The novel is usually regarded as a realist art form, and I’d go even further: By telling the stories we use to understand our lives, the novel helps create our reality. In novels, things go wrong—that’s plot. People then cope. That’s realism.— “The Novel Solutions of Utopian Fiction,” Kim Stanley Robinson, The Nation, Aug 2nd
Utopia, on the other hand, is famously “no place,” an idealized society sometimes described right down to its sewage system. In utopia, everything works well—maybe even perfectly, but for sure better than things work now. So utopias are like blueprints, while novels are like soap operas. Crossing these two genres gets you the hybrid called the utopian novel: soap operas put in a blender with architectural blueprints. It doesn’t sound all that promising.
Then came Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Published in 1975, this was the first great utopian novel, and it demonstrated just how good the poor, misbegotten hybrid can be. Of course, there’d been earlier utopian novels, like William Morris’s News From Nowhere, or H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, or Aldous Huxley’s Island. These were all interesting efforts. But Le Guin’s book was a triumph. What she showed is that by describing a utopian society in a moment of historic danger, you create for it all kinds of problems that its characters must solve. It will get attacked from the outside, corrupted from the inside; things will go wrong, and so you have your plot. Le Guin combined an intriguing utopia with a compelling novel, and the result was superb. The people on her habitable moon, Annares, have formed an alternative society to the imperial capitalist world, Urras. They devised a system that is feminist for sure and either democratic socialist or anarcho-syndicalist, but in any case in a state of flux, its people doing everything they can to keep what’s best about their system while also fending off impositions from the home world. It’s political fiction at its best.