see LITR 5439 Literary & Historical Utopias


Craig White's Literature Courses

Terms / Themes

 + Scenarios for Literature of the Future

Utopia, Dystopia, & Ecotopia

"Every utopia is someone else's dystopia."—Dr. White

signpost to town of Utopia (pop. 227)
(south central Texas)

Utopia may have historical and / or literary meaning:

historical utopia = an experimental or "intentional community" intended to reform or escape from normal society, often by substituting planning, cooperation, or collective values and practices in place of freemarket competition and unenlightened individualism. (examples: Twin Oaks community of Virginia; Kibbutzim of Israel; hippie "communes")

literary utopia = a novel or tract (or shorter fiction or essay) representing life and characters in such a community

“Utopia” comes from Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). More coined the word from Greek parts, either

ou (no) + topos (place, as in “topography”) to mean “no place” or "nowhere" (Erewhon; News from Nowhere)


eu (good, as in “euphoria”) + topos (place) to mean “good place”

Genre & Term Variations:

Dystopia = society opposite from a utopia, a utopia gone dysfunctional, or the world just before an apocalypse or "left behind" after one. Fictional examples: Brave New World (1931); Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949); Young Adult Dystopias like The Hunger Games (2008) and The Uglies (2005).

Ecotopia = Ecological Utopia, a community whose collective social health imitates nature’s interconnectivity—term derived from Ecotopia, 1975 novel by Ernest Callenbach.

associated term: Millennium, apocalypse, or End-Times is often associated with utopian narratives, as when the biblical Book of Revelation ends with a vision of heaven (partly as restored Garden of Eden).

Utopias / Dystopias in American secondary schools curricula:

American schools typically teach dystopian fiction instead of utopian fiction: e.g., Brave New World, Anthem, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, The Giver, The Hunger Games and other Young Adult Dystopias.

Rationale: Utopian fiction typically proposes collective, socialist, or communitarian solutions to social problems, implying a strong central government supporting equality. American ideology generally prefers limited government and individual freedom over social or economic equality.

Also American "family values" favor the patriarchal nuclear household, whereas utopian fiction often explores alternative family arrangements and reproductive techniques.

Conventions of utopian / dystopian literature

Conventions are the standard expectations, elements, rules, traditions, or content-features that identify genres (i.e., types, classes, or kinds of literature, art, music, etc. . .  . ) Think of "genre" as a "contract with the audience."


Characterization in most utopian fiction is problematic, as members of a utopian community may suppress individuality in order to conform to the community's collective expectations.

Most utopian citizens fade into the utopan system's background, or appear more as functions or officials within the community rather than the individualized, conflicted selves who populate most modern realistic fiction. Utopian (or dystopian) characters sometimes wear depersonalizing uniforms, further diminishing individuality and emphasizing community function.

Protagonist as a visitor who may arrive for ulterior motives. Visitor-hero expresses skepticism over the utopian scheme and the value of the community and the individual. Through dialogues and experience with utopian guides or citizens, the visitor-hero is subsequently re-educated and converted or absorbed into the community.

In dystopias, the protagonist may be born into or otherwise introduced into a community that is imposed rather than chosen. The protagonist may lead a rebellion or escape to a more individualistic life or is tragically crushed by the utopian state. (The typical dystopian hero is young in contrast to the utopian state's aged authority figures.)

Antagonist or helper may be an authority figure who introduces or explains the community, refuting the visitor's objections. (both utopias and dystopias)

A love interest may develop to increase reader interest and the visitor's commitment to the community.  (both utopias and dystopias)

Characters in dystopian fiction are usually stronger, more individuated and familiar, often conforming to the good guy-bad guy dynamic of the romance narrative.

The protagonist of dystopian fiction is typically a rebel against the dystopian society's restrictions or cruelties.

The love-interest and companions of the dystopian protagonist may form a band of rebels or underground resistance who live honorably and fully in contrast to the dystopian society's hypocrisies or deprivations.


Utopian settings are typically separate from normal society, either in place or time.

Place: lost valley, newly discovered island or continent; natural boundaries like mountains or oceans, or walls, as in Heaven in Revelation; gated communities in suburbia

Time: uncorrupted past, enlightened future, sometimes visited through time-travel

Gardens: Garden of Eden, competitive gardens in More's Utopia, the "garden city" of Boston in Looking Backward, the nation as garden in Herland and Ecotopia.

Dystopian Settings are often the opposite of a natural garden. Instead, they are frequently sterile, constricted, even post-apocalyptic.

urban dystopias: gray, oppressive, machine-like, sometimes with images or observation devices by which the dystopian state monitors, coerces, or punishes individual behavior.

rural or outdoor dystopias: post-apocalyptic deserts or wastelands, with ecological threats of radiation, toxicity, feral or mutated predators.

Plot / Narrative

Journey, either through physical space or time, by visitor from normal world to utopia, and sometimes back again.

This physical journey may be paralleled by a psychological journey, transformation, or education on the part of the visitor to the community, who first rejects the community's principles but eventually converts and is initiated as a member.

Dystopian novels narrate a repressed individual's awakening to the community's injustice or hypocrisy, and to his or her personal destiny beyond the community's restrictions, followed by escape or rebellion. (Dystopian protagonist often gathers a cohort of similarly disaffected or repressed individuals.)

