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I have a tendency to build near-utopian worlds because I find it pleasant to think about them.

Why would I add in to my world things like domestic abuse, alcoholism, war, etc.? But then I wind up with worlds that lack much conflict (outside of sports/contests).

One thing I've thought about is the downsides of good things; if ecosystems are thriving, you're more likely to get attacked by wolves or tigers.

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    – Monty Wild
    Sep 15 at 13:43

18 Answers 18

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New advantages make new problems

Make your Utopia, and don't be bashful. But remember that as people develop new levels of decadence, or shall we say sophistication, they come up with new problems nobody would have thought were problems before, and new mischief no one would have dared to do before. This can be immensely entertaining. For example, have a look at Philip Jose Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage".

Imagine trying to explain to Crusaders that someone killed your virtual pet, plagiarized your novel, and refuses to use your preferred pronouns. Try to make them sympathize with your complaints about spam email and the gentrification of your neighborhood. Perhaps one definition of a Utopia is a place with problems those who came before it can't understand. But yes ... you do have to invent the new sins.

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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 : I would even say most people in developed countries (depending on the context and the manner or extent you were complaining/whining), unless you're only talking about students attending liberal arts colleges. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Sep 6 at 11:32
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz uh. I'm fairly sure most people in the developed world would probably be slightly to extremely upset by those things. Even the people who constantly complain about liberal arts college students and pronouns would be annoyed if they were called wrong pronouns. ... for that matter even a Crusader would be, they'd just cut the head off the person who did it, instead of arguing. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Sep 6 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz: There is no such thing as a "female" pronoun; nobody has ever seen a pronoun laying eggs or giving birth to tiny little young pronouns. You probably mean "feminine". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 6 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 : people in your social/ideological circle, maybe (if you mean "wrong pronouns" as pronouns which refer to their biological sex but they have chosen to not want to use it, and not as the majority of people understand it e.g. deliberately insulting someone who is visibly male by using feminine pronouns which indeed would upset most people in every era). I have a different experience, also living in the developed world, but having very wide interests and spending time with very different people from many different socioeconomic and ideological groups. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Sep 6 at 11:43
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz Usually "wrong pronouns" means calling someone who is visibly male female, or vice versa, because you found out what kinds of genitals they had. $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Sep 7 at 15:09
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Make a fully automated luxury gay space utopia

If you love writing hopeful settings, this is one route to go. Like Star Trek, you make a world which is a utopia, but you make an outside world which is very much not a utopia. Your stories can be about people doing stuff in this outside utopia, and the interactions between the idealistic utopian people and the brutal outsiders.

Star Trek and The Culture both did this. They had lots of drama and conflict because they had lots of people of different ideals and cultures interacting and had a complex world to explore with new and strange things.

Just because one society is utopian, doesn't mean the ones around them are utopian.

Make a noblebright society

Grimdark is well known, where everything is dark and horrible and painful for all, and your actions make things worse.

Noble Bright is about a world where one person can make a difference and make it better. You can make a story about someone forming a utopia, working to overcome evil to make a better world, forging a noble society out of a darker place of pain and suffering.

Just because the place is utopian, doesn't mean it was always utopian. You can write about how a place became utopian.

Both of these stories are very positive, and don't require endless thinking about dark and terrible things in your perfect society.

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    $\begingroup$ Worldbuild the utopia, then work out how non-utopia became utopia, then set the story there. Elegant! $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Sep 5 at 14:52
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, this one is good, surprised by downvote, little bit curious why, lol. Only one downvote for the whole q/a sofar, lol $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 6 at 8:59
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Most stories set in our world don't mention alcoholism, war, domestic abuse etc. They are romantic novels, thrillers etc. You should do the same, you don't have to explain every detail of your society. What can also be pleasant is to make a society on the way to utopianism, but it still requires some evolving to get there.

