The ideas behind the books
Utopia. We use the word to mean Paradise, don't we. It is the name of a book written by Sir Thomas More in 1516 which illustrates an imaginary, perfect society. Actually, it is a rather light-hearted book. The name 'Utopia' itself means 'No Place' so we all understand that the whole work is complete fantasy.
When you start to think about it there are ever so many Utopias, each one different according to the writer's own view of perfection. One problem you face, though, if you are creating a perfect society, is exactly where on earth to put it since it is obviously nothing like the society we actually live in. More's Utopia is a remote island somewhere near the newly discovered Americas. But since our world is now so well explored, the future seems like a better place to hide it.
It's rather worrying, don't you think, what an awful future we tend to foresee for ourselves? The problem seems to arise because most of us would agree on the basic notion that everyone should have an equal share of the wealth of the nation. There is enough to go round if we all just settle for enough food to eat and clothes to wear and a modest roof over our heads, in return for which we do our fair share of work. Unfortunately, this proposition removes from each individual the liberty to express himself freely. You no longer have the freedom to chuck the job in and go off hitch-hiking round the world for a year to make yourself a better person. If you have a bright idea you are not free to indulge in a bit of private enterprise, spurred on by the prospect of making your fortune.
We end up with the grey, lifeless, unquestioning environment which Lois Lowry creates in 'The Giver'. In this rather grim book the only obligation on the people is to conform to the rules of their society. In return, they live stress-free lives without ever experiencing hunger or pain. They have voluntarily given up all memory of past times - no memories of war, grief or loss, but no memory of joy, love or beauty either. Their lives are utterly meaningless.
It doesn't take us long, when we read Nina Bawden's 'Off the Road', to realise that the real Paradise is not inside the fence with the smoothly regulated existence, but back on the outside. Here life is hard. The people risk hunger and disease and attack from dropouts. But they have the huge satisfaction of enjoying the fruits of their own labour.
There's a word for an imaginary place in the future where everything is as bad as it can possibly be. It is called dystopia, and it was coined by John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century as a reference to Utopia.
If you are a mature reader, and you are interested in ghastly predictions of the future, you may like to look at two of the most respected 'adult' books which air these ideas:
- Brave New World
- Nineteen Eighty-Four