Maybe true utopias are possible, but most science fiction writers suspect that living in perfect peace and harmony will require giving up some vital part of being human. Is it worth it?
This comedy of manners focuses on Bron Helstrom, a young man living on Triton who has previously worked on Mars as a male prostitute. The society of Mars is far harsher than that of utopian Triton, and it has evidently influenced Bron’s personality. He is self-absorbed, often lacks insight about himself and others, and has great difficulty with personal relationships. Though the civilization of Triton offers everything that he could reasonably want, he is unhappy with his life, out of harmony with those around him, and continually looking for others to blame whenever things go wrong.
Triton itself is embattled and enters into a war with Earth.
Bron’s troubles become more and more complex, and he decides the best answer to his problems is to become a woman.
Author Delany has said that Trouble on Triton, whose subtitle is An Ambiguous Heterotopia, was written partly in dialogue with Ursula K. Le Guin’s anarchist science fiction novel The Dispossessed, whose subtitle was An Ambiguous Utopia.
“Delany’s most controlled, and therefore his most successful, experiment to date … Triton is a novel of manners—those of a rich and complex society in which the avowed highest good is the free expression of each individual’s personality.”
—Gerald Jonas, New York Times Book Review
In the summer of 1921, a disenchanted journalist escapes the rat race for a drive in the country. But Mr. Barnstaple’s trip exceeds his expectations when he and other motorists are swept 3,000 years into the future. The inadvertent time travelers arrive in a world that corresponds exactly to Barnstaple’s ideals: a utopian state, free of crime, poverty, war, disease, and bigotry. Unfettered by the constraints of government and organized religion, the citizens lead rich, meaningful lives, spent in pursuit of their creative fancies. Barnstaple’s traveling companions, however, quickly contrive a scheme to remake the utopia in the image of their twentieth-century world.
Wells’s optimistic take on working utopias will likely feel false to modern readers. Men Like Gods and other novels like it provoked Aldous Huxley to write Brave New World, a parody and critique of Wellsian utopian ideas.
A young man named “Rush that Speaks” comes of age in Little Belaire, a mazelike village of invisible, shifting boundaries, of secret paths and meandering stories, and antique bric-a-brac carefully preserved in carved chests. Little Belaire appears to be free of any violence or even serious competition.
Rush’s journey is set in motion when the girl he loves, Once a Day, elopes from Little Belaire to join another group, an enigmatic society called Dr. Boots’s List.
He travels through a strange, post-apocalyptic world in pursuit of several seemingly incompatible goals.
Fans of this little-known book commonly place it their favorite ten books of all time.
Andromeda portrays Soviet author Yefremov’s conception of a classic communist utopia set in a distant future. Throughout the novel, the author’s attention is focused on the social and cultural aspects of the society, and the struggle to conquer vast cosmic distances. There are several principal heroes, including a starship captain, two scientists, a historian, and an archeologist. Though the world described in the novel is intended to be ideal, there’s an attempt to show a conflict and its resolution with a voluntary self-punishment of a scientist whose reckless experiment caused damage. There’s also a fair amount of action in the episodes where the crew of the starship fight alien predators.
It is a series of parables about one man’s attempt to preserve traditional African culture on a terraformed utopia.
Koriba, a distinguished, educated man of Kikuyu ancestry, knows that life was different for his people centuries ago, and he is determined to build a utopian colony, not on Earth, but on the terraformed planetoid he proudly names Kirinyaga.
As the mundumugu (witch doctor) Koriba leads the colonists. Reinstating the ancient customs and stringent laws of the Kikuyu people, he alone decides their fate. He must face many challenges to the struggling colony’s survival: from a brilliant young girl whose radiant intellect could threaten their traditional ways to the interference of “Maintenance” which holds the power to revoke the colony’s charter. All the while, only Koriba—unbeknownst to his people—maintains the computer link to the rest of humanity.
Ironically, the Kirinyaga experiment threatens to collapse—not from violence or greed—but from humankind’s insatiable desire for knowledge. The Kikuyu people can no more stand still in time than their planet can stop revolving around its sun.
— School Library Journal
Over one thousand light-years away, a star vanishes. It does not go supernova. It does not collapse into a black hole. It simply disappears. Since the location is too distant to reach by wormhole, a faster-than-light starship, the Second Chance, is dispatched to learn what has occurred and whether it represents a threat. In command is Wilson Kime, a five-time rejuvenated ex-NASA pilot whose glory days are centuries behind him. He comes across a deadly discovery whose unleashing will threaten to destroy the utopian Commonwealth… and humanity itself.
“Hamilton’s exhilarating new opus proves that ‘intelligent space opera’ isn’t an oxymoron.”
— Publishers Weekly
In this classic feminist story, Connie Ramos is a Mexican American woman living on the streets of New York. Once ambitious and proud, she has lost her child, her husband, her dignity—and now they want to take her sanity. After being unjustly committed to a mental institution, Connie is contacted by an envoy from the year 2137, who shows her a time of sexual and racial equality, environmental purity, and unprecedented self-actualization. But Connie also bears witness to another potential outcome: a society of grotesque exploitation in which the barrier between person and commodity has finally been eroded. One will become our world. And Connie herself may strike the decisive blow.
“A stunning, even astonishing novel… marvelous and compelling.”
— Publishers Weekly
2065: In a world that has rediscovered harmony with nature, the village of El Modena, California, is an ecotopia in the making. Kevin Claiborne, a young builder who has grown up in this “green” world, now finds himself caught up in the struggle to preserve his community’s idyllic way of life from the resurgent forces of greed and exploitation.
Pacific Edge is the final book in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Three Californias Trilogy. It’s okay to read them out of order.