But you asked why you should add them. Here's two examples:

  • conflict

Conflict helps make a good story. Tolkien's Lord Of The Rings works because of conflict, in this case war and the fight to make sure that the right side wins and you don't get an eternal cycle of torture, exploitation and murder. However, what is important there is not really the war, but the people in it. Which leads me to:

  • investment by the consumer

In stories, we want to see things we already know. Not necessarily because we understand but because we recognize it. It lets you think, put things in different perspectives. Tolkien's LOTR for example is less about the war and more about how the group deals with the challenges of getting to where they need to go. They will continue despite wanting to give up, the need to do something you don't want and still do it. In Frodo's case it starts with simply leaving the shire and ends with climbing the volcano while tired, hungry and paranoid under the influence of the ring.

Utopias aren't good for making a story. The alcoholic beating the bottle is an infinitely better story. The alcoholic who struggles and fails is also a good story, as it is about the attempt and not his failure. And we all know something we failed at right?

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    $\begingroup$ Utopias aren’t good for making stories. The fall of a utopia, however, is a trope that goes all the way back to Genesis. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Sep 5 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ Utopias can have conflict. Non-dramatic conflict where it's about social interaction (teenie romances are a silly example). Or dramatic conflict such as response to threats to the utopia or parts of the utopia, either from outside forces, or from groups inside the utopia which wish to make it less utopian. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Sep 8 at 10:37
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Don’t forget that Worldbuilding is broad-strokes stuff.

A lot of fiction deals with grand themes. Good vs evil, light vs dark, love vs despair etc. These stories are good when you want something epic.

A lot of fiction (and nonfiction!) however is made up of little things. Endless rounds of romance novels and chick lit (I use the term not in a derogatory way) are built out of small happenings. Everyday trials and tribulations. Hell, books that basically just detail ‘Princess with perfect life met two hot boys and didn’t know which to pick’ sell, and with good reason. The reason is that no matter how smooth the surface there’s always rough bits underneath, and they make good stories.

So dig into the finer strokes. Yeah, there’s endless food thanks to replicators, but who maintains those? Oh. Machines? What do they think about that endless drudgery. Any chance of conflict there? Sure, your political system is finely balanced and perfect, but there will always be those who push the fringes. Could they unbalance things? Even if the ‘rough bits’ are utterly trivial in the grander scheme they can provide plenty of interest even to us non-utopian savages.

And don’t forget: even describing a ‘utopia’ through the everyday life of one of its denizens can be very interesting for people who don’t live there. Just don’t forget the hot boys.

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I have a tendency to build near-Utopians worlds because I find it pleasant to think about them.

So, what is a utopia for you?

The next line surely will shock you, but:

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were trying build an utopia.

What is an utopia for you cold be not an utopia for other people.

I like utopias the way some people answered before me: like a way to contrast our way of live and a better way of life. But again, what is "better way of life"?

This is a better way of life?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shangri-La

How much time could you live there before want to go out?

I prefer this one:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Village_(2004_film)

Some Science Fiction authors believe a day you could move to inside one such "Village" and live there.

But some people believe we will go inside one thing like that: https://matrix.fandom.com/wiki/Paradise_Matrix Before finish inside one thing like that: https://matrix.fandom.com/wiki/Nightmare_Matrix

Maybe the best approach it is not create a bright new utopia for us to live in. Fixing our current problems one by one and learning in the process how to fix any other thing is strongly preferable!

If your imagined utopias can be a start point to the creation of a best world, don't be ashamed of it!

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    $\begingroup$ Please, we need a reference to Huxly's Brave New World (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brave_New_World) $\endgroup$
    – Dale M
    Sep 6 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ In other words, go ahead and develop your utopia unrestrained. Then stop, step aside, and think about who doesn't like, who lost, who's opposed to that utopia. $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Sep 6 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ -1 for the nonsensical propaganda "Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party were trying build an utopia". There may have been such a claim, but quite clearly it was all about power. You do not kill millions of innocent people on the way under an actual belief that you're creating a utopia. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ “All utopias are dystopias. The term "dystopia" was coined by fools that believed a "utopia" can be functional.” - A.E. Samaan $\endgroup$ Sep 7 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ @R..GitHubSTOPHELPINGICE Of course you do if you are creating a Utopia for the "chosen people" however defined. If that happens to be bad for those who don't fit the mould, too bad. Which is exactly the point the answer is making. $\endgroup$
    – Dale M
    Sep 8 at 1:12
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If you want your world to be less happy, just look at what makes our world less happy (and maybe add some fantasy).

