Utopian Science Fiction

Utopias. Positive visions of a better world. Sometimes enlightening. Sometimes entertaining. Sometimes disturbing. (Some people have warped ideas of what constitutes "better.") As I originally wrote these reviews for my Quiz2d site, these are arranged by Nolan Chart quadrant. (Note: Some of the images are from my personal collection. If you buy from the links, you make get something that looks different; the actual appearance will be shown on Amazon.)

Libertarian Utopias

The United States government collapses, the Mafia fills the void, and there is much rejoicing. The Syndic by C.M. Kornbluth is the earliest example of a libertarian utopia that I know of. Quite fun. I suspect it inspired the gangster episode of the original Star Trek, but this is speculation

Imagine if Ayn Rand had a sense of humor – and history. You might end up with something like Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League stories, especially those featuring Nicholas van Rijn: Trader to the Stars and The Man Who Counts.

Perhaps the quintessential libertarian utopia is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. This is the story that turned me into an anarchist back in high school (I got better). Heinlein also included a non anarchistic libertarian utopia within The Number of the Beast , which is otherwise not one of his better works.

If you want an undiluted libertarian utopia that doesn’t play fair at all, try L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach. The style resembles Heinlein, and the story is kind of fun, but it is utterly unrealistic. (And the author is a delusional jerk. We've had run-ins over my attempts to make the Libertarian Party more reasonable. But if I can make a few bucks off his works to our mutual profit, I will. Such is the beauty of capitalism.)

Norman Spinrad gives the market based arbitration of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress an eco-hippie vibe in Songs From the Stars. It’s very groovy. If you are a libertarian, this is the perfect gift for your eco hippie friends and relatives.

Social Liberal Utopias

Civil liberties, feminism, free love, and/or legal drugs – with a cuddly welfare state to keep it all safe. It sounds like fun, and yes, I have a few fun reads for you. Given the subject matter, many of the reads are not all suitable for the young, and I cannot endorse some of the morals, herein. Caveats aside, here we go:

Norman Spinrad’s Child of Fortune [18+] is a coming of age story in a hedonic star-faring future where one is expected to be a wandering hippie before deciding upon a career. To do otherwise is to be a wage slave. This novel features some of the most beautiful writing ever in science fiction, with a future language that blends German and Sanskrit into English. College lit professors should definitely check this one out. The story also portrays a very interesting approach to welfare suitable for a minimalist state, that is worth studying regardless of whether you accept Spinrad’s hedonism or not.

Beautiful princess needs barbarian warrior to help her save the empire so she comes to earth to recruit the hero of the story – a Vietnam War veteran. The first half of Robert A. Heinlein’s Glory Road [17+] is a fun twist on sword and sorcery fiction. The second half is the hero’s struggle to live happily ever after in what Heinlein considers to be a truly civilized world, a world which regards the U.S. of the early 1960s much as we in the West regard the Middle East today.

Finally, for the feminists in the audience, we have an interesting take on sustainable peace through extreme feminism in Glory Season by David Brin. This is not a true utopian novel, as the author criticizes the society he invents as much as he praises it. But the mechanism by which he makes the society sustainable is so interesting that I have to include this somewhere.

Conservative Utopias

Conservatism connotes many different things: church, capitalism, limited government, nationalism, tradition, acceptance of inequality, rule of law, disdain for unrestrained democracy, and even once included environmental conservation. So I have cast a rather large net to capture idealized conservative societies.

A good place to start would be Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God's Eye On the surface it is an alien first contact story with a twist: a far flung human empire finds the aliens, yet the alien civilization is older are more advanced. The story is well worth reading for having one of the most well imagined alien races ever penned. But I include it here for the very conservative human civilization which mixes aspects of the British Empire and ancient Sparta. Jerry Pournelle went on to backfill how this civilization arose from a collapsing welfare state in books such as High Justice , Exile and Glory , and quite a few others (some with collaborators).

