Dystopia or Utopia? Sometimes, It's All in the Point of View

Not long ago, I was watching a documentary featuring Jim Jones and his cult The People’s Temple. In case you don’t know, he’s the guy who convinced over 900 people to commit mass suicide by drinking kool-aid laced with cyanide in Jonestown, Guyana way back in 1978. By that point, the group was mired in controversy with relatives accusing Jones of brainwashing, but no one saw such a violent end coming. In the early days of his ministry, Jones was known for progressive views on racial integration, and his social enlightenment was one of the main selling points for people joining the group.

The documentary showed a propaganda film produced by the people’s temple starring a smiling guy proclaiming that Jonestown was a utopia. And he was not the only one at the isolated Jones compound who thought that. Which got me thinking: in life and in literature, one person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia.

Take Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER for example. The world Jonas lives in seems perfect. There is no war. No fear. No pain. Everyone contributes their share for the greater good. A person's mate and job are chosen for them. And when they are no longer useful, they are peacefully "released". Everyone seems happy. And yet when Jonas becomes a giver, the one person in society who holds memories of the past, he begins to realize that peaceful living comes at a great price. No freedom of choice, no familial bonds, no romantic love and worse than that, euthanasia and infanticide. Still, interview most anyone in the book and they’d tell you they were living in a utopia. (Do keep in mind though that they are all popping emotion suppressant drugs...)

Gemma Malley’s THE DECLARATION presents another type of perfect world. Modern science has found a way to grant mortals immortality via a longevity drug. There is a slight downside: to counter an unsustainable population explosion, anyone who takes the drug must sign a declaration that they won’t have children. But hey, who needs children when you can live forever right? I mean some pesky people are kind of disgruntled about not being allowed to procreate, and surpluses, children of rule breakers lead pretty crappy lives in unfriendly institutions. But yeah, ask the man on the street, and he’s going to smile and call the place a utopia.

In Neal Shusterman’s UNWIND, no one dies waiting for organ donation because high quality organs are readily available thanks to The Bill of Life, a result of the Heartland War between Pro-lifers and Pro-choicers. It declares that a person’s life cannot be legally terminated from conception to age thirteen. However, if someone doesn’t prove their worth by that age, they can be "unwound", allowing them to continue to “live” in a “divided state” and to contribute something more valuable to society than they ever would be able to in their "undivided state". So maybe not a such a great deal for those who prove unworthy, but think about how happy all the organ recipients are. Ask one of them if they are living in a dystopia, and they’ll look at you like you’re crazy.

As you can see, sometimes it’s all a matter of point of view: One person’s dystopia is another person’s utopia.

What other examples can you think of from your own reading?


Katie DeKoster said...

I love Unwind!!! How about Delirium? (Almost) Everyone in Lena's society thought their lives would be infinitely better after "the Cure."

Linda Jackson said...

The Giver is definitely one of my favorites. Last year I read YOU'LL LIKE IT HERE(EVERYBODY DOES), a middle grade novel by Ruth White. And, of course, everybody likes it "there" except the newcomers and the few free thinkers who won't take their lotus pills. Last week I read THE PATRON SAINT OF BUTTERFLIES, a YA novel by Cecilia Galante, and it was almost a Jim Jones type novel. It was based on the author's actual experience of growing up in a religious commune. And, yes, to the residents who weren't free thinkers, Mount Blessing was utopia.

Christina Farley said...

So true! I like how you pointed out that in many of these societies it was the perfect society for many of the people. And The Giver is one of my all time favorites. I used to teach that in 6th grade and it was such a wonderful teaching tool.

Jessi said...

This is going to sound weird at first but I'll say Star Wars was one. Most fans don't even seem to realize that since the plots don't center around it. In the original trilogy, it looks like the civilians aren't having too much trouble with the Empire, so they probably didn't think they lived in a dystopian but other people were being treated poorly by the Empire.
In the prequel trilogy, it might look a little like a utopian that's being threatened, but what if you were a clone? The Republic was basically growing slaves that were sent into battle when they were ten years old. That sounds like a dystopian to me.

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