It’s not hard to see why utopian communities have commanded the attention of so many writers. An idealistic search for a better way of life is ripe for drama, conflict, and big ideas that can play themselves out on a grand fictional canvas. The history of utopian communities also offers plenty that writers can explore, and the concept of people attempting to create a utopia in modern times is also an inherently fascinating one. And for writers who aren’t tethered to realism, writing about utopias can mean revisiting and rewriting history, or creating a utopia in an entirely new world.
It takes a particular kind of person to start a utopia, and it takes a particular kind of person to want to live there. The ways in which they come together – and the unity or divisiveness that can result – is the stuff of memorable fiction. Here is a look at ten novels in which utopias play a part.
There’s plenty going on in Lucy Ives’s briskly paced, ornately plotted novel, Impossible Views of the World – including a look inside a venerable (and fictional) New York City museum, the protagonist’s complex familial dynamics, and the complicated personal histories and conflicts that play themselves out as debates over arts and culture rage. In the midst of all of this is a mysterious historical artifact that may be tied to a nineteenth-century utopian community – counterpointing the idealism and cynicism of these characters even more.
Norman Rush’s high-concept 1991 novel takes on big, time-honored themes: the relationships between men and women, the lives of expatriate Americans, and what happens when a brilliant theorist puts his ideas into practice. The narrator of Mating ventures into the Kalahari desert in search of a man named Nelson Denoon,who is rumored to be residing in a utopian community of his own creation. Heady debates and plenty of memorable character interactions ensue.
Some fictional utopias exist in bittersweet alternate histories – worlds in which history took a different turn, and disastrous events were averted. (In this case, Belgium’s colonialist foray into the Congo.) Everfair is set in a world where a sovereign state in the Congo was established by an unlikely coalition of groups in the late nineteenth century – a technologically advanced, politically progressive state that resisted colonial forays from Europe.
Jon Raymond’s Rain Dragon feels decidedly contemporary in its concerns: It’s a resonant novel of ideas, set in Oregon circa now. The couple at its center, seeking a better life for themselves and their ideals, begin working at a community farm – and slowly come to realize that their ideals may not have been as compatible as they first believed. The end result is wrenching and relatable, a powerful look at how beliefs and ideas can be tested in the modern world.
Kirsten Bakis’s novel begins with a classic fish-out-of-water setup, albeit one with a twist. Early in the novel, the residents of a small utopian community, established years earlier by an eccentric German genius, make contact with the larger world and use their accumulated wealth to move to New York City. The twist here is that those residents are highly evolved dogs – and the beguiling, deeply moving story that follows is both thought-provoking and heartbreaking.
Upstate New York has been fertile historical ground for a number of real-life utopian communities, including the Oneida Community, which lasted for a few decades in the nineteenth century and begat a well-known silverware company. Lauren Groff’s acclaimed novel is set in a fictional utopia in the same general region, albeit a century later, and traces the evolution of its ideals and their effect on the people raised within that community.
Alexis M. Smith
Though the world in which it’s set largely resembles our own, Alexis M. Smith’s Marrow Island has one substantial difference: Several decades before the novel opens, a massive earthquake devastated the Pacific Northwest. The novel’s protagonist ventures to an island severely affected by the quake in search of an old friend who’s now a part of a utopian society living in an uncertain balance with the world around them.
Jo Walton’s The Just City takes its cue from one of the classic utopian works: Plato’s The Republic. The titular city is the result of a wager between gods, who gather like-minded individuals from throughout time and place them in a society modeled on the one in Plato’s book. It’s a strange blend of philosophy, fantasy, and science fiction, but it clicks in unexpected (and thought-provoking) ways.
Questions of technology, ego, and colonialism abound in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, which was memorably adapted to film in 1986 by director Peter Weir. In it, an iconoclastic inventor from the United States ventures into an isolated part of Honduras with his family, hoping to achieve a society-defining technological breakthrough. Do things go according to plan? There wouldn’t be much of a story to tell if they did.
Fire on the Mountain
Acclaimed science fiction author Terry Bisson’s 1988 novel Fire on the Mountain is set in 1959 – but it’s a very different 1959 than the one with which we’re familiar from the history books. In the world of this novel, John Brown’s attack at Harper’s Ferry had a very different outcome, and the result led to an independent utopian nation in the South.