Andrea Cannella @ Altervista.org – Maturità 2008

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Utopian and Dystopian Fiction

The word utopia was used for the first time in English literature by Sir Thomas More in the title of his work Utopia (1516). The word is a play on two Greek meaning “no place” and “good place” and it indicates an ideal place which does not exist. In More’s book, Utopia is an island where there is no private property because that is considered the origin of all the evils of the society. People live in a community where all the goods are shared, there is free education and free medical treatment, all religions are tolerated and working hours are only six so that it is possible to have time for relaxation and entertainment. More gave origin to a new type of literature.
The next utopian work was The New Atlantis, by Francis Bacon, published in 1626. It describes a completely isolated society which has full control of nature and where there are inventions suggesting the future development of airplanes, submarines and telephones among other fantastic improvements.
In the 18th century, the most famous utopian writer was Jonathan Swift with his Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which was a masterpiece of semi-utopian narrative. The use of the term ‘semi-utopian’ derives from the fact that of the four types of society described in the book only one can be considered a truly utopian land, the one which is ruled in peace by a horse-like people, because the other three also show negative aspects.
In the 19th century, Erewhon (an anagram of “nowhere”) was published by Samuel Butler in 1872. It tells the story of a young traveller who discovered the land of Erewhon, which has very different ideals from the ones of English Victorian society, which he attacks with his deep satirical spirit.
The 20th century saw a great production of literary utopias. Most of them were technological utopias. The best example is “The Time Machine” by Wells. It treats the theme of confrontation with the alien, of the last man on the earth and of the death of the world. The most important of Wells’ utopian novel is “A Modern Utopia” (1905). In it the author conceives utopia as a world state, with international government, central bureaucracy,… This global utopia is ruled by “Samurai”.
But science and technology became a threat to man. This fear of this threat produced the converse of utopia fiction, that is anti-utopian or dystopian works. In them places which do not exist are described, but they are not ideal, on the contrary they are nightmarish and frightening. They are usually set in the future and they represent warnings to men.
“Brave New World” by Huxley is set six hundred years into the future and is about the danger of scientific achievements and dictatorship.
Another dystopian work which deals with the problem of destruction of liberty and individuality is “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, which is a strong criticism of any form of totalitarianism. It was followed by “1984” (1949), in which the author attempts to describe the future. He present life under a dictator, Big Brother who is never seen and there is no certainty he really exists. People are controlled by telescreens which are located everywhere, even in private houses.
In the years that followed many writers were influenced by dystopian novels and in their works they created societies which expressed their horror of the present and their fear for the future of mankind. One of them was Golding, who, in his Lord of the Flies, makes a group of children create a world which imitates the one of adults.