Utopiyin, Utopiyang

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt











Ursula K. Le Guin, photo by Marian Wood KolischUtopiyin, Utopiyang

by Ursula K. Le Guin

These are some thoughts about utopia and dystopia.

The old, crude Good Places were compensatory visions of controlling what you couldn’t control and having what you didn’t have here and now –- an orderly, peaceful heaven; a paradise of houris; pie in the sky. The way to them was clear, but drastic. You died.

Thomas More’s secular and intellectual construct Utopia was still an expression of desire for something lacking here and now — rational human control of human life — but his Good Place was explicitly No Place. Only in the head. A blueprint without a building site.

Ever since, utopia has been located not in the afterlife but just off the map, across the ocean, over the mountains, in the future, on another planet, a livable yet unattainable elsewhere.

Every utopia since Utopia has also been, clearly or obscurely, actually or possibly, in the author’s or in the readers’ judgment, both a good place and a bad one. Every eutopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a eutopia.


In the Yang-Yin symbol each half contains within it a portion of the other, signifying their complete interdependence and continual intermutability. The figure is static, but each half contains the seed of transformation. The symbol represents not a stasis but a process.

It may be useful to think of utopia in terms of this long-lived Chinese symbol, particularly if one is willing to forego the usual masculist assumption that yang is superior to yin, and instead consider the interdependence and intermutability of the two as the essential feature of the symbol.

Yang is male, bright, dry, hard, active, penetrating. Yin is female, dark, wet, easy, receptive, containing. Yang is control, Yin acceptance. They are great and equal powers; neither can exist alone, and each is always in process of becoming the other.


Both utopia and dystopia are often an enclave of maximum control surrounded by a wilderness — as in Butler’s Erewhon, E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Good citizens of utopia consider the wilderness dangerous, hostile, unlivable; to an adventurous or rebellious dystopian it represents change and freedom. In this I see examples of the intermutability of the Yang and Yin: the dark mysterious wilderness surrounding a bright, safe place, the Bad Places — which then become the Good Place, the bright, open future surrounding a dark, closed prison . . . Or vice versa.

In the last half-century this pattern has been repeated perhaps to exhaustion, variations on the theme becoming more and more predictable, or merely arbitrary.

Notable exceptions to the pattern are Huxley’s Brave New World, a eudystopia in which the wilderness has been reduced to an enclave so completely dominated by the intensely controlled Yang world-state that any hope of its offering freedom or change is illusory; and Orwell’s 1984, a pure dystopia in which the yin element has been totally eliminated by the yang, appearing only in the receptive obedience of the controlled masses and as manipulated delusions of wilderness and freedom.

Yang, the dominator, always seeks to deny its dependence on yin. Huxley and Orwell uncompromisingly present the outcome of successful denial. Through psychological and political control, these dystopias have achieved a non-dynamic stasis that allows no change. The balance is immovable: one side up, the other down. Everything is yang forever.

Where is the yin dystopia? Is it perhaps in post-holocaust stories and horror fiction with its shambling herds of zombies, the increasingly popular visions of social breakdown, total loss of control — chaos and old night?

Yang perceives yin only as negative, inferior, bad, and yang has always been given the last word. But there is no last word.

At present we seem only to write dystopias. Perhaps in order to be able to write a utopia we need to think yinly. I tried to write one in Always Coming Home. Did I succeed?

Is a yin utopia a contradiction in terms, since all the familiar utopias rely on control to make them work, and yin does not control? Yet it is a great power. How does it work?

I can only guess. My guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival is a shift from yang to yin, and so involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth.



Utopiyin, Utopiyang — 13 Comments

  1. “Perhaps in order to be able to write a utopia we need to think yinly. I tried to write one in Always Coming Home. Did I succeed?” — YES, you did. For me, that book has been an inspiration and a refuge ever since I first read it.

    • Always Coming Home is my favorite book of all time. Yes, you succeeded. A Yinly Utopia indeed.