Racism: people love to hate what is different from them... a world with diverse species and cultures might stir up issues form time to time.

Natural disasters: Earthquakes, hurricanes and tidal waves are nice defaults. But you can also go for droughts, frequent meteor impacts, solar flares that release EMP's frequently destroying technological progress.

Ideological Terrorism: Anarchists who want to overthrow the government.

Never-ending pandemic: d quickly evolving decease that requires the world to be in a constant state of alert. You can even make it a Zombie decease that is getting abused by terrorists for example.

Cold-War: Not an actual war but people are living in constant fear with military spending funneling away a lot of the worlds resources.

Super natural/alien creatures: The world having a Vampire/Ghost problem that makes it so that the streets need constant patrolling and people can't go out in the dark. A option would also be alien's with shapeshifting tech that makes the world population paranoia.

Addictions: Make the invention of a new drug that is highly addictive and easy to produce. As soon as people's lives are to happy they get bored and well...

Global Warming/cooling: Climate change that seems to be unstoppable creating permanent droughts or winters.

Power Shortage: Population requires more power then can be produced witht he giving fuel.

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    $\begingroup$ Missing greed/economic devastation? Closing the only papermill in town to open a new one in dictatorstan; gentrification forcing people out of homes they can no longer pay the property tax on; mining/factories poisoning the water supply; horribly expensive medical care putting accident victims in debt; selling houses with crippling balloon payments on subprime mortgages... . $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 6:30
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What does it take to create a utopia?

Quite often utopias in fiction only have very vague explanations of how they came to be. Often it's because of some war or cataclysm that united your civilisation, somehow casting aside their differences to work together for a better future. Or it's down to a slow spread of a utopian ideology over perhaps many centuries. Either way, the formation of every utopia is going to have its detractors, people who resist the ideals of the utopian thinkers for one reason or another. How these people are "dealt with" can give your utopia a dark edge. Perhaps they were sent to re-education centers until they got with the program. Perhaps there's a community of dissenters living outside your utopia, exiled due to their unwillingness to conform. Or perhaps something even worse than both of those examples.

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As some of the other responders have mentioned, you don't need to make your world less utopian if it suits your story. Consider the degree of darkness necessary for the story you are trying to tell. If adding darker elements like drug abuse, human trafficking, domestic abuse, bigotry, physical and mental disabilities, or war crimes doesn't resonate with the story you are trying to tell, why add it? I've seen some praise gritty stories for delving into the "hard topics", but I've also seen numerous others give examples of how doing so can actively subvert your plot and message and how it often feels like authors only add that to look edgy and topical. E.g., if your message is "life is better than you think it is, even when hope seems lost", having your setting being an utter hellscape full of cruel people actively destroys the message you are trying to send.

However, there is one incredibly easy way to make your worldbuilding less utopian: think about how people would screw it up. Literally every positive social and scientific advancement humans have ever made has resulted in nightmarish consequences because people will abuse that for their own gain.

  • The same Haber–Bosch process, which averted a long-feared global famine due to nitrogen shortages, ended up being used to mass produce explosives that killed or crippled millions during the two world wars.
  • Orville Wright, who helped invent the airplane to free mankind from the ground, lived long enough to see his invention used to bomb cities into rubble (he died in 1948).
  • Gene editing, which has the potential to create drought-resistant crops and cure diseases, is already being abused to do things like genetically engineer plagues for warfare and population control, create transgenic chimeras, and create designer babies (i.e., eugenics). Most of these are still in the experimental stages, but a big concern among bioethicists is that most of these experiments are being done in places like China and no one has the leverage to stop unethical experiments in China.

People, in general, seem to be almost hard-wired to screw over and exploit others for their own gain, especially those outside their immediate social group. And indeed, we see this behavior a lot in pretty much every species of social animal, even ants and mole rats. Although humans can be kind, they are also lazy, and very, very selfish.

