Foundations of Utopian and Dystopian Fiction: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professor Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.

Enter the world of utopian and dystopian fiction on this episode of The Torch!

Here to discuss what motivates great authors to create these vast and complex works of utopian and dystopian literature is Pamela Bedore, Professor of English at the University of Connecticut.

The following transcript has been edited slightly for readability

Ed Leon:  Talk to us a little bit about what makes a book utopian or dystopian. How far does the universe of a book have to differentiate from our reality to actually classify and land in one of these two categories?

Pamela Bedore: Well, there’s a pretty broad range and this is a very complex genre. So you’ll see lots and lots of variety. But we actually have everything from perfect societies that function beautifully, no conflict, no strife to absolute nightmare on the other end of the continuum. But a lot of things that we consider dystopias have pretty substantial elements of things that are real anxieties in our world.

Ed Leon: Does this qualify as a genre in literature? It’s actually two genres, probably. Genre’s a really complicated idea in literature.

Pamela Bedore: One way we think about genre is convention. So if something has the perfect society, a visitor who tells us about it, and walks in, explores– politics, philosophy, whatever– and then leaves, that’s typically a utopia. And a nightmarish world with an insider who is exploring, oh, my gosh, what am I going to do? We have no idea how we’re going to survive this situation– that’s typically a dystopia. One of the other ways to look at genre is rhetorically. Like, what does a genre do? And in that case, utopia and dystopia are almost the same thing.

Ed Leon: Right. It’s almost two sides of the same coin, right? Just for everybody’s edification, talk about some of the great books that you cover in this course. Give us an idea of what kinds of words we’re talking about.

Image of Thomas More's Utopia for the utopian and dystopian fiction post
Thomas More’s Utopia

Pamela Bedore: Well, utopia is literally the only genre that has one foundational term that has the title of the genre– Thomas More’s Utopia– which came out in 1560. So of course, we have to start there. I skim through a few of the utopias that really repeat a lot of the motifs that More does. And then we go to the 19th century, which is the golden age of utopia. People have so much optimism, so much belief that through technology, through changes in political science, economic theory, we didn’t really have a perfect world. But then, I know this is going to shock you, Ed.  But–all that optimism is still alive today. Pretty much as of World War I, it’s pretty hard to find a true utopia. After World War I, people start to think, wait a minute, all the promise of technology, the promise of economic theory, political– wow. Things are pretty scary.

Learn more: Thomas More and Utopian Origins

Ed Leon: Yeah, even today, we seem to be in the time of dystopia, right? Anything from Blade Runner, Hunger Games, the Divergent series, even Walking Dead, right?

Pamela Bedore: Well, Walking Dead is probably more of a post-apocalyptic tale, but absolutely, it’s dystopian impulse, you’re absolutely right.

Ed Leon: Are there consistent themes that run either through dystopian or the utopian works?

Pamela Bedore: Absolutely. I mean, these are interested in society. So you really do end up looking at what’s the best political system?  What do we do with criminals? I know that sounds funny, like how is crime at the center of utopia and dystopia? But it really is. What do we do with people who don’t fit in? And how those get dealt with is actually a huge part of what the genre studies. And also, the other big thing is free will. Do we want to have people who are very happy but so conformist that they don’t really feel like they have much power in their own world? Or do we want people who have free will but chaos? So it’s a sort of continuum.

Ed Leon: You just described the entire human condition there, right?

Pamela Bedore: It is a big genre.

Ed Leon: Right. Do you have any favorites? Why don’t you highlight a couple for us?

Pamela Bedore: Of course. So you may or may not know, but one of the main places we see dystopia today is actually in young adult literature.  You already mentioned, Hunger Games and Divergent. And guess what? Walking Dead– fairly popular among the young. And so one of my all time favorites is actually a pretty new book, Feed, from 2002 by MT Anderson. This is a dystopia that’s really fun to teach– I teach mostly 18- to 24-year-olds– because this is a world that goes so far in insulting millennials, but students love it. Kids love it. It’s hilarious.

So it’s a world where everyone has a feed, which is– your phone is in your head, your microchip. And basically, Image of man connecting to computer feedkids go to school, TM, trademark, and they don’t know anything. They just get a lot of information, quote unquote, through their feed, and don’t realize that they’re living in the midst of huge environmental degradation. They live in domes. But they’re like, yeah, that’s cool. That’s cool. Let me get some more feed.  And so it’s one of those dystopias where students are like, oh, my gosh, we’re so close to that. But that would never– no, that would never– that’s hilarious.

Ed Leon: So does this appeal to a certain age group? You mentioned the young people that you teach. Are we more prone to accept these kinds of ideas when we’re younger, let’s say?