Crime is out of control in the cities, so the upper middle class is moving into giant managed megabuildings to escape the chaos. Such is the backdrop of Oath of Fealty another Niven-Pournelle collaboration. The work asks how much privacy would you be willing to give up in order to have full security? And it suggests how a new feudalism could arise from a dysfunctional democratic society if we are not careful.

Much like Ronald Reagan, Robert Heinlein went from ultra left-liberal to somewhere between conservative and libertarian after seeing communism in action. Starship Troopers is Heinlein at his most conservative. Unlimited democracy leads to corruption; the solution is having to earn the right to vote. The Arachnids are out to get humanity; the solution is a crack volunteer army with brutally realistic training. (The book is largely a critique of how we fought the Korean War.) I don’t agree with all of Heinlein’s recommendations in this book, but it’s a great read and quite thought-provoking. It’s also a good antidote for the unrealistic isolationism favored by many libertarians. (P.S. avoid the movie! Read the book.)

For those of a more religious conservative bent, be sure to read C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books. Yes, they are written for kids, but there are plenty of deep insights and jabs at the progressives for adult readers. Read them in the correct order. Some boxed sets put The Magician’s Nephew as the first book, when it should be Book 6. Also: the second book, Prince Caspian, is not as good as the rest. Do read it for context, but realize that the books get much better afterwards.

For a more adult take on C.S. Lewis utopian thinking, read , the first in his space trilogy . The first portrays his utopia, a world where three different intelligent species coexist. The second is a long theological rumination. The third is pure attack on the progressivism of his day – it is a Christian analog of Atlas Shrugged, featuring many similar villains.

For a non-religious take on the theme of diversity through non-democratic hierarchy, try Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine's Castle and its sequels.

For those who would still mix conservation and conservatism, a great place to start would be with Jack Vance’s works. I recommend his series, The Demon Princes, a series I have reread multiple times for sheer enjoyment. On the surface, these are not utopian novels; they are detective/revenge stories against five extremely quirky master criminals who destroyed the hero’s colony. But the backdrop of these stories features a wild array of human civilizations scattered across hundreds of worlds, civilizations that are truly human, both for good and ill. There is no overarching empire, and no Singularity. How this is achieved is truly interesting…

For a more explicit mix of conservatism and conservation, see Vance’s Araminta Station and its sequels.

For positive conservative portrayals on movies/television, you generally need to go back to before 1970. Television portrayed an America where private citizens casually owned weapons, fathers were wise, free range children explored their neighborhoods unsupervised, and children had respect for their elders. Even the liberal shows of the day are conservative by today’s standards. The original Star Trek defended America’s Cold War, had two anti abortion episodes, and endorsed Christianity. And, like The Demon Princes, Star Trek rejected The Singularity as unsuitable for humans. The only robots are alien, and cause mischief to humans. Attempts at genetically improving humans proved disastrous in the 20th Century and were since rejected. Note also the ineffectiveness of Federation medicine and the limits on the ship’s computer power. These were intentional plot features, as the crew encountered post-Singularity civilizations, or the remains thereof, frequently.

But for the most blatantly conservative utopia on television, break out The Andy Griffith Show. Yes, it is a silly comedy, but silly comedy is perhaps the best way to make a true utopia entertaining. (It’s kind of hard to have true drama when everything is working reasonably well.)

Lefty Utopias

I am not a socialist, and don't play one on TV. But I'm going to include some socialist utopias because:

  1. I'm a greedy capitalist trying to sell books.
  2. I think it is good to stretch out the mind and see reality from other perspectives.
  3. And so, some lefty reads, including a couple I had to read for a college course back in the day...

    Benevolent space aliens put humans on welfare. Peace, joy and understanding ensue; pesky rednecks and Christians fade away. I find Childhood’s End to be quite depressing, along with most other works by Arthur C. Clarke. But for devout secular humanists, his works can be a quasi religious experience.

    The Dispossessed is an honest utopian novel contrasting an anarcho-socialist utopia with a propertarian society – a must read for those who still believe in communism but that the Bolsheviks did it all wrong (implementing “state capitalism”).