An easy way to pinpoint where these abuses would take place is to think about your world, think of the awful consequences your fantastical elements (magic, technology) would have, and find the spot where you go "no one would be dumb/selfish enough to do that..." Stop right there. Because eventually, someone would. Even if 99.9% of the population are ethical enough to not do something, there will always be some segment that will. Even if that act is as unethical as causing nuclear war.

Even utopian technology could be abused mercilessly. Take, for example, Star Trek. Replicators could be easily used to craft assassination weapons on-board a spacecraft, transporters could be used as torture devices (or worse, bomb delivery systems), Warp-capable spaceships make for good kamikaze weapons that can sterilize a planet, etc.

Another way to figure out where the problems will arise is look at the distribution of power. If there is any form of concentrated power in the society*, there will end up being corruption and abuse. I ran into this with a question of my own, where I asked how to keep an organization that upholds the supernatural masquerade heroic. I got answers which painted a pretty horrifying answer that any organization involved in policing the masquerade would rather quickly become corrupt and begin abusing its access to supernatural resources to oppress and control mortal affairs, like a CIA on steroids with no oversight from the government. People will always be awful. Life will always be unfair. Suffering will always exist. And as long as human beings continue to exist in the universe, humans will continue to make other humans' lives miserable.

"*" - And there will be. Even in an idealized society where there are objectively no distinctions based on class/race/gender/whatever, individual differences between human beings will still result in inequity and strife. E.g., if all differences due to wealth/education/other biases are eliminated, things like "pretty privilege" will result in some individuals systematically having more opportunities in life than others (and overall being more successful). And does anyone really believe that utopian technology would remove the petty drama humans get up to on a daily basis, like that seen in many high schools or offices? Indeed, if anything the more utopian things are the worse humans seem to behave, since there is no longer any reason to put one's differences aside and cooperate for survival.

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  • $\begingroup$ Idk, do not like darkish message of the answer, especially the ending(proportions do matter, so as more robust and less robust systems do exists, and in technological society people do not lose cooperative motivation when they reach state when necessities are solved), but otherwise it is a quite good answer. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 6 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ A note regarding the Haber-Bosch process: while we may think of it being for feeding the world and being misused to make bombs, it was actually the other way around. Haber was trying to make bombs for Germany's war effort during WW1, and the same process also turned out to be good for making fertiliser. $\endgroup$
    – Rohan
    Sep 6 at 9:09
  • $\begingroup$ "Orville Wright, who helped invent the airplane to free mankind from the ground, lived long enough to see his invention used to bomb cities into rubble (he died in 1948)." To be fair, there, the Wright Brothers had no compunctions about selling planes to the military. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Sep 6 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg I don't like the dark tone of it either, but unfortunately that's what looking at history and sociology keeps seeming to show. Even if we lived in a Star Trek-style utopia, there would still be individuals who won't care about hurting others (sociopaths, psychopaths, narcissists, etc.), because science seems to indicate those individuals tend to be born that way. Even in utopia there is someone who will be dissatisfied and wants to burn the whole system down out of spite. And it does seem like where there are few consequences people tend to be more petty. $\endgroup$ Sep 6 at 22:57
  • $\begingroup$ Idk, no interest in diving too deep, and agree on your 99.9% and more I would say percentage of all kinds of deviations is 10-15 of that 0.1%, but here is a thing or two, I do not count it as weakness but strength and it does not matter unless that minority can't swing good portion of society - it is good/bad sometimes, and if things are mostly good then it most likely would be not useful swing. Past 100 years are much different from all previous human history, technologies did come to qualitative changes and we have ability and knowledge to implement different managment approaches. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 7 at 1:15
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There is lot of older sci-fi from Soviet Block, which was set in Utopia (at least what propaganda propagated) where was no war, everybody had anything needed for good life, building anything was easy, if people want it, everyone was friendly, cooperative, competent, etc, etc and there still was a lot of good action and problems as there was still nature, unknown places, mysterious events (later scientifically explained and overcome), even most advanced spaceship could take damage from unexpected reasons (like star collapsing with a lof of emissions, which make some machines stop working properly or some part breaks at the worst moment ...) and people had to fight with those problems, came with creative solutions and bravely win at the end (plus some propaganda, maybe something bad from history, but usually this - mandated - parts was not so importaint and needed tor the main story)


