Usually, when a fictional society violates common assumptions of modern Western society, it's either a dystopia where the society is disparaged to uphold Earth society (every Star Trek alien society ever), or a utopia where the author tries to push this different model of society as better (Ayn Rand books).

How can I create a fictional society with very different social norms and mores, while not giving the impression of dystopia (why aren't the good guys rebelling?!?!?) or utopia (lol you think this is a good idea for society?)? Essentially, the initial reaction of the reader should be culture shock, but I want to present a society that simply has different social issues than modern society rather than categorically evil or good.

For example, ALkP, which is the fictional country in mind, has out of many, the following repulsive-sounding policies:

  • The government semi-arranges marriages based on a complicated, non-transparent algorithm that operates by mining intrusively collected private data. People reaching marriageable age receive a short-list of recommended people to marry, and if they marry the recommended people they get large tax breaks and other benefits. This generally works reasonably well, since unlike in Terran dating services where people tend to present themselves overly positively, this "dating service" relies on "objectively" collected data that are unwittingly collected. However, occasional spectacular fails cause controversy (hey, I'm straight, why did the government database think I'm gay simply because I have an unusual number of gay friends?), and the selection is often based on the prevailing political doctrine (you're too rich, marry outside super rich people or suffer a massive tax hike; after election: your girlfriend is too poor, marry somebody else or you'll be poor too)

  • Racially-based policies are very common, but ALkP is an extremely multicultural society and such policies aren't intended to oppress or elevate a particular race consistently - instead they are used to maintain society's ideal of multiculturalism (example: certain areas of the city are in danger of becoming Sakasic-dominated, others Miyasan-dominated. Tax rate discrimination is used to encourage people to move out of their racial enclaves, and conversely people who move are given benefits like a grade boost for entrance exams)

  • Government surveillance drones and cameras are ubiquitous, but the feeds are accessible to most people who apply (journalists, etc), and the application is handled through reasonably competent courts. People who the state determine are "public figures" also get cameras in their houses. However, certain feeds may be classified because of national security (military bases etc); this is a point of controversy in the nation, since there are allegations of officials using classified areas as a haven for corrupt transactions, and the military being complicit.

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    $\begingroup$ Speaking as a long-time reader of fiction, none of those sound particularly "repulsive" when pondered just on their fictional merits. Dystopia or utopia is more in authorial presentation, not so much "oh and they do this one nasty thing we don't". But I suppose that's the thrust of the answers you're already getting. :) $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 3:10
  • $\begingroup$ This sounds like a really interesting story, btw. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 9:52
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe just look at how different Japan is without being a dystopia or utopia. BTW those are some nice ideas you have there. $\endgroup$
    – JohnEye
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JohnEye But also look at how so many people manage to instantly get outraged or instantly turn into a weeaboo when they get to know Japanese society. $\endgroup$
    – ithisa
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 3:13
  • $\begingroup$ consider history, Europe alone has had feudalism, plutocracies, empires etc, which we don't generally consider dystopian, although they are not democracies $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 11:33

7 Answers 7


Two words: roundness and perspective.


When you reveal your society to your audience, don't just put the good parts or the bad parts on display. Share both the good and the bad. Dystopian and utopian societies are often easily identified because they reveal only why a society is good or bad without showing any, or almost any, aspects that would detract from the intended image.


When you have conflict, present both sides of the argument. Modern Western societies are (mostly) democracies, meaning individuals get to express their views on each issue and vote to determine the outcome. Dystopian and utopian societies typically only show one side of each central conflict, namely, the one the author wants to emphasize or deride.

One of the hardest things to do is effectively argue a point from the side opposite your own, but doing so gives an argument -- and the society built on it -- greater depth. Not only does this reveal that your society isn't perfect, but there is also an opposition in play, even if it is minor. The antagonists to your society can even act as foils to your main characters.

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    $\begingroup$ To expand a little on @Frostfyre 's answer. People have muddled through for 10,000s of years. We have never developed a utopian society (and are unlikely to do so) and we have never remained in a dystopian society. Think of the very worst that humanity has done (e.g. Stalin's Russia Russia, Mao's China, Hitler's Germany) and we "get over it" somehow. There was even a ray of hope in Orwell's dystopian 1984 - the only reason to develop such an effective anti-revolution org was if revolution was a very real problem for that government. $\endgroup$
    – Jim2B
    Commented Jul 9, 2015 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ "Modern Western societies are (mostly) democracies, meaning individuals get to express their views on each issue and vote to determine the outcome" – no Western country works like this. Switzerland is the closest. $\endgroup$
    – wokopa
    Commented Jan 23, 2023 at 11:44

Most readers realize that no society is perfect. Anyone who says that a society is perfect is either delusional, or selling something.

Like FrostFyre's answer, whether a society is utopia/dystopia depends completely on how you portray it and what elements you emphasize.

For example, it's easy to portray the US as a utopia (I give this example because I live here and know it best) as the US has the reserve currency of the world, an unparalleled military, and an economic power that is unavoidable. Cities are, generally, prosperous and the farms produce in abundance. Drinking water is easy to come by. There is too much food.

In contrast, it's easy to portray the US as a dystopia too. It's easy to think of the US as an oppressive world empire that throws its weight around where ever it wants. Its people die of preventable disease because they are unlucky enough to be poor. Minorities are persecuted for the color of their skin and the phantasms of slavery still haunt it.