    • I suggest that perhaps, in order to write utopian fiction, we need to bring both Yin and Yang into an equal balance, or at least have an eye to such an ending. One element without the other effects loss, usually in terms of excess of Yang. So much of speculative is dystopic today, something I rue. There is a gnawing fear, I suppose, that humans will mess it up again, like they did with the atom bomb. Or perhaps utopian fiction is too naive sounding to some.

  2. Definitely the yin dominates that book. In so many ways, Always Coming Home is a book that you would be hard pressed to find its equal (or anything similar)! While I’d have problems picking a favorite LeGuin, I had a hard time putting down “Four Ways to Forgiveness” until it was done.

  3. Yes, yinly thinking and a yinly society is the only solution to our current impasse.
    I’d like to recommend Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and His Emissary’ that addresses the problem of the divided (yin/yang) brain but I suspect you, of all people, have already read his book. Thank you for all your insightful writing, Ursula.

  4. Yes… Always Coming Home is a yintopia rescue dot bobbing along in the ocean of yang all around us…. That book lives in my mind: always there. When things get grim, I think of people “knocking on their foreheads” to salute their VIPs and laugh at arrogance made amusing. When leaving home on a journey, I think of the women and girls squatting together for a piss at the edge of town before setting out (remembering my mom’s “it shouldn’t be a total loss” when shepherding us into the bathroom at a gas station stop on a long family car trip in the 1950s) and feel the companionship, even if I’m alone. I buy the book periodically but Always Give it Away, usually as a gift to a young person visiting from abroad. –Enjoyed your National Book Awards essay. 🙂

  5. Briefly; the superiority of yang, such as it is, does not mean that yang and yin are not interdependent, or that they are not equal powers. In some situations yang is ascendant, in others yin is ascendant; “the bad man is the good man’s resource” and “is and isn’t produce each other.”

    My husband would say that yang is energy; yin is gravity.

    Interestingly, the current proclivity for dystopias is in what you identify as yin dystopia: zombies, etc. At the same time, society has turned more toward female values (we drug small boys in large numbers, many times as much as small girls, etc.; sexual freedom (similar to bonobo, female-driven culture) is promoted while violence (similar to chimpanzee, male-driven culture) is suppressed in the West.

    At any rate, I hugely doubt that a society controlled extensively by one aspect of the duality would be a utopia, whether that aspect is yin or yang.

    It seems like the lesson in dystopic utopias and utopic dystopias is that the excess of one or other other tendency – the nadir/zenith of yin and yang – are very difficult times that may seem to have aspects of utopia for one group but are ultimately doomed as lacking the balance that nature strives towards.

  6. Besides Always Coming Home, another good try at the “yin” utopia is in John Crowley’s Engine Summer.

  7. Would you consider Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean as a yin Utopia as well? Just wondering.

  8. Question: isn’t Anarres a yin-like utopia, with a powerful seed of yang we begin to perceive as the story moves on? Anarres´ society apparently refuses control (there’s a language and a shared ethic that provide structure to society, but it lacks the all powerful yang government that 184 has), though the intent of Shevek to visit Urras, and previously his misfortunes during the great drought show that some individuals and groups are already trying to exert dominance over others. Thanks!

  9. Here is an alternate model to yin-yang: chaos – integration – control
    Dan Siegel speaks of the river of integration. Integration represents adaptation and harmony in function – it is the movement toward health in the psyche. The two shores of the river are chaos and control, where we often end up when we are fragmented, by trauma for example. Chaos is the experience of no order, complete disorientation. Control is the attempt to manipulate circumstance in order to be in charge of the outcome. Eutopia might be viewed as in the river of integration, and dystopia up on one or both of the shores, out of the river.

  10. Truthfully, no, I don’t read Always Coming Home as utopian.

    I read it as an imagining of a society that would actually work, better than our own does — though clearly we will have to pass through the fire to reach that home, should we ever be able to.

    To me, Utopia is just as you said, an idea, a blueprint without a foundation in reality. Your book stands on its ground.

    *sends love*