So you do not need Conflict with Evil Vilain, maybe just Problems can be enought to make protagonist really bussy :)

And problems may be just natural events and time press, or it may be bad understanding without bad intentions (IRC lot of I, Robot novels from Isaac Asimov was based on something like that)

Also, what is Utopia (for somebody it is party every evening, for somebody other quiet farm half day way far from other, and somebody want to travel to the stars and colonize empty planets) - so what if our Utopia meets other (UFO) Utopia and while both try to get common laguage and understand each other, it may be very hard to find some good starting point and work from there ...

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  • $\begingroup$ Interesting answer. Could you point me to some of that Soviet sci-fi please? $\endgroup$
    – Humphrey
    Sep 6 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ Not sure, if I remember correctly, but cbdb.cz/kniha-9012-k-mrakum-magellanovym-oblok-magellana (Lem is good author and other book are nice too), cbdb.cz/kniha-61310-planeta-tri-slunci-planeta-tri-slunci $\endgroup$
    – gilhad
    Sep 6 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ databazeknih.cz/knihy/sest-dnu-na-lune-1-121554 and many other, it is log ago that I read them, so not fully sure (and yes, there is lot of propaganda, but it was anywhere and nobody took it seriously) - and that are more expamples, how to make utopia readable without vilains and wars (even if there may be some) $\endgroup$
    – gilhad
    Sep 6 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ also databazeknih.cz/autori/jaroslav-foglar-94 wrote many books for boys, where it was not Utopia, rather slightly idealised world ?somewhere before WW2? and even if the world was not perfect, the books was really optimistic and more about Advatures and Problems, than about serious Conflicts $\endgroup$
    – gilhad
    Sep 6 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ this is from I get from my head just now, and it is not Soviet, just the Block, but there was a way more, and Soviet too when I was young. I am sorry, I do not even know, if that was translated to english or so, maybe not, but I did not know english at that time and long after $\endgroup$
    – gilhad
    Sep 6 at 15:16
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“Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.” - Archimedes.

Your utopian worlds can serve as a solid vantagepoint as you apply the lever. Without intrinsic conflict these worlds will not distract from your story or crumble from their own flaws as your characters deal with the conflict that makes the story.

Once you have established the perfection of your world, the issue that you introduce for your story will be the turd in the punchbowl. Nobody cares about a turd in the septic tank but in your Utopia this issue will be jarring and out of place, and so gain its energy via dissonance and contrast. For certain issues a Utopia makes a fine setting - the pain of existential angst would be difficult to bring home if your character is a prisoner of war suffering cholera. But in a utopia your character's suffering will be in stark contrast from the rest of the society.

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Realism. The real-world isn't a utopia because we have real problems that people who are overly idealistic just ignore or say things will work out 'just fine' if you stop questioning it. We don't live in a perfect libertarian utopia or perfect world today because we have issues like:

  • Mental illness: We have people who have mental illnesses that cause them to lack empathy like I discuss on psychology stack exchange.

While not a peer-reviewed study per se, but the DSM-5 says that the prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the population is 6.2%, or approximately one out of sixteen members of the population (6.25%). The DSM-V was published in 2013 and is a peer-reviewed text, so it is within the 10 year criteria you mentioned and this fact is mentioned in more recent sources like an article for Psychiatric Times published in 2016. Another study from 2019 doesn't mention Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but does mention how approximately 3% of the population has Antisocial Personality Disorder, another disorder that is a common dual-diagnosis with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Then, there is a 2020 study that shows 1.6% to 5.9% of people have borderline personality disorder or BPD, which can be associated with a lack of empathy and lead to behaviors that can be mistaken for NPD. This is similar to Histrionic Personality Disorder (which doesn't cause people to suffer from a lack of empathy like with NPD, but can appear that way due to how it is difficult for those with HPD to recognize the emotions of others and thus lack emotional intelligence) that affects less than or equal to 2% of the population according to the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

You also have mental illnesses like Paranoid Personality Disorder in 4.4% of the general population and schizotypal personal disorder in 3.9% of the general population that might harm others due to believing in intense delusions and conspiracy theories that can drive them to hurt others due to being 'detached from reality'.