“An outstanding achievement….Robinson’s writing ranks in the highest levels of the genre. The book generates a soaring optimism.”
― Publishers Weekly
The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal, is set in a society which is at first presented as utopian, but gradually appears more and more dystopian. The society has eliminated pain and strife by converting to “Sameness,” a plan that has also eradicated emotional depth from their lives. Twelve-year-old Jonas is selected to inherit the position of Receiver of Memory, the person who stores all the past memories of the time before Sameness, in case they are ever needed to aid in decisions that others lack the experience to make. Jonas learns the truth about his dystopian society and struggles with its weight.
The Giver is a part of many middle school reading lists, but it is also on many challenged book lists and appeared on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books of the 1990s.
For sixteen-year-old Jane, life is a mystery she despairs of ever mastering. She and her friends are the idle, pampered children of the privileged class, living in utopian luxury on an Earth remade by natural disaster. Jane’s life is changed forever by a chance encounter with a robot minstrel with auburn hair and silver skin, whose songs ignite in her a desperate and inexplicable passion.
Jane is certain that Silver is more than just a machine built to please. And she will give up everything to prove it. So she escapes into the city’s violent, decaying slums to embrace a love bordering on madness. Or is it something more? Has Jane glimpsed in Silver something no one else has dared to see—not even the robot or his creators? A love so perfect it must be destroyed, for no human could ever compete?
“[E]xotic and a little frightening, but quite believable….One of Lee’s most fully realized creations.”
— Publishers Weekly
Station Eleven is more pre-utopia than strict utopia, but it’s good enough to include in the list.
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence.
Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2015.
“Darkly lyrical… A truly haunting book, one that is hard to put down.”
— The Seattle Times
Three male explorers stumble upon an all-female society isolated somewhere in South America. Noting the advanced state of the civilization they’ve encountered, the visitors set out to find some males, assuming that since the country is so civilized, “there must be men.”
Written by an early feminist before women were allowed to vote, this 1915 magazine serial wasn’t published as a book until 1979.
Uglies is a young-adult book set in a future post-scarcity dystopian world in which everyone is turned “Pretty” by extreme cosmetic surgery upon reaching age 16.
Under the surface, Uglies speaks of high-profile government conspiracies and the danger of trusting the omnipresent Big Brother. While the underlying story condemns war and all the side effects thereof, the true thrust of the story is that individual freedoms are far more important than the need for uniformity and the elimination of personal will.
This book is a science fiction environmental classic (and there aren’t too many of them).
Ecotopia was founded when northern California, Oregon, and Washington seceded from the Union to create a “stable-state” ecosystem: the perfect balance between human beings and the environment. Now, twenty years later, this isolated, mysterious nation is welcoming its first officially sanctioned American visitor: New York Times-Post reporter Will Weston.
Skeptical yet curious about this green new world, Weston is determined to report his findings objectively. But from the start, he’s alternately impressed and unsettled by the laws governing Ecotopia’s earth-friendly agenda: energy-efficient “mini-cities” to eliminate urban sprawl, zero-tolerance pollution control, tree worship, ritual war games, and a woman-dominated government that has instituted such peaceful revolutions as the twenty-hour workweek and employee ownership of farms and businesses. His old beliefs challenged, his cynicism replaced by hope, Weston meets a sexually forthright Ecotopian woman and undertakes a relationship whose intensity will lead him to a critical choice between two worlds.
Published in 1888, Looking Backward was the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It influenced a large number of intellectuals, and appears by title in many of the major Marxist writings of the day. In the United States alone, over 162 “Bellamy Clubs” sprang up to discuss and propagate the book’s ideas.
On the surface, the novel is the story of time-traveler Julian West, a young Bostonian who is put into a hypnotic sleep in the late 19th century, and awakens in the year 2000 in a socialist utopia. In conversations with the doctor who awakened him, he discovers a brilliantly realized vision of an ideal future, one that seemed unthinkable in his own century. Crime, war, personal animosity, and want are nonexistent. Equality of the sexes is a fact of life.
It also predicted radio, television, motion pictures, credit cards, and covered pedestrian malls.
The final novel from Aldous Huxley, Island is a provocative counterpoint to his worldwide classic Brave New World, in which a flourishing, ideal society located on a remote Pacific island attracts the envy of the outside world.
“A mirror for modern man. . . . Should be read and reread.”
— Saturday Review
It looks like a good deal at first: a peaceful alien invasion by the mysterious Overlords, whose arrival ends all war, helps form a world government, and turns the planet into a near-utopia. However, they refuse to answer questions about themselves and govern from orbiting spaceships. Clarke has said that the idea for Childhood’s End may have come from the numerous blimps floating over London during World War II.
Iain M. Banks is my second-favorite SF author (after Stanislaw Lem), and The Player of Games was my first Banks book, so I’m always happy to recommend it.
The Culture—a utopian human/machine symbiotic society—has thrown up many great Game Players, and one of the greatest is Gurgeh. Jernau Morat Gurgeh. The Player of Games. Master of every board, computer and strategy. Bored with success, Gurgeh travels to the cruel and incredibly wealthy Empire of Azad, to try their fabulous game…a game so complex, so like life itself, that the winner becomes emperor. Mocked, blackmailed, almost murdered, Gurgeh accepts the game, and with it the challenge of his life—and very possibly his death.
The Dispossessed is a utopian science fiction novel set in the same fictional universe as that of The Left Hand of Darkness.
Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Anarres, to challenge the complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.
“Le Guin’s book, written in her solid, no-nonsense prose, is so persuasive that it ought to put a stop to the writing of prescriptive Utopias for at least 10 years.”
— The New York Times