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Old 11-09-2001, 04:19 AM
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I've been reading through some classic books about utopias, or perfect societies - Plato's Republic, Thomas More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis, Callenbach's Ecotopia, Huxley's Island and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887.

All very fine utopias, but what strikes me is that none of the books I've read so far work very well as entertainment. The problem with writing about the perfect society is that when everyone is happy there are no stories. Stories require conflict. Dystopias seem to make for much better books, because it's easier to develop interesting plots in them. The same argument can be made for the characters in these books.

Could anybody here recommend a good utopian novel (SF or otherwise) that both(a)contains an interesting, well thought out perfect society and (b)works well as a novel, with a captivating plot and interesting characters?
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Old 11-09-2001, 04:51 AM
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Try Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novel "Herland," written around 1915 or so. By the same author of the classic short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," this tale features an all-female society discovered by a few male explorers who are off trekking to the ends of the earth. As one might naturally assume, this Utopian novel focuses more on the socialization of gender roles than on religion or economy (as More's "Utopia" does).

Is it a potboiler? No. Is it entertaining? About as entertaining as another story about a Utopian society . . .

James Hilton's "Lost Horizon," which is probably closer to mainstream entertainment than the other works, some of which probably were never written for entertainment value at all.
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Old 11-09-2001, 04:56 AM
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Try "Walden Two" by Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Really fun, wonderful stuff. For more info check out Amazon.

Of course, there's always the very "serious" stuff like "Brave New World" or "1984" (not to mention the books you've listed). But if you're looking for something fun and serious, try "Walden Two".
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Old 11-09-2001, 05:05 AM
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You might also try Hawthorne's "Blithedale Romance," which features as a key plot point the attempt to create an Utopian society.
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Old 11-09-2001, 05:47 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by leander
Try "Walden Two" by Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Really fun, wonderful stuff. For more info check out Amazon.

Of course, there's always the very "serious" stuff like "Brave New World" or "1984" (not to mention the books you've listed). But if you're looking for something fun and serious, try "Walden Two".
That B.F. Skinner? I'll definitely check it out.

As for Brave New World: it is a kind of Utopia, of course, but a very creepy one - people are happy but not free, and Huxley seems to imply that this is the best humanity can hope for (in the words of Mustapha Mond: "People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get"). It's like Huxley is saying "You can have a society with liberty, democracy and dignity, or you can have a society where everybody is happy. Pick one."

I do hope he's wrong.
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Old 11-09-2001, 06:33 AM
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L.Neil Smith's (Libertarian VP candidate for several elections) The Propability Broach: Libertarian utopianism, mostly not shrill. It manages a story by having a group of anti-utopian people (made of somewhat thicker cardboard than the usual anti-utopian villains...but only slightly) trying to destroy the libertarian paradise.

And it has talking gorillas.

Really.

Fenris

[Edited by Ukulele Ike on 11-09-2001 at 08:57 AM]
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Old 11-09-2001, 06:34 AM
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And, even more important, in Smith's book, everyone knows how to code.
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Old 11-09-2001, 08:32 AM
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You lot can have Walden Two; I'd rather take Robert Graves' Seven Days in New Crete.

Or... come to think of it, is Iain M. Banks' Culture not a utopia? Could we consider, say Use of Weapons as a utopian book? Hey, I'm only asking...

Mildly interesting counterpoint: Somtow P. Sucharitkul (who often uses the less jaw-breaking byline of S.P. Somtow) wrote a series of SF stories set in a future galaxy where utopias were against the law, and "utopia hunters" went around overthrowing the governments of planets with suspiciously stable societies. As I recall - and it's years since I read them - the system came to grief when somebody finally came up with a utopian system that "worked" in some convincing way, the details of which I cannot for the life of me remember. I think the overall series title was The Dawning Shadow; individual books included Utopia Hunters, The Light on the Sound and The Throne of Madness. I think. It's been a while.
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Old 11-09-2001, 09:25 AM
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Originally posted by Fenris
And, even more important, in Smith's book, everyone knows how to code.
Even the talking gorillas?

You might want to try Ursula LeGuin's "The Disposessed", which actually has as its subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia".
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Old 11-09-2001, 10:00 AM
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Looking Backwards was one of my favourite books. Bellamy's accuracy to the way of life in modern times, with the exception of the socialism, was right on. Of course he couldn't have predicted the role of computers and televisions in our lives. It was interesting how he predicted all of the worlds information coming into the home through a phoneline *internet* There was a small attempt at an entertaining story, and you were left hanging for a few pages towards the end of the book. I'm just shocked to see someone else that has read that book. I know of no one who has read it.
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Old 11-09-2001, 10:35 AM
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Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars series actually explores the creation of a utopian society through over three hundred years of social and scientific development. Great plot, well-crafted characters, and a complete optimism about the future of the human race. Also, some of the best scientific research I've seen for a novel.
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Old 11-09-2001, 10:41 AM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Captain Amazing
Quote:
Originally posted by Fenris
And, even more important, in Smith's book, everyone knows how to code.
Even the talking gorillas?

