H.G. Wells kept trying to get the utopian novel right. His novel A Modern Utopia has a fictional framework–the protagonist meets a man from a perfect society on a distant island. The book is really a philosophical essay describing the economy, the rights of women, etc. on this mythical island. In the Days of the Comet, H.G. Wells chronicles how an exploding comet from outer space wipes out the capitalist powers. Then, surviving humankind rebuilds the world correctly. Finally, he set Men Like Gods in a parallel universe, and wrote the sequel, called the Future of Things. These do not read like novels but imaginary future histories.
However H.G. Well’s fame rests on stories like The Time Machine. The main character crosses eons in time to land in a distant future of dainty people in an Eden-like setting. A utopia? Not at all. These pretty little people lack concern for each other and are terrified of the dark. Finally, the veil is lifted to reveal that these people serve as livestock for the subterranean dwellers. The book is occasionally philosophical; the main character imagines how an upper class becomes dependent on a lower class until there is a shift in power. However, he spends a lot more time running from the subterranean people than thinking about their origin.
On the other hand, American journalist Edward Bellamy’s most famous work was his utopian novel, Looking Backward. Published in 1888, it was a commercially successful book and the publisher, Houghton Mifflin & Company, struggled to keep up with demand. In this futuristic novel the main character, Julian West, falls into a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep and wakes up 113 year later in the year 2000. This new world is without private property or money, which seems to have also eliminated war, poverty, and crime.
Has any author actually managed to write about a utopia with character development, rising and falling action, conflict, crisis and all those other reasons that I read books? Actually two of my favorites are Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis, and Lost Horizons by James Hilton. In each case the main character doesn’t search out or stumble upon the land of contented people but is kidnapped and taken there against his will. Naturally, they view the place with some suspicions. They are from a world full of greed, hatred, and violence making it hard to imagine that a place without these is not hiding some dark secret.
So, how do you create a gripping drama in a practically perfect world? Introduce some very imperfect humans.