Five Utopias, Five Dystopias

Utopia vs Dystopia

One man’s meat is another’s poison. That goes for utopias too.

The notion of utopia has captured the imagination of many with the alluring prospect of an ideal social order where ultimate harmony, prosperity, justice and happiness can be sustained. But for every voice of fervent enthusiasm, there is a wary counterpart warning that such idealistic dreams can quickly disintegrate into a dystopian nightmare when social engineering is taken too far. Here are just ten examples of mankind’s utopian/dystopian visions explored in art and life.

Art: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Premise: The dystopian novel is set in the near future (some time before 2195) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Radicals have assassinated the U.S. president and members of Congress in a coup supposedly in response to decaying social morals and the toxic environment that has led to chronic infertility. The result is the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and theocratic regime.

What happens:
Stripped of freedom and rights, women are silenced and subjugated in the name of protection against violence and moral corruption. Handmaids are assigned to infertile high-society couples as surrogates. They wear red habits as symbols of fertility and are identified as possessions, forced to participate in absurd, unnatural conception rituals. Suspected malfactors are carted off in the middle of the night by the secret police.

How it ends:
The ambiguous ending does spell the end of the Gilead regime, though it’s left to conjecture whether the protagonist manages to escape.

Life: Sointula, B.C., 1901-1905

Premise: In the late 1890s, Finland was struggling against the oppressive forces of Russification. Many Finnish workers fled their homeland in quest of freedom. Some found their way to coastal British Columbia and started working in mines. Unfortunately, they soon found themselves contending with dangerous and exploitative work conditions, meager wages, and substandard housing. When pamphlets written by Finnish socialist thinker Matti Kurikka started to arrive, a small group of the migrants asked Kurikka to come to B.C. to help them start a new community.

What happened: The Finns set up a joint stock company to raise money for the project of setting up a colony on Malcolm Island. A Finnish newspaper was set up to spread the news. By November 1902, there were 200 people living on the island. Kurikka worked to actualize his vision of utopia on Sointula by building an egalitarian community where there would be no exploitation. Everyone, man or woman, will do a fair share of work in running the community co-operatively—farming, logging, building, cooking, raising children, etc.—and share the fruits of their labour equally.

How it ended: The utopian colony was short-lived due to a multitude of factors. Kurikka’s idealistic vision was not adequately supported by practical planning. The land the community settled on was not arable, the logging work which they had hoped to be a main source of income turned out to incur high costs instead. Also, many of the residents were tradesmen back in Finland and were not prepared for the hard labour required in pioneering a community. The community’s fate was sealed when a fire on January 29, 1903 killed eleven people and also caused severe financial damage. The next year, Kurikka resigned from his leading position in the stock comany and left Sointula, followed by half the colonists. The colony was liquidated on May 27, 1905. The remaining assets were divided up between the 36 shareholders that had stayed to the end.

(Source: BCICS)

Art:We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)

Premise: Set in the 26th century, after a brutal war has wiped out most of the world’s population. The nation of One State, headed by the Benefactor, arises ostensibly to restore social order, wipe out crime, and protect citizens from the untamed wilderness.

What happens: Citizens are stripped of all privacy, freedom and sense of individuality. Each person is identified by a numerical ID only. In fact, One State is built out of glass so the police can easily monitor the activities of the nameless populace. The daily routine of the people has been planned for them down to the hour. No facet of life escapes the State’s control, right down to each person’s sexual partner.

One State focuses on technological advancement and facilitating maximum productivity. The story centres around mathematician D-503, a fervent supporter of the regime who is constructing a spaceship for exploring the possible existence of other civilizations. However, when he meets and becomes infatuated with the mysterious I-330,  a covert subversive, his complacent existence is thrown off-kilter. As D-503 finds himself  more emotionally involved with her, it becomes harder and harder to resist deviating from his previously dogged adherence to the State’s doctrines.

How it ends:
D-503 is arrested and brought in for the Great Operation (basically brainwashing), after which he witnesses the execution of I-330 without reaction. Meanwhile the underground rebel forces gain momentum and the restless masses begin to show signs of dissent. The novel ends at this point and the final fate of One State is uncertain.