Millennial events punctuate or hinge time and history as origin stories for utopias. The prototype for this pattern is the Bible's book of Revelation, which first describes the destruction of the old world, followed by a vision of heaven or "the New Jerusalem." In this and other millennial-utopian narratives, anr apocalyptic turning point destroys the old dystopian world and separates the utopian present or future from the past discord or dystopia.


Utopia: Typically first-person: visitor / outsider who may visit for ulterior motives, defends outside world, asks questions of guide, embodies reader's assumptions and anticipates and states reader's potential objections to utopian arrangements.

Dystopia: First person or third person limited perspective, often from an insider rather than an outsider. As a character already inside the community, the dystopian protagonist has not chosen to join and becomes increasingly conscious of the community's problems, hypocrisies, or injustices.

Other stylistic conventions or devices

Socratic dialogue between intruder and guide or teacher. (Utopia's are "talky" genres, betraying their intellectual audience.)

  Narrative-dialogue of fiction to extended monologues.

      Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged feature extended speeches by protagonists.

      Dr. Barton's Sermon" in Looking Backward.

  Public spectacles and pageantry where community comes together to celebrate unity. In a dystopia, such events may become opportunities for rebellion or exposure of supposed utopia's hypocrisies or injustices.

LITR 5439 Literary & Historical Utopias (graduate seminar)

List of Utopian Communities and Texts       

Standard features of utopian / dystopian literature

America's Utopian Pasts

Counter-Utopian Tradition  

Appeals of utopian / dystopian fiction

Literature of ideas, esp. how utopias and dystopias continually turn into each other.

Utopian fiction can be dull to read but interesting to discuss. (Socratic dialogues frame ideas, model civil discussion of important issues.)

Ideas or topics you would avoid discussing as politics or philosophy become dramatized, personalized, and modeled through fiction.

Dystopian fiction can be more entertaining or escapist to read but less worthy of discussion (entertain / educate spectrum)

more formulaic hero-romance

ideas often limited to heroic individual is always right, collective society or government is always oppressive.

Ecotopia: another sub-genre of utopian / dystopian fiction or thought

Much as the word "utopia" comes from Thomas More's book Utopia (1517), the word "ecotopia" comes from the 1975 novel Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach, who is also the author of "Chocco" in Future Primitive anthology.

Oxford English Dictionary Ecotopia 1.a. With capital initial. In the fiction of E. Callenbach: an imaginary country, situated on the north-west Pacific coast of the United States, in which environmental concerns are of paramount importance, and society functions in an ecologically sustainable manner.

Other sources for Pacific Northwest as "ecotopia":
Oregon emphasized sustainable population policies, inviting tourists to visit but not to stay. Downside: Highly educated, low-birthrate people are only ones who can afford housing. ("Suburban sprawl" accommodates low-cost, high-volume housing for big families who are receptive to driving for hours a day, as in Houston, other southern Megacities.) ("Limited growth" requires limiting population.)
, Oregon features high-density "new urban" housing (car-averse, walker-friendly) with protected "green belts" of parkland.
TV series like Portlandia represent Oregon as granola-friendly.
The Nine Nations of North America
(1981) by Joel Garreau designates the Northwestern Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada as "Ecotopia." (map below)

Parable of the Sower's Acorn community is founded on ecotopian principles in the Pacific Northwest.

Oxford English Dictionary Ecotopia 2. In extended use: a place, society, or condition thought to resemble Ecotopia; a place or state which is utopian from an ecological perspective.

If a utopia is a fictional or historical community planned to achieve a more perfect or harmonious society, the plan of an ecotopia conforms to ecology.

Etymology: The word "ecology" was coined in the 19th century for the "branch of biology that deals with the relationships between living organisms and their environment." (OED)

"eco" < Greek "oiko" = household (with implications of entities acting in concert, plus sense of place and belonging together)

The environmental movement of the 1960s-70s popularized "ecology" as a scientific term for "environment," particularly the idea that all things live together inter-dependently in a community of organisms, resources, etc., in contrast to religious ideas of "man's dominion" or American assumptions of "independence" from traditional, historical, natural or economic conditions.

Literary and Popular Appeals of Ecotopia:

Blends warm-and-fuzzy low-tech human values like family, children, and local community with some high-tech gadgetry compatible with natural harmony.

Humans control technology instead of being controlled (as in a high-tech dystopia); whiz-bang values of high-tech are subordinated to long-established human values of tradition, community, mature deliberation of consequences and responsibilities for future generations.

Positive revaluation of "primitive" human communities and individuals; respect for past human accomplishments and evolution instead of regarding earlier societies as backward and unenlightened.

Popular expression of environmental concerns, which are otherwise politicized and polarizing.

In contrast to impossible off-planet adventures, ecotopia emphasizes that Earth is humanity's home, not to be escaped or fled but sustained or healed.

Intellectual appeal: Ecotopian fiction may involve post-apocalyptic motifs, but conformity to nature and thus evolutionary narratives creates opportunities for long-term (sustainable) action or narratives, in contrast to immediate short-term appeal of most apocalyptic literature.


As a sequel to his 1975 novel Ecotopia, in 1981 Ernest Callenbach (1929-2012) published Ecotopia Emerging.