You might want to try Ursula LeGuin's "The Disposessed", which actually has as its subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia".
Yup! One of the talking gorillas is (IIRC) President.

The Dispossessed is a better book and Shevek is a far better (more three dimensional) character than Lt. Bear, but I'd still rather live in Smith's world than LeGuin's for all that LeGuin's is more believable. Her ambiguous utopia has warts and wrinkles as opposed to Smith's world which is shiny and perfect.

I once read the two of 'em back-to-back and had whiplash since both were using the term Propertarian, but had opposite views of whether the word was a compliment or not.

Fenris
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Old 11-09-2001, 10:45 AM
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I can't remember the details, but H G Wells' Men Like Gods concerns a pretty utopian society, if I remember rightly. It's about a mixed bag of 1920s figures accidentally arriving in a fantasy world, where their own political prejudices eventually bring tragedy.
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Old 11-09-2001, 10:48 AM
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Neither of these precisely explore utopias, but they've got interesting plots and raise many of the issues which seem to interest you: Into the Forest by Jean Hegland and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
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Old 11-09-2001, 11:46 AM
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Larry Niven's short story "Safe at Any Speed". It's in a couple of his anthologies. It's a short story because, well, nothing happens in a utopia. The essence of drama is conflict, and in a utopia you try to minimize conflict. Whereas a Dystopia is fairly bristling with conflict.
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Old 11-09-2001, 11:50 AM
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Oh, I forgot -- Eric Frank Russells' The Great Explosion (and the short stories that it was cobbled together from) list several utopias set up by spacefaring groups in the centuries following the discovered of FTL travel (the titular "Great Explosion"). The military expedition sent out to gather them back into a "Terran Empire" fails when too many of the enlisted men join the utopias.: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/AS...885879-9758908
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Old 11-09-2001, 01:57 PM
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Brave New World, naturally. Only in Utopia would the drugs be that good. Only in Utopia would they breed janitors.
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Old 11-09-2001, 02:51 PM
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Actually, I thought Saint Thomas More's "Utopia" was very entertaining, often hilarious. The very name "Utopia" was coined by More as a joke (it's Greek for "nowhere").

Idealists who've proposed various Utopias have OFTEN had to couch their serious proposals in humor, to hide truly subversive ideas within jokes, because they know their ideas may bring down the wrath of those in power. More faced this problem himself, and he used humor for his own protection.
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Old 11-09-2001, 03:08 PM
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originally posted by aegypt
I do hope he's wrong.
Me too.

But you'll like Walden Two. I don't know why more people haven't read it, or even heard of it. It's really quite fun (and interesting).
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Old 11-09-2001, 03:39 PM
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A favorite sci-fi page-turner of mine is Gate to Women's Country by Sherri S. Tepper. I'm not gonna say it's great literature or anything, but it's fun, entertaining, and the premise is very good.

D_Nice: I thought Looking Backwards was very commonly assigned in college courses. I've read it, of course, and taught excerpts from it. It's such a fun book! I agree with you that it is quite amazing how right Bellamy got things. The credit cards and the distribution systems really amazed me. Now if I could only get someone to come over and clean my house...
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Old 11-09-2001, 03:51 PM
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Anyone here ever read Austin Tappan Wright's 1942 novel Islandia?

This has been recommended to me by several wacky types, whose advice I'd usually take in a second, so far as reading novels goes.

I've started it a few times, but it's over a thousand pages long and, as the OP very politely put it, it doesn't "work very well as entertainment."
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Old 11-09-2001, 04:32 PM
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"Safe at Any Speed" is a hoot--do hunt it down.

One of my favorite utopias is In the Days of the Comet by H. G. Wells. It's about what happens when the Earth passes through the tail of a comet which contains a mysterious chemical which has a quite unexpected effect of making human beings rational.

Of course, they become free-lovin' socialists. It's a wee bit racier than you might expect of novel written in 1906.

Obviously it's a bit heavy-handed with the socialist themes, but it's at heart a deftly-written love story. The conflict springs largely from the narrator's internal struggle--despite his emotional turmoil he nonetheless he finds himself unable to resist reason.
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Old 11-09-2001, 08:15 PM
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Green Bean: It wasn't on my college or high school reading lists for me. My poly sci teacher in HS actually recomended it to me. After finishing 'The Jungle' I wanted to read more propaganda style books. She told me of this book and how it was her favourite of all time. I wasn't let down at all. A sort book, but not that easiest read from what I'm told. It was fine for me, but others that I have turned on to it described it as so.
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Old 11-10-2001, 09:32 PM
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Quote:
Originally posted by Ukulele Ike
Anyone here ever read Austin Tappan Wright's 1942 novel Islandia?