It all depends on what details you show and how you show them. If you can describe why that society accepts those conditions and show how they reached that conclusion then it's much easier for you audience to accept and not judge. Show your audience why that culture thinks those things are okay.


In terms of storytelling, the key is to understand what the nature of the story is, and why it is important for it to be set in an alien society. Most Utopian/Dystopian fiction is set in "different" societies precisely because the author wants to make a point by emphasizing what they see to be the ideal/dysfunctional elements of their home society. The other way (which you picked up from the Ayn Rand examples) is to amplify existing trends to "11" and show the trend, law or issue to its logical conclusion.

Now I am guessing the examples in your question are examples of what you want to have in your society, so the best way to avoid them being arguments "for" or "against" these particular elements being what makes a utopia/dystopia would be to insert some sort of backstory as to "why" society developed along these lines, and why people seem to generally go along with these things. Of course, even that can lead you down the Utopian trail, Robert A Heinlein had just such a backstory to justify the setting and society for his novel "Starship Troopers", with a pretty explicit understanding the reader would see that this was a "better" society than what had preceded it (i.e. 1950 era America trending towards welfare Progressivism/Liberalism).

So get a clear understanding of what story you are trying to tell, and make that central with the society being a backdrop, rather than focus on the society and pushing it into the foreground.


I think it was Poul Anderson who said that a good story about the future could always be made from the problems that came from the solutions to the problems you have now.

That ties into what Thucydides and Green said about saying how your society came to be. But don't dump your problem-solution-new problem backstory on the reader at one go. Instead let them get outraged about the apparently dystopian aspects of your world, and then gradually reveal that the way things were was actually a pretty good lash-up, considering the alternatives. Then outrage them all over again. Rinse and repeat as many times as your story permits.

It's a minor aspect of a immensely complex series of books, but that is what Gene Wolfe does with the Autarch's Commonwealth in the course of the Book of the New Sun. At the beginning the reader is encouraged to see Vodalus and his rebels as the good guys, given that they are rebelling against an Autarch who maintains a Guild of Torturers. By the end one's sympathies have zigzagged so much that it's hard to say where they are. In this scene the Autarch is dying:

His voice had faded until it was softer than the chirping of a cricket. "You were right to hate me, Severian. I stand... as you will stand... for so much that is wrong."

"Why?" I asked. "Why?" I was on my knees beside him.

"Because all else is worse. Until the New Sun comes, we have but a choice of evils. All have been tried, and all have failed. Goods in common, the rule of the people... everything. You wish for progress? The Ascians have it. They are deafened by it, crazed by the death of Nature till they are ready to accept Erebus and the rest as gods. We hold humankind stationary... in barbarism. The Autarch protects the people from the exultants, and the exultants... shelter them from the Autarch. The religious comfort them. We have closed the roads to paralyze the social order..."


Hmm ... this sounds more like a storytelling question than world-building, but hey. Let's roll with it.

Recommend you show off the differences for the sci-fi tourism factor, maybe even highlight the parts that you think will freak readers out, then show people coping and even being happy. Folks are pretty resilient, and any society which is with-it enough to not collapse will allow room for people to enjoy their lives.

Imagine, say, a theocracy. Show off your official religion, your strict morality laws. Then show your neighborhood people joyously singing their hymns, or primly playing the dozens via insults thinly veiled in stern scriptures.

Imagine, say, a classless communistic surveillance state. Show off your boring gray-box architecture. Show off your haranguing political officers. Then have your hero inspect the surveillance center, to see ten cameras simultaneously showing teenagers mooning the "hidden" security cameras. Show gray-overcoated citizens in the bread line, making jokes about how long the wait is, how they're missing work, and "Oh no, I could get fired! Oh wait, I've got a pretty good union..."


Do Worldbuilding

Rather than presenting a society to make a single point (Western Civ is good/bad for XYZ reasons), build the society to make holistic sense in its world. A society grounded in both the best and worst humanity has to offer will convey a sense of holistic integrity and well-roundedness that proscribes utopian and dystopian interpretations.


While we all have a common understanding what the words 'utopia' and 'dystopia' mean, i think one can argue that you won't be able do describe a society of which every single human being agrees that it is either the one or the other.

A lot of people will probably agree that a society without discrimination against ethnicies is a good one, but i guess we all know of enough news reports about people who don't share that view.

Other ideas, like good medical care for everybody, or a basic income, free energy, free food, or whatever you can come up with, all share the same fate: You will find people who dislike it.

And then, of course, there is the fact that everything has two sides (at least), so no matter what bright future you conceive, it will have it's downsides, somewhere, for someone. These downsides don't need to be objectively there, it is enough if someone feels bad about something. Again, think of discrimination: Some people will simply hate the idea that someone else should be considered their equal.

Others have pointed out that for the purpose of a story, the most important factor is how you describe things. You could point out positive or negative aspects, highlighting things as best they suit your storytelling goals.

So if you want a radically different society, but you want a "neutral" general feeling about it, you need to describe it neutrally (or as neutrally as you can). After all, everything needs to be balanced to work for everybody.

But then, you may want to ask yourself: why does your society have to be so radically different? what's the point? Consider Chekhov's gun: it should be relevant to your story. If it's not, don't tell about it.


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