Many of these mental disorders are hereditary, so many people will be born with diseases that cause them to have trouble caring about others unless you create some program that removes them from the gene pool, which is a whole can of worms.

  • Political disagreements: We have people who might have it in their genes to be predisposed towards different political beliefs. Try to make a perfect libertarian utopia? Well, you have to deal with people creating KKK-style nationalist groups because some people will have it in their DNA to prefer authoritarianism. Want a more center-authoritarian but fine utopia? Well, you still have deal with people who are programmed to think egoist anarchism and objectivism are the perfect way to live & you should kill the 'sheep' who disagree with you.
  • Nature: Natural disasters will always be an issue. Solar flares and other problems from space don't just disappear. According to a study from Brown University, 833 species of plants and animals have gone extinct due to a singular disease since the year 1500 while over 2852 species were made endangered due to one illness. Thus, illnesses can always be a problem that could make life difficult.
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Be cynical. Cynicism, from wiktionary:

  1. A distrustful attitude.
  2. An emotion of jaded negativity, or a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of other people. [...]
  3. A skeptical, scornful or pessimistic comment or act.

Murphy's law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

Read lots of xkcd.

How did "the world" reach the state of utopia? How did utopia develop? Perhaps thinking about history/development you may find conflicts, tension, alternative routes that lead to less utopian situation.

Perhaps thinking about limits. Limits on resources, scarcity. Anyone can have anything? Distance. Can they go anywhere, anytime, instantly? Are there different regions, countries, planets? Limits to time. What if there is too much that people want or need to do, but there is not enough time? Limits on people. Anyone can do anything, or are there classes, professions, roles, opportunities, luck? What is the structure of society? What about animals, plants, aliens, viruses, geology? Even stars can have problems. :-)

Update: Discworld series of novels by Terry Pratchett puts all that together (and much more). Obligatory read. :-)

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you give some hints as to the reason for downvote? $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Sep 6 at 18:04
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know but gave you an upvote just to negate the downvote. Nothing bad about the answer, you have a very concise and in-your-face style of writing here (giving "impulses" instead of laying out what to do step by step), but I find nothing wrong with that. $\endgroup$
    – AnoE
    Sep 7 at 11:22
  • $\begingroup$ @AnoE Thanks! I see now that it may be too terse. Lack of time. :-P Also, I got carried away be the general atmosphere that the question was about writing, so I went for inspiration rather than recipe. $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Sep 7 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ I guess it may be because you answer a different question - something like "how to stop write utopias", but overall passable $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Sep 8 at 11:15
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What is utopian? Are any two people ever going to agree on what is and isn't one - in your Utopia are you free to take any drugs you like as long as no one else is affected by your actions, or does the Utopian society protect you from yourself by ensuring they are not available?

Are the humans in Wall-E in a Utopia where they just do nothing but laze around being entertained by the ship, and the robot delivers them back to a hell of work pioneering the Earth to make it liveable again, or is it delivering a challenge and meaning to their lives?

If the theme is Sci-Fi does the Utopian society gene clean babies to avoid inherited diseases (see Gattaca), or forbid it? Is scientific research into topics that could also lead to dangerous weapons allowed, or banned even though many or the major applications could be beneficial to society?

Or you could look at the economic aspects of the Utopian society - even if everyone's material needs are being satisfied, how is it decided who lives in the penthouse of the shiny tower of showing how great our society is, and who lives in the basement? Do the people that run the society gain rewards greater than the guy that just sits all day watching the robots repairing the robots that make everything everyone needs, or does everyone that want something have an equal random chance of getting it with no bias or favouritism? Is everyone on board with this status quo?

Generally I would think virtually every aspect of society has two or more views of the way it would be in a Utopia, either in terms of more freedom or more safety and/or government taking care of the majority of problems for people, or in terms of prioritising satisfying those with more wants/needs or more greatly rewarding those who contribute most to the society regardless of their needs.