    The early Robert Heinlein was very, very far to the left. (He moved rightward later in life after touring the Soviet Union.) For Us, the Living [17+] was his first attempt, laying out his vision of free love, free healthcare, and Social Credit economics in great detail within a not-so-great story. It was only published after his death. Beyond this Horizon was published when written, and includes much of his early vision of Social Credit economics. It’s still not one of his best novels, but it is short and readable. It is interesting to note that even when he was a borderline socialist, Heinlein was a big proponent of individual gun rights. His socialism was truly democratic, not elitist.

    With a large enough population, individual actions cancel out and historical forces are almost inevitable, save for some long range efforts by social science experts. Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy is thus the ultimate fantasy for the liberal sociology professor. Get paid for rereading it by assigning it to your students!

    (I personally think this trilogy is exremely overrated as literature, and it irks me that lit teachers give this or other Asimov works as examples of science fiction, when there are much better writers to choose from. That said, this is an entertaining work.)

    Authoritarian Utopias

    Power corrupts, and absolute power…makes for a rather good story. And so, with an evil grin, I present you with a variety of authoritarian utopias. We have variety, because authoritarianism is not a political philosophy, but an infinite collection. Once you opt for mighty government, there is still the question as to what to do with all that might. So peruse the works below, and indulge you inner megalomaniac safely within the confines of your imagination.

    Remember the good old days when sea captains had ultimate authority, and a breech of regulations resulted in a good flogging? David Feintuch does, and he envisions a star travelling future combining the “best” aspects of the old British Empire with a bit of Saudi influence thrown in for authoritarian fun in Midshipman’s Hope and its sequels. Technically speaking, these are not utopian stories – only an excuse to do Horatio Hornblower style fiction in space – but if you want to understand fans of Sheriff Arpaio or ISIS, you can treat them as research...

    Or if you prefer a more gentle vision, try Thea Alexander’s 2150 A.D. [18+]: a benevolent New Age computer guides the population serenely to higher levels of enlightenment. Given the hedonic nature of this utopia, I could almost place it in the social liberal utopia category. But given the amount of monitoring, including clothing that changes color to match your current level of enlightenment, I need to place it in the authoritarian category.

    If all that feminist New Age enlightenment stuff makes you sick, how about some full-on endarkenment: Might makes right! In Tarnsman of Gor [18+] and its many sequels, heroes get glory and comely lasses, while girly-men (and girlies) get the chains they deserve. A serious political philosophy, or just grist for bedroom games? You decide, but do note that the author is a philosophy professor. Anyway, some of the books are decent science fiction, reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and they are guaranteed to offend all feminists within a five mile radius.

    No list of authoritarian utopias would be complete without some Nazi vision. So how about science fiction by Adolph Hitler himself? In The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad envisions an alternate reality where Hitler emigrated to the United States after the failed Munich Putsch. He then used his artistic skills to illustrate science fiction magazines and eventually took up writing himself. Lord of the Swastika is his last and greatest work. The parallel universe intro remarks and afterward are darkly hilarious. The novel itself – set in a post nuclear age populated by mutants – will allow you to think like a Nazi without hating any extant humans. Indeed, the novel so resembles more popular heroic fantasies that you may realize that you have already been indulging your inner Nazi. Disturbing.

    Equal time requires a Bolshevik novel. How about Joseph Stalin’s favorite: Cement by Fyodor Gladkov. Feel the proletarian solidarity as working class men and women struggle to get a cement factory working despite bureaucrats and saboteurs. Utterly unheroic, and a mostly dull read, but if you are a Bolshevik, you deserve every page. This is the perfect gift for your Che T-shirt wearing nephew. (Bonus: compare the opening scene to that of Atlas Shrugged. The parallels are ominous.)

    Finally, I leave you with a bit of all-American authoritarianism, from Hollywood. Arresting and trying people for pursuing happiness incorrectly is just too inconvenient. Shoot them in the streets! And check out our clothes! Styling! Miami Vice is the TV show that inspired the authoritarian "utopia" we live in today.