Science fiction is a genre filled with endless possibility, which makes it somewhat baffling that more often than not, all of its roads lead to grim places. Stories featuring militaristic regimes and global catastrophe are far more common than paradises. This is primarily because storm-tossed waves make for more dramatic navigation than placid lakes — but as everyone knows, still waters run deep. Utopia, dystopia’s lighter twin, can be just as gripping and provocative. Take any of these examples.
1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This novel is technically a dystopia, as it deals in future gloom and doom in the form of a global pandemic. The story, however, is remarkably unconcerned with the actual catastrophe. Once its premise is set up, it pivots to focus on the value of art and culture, even in the face of a diminished civilization. It makes the argument that Shakespeare and Star Trek are just as essential and primal as shelter. We’ll coin it dystopia written with a utopian bent.
2. Men Like Gods by H.G. Wells
One of the all-time classics, Wells detours from his usual stories filled with vivisection and Morlocks to an idyllic utopia in this narrative that features a well organized, peaceful anarchy. Does “peaceful anarchy” sound too good to be true? It might be. Utopia comes with with no guarantee of a happy ending.
3. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre giant Ursula K. Le Guin writes this Hugo and Locus Awards-winning novel with her typical anthropological eye. Here, she borrows from various government systems to explore political ideologies and build a fully realized advanced society of her own invention.
4. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
“Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.”
This novel is considered literary fiction, but it’s got several colorful stories-within-stories about alien planets and societies. One such detour concerns a perfect utopia filled with food and eager, voluptuous women who cater to their every desire. The catch: once they’re inside, they can never leave.
5. Ionia; Land of Wise Men and Fair Women by Alexander Craig
The utopia in question in this 19th- century classic is a hidden country in the Himalayas, untouched by the outside world. Citizens are descended from — who else? — the Greeks, and are simultaneously mannered intellectuals and zen farmers.
6. Lost Horizon by James Hilton
This classic introduces the famous fictional city of Shangri-La, a slightly more modern and Eastern-influenced Atlantis that pop culture has referenced countless times since.
7. The Silver Metal Lover by Tanith Lee
Don’t be fooled by the soapy Harlequin-looking cover: The late, great Tanith Lee is an expert at dark fantasy and twisted alternate worlds, and this novel is among her best. It imagines a future in which robots replace human labor and the wealthy are free to indulge in an existence free of earthy worries. Both entertaining and philosophical, the story poses questions about sentience, consciousness, and humanity, written in Lee’s signature mix of straightforward droll humor and lyrical pathos.
8. Kirinyaga by Mike Resnick
An Africa-centric utopia, this is a series of interconnected short stories focusing on preserving culture and beliefs in the face of disturbances from the outside world and changing technology.
9. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Technically considered a dystopia, this shows where the lines between utopia and dystopia are not so clearly defined. The trilogy imagines a world in which petty social grievances are gone, thanks to the plastic surgery everyone has at age 16 to make them stunningly beautiful. Of course, there’s a sinister side to it, but for a while, the protagonist gets to party nonstop as a hottie. Since many of these utopias have sinister underbellies, who’s to say whether it’s a dystopia with a utopian bent or a utopia with a dystopian bent?
10. Andromeda by Ivan Efremov
A space opera with a twist, this novel takes place in the distant future when Earth has a constant information exchange with space. Unlike other such stories, however, there are no nefarious aliens or space battles — just plain old space Marxism.
11. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Like Uglies, this modern classic straddles the line between utopia and dystopia, constructing a “perfect” world with not-so-perfect results. Ignore the so-so movie — although dig it for Katie Holmes’ jab at her old life — and read the book.
12. Blue Remembered Earth by Alastair Reynolds
This narrative imagines a future world in which poverty and crime are eradicated, Africa is the preeminent global power, and humans have colonized Mars and the moons of nearby planets in the 2160s. It’s at once meditative and mysterious, featuring journeys to distant planets.