It’s not that far from utopia to dystopia


By Norman Knight

I think I first became aware of the word “dystopian” back in 2008 when I was still teaching seventh-grade language arts. My students were all mad about the novel “The Hunger Games,” which came out about then.

For most of that school year I would spot students alone or in groups quietly devouring the story of a dismal future world where a far-off government entity ruthlessly controls the lives of suffering regular citizens. As a teacher, especially an English teacher, it is always a distinct satisfaction when students are caught reading a book, even a dystopian one.

It was probably in some college lit class that I learned that the word “utopia” was coined from Greek words meaning “no where” or “no place” and referred to a ideal, perfect society. Using my English teacher “superpowers,” I determined a “dystopia” would be the opposite of an ideal, perfect society.

Stories about utopias and dystopias have been around for centuries. Plato was describing his ideas for a perfect Republic several hundreds of years before Sir Thomas More coined the word and then published “Utopia” in 1516.

I guess it is a natural inclination for some humans to try to plan out a perfect world. And it is probably just as natural that some humans would conjure up a dismal future society.

Recently, both my wife and I were caught reading dystopian novels. Becky is not one who usually tolerates fiction where the suspension of disbelief requires one to accept extremely unconventional characters and situations. But her daughter prevailed upon her to read “The Giver,” by Lois Lowery, a book my middle school students also enjoyed. Turns out she enjoyed it, too.

At about the same time she started “The Giver,” published in 1993, I settled in with a book that came out just this year: “The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.” Both books are different takes on societies of the future.

In “The Giver,” we are presented with a society that is perfect. It is perfect because everyone is equal, and everyone is equal because everyone is exactly the same.

This is accomplished by eliminating emotions, memory, physical contact and any hint of individuality from the citizens of this perfect world. What seems to be a safe and well-ordered utopia is soon discovered to be a colorless (literally) dystopia.

As Becky was engrossed in her book, I was reading about the Mandibles, a well-to-do family that must find a way to survive after the worldwide collapse of the United States dollar. People learn very quickly the illusionary nature of money, especially money based upon the promises of a increasingly insatiable and ruthless government.

To survive in 2029 and the years after means abandoning nearly all of that thin layer of civility and agreed upon behavior that is a requirement for a normal society to function. It also means avoiding the prying technological eyes and ears of the government.

In the midst of our book reading, Becky and I leaned that another dystopian novel has been recently trending. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood that has just been made into a much anticipated TV series.

The story takes place in a future where the United States government has been replaced by a theocracy where women are considered second-class citizens useful only as breeders.

A common thread in dystopian fiction from “1984” and “Brave New World” and running through “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Giver” up to “The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047,” seems to be that we should be cautious about allowing any government or large institution to have too much power over our lives.

Beware of looking for utopia, they seem to be saying. You might wind up with dystopia.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to