Life: Celebration, Florida, 1996 to present

Premise: This is a master-planned community developed in the early 1990s by those who brought you the “Happiest Place on Earth.” The Disney Corporation spearheaded this residential project through its subsidiary The Celebration Company, which retains a role in the administrative governance of the town.

What it’s like:
In a bid to establish a utopian community that hearkens back to a more innocent time, the town is designed to foster a strong community spirit among its residents and also shield them from the less desirable factors associated with urban life: crime, noise, dirty streets, etc. Divided into villages, Celebration has its own school, town hall, health service, information channel, and a busy calendar of events. More importantly, there is a direct road called World Drive that connects to Disney World. According to the community website, the current population is approximately 9,000.

Here’s an excerpt from William Geist’s Way Off the Road (Broadway Books, 2007): 
“New residents happily sign a 166-page Declaration of Covenants restricting just about everything that might conceivably annoy anyone, ever; sort of a personal, formal, legally blinding Declaration of Non-Independence. And they’re pleased that all of their neighbors have signed it too, so that there won’t be any surprises. The document bans the planting of non-designated shrubs, limits the choices of visible window treatments to white or off-white, and mandates prior approval of any change in house color. If your dog barks to much it can be permanently removed by the authorities.”

Art: 1984 by George Orwell (1949)

Premise: 1984, one of the most iconic dystopian novels in literary history, is set in the grim nation of Oceania, which is constantly at war with a revolving door or enemy states. No one really knows how the nation came into being as the ruling Party devotes a whole ministry to rewriting history.

What happens: Everything is controlled by the ruling Party, headed by the shadowy figure of Big Brother. Sophisticated advances have been made in technology, but the totalitarian regime directs it to terrorizing its own citizens with constant spying and relentless censorship. In addition to being fed a steady diet of propaganda, citizens are now asked to take on a new language called Newspeak,  implemented to take out any words that may incite thoughts of rebellion.

The story centres around Winston Smith, a low-ranking member of the Party. Winston dislikes the party and has illegally purchased a diary in which to write his criminal thoughts. He began an affair with Julia, a co-worker in the ministry who is also a rebel, his hatred for the Party grows more and more intense, causing him to fall into a trap set up by the Party.

How it ends: Winston is captured and tortured, eventually being brought to the dreaded Room 101, where he is forced to face his worst fear, a cage full of rats. O’Brien now straps a cage full of rats onto Winston’s head and prepares to allow the rats to eat his face. Winston snaps, pleading with O’Brien to do it to Julia, not to him. His spirit broken, Winston is released to the outside world. He meets Julia but no longer feels anything for her. He has accepted the Party entirely and has learned to love Big Brother.

Life: Brooke Farm, West Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1840s

 A utopian experiment in communal living in the United States, founded by former Unitarian minister George Ripley and his wife Sophia. Founded as a joint stock company, it promised its participants a portion of the profits from the farm in exchange for labour.

What it was like:
Life on Brook Farm was based on balancing labor and leisure while working together for the benefit of the greater community, where individual freedom can lead to gainful intellectual pursuits and spiritual fulfillment. Each member could choose to do whatever work they found most appealing and all were paid equally. Revenue for the community came from farming and from selling hand-made products like clothing as well as through fees paid by the many visitors to Brook Farm. The main source of income was the school, which admitted tuition-paying students from outside the Farm. 

How it ended:
The community was never financially stable and had difficulty profiting from their agricultural pursuits. When anuninsured community complex was destroyed in a fire, the community was financially devastated and never recovered. It was fully closed by 1847. Much of the land today is a cemetery.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Art: Minority Report (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg, loosely based on a short story by Philip K. Dick

Premise: In Washington D.C. in 2054, technology has advanced to such a point as to reach an almost mythical pinnacle. Murder is virtually eliminated because all crime can be foreseen and prevented by a program called “PreCrime,” powered by the psychic visions of three “precogs.”

