both at the same time) can be true. Correspondingly, in the actual world at least one or the other of these statements must be true: there can be no middle ground where both are false. In order to be possible, a world (like our actual world) must thus be made up of propositions that are non-contradictory and do not break the rule of the excluded middle (Ronen 1994). In the science fiction film Men in Black (1997), it is asserted on a video screen that Reagan was an alien. This film world is a possible but non-actual world since it does not break the rules of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, but in reversing the truth-value of the original statement above it is demonstrably not our world.

            Possible world theory is also a useful way of accounting for reference to things which do not exist… In the traditional ‘correspondence’ theory of truth, statements about fictional characters are either simply false (Russell 1957) or neither true nor false (Strawson 1963), since the state of affairs does not have any correspondence with the actual world. In more recent ‘pragmatic’ theories of truth, epistemology (knowledge about objects) does not depend on the ability to refer (Kripke 1972, Rorty 1982, Putnam 1990), so statements about non-existent entities can have a contextual truth-value in their own possible worlds…. The notion of possible worlds is highly relevant to science fictional reference.….

In traditional possible worlds theory, there is a reflexive problem in applying a logical model to science fiction. Imagine a science fictional universe in which a different local physics and mathematics operate … Such worlds might be beyond our understanding, mentionable but not constructable …. The problem is that the basis of traditional possible worlds theory — logic — is as amenable to alternativity as any other system …  If a different form of logic and logical rules is allowed in a different universe, then any world is possible and is within the potential scope of science fiction. What is important for a poetics of science fiction, then, is not so much the logical status of the imagined universe, but the mechanics of its readerly construction and negotiation.”

“…possible worlds theory needs to be augmented with a cognitive dimension, if it is to have any usefulness in discussing how readers manage to construct worlds from texts.”

“…reference in literary reading is not to the base-reality (the ‘real world’) of the reader, but is to a discourse model.”

“adding a cognitive dimension brings in the reader’s judgement as an element of plausibility. I context, contradictories …can be placed into a conceivable universe and are thus possible. This means that anything that is expressible in language is possible…. The reader’s judgement of how close and accessible the fictional world is to the actual world will determine whether the fiction is plausible or implausible…”  

(Source: Peter Stockwell, The Poetics of Science Fiction. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Educational, 2000, pp. 139-140, 144-145, 146, 147, 166 resp.)  





Last Updated  10 January 2012