It seems like it shouldn't be problematic to come up with a competing view of whichever aspect of your Utopia you think would be most interesting to pass a story through, by creating some renegade faction that wants things to change. Whether they succeed or not, and whether the story suggests the end results was a good thing or not (or leaves it to reader interpretation) then depends on the tone the story wants to take.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice first answer Stuart, welcome to the site. Please take our tour and refer to the help center as and when for guidance as to our peculiar ways. Enjoy Worldbuilding. $\endgroup$ Sep 8 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ The gene pool issues point is especially good. What's optimal depends on context (which may change) and also less variation gives less evolutionary resilience. There're genes that have benefits but also problems (e.g. malaria resistance). Different skin colours evolved in different environments. And so on and so forth. $\endgroup$
    – Pablo H
    Sep 20 at 14:08
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Make sure that whoever and whatever inhabits your world they're people, and make sure you don't have any blinkers on about how awful people are to each other while you are writing. Which is not to say that ever person in your world is a monster but people, as opposed to the individual persons making up the plural, tend to be stupid, panicky, easily led, and very selfish. Make sure you capture the basic selfishness of people by maintaining the separation of the haves and the have nots. The have nots may be wealthy beyond the dreams of avaricious by modern standards but if the socioeconomic elite have orders of magnitude more of something that the society values than the average citizen then you still have a wealth divide.

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  • $\begingroup$ And if it's a utopia that doesn't have any "socioeconomic elite", like certain Communist utopias? If your utopian society doesn't value material wealth... $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Sep 6 at 10:29
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 There are always some finite resources, if nothing else time. But it could also be social influence, status, peer regard. It doesn't have to be material it just has to be something scarce, sort after, and unequally distributed. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 6 at 23:51
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Your conflicts can live in your characters, not your setting

Any story needs conflicts, preferably specific, concrete examples of conflicts. Each example of a conflict is driven by a character who wants something, and a reason they can't have it. There's no reason you can't have those ingredients in a utopian world.

For example, you can have interpersonal conflicts in any setting. In a utopia, you can have a person who wants to find something out, when there's some reason that the society doesn't want them to know it. Perhaps there's a dark secret about the founding of the utopia, or the history of some figure in power, that a character wants to reveal or broadcast to the world, or maybe it's just a discovery that someone made and then hid, because they were scared of how it would change the world. You could also have someone who wants to gain power within the utopia, or someone who wants to promote one value at the expense of another value. You might have major or minor characters who want to break some minor rules for minor benefits. (I quite like how Alasdair Reynolds' Blue Remembered Earth does this, or the non-central conflicts in Lev Grossman's The Magicians or Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game.) You can (and should) have several of these conflicts, or others, occurring at once, for the same or different characters.

All the ways of making up conflicts from the other answers are suitable for finding possible sources of conflict within your utopia. But as long as your characters have conflicts (and they make choices with concrete stakes that the reader already cares about, e.g. "John missed his daughter's recital to attend that vote", when the daughter has previously appeared excited or nervous about the recital, instead of "John was sad he wasn't spending time with his family because he was working so hard"), your world won't feel "too utopic", no matter how much better or worse it is than what happens to be our present day.

How many of your favourite stories have domestic abuse or alcoholism?

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Let things take their natural course.

A huge problem for utopias is that people are depraved bastards. Given the chance, we will exercise our Natural Right to gather as much power as possible with no consideration for the welfare of others.

Laws and social norms help limit this; nevertheless, there are always ambitious people who will do anything to get to the top. As Douglas Adams put it,

It is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it... anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.

In Utopian societies the government has complete power over the people. As a result, such governments attract harmful ambitions like flies. While the utopia's founders may be pure and good, the government will quickly become filled with avaricious ministers who will take over the government once the founders die or are cough "disposed" of.

Utopium has a short half-life, quickly degrading into Kleptocrium.

Alternatively, have conflicting interests.

Believe it or not, the National Socialists were trying to build a utopia. However, what was utopic for them was not utopic for Jews.

