Pseudo-Utopian Societies in Popular Culture: Bryant and Vonnegut's Works

Categories: Dystopia
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The concepts of utopia and dystopia have integrated their way into popular culture for multiple decades in the forms of books, movies, television shows, and even songs. However, while the consensus is that our culture should get as close as possible to utopian treatment of its people, few would claim that the embodiment of a utopia is achievable. This is partially because of the atrocities our world has already engaged in, and also because of the warnings given by creative minds that have crafted utopian/dystopian media.

These creators usually tell of a world that simply appears perfect, but in reality thrives on inequality and unethical actions–not much different than the world we live in today.

This trope is certainly displayed in The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and “2br02b” by Kurt Vonnegut. Both works argue against the possibility of a utopia emerging out of our modern society due to a combination of the state of our current society as well as the implications of maintaining a utopia, in which many paradoxical, discriminatory qualities must be adopted.

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Vonnegut employs the theme of technology gone bad in his short story in order to challenge our modern opinions on the importance of investing in technological advancements– providing a warning to future generations as well as a dispute against our current notions of what a utopia would consist of.

The story’s setting is crafted in order to mirror current ideas of what a perfect society would contain–no disease, immortality, and a world that is capable of sustaining everyone in it.

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However, Vonnegut opposes the supposed benefits of this world, which has utilized medical technology to it’s full advantage, by creating a mural that contains “the color of grapes on judgement day” which is supposed to celebrate the pinnacle of medical advancement (4). The significance of the biblical allusion is the irony it implies–the “grapes” serve as the appearance of progression, and therefore happiness within the society, but with the reality of damnation because of the immorality the technology perpetuates.

The painter serves as the moral force of the story, a bridge between the deranged new father and the oppressive medical force– namely Doctor Hitz. He uses double entendres when talking to members of the medical forces, “Sawing off a limb–that strikes you as appropriate?” in order to serve a dual purpose in illuminating the immoralities the doctors are committing with technology as well as to expose their ignorance because they don’t understand his sarcasm (Vonnegut 4). Vonnegut also mentions a literal consequence of the gas-chamber technology, “the woman had a lot of facial hair–an unmistakable mustache in fact” in order to explicitly state his point, so it doesn’t go unnoticed to readers (4). By ruining a societal construct, such as femininity, the gas chambers go against the norm in more than one way. Vonnegut uses this tainting of standard cultural constructs to send a clear message that the medical technology shouldn’t be welcome in society, even though it maintains standardized population.

By utilizing both literal and subtle arguments against technology, Vonnegut makes his warning very clear: dependency on technology leads to immoral actions that allow the user, in this case the doctors, to detach themselves from humanity by creating a smoke-screen of progression. Bryant details the consequences of investing in technological advancements by providing contrast to our modern world with the success of Ata’s regressive traditions in order to warn against further technological progress as well as to hint that we, as a society, have already surpassed the possibility of engaging in a utopia. Bryant establishes the consequences of mass technology in the beginning of the novel by describing the narrator’s detachment from reality due to being the author of popular, widespread media, “I invented you, or you tried to invent yourself,” even saying, “It didn’t feel like murder” (1, 2).

When explaining the success of Ata’s primitive traditions and technologies, such as using bones for utensils and abandoning gender roles, the narrator provides the modern perspective, “I was used to superficial conventions” in order to prove the success of these simple traditions as well as a critique of our own societal habits (Bryant 19). The most blatant foreshadowing of the narrator abandoning modern technology and habits in favor of Atan culture comes in the form of a dream early into his stay on the island, “He took the grass cast off my leg, examined the leg, and then led me to an enormous and complicated piece of machinery” (Bryant 21).

The foreboding imagery as well as the message condemning technology coming from a dream, the most significant form of communication on Ata, serves as a strong warning against employing technology; stating that while it may appear helpful, it is actually capable of creating further harm. By placing a narrator who has exponentially benefitted from modern society in such a regressive culture, Bryant crafts an elaborate contrast in order to advocate for primal traditions, rather than the application of seemingly progressive technologies and rituals. When comparing Bryant’s message to modern society and culture, it seems clear that our society has surpassed the possibility of retracting to the point of mirroring Atan society.

Bryant develops the point that our society has exceeded the ability to regress in order to allow for traditions that advocate equality and preservation by describing the sacrifice that Ata must endure in order to keep our world subsisting, as well as suggesting that perhaps Atan culture benefits from exploitation the same way that our society does. Augustine serves as the prime manifestation of Atan culture, so it is fitting that she is the one who is sacrificed to our immoral world, destined to “[circle) the world on her knees, scrubbing the floors of the powerful” (Bryant 193). However, Augustine’s character is also exploited by Bryant, allowing the narrator to repeatedly take advantage of her and facilitating the message that this is acceptable.

The narrator describes Augustine as a black female, but with Aryan traits, “sharp, pointed features, a long nose,” “bright rust colored” nipples, and blue eyes (Bryant 12, 54). The narrator finds Augustine to be extraordinarily beautiful, most likely because of her European attributes, which poses a question of why Bryant chose to manipulate Augustine’s natural, black features to