This has been recommended to me by several wacky types, whose advice I'd usually take in a second, so far as reading novels goes.

I've started it a few times, but it's over a thousand pages long and, as the OP very politely put it, it doesn't "work very well as entertainment."
Ukelele Ike, I am glad you brought Islandia into this discussion.

At the risk of classifying myself as a "wacky type", I confess I read Islandia earlier this year and enjoyed it very much. Granted, it is quite a tome and unfolds very slowly but I found my patience with it well-rewarded; there is a story there (i.e. something does happen in utopia) and overall I believe it works as entertainment. As with many books, it is hard to judge this one's merit without reading a substantial part of it. I hesitate to say more about it without introducing possible "spoilers", but I will say this: at its heart is a very good, resonant story and its themes are as relevant today as they were in the c. 1905 world in which the story occurs. I read this nightly through last winter, when my days consisted of 9-10 exhausting hours at work, home to dinner, then to bed to read before "lights out". Maybe I was reading it at just the right point in time because it was the perfect antidote/antithesis to my "real life".

One thing to keep in mind is that it was published posthumously, when A.T. Wright's daughter whittled her father's 3000-page narrative to 1300 pages which were further reduced by the publisher to about 1000 pages. It is hard to say what Wright would have done with his story had he lived, but better (I think) to have the work published with its flaws than to have languished in obscurity among his private papers.
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Old 11-10-2001, 10:21 PM
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1984

(hehe, must make you wonder)
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Old 11-11-2001, 10:51 AM
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I have to agree with MrVisible about Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). It's awesome, and i very rarely read sci-fi.
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Old 11-11-2001, 12:25 PM
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I agree with Mhendo and MrVisible about K.S. Robinson's Mars trilogy. The books were very carefully researched, a most satisfying read for a person like myself who enjoys reading about futures that seem likely. KSR's book Antarctica is also a fascinating read, though it is not sci-fi. The author researched survival tactics of humans who live in Antarctica since there were certain similarities between the problems faced by these men and those encountered by first settlers on Mars. I guess he figured he might as well write a book about Antarctica too.

As for Huxley's Brave New World, for some reason I always considered it to be an example of a rather subtle dystopia: uniformity, regimentation, this corresponds to my vision of a nightmarish world.

Ukelele Ike, I had a hard time getting into Islandia as well, and I had to be stuck in a situation where I had nothing else left to read and was suffering from the flu, in order to to HAVE to read it. (By the way, the sucky pastel cover on the edition I had didn't add to its powers of attraction). Well, like MJH2, I did get into the book and found it an excellent read. Since then, I've recommended it to friends who've to a one inquired: "You liked THAT??"
Believe me, I did.
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Old 11-11-2001, 12:32 PM
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If we're going to bring in short stories, then do read LeGuin's "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas". It's not exactly entertaining, but it does an excellent job of getting you to think about things.

How about semi-utopias, by the way? There's plenty of examples in science fiction of societies (allegedly) better than ours, but still far from perfect.
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Old 11-11-2001, 07:14 PM
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Chronos, that is an excellent short story. While we're on the subject of Ursula K. LeGuin and utopian societies, what about the civilization she presents us in Always Coming Home? I think it fits into the "eco-topia" model of living in harmony with the natural world.

MoonIndigo1, perhaps we can convince Ukelele Ike to read Islandia after all. Actually, the first Islandia novel I read was The Two Kingdoms by Mark Saxton. (IIRC, Saxton was one of the editors of the ms. of Islandia; in the late 1960s and 1970s he was given access to Wright's private papers on Islandia and wrote three additional Islandian novels.) It was a good read and intrigued me enough to find a copy of the original. This may be what gave me the patience for the slow unfolding of Islandia.
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Old 11-11-2001, 09:45 PM
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I don't know if this what you are looking for but how about [b]The Nine Nations Of North America
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Old 11-12-2001, 05:38 AM
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Quote:
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I don't know if this what you are looking for but how about The Nine Nations Of North America.
I did read that book a few years ago, and enjoyed it. It's more of a prediction than an Utopia (which I define as "a hypothetical society that you would really want to live in") though. For those of you who haven't read it, it's about how nine regions of America (the West Coast (Garreaux re-uses Callenbach's name "Ecotopia"), New England, the Midwest, the Great Plains region etc.) are turning into "countries" that have less and less in common with the rest of the nation. It's still an interesting read, even though I think the author underestimated the unifying power of American popular culture, and failed to see the Internet coming.

Steve Wright, I have read some of Banks' Culture books, and I think they're a good example of a well thought out Utopia that still leaves room for interesting plots. I was surprised, however, in a discussion in another forum, to find that some Conservatives in all honesty consider the Culture to be a dystopia - chiefly because humanity lives in the "shadow" of artificial intelligences. Does somebody in this forum hold that opinion? In my mind it's one of the most optimistic Utopias I have come across.