Pamela Bedore: That’s a good question. I mean, right now, turn of the century, in the 21st century, there is the prevalence of dystopia in young adult. However, even though I said you don’t get too many utopias after World War I, you do get in the ’70s this movement of feminist utopias.

And these are really interesting, because they’re tongue in check, you know? They’re not totally optimistic. But they say, hey, if we make some major changes to how men and women interact with each other, we could actually create a utopian society. And those are very much more aimed at an older audience. It’s a way of fiction playing out a feminist theory that people are writing at the same time.

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Ed Leon: Now, you mentioned feminism, feminist theory. How is it handled in some of these works? And has it evolved over time? Or is there a difference between its utopian and dystopian explorations? And that’s a lot of questions all in one place.

Pamela Bedore: You know the answer. You know the answer to that question. Of course there’s a difference between utopia and dystopia with representations of gender.  Yeah. So actually, it has evolved over time, of course, because Thomas More has women doing all of the household work. But don’t worry, they’re very happy. And so that gets problematized.

Ed Leon: Of course, it’s utopia. Right?

Pamela Bedore: Exactly. But yeah, interestingly, some of the really early utopias do have a lot of gender equality. And H. G. Wells was a great utopian thinker in the 19th century. And he wrote science fiction in which he had utopian societies that did have gender equality.  And some of the earliest versions of gender equality appear in this genre.

Ed Leon: Technology seems to show up a lot. What’s the role of technology? Is it just an easy way to take us to a kind of completely different place that doesn’t exist? Or how is technology used? Or how is it so influential in these novels?

Pamela Bedore: I think sometimes that is exactly how it’s used– that technology becomes the means to do this exploration. But also, technology is one of our biggest anxieties. As a society, it’s one of the things we really worry about.  It’s also the potential answer to some of our biggest anxieties. So it does end up being a really important part of pretty much every utopia or dystopia. Do you think utopia is pastoral? Or do you think utopia is the feed? It can really go either way and different readers, different viewers might have a really, really different notions of what they see as utopia.

Ed Leon: All right. Let’s say our customers have a feed going into them and the feed is your course…What are they going to encounter? What’s it going to be like, the course?

Pamela Bedore: It starts out as really great works of literature that you might Image of Handcuffed Prisonerread in many university classrooms. Like, Thomas More is taught in all kinds of different courses, but once you hit the dystopia, some of it is pretty hard core. I mean, really dystopian writers sometimes go pretty hard at some questions. So for example, I do a lecture on A Clockwork Orange. And I’ll be honest, this is a movie that I didn’t watch for years, because I was afraid of it. And it is a terrifying, terrifying view of dealing with the criminal element.

So, it’s a terrifying view of the behavioral science, but it is amazing as well. And so I don’t want to say there are disturbing elements. But the truth is that when you get into dystopia, It’s a pretty dark view of who we are. But at the same time, every single dystopia that I’ve ever encountered– even post-apocalypse, which is a little bit different genre, but related– there’s always hope.

When you get into dystopia, it’s a pretty dark view of who we are. But at the same time, every single dystopia that I’ve ever encountered– even post-apocalypse, there’s always hope.

Ed Leon: Talk about that.

Pamela Bedore: And that’s what I think– yeah. Well, OK. So when I was setting up, I do one lecture on apocalypse, because dystopia has to have a society, and apocalypse typically doesn’t have any kind of social order. And so I thought, OK, I’m going to do three apocalypses. One is super hopeful. It’s amazing– Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven. It’s so good. If you haven’t read it, do.

Then I thought, OK, Walking Dead is the middle ground. Those people are in a pretty bad situation, but they have good relationships and they have some hope that they’ll eventually get out of it. But I don’t know. But that’s my middle ground. Then I went to the darkest post-apocalyptic thing I could think of, which is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Have you seen it or read it?

Ed Leon: No, no. I’ve heard about it, though.

Pamela Bedore: It’s– well, I mean, I always tell my students this, and I say it in the course. It’s the best book that I will never reread. It’s so dark, because what has happened is that everything has stopped growing. So the world– there’s still a few humans alive on the Earth, but there’s– nothing grows. So there is zero hope in this world. You just have the last few humans engaged in cannibalism and other lovely activities waiting for the end. And I thought, OK, that’s the darkest. But then I reread this book, which I had promised not to do, and there’s a lot more hope in it than I thought. In that darkest of dark scenarios that I can imagine, there’s hope. So I don’t know. I guess it’s part of the human condition is to fear and to hope, right?

Ed Leon: Right. And how better to approach it than in these awesome novels. Pam, your enthusiasm for the darkest of humanity shines through. And it shines through in the course, as well. The course is called Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature.  That’s Pamela Bedore, Professor of English at the University of Connecticut. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Pamela Bedore is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut, where she teaches courses in American Literature, Popular Culture, and Genre Fiction. Her new course, Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature is now available to stream Wondrium.