As Machiavelli so helpfully pointed out, it is very rare that a ruler can please everybody. As a result, rulers must either please those by whom they rule (as did the more successful Roman Emperors) or come to grief (as did the less successful ones.) In a Utopian society this means that life will only be perfect for some people. There will always be groups which feel that they are being mistreated. The conflict between the "in" and "out" groups provides a very useful source of narrative tension.

Let things take their natural course in the other direction.

Say, for purposes of conjecture, that a Utopian government somehow solves the problem of corruption and manages to avoid oppressing any of its people.

Great! You now have a tyrannical, all-powerful (bUt bENeVoLeNt!!) government which exercises complete (BuT bEnEvOlEnT!!!!) control over every single one of its citizens' actions. Every. Single. One. ("bUt iT's BeNeVoLenT!!!!!!!!")

As Machiavelli also pointed out, there will always be citizens who chafe under the strict control over their lives. This hatred will naturally turn into rebellion, which the (bENeVoLeNt!!) government must squash. Doubleplusgood!

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Spend time reading about:

  • cultural change
  • impact of technological change on society.

Examples:

The plains Indians had a pretty rough life before they stole horses from the Spanish. Horses gave them the ability to move as fast as the buffalo. One source that I can't find posits that had the U.S. not tasked the army with destroying buffalo to force the Indians onto reservations, the Indians themselves would have hunted them to extinction in another 50 years.

The coastal Indian tribes -- (E.g. Haida, Tlinget, Salish) had a salmon economy, that fed everyone. They had ways to cope with the rainy climate. They had resources to create totem poles, and put on potlatches. What did they fight about?

In current times I have seen many native reserves where there is no meaningful work. Practically the entire community is on welfare. No one needs to work unless they want more than their subsistence gets. Yet these communities have real problems with substance abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse. They have some of the highest murder rates.


Look at how things break after a technological change:

Case 1: A cheap ($100) gizmo that you wear allow you to fly at any speed you can stand the wind. No one commutes by car. They fly to work. Or do they?

  • Imagine a million people flying into work. 50,000 people converging on the World Trade Center.

  • Changes in building security.

  • Impossibility of enforcing immigration and smuggling. And that leads to an impossible to control drug distribution system.

  • Wholesale collapse of the auto industry. (Lot of trucks still. Inconvenient to fly with a lift of plywood)

  • Collapse of the short haul air passenger industry.

Case 2: Suppose that eSTOR was successful and had a dense power capacitor that could store 100 kWh per cubic foot.

  • A box the size of a bar fridge stores a month's power.

  • Solar cells on your garage can power your house.

  • What need for the electrical utility?

  • Lots of people go off grid, and the central government in general has one less lever over it's members.

  • Couple this with remote work via local wireless network and the society as a whole decentralizes.

  • Opportunities for brigandry.

Humans historically have been motivated by:

  • Money both for the material things it can buy, and the services it can buy, and control it offers.

  • Sex

  • Power

  • Religion

  • Respect from peers

are the major ones. I'm sure there are a raft of others: Curiosity, duty, vengeance, artistic endeavour come to mind.


We could give you more help if you painted a picture of your utopia, then asked us to be the Rats in the Walls.

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Pick a publicly visible problem and try to find the root cause behind that problem

Take any city and you'll find something that's visible for all to see that's a problem but no one seems to be able to deal with it for some reason, or no one wants to.

It could be something as simple as unmaintained roads. Ask yourself, why would the roads not be maintained? And you'll find deeper problems with your world or society than you might've initially thought there'd be. From corrupt government oficials taking the tax money meant for the repairs of the roads to the people being unable to pay the tax because it is set too high and create hidden poverty, that which is not perfect in otherwise perfection will often have bigger problematic causes than that which was the problem that started you down your investigation.

Hell, it could even be a relatively harmless problem like laziness, or teaching people to maintain but not to create. What happens to utopia when no one maintains it or makes new things anymore? It decays and falls into a state of being that may just be worse than what it was before becoming paradise. People uncertain what to do when most of the food dispensers no longer work will panic as none can fix those too damaged to be fixed and cannot make new ones, there will be riots and bloodshed over the few remaining functioning food dispensers, perhaps even cannibalism if the automatic farms supplying the dispensers have failed too.

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