MoodIndigo1, I think most people (myself included) would definitely consider Brave New World a dystopia. The strange thing is that the author seemed to regard it as a kind of (flawed) utopia - the Brave New World is clearly a better place to live than the reservations where the "savages" live. The book sort of falls in the same category as Starship Troopers, which may have been a utopia to Heinlein, but is a fascist dystopia to me. Just goes to show how problematic the binary categories of utopia/dystopia are, I guess.

Chronos, semi- and near-utopias are fine by me. The reason I wouldn't want to live in a perfect Utopia is that in a completely perfect society, nothing you do could ever really matter. Think about it. As somebody put it, your first thought upon entering Utopia might be "Now what? A lifetime of macrame classes stretches ahead of me."

By the way, a friend e-mailed me a recommendation of Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge as being a good example of the kind of book I'm looking for. I will definitely order that one, in addition to the other books recommended in this thread.
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Old 11-12-2001, 07:06 AM
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I liked The Female Man by Joanna Russ. Whileaway strikes me as paradise.
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Old 11-12-2001, 09:56 AM
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There is Silverburgs The World Inside about a time in the future when mankind lives in huge towers, and the rest of the land is devoted to robot farms.

I do not recall any plot as such, but most of the book revolves around the facts that the gov't encourages you to have as many kids as possible, and "nightwalking" -- the men of the society can visit any room in the tower to have sex with the woman there.

In other words, a perfect novel for a teenager, which I was at the time I read it.
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Old 11-16-2001, 12:13 AM
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This thread inspired me to pull my old copy of Ecotopia off the shelf and to finally read it. I am finding it very entertaining. I'm about 2/3 of the way through.

I have found that all the utopias I have read "work well as entertainment" for me. Maybe that's because I find all the piddly details of how the society works very interesting. Details of the biodegradation of plastics? Bring it on!

Anyway, thanks for this thread. I'm going to read some of the suggested books.
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Old 11-16-2001, 03:01 AM
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Quote:
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This thread inspired me to pull my old copy of Ecotopia off the shelf and to finally read it. I am finding it very entertaining. I'm about 2/3 of the way through.
Hmmm. About half the people who read it think it's great, the other half find them selves hard pressed to finish it. I suppose this has a lot to do with whether you find Callenbach's scenario plausible and/or appealing enough to overlook the simplistic plot (which, let's face it, is just an excuse to tell the reader about Ecotopia) and the one-dimensional characters. Oh, and scene with the narrator suddenly seeing the evil of his ways and converting at the end - almost like the ending of a Jack Chick tract. Having said that, the plot and characters in this book still stand head and shoulders above much of the genre, the society described is fascinating, and there's lots and lots of sex in it, so I suppose I shouldn't be too harsh.

As I said in my first post, I think part of the problem is the difficulty of coming up with a good plot in a utopia. There seems to be just a few basic themes around:
1. A visitor travels to Utopia and gradually comes to learn about its ways. Optionally, he realizes how good it is and decides to stay.
2. Utopia has a conflict with the neighboring principality of Dystopia. Usually it comes out on top. (Banks's Culture books do this).
3. The problems of somebody in Utopia who is different, a dissident or feels left out.
4. The Utopia that, we find out, isn't really the Utopia it's cut out to be, but a Dystopia.

Feel free to add to this list.

By the way, I have heard people who didn't like Ecotopia say they like the prequel, Ecotopia rising, better. Perhaps it's easier to write a book about building a utopia than about the utopia itself?
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Old 11-16-2001, 08:09 AM
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Jeez, thanks for the spoiler!

Anyway, I agree that in most of them, the "plot" is just an excuse to talk about the utopia. But that's okay with me because that's what I'm interested in.

I did a huge project in school of futuristic dystopia in film. Fascinating stuff.
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Old 11-16-2001, 09:11 AM
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_The Nine Nations of North America_ by Joel Garreau is not in any sense a utopia. It's a nonfiction book in which Garreau, a reporter, tries to divide all of North America (and part of the Caribbean) into what his travels have told him are its true social/cultural/economic regions. These regions overlap the usual state and national borders. It's a good book, and I often recommend it to people, but it's probably a little overgeneralized. Garreau was probably trying a little too hard in his arguments that the regions he uses are as distinct as he claims.

I don't think any of the utopias or dystopias that I've read can be considered anything like good predictions. The future is not going to be utopian or dystopian. As fiction though, many of these books are entertaining and a few are great books.
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Old 11-16-2001, 08:48 PM
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I studied Garreau's theory in school. (We didn't read the book, though) His theory was interesting and seemed to make a lot of sense. I should go find his book and read it. Thanks for the reminder.
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