What happens:
Police officer John Anderton (played by Tom Cruise) was accused of murder in the future. Knowing that he is being set up because he does not know the victim, he goes on the run. We see just how much they are bound by the technology they have developed. The very society that he has sought to protect now becomes a prison as the sophisticated surveillance system (ubiquitous iris scanners in the public space) is almost impossible to elude.

How it ends:
The flaw of the system is exposed when it was proved that it could be subject to human manipulation, the Director of the program is in fact the one who is guilty. which ironically re-established the power of human free will. The Precrime program is shut down, and those who have been jailed for as-yet-uncommitted crimes are released. 

(Source: IMDB)

Life: The Shakers, 18th century

Premise: In a time when there is war between Protestants and Catholics, religious fervour ran rampant.

How it started: The Shakers were originally located in England in 1747, in the home of Mother Ann Lee. Emotional and demonstrative in their worship, the Shakers believed that everybody could find God within him or herself, rather than through clergy. They worshipped in plain meetinghouses where they marched, sang songs, danced, twitched and shouted. Branced off from the Quakers.

What it was like: Shakers believed that their lives should be dedicated to pursuing perfection and continuously confessing their sins and attempting a cessation of sinning. The Shakers built 19 communal settlements that attracted some 20,000 converts over the next century. Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers maintained their numbers through conversion and adoption of orphans. communal living and came to be known for their distinctive architecture, furniture and music. largely self-sufficient in running farms and producing crafts.

How it ended: Membership in the Shakers started to dwindle in the late 1800s. As of July 2008 had only four members left. People were attracted to cities and away from the farms. Shaker products could not compete with mass-produced products that became available at a much lower cost. Shakers could not have children, so adoption was a major source of new members. Some Shaker settlements, such as Pleasant Hill community in Kentucky, and Canterbury, New Hampshire, have become museums. 

(Source: Wikipedia)

Art: Island by Aldous Huxley (1962)

Premise: It is the account of Will Farnaby, a cynical journalist who is shipwrecked on the fictional island of Pala. It started when western medial science met oriental philosophy, in the characters of Raja of the Reform and the Scottish physician, Dr. Andrew MacPhail. The Raja had hired Dr. MacPhail to remove a tumour from his face during the early nineteenth century.

What happens:
The culture of Pala merges the best of East and West. A central element of Palanese society is restrained industrialization, undertaken with the goal of providing fulfilling work and time for leisure and contemplation. For the Palanese, progress means a selective attitude towards technology. The Palanese embrace modern science and technology to improve medicine and nutrition, but have rejected widespread industrialization. Committed pacifists.

How it ends:
The Taoist “non-interference” philosophy is one of the reasons for the doom of their society. The Palanese are pacifists with no army and so give up their island to the neighbouring Rendang without a struggle. Will Farnaby betrays the Palanese by arranging a oil deal, thus prompting the young Raja Murugan to arrange the coup with Colonel Dippa of Rendang.

Life: New Lanark, Scotland, early 19th century

Premise: A cotton mill village was converted into a model utopian community by social reformist Robert Owen in reaction to the Industrial Revolution.  He felt that machines should serve the people, rather than the other way around.

What it was like:
In Owen’s time some 2,500 people lived at New Lanark, many from the poorhouses of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Owen found the conditions unsatisfactory and resolved to improve the workers’ lot. He paid particular attention to the needs of the 500 or so children living in the village and working at the mills, and opened the first infants’ school in Britain in 1816. The mills thrived commercially, but Owen’s partners were unhappy at the extra expense incurred by his welfare programmes. fair treatment, education and care.

Unwilling to allow the mills to revert back to the old ways of operating, Owen bought out his partners. New Lanark became celebrated throughout Europe. They were astonished to find a clean, healthy industrial environment with a content, vibrant workforce and a prosperous, viable business venture all rolled into one. Owen was able to demonstrate that it was not necessary for an industrial enterprise to treat its workers badly to be profitable.

How it ended: The mills closed in 1968, after which people began to leave the village, and the buildings gradually deteriorated. In 1970 the mills, other industrial buildings and Owen’s house were sold to a scrap metal company.

Each year, over 400,000 tourists visit the village, which has been recognized by UNESCO as one of Scotland’s five World Heritage Sites.

(Source: Wikipedia)