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The rapid increase of dystopian literature is a byproduct of a general cultural anxiety about what the future holds. With the Earth's failing environment and a myriad of social and political issues that have gone unresolved for centuries, it's hard to think of the future and imagine anything but a dystopia. Despite that, many authors still imagine a more positive outcome for society. While there are a lot of famous utopias in sci-fi movies, the world of literature has plenty of ideas to offer as well.
Many utopian sci-fi novels were written decades ago, when authors of speculative fiction had a brighter outlook on the future of society and technology. Sure, dystopian sci-fi novels can be quite interesting, but sometimes you'll find yourself not in the mood for grim settings and characters clad in black leather. When you want to find books that focus on other elements of sci-fi, like thriving in a future with heightened technology, pick up one of these titles.
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin has a long series, the Hainish Cycle, which is composed of many novels and short stories set in the distant future. The Dispossessed was first published in 1974 and features a world portrayed with a realistic level of good. Most attempts at utopian fiction go wrong when they try to craft a society that is completely perfect. The setting of Le Guin's book features two highly advanced societies on the planets of Anarres and Urras, which are both "ambiguously good." They're more advanced than our Earth of today, but they do have some small imperfections.
While The Dispossessed is a utopian book with interesting feminist themes and a vast realm of productive, self-sufficient planets; it is briefly mentioned that Earth isn't doing so great. Throughout other books of the Hainish Cycle, such as City of Illusions and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, we learn that Earth is one of the less successful planets in space, with significant drops in population and environmental stability.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
A solid percentage of utopian sci-fi novels are actually written by women. The protagonist of Piercy's novel, Connie Ramos, was declared insane and had everything good in her life stripped away. She lost her husband and her child then ends up committed against her will. She then encounters a time traveler when she is institutionalized, which may sound odd, but this is no delusion.
While Connie's struggling to have her voice heard in 1970s New York City, she's in her right mind when she meets Luciente, who claims to be from the year 2137. This androgynous young woman from the future shares that pollution, patriarchy, homelessness, homophobia, racism, sexism, and countless other social disparities have largely been resolved. As Luciente paints this image of an ideal future, Connie becomes inspired to fight to improve her dreadful situation.
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
If you're looking for an exciting book with a bit of humor mixed in, grab a paperback, ebook, or audiobook of this Hugo and Nebula Award Winner. Don't be deterred by the odd-sounding Murderbot Diaries subtitle of this book. The protagonist of the series is an artificial construct who was supposed to be a mindless android but becomes sentient by hacking his governing module, which would typically render him unable to think for himself or disobey orders.
The setting of the story is the distant future, but society functions well with different settlements and planets at their disposal. There's a fantastic balance of suspense and humor in each book of the series. Our main character, the so-called "murderbot," views humans from a distance since they often treat him poorly. However, much of his aversion to spending time with people frequently becomes humorous and an introverted reader will probably sympathize whenever he dreads "talking with the humans."
News from Nowhere by William Morris
Morris was primarily an author of fantasy novels, but he stepped out into the world of sci-fi with this story that tries to present an ideal society. This book admittedly toes the line between utopian and dystopian, two opposites that sometimes share a surprising amount of similarities. The setting we find in this novel has no private property, not a single big city, no monetary system, no prison, and no class system to stratify the people. Of course, this brings up the age-old argument that such a society would actually be dystopian.
However, Morris explores these themes with a unique approach and a romantic subplot, and analyzes the often argued lack of incentive to work hard in a fully socialist society. The romantic edge provides a bit of excitement for readers who are attracted to novels with interesting characters and well-developed relationships. If that's your favorite part of this story, there are ample sci-fi romance novels which provide a bit more levity over books that are purely dystopian.
Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy
Bellamy's utopian sci-fi novel was the third-largest bestseller of its time, back when it was first published in 1888. This book is a primarily example of how authors of the past had a very optimistic view of what our present would be like.
Reading this book today may feel a bit ironic, since our protagonist, Julian West, hails from the end of the 19th century. He spends a over a century napping and wakes up in the year 2000; does that remind anyone a little bit of Fry from Futurama, where he's accidentally frozen in a cryogenic tank for a thousand years? Tropes such as this one, where characters are frozen in time and wake up in a very different future find their origins in utopian sci-fi novels.
When West wakes up, he finds that the United States has become a utopian, socialist society. Our reality isn't exactly what Bellamy expected the year 2000 to look like.
Lock In by John Scalzi
John Scalzi has written an array of near and far future sci-fi novels over the years, but Lock In distinguishes itself as being a far, far cry from your typical dystopian novel. Humanity is struck by a terrible disease before the start of the story.
Sounds bad, right?
Shockingly, humanity manages to do something right and reigns in the spread of the disease. They even come up with some fantastic technology to treat people who struggle with it. This book is a mix of a sci-fi and crime-solving novel, with the protagonist being a bedridden person who remotely controls an android body and works for the FBI. Scalzi thinks through all the potential ramifications of the fictional disease, creating a near future setting that has a strong culture and feels quite plausible.
Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Banks had an interesting perception of how humanity's future could unfold. Just like the premise of The 100 and other recent sci-fi TV series you can watch online, much of the apocalypse in Consider Phlebas is old news that's left up to the audience's imagination. Prior to the start of this book, terrible wars that cost billions of lives across different galaxies transpired. After the agonizing amount of suffering, a group called the Culture formed, and brought order and peace to the world, ushering in an era of growth and prosperity.
The first book in Banks' Culture series is a far future sci-fi chronicle focusing on the Culture, a utopian space society with a diverse population. Drawing some socialist aspects, this society is composed of humans, aliens, and even highly advanced artificial intelligences. Many books and movies explore the idea of how AI technology advances, but in Banks' series, it has evolved to a point where AIs have just as much sentience as humanoids and aliens. There are a total of nine books in this space opera, with The Players of Games coming up after Consider Phlebas.
Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke's story follows a peaceful alien invasion. You read that correctly; no war or bloody battles full of altruistic heroes happen when the Overlords come to Earth. They usher in a utopian age through their indirect rule, but humanity doesn't stay content for long as human identity and creativity suffers.
The title of this particular book can be taken in a few different ways. As the story progresses, the next generation of children born to Earthlings after the Overlords' arrival do play an important part in the story. However, it can also be interpreted as the presence of an alien force meaning the end of humanity's childhood, marking it as a time when people must change to rise and meet the challenges they face.
This utopian sci-fi novel might be quite intriguing to you if you read Ernest Cline's recent book, Armada, as it explores the good that can come of interacting with a highly-advanced race.
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Gilman, an avid feminist, tells the story of a perfect society with only women. This is a concept that has been emulated and parodied in countless other sci-fi TV shows, movies, and books, but this particular utopian sci-fi novel explores the idea in great depth.
In the world of Gilman's, the women reproduce asexually in order to keep their race alive. Completely free of war and conflict, these women are completely isolated but living peacefully and productively. The core goal of the book is defining and deconstructing gender roles. Considering chapters of this book were serialized between 1915 and 1916, it's intriguing to see these ideas being tackled so long ago. Even a century ago, women were imagining worlds with true equality and bringing them to life in science fiction.
Utopia by Thomas More
Published in 1516, Utopia is one of the earliest examples of utopian science fiction. The setting is meant to be entirely fictional rather than being an alternative history or projected future of the real world. In this story, More thinks through all the different ways to craft a utopian society that would be ideal for everyone. The people living on the island More describes have done a nearly unrealistically exemplary job of embracing socialist concepts.
One stirring example is that people have no desire for jewelry and precious stones; they're worn by children and seen as youthful playthings. At one point, a foreign leader garnished in jewelry visits the utopian island and the people look at him with confusion and laugh that he's dressed like a child. This early utopian sci-fi novel sets the stage for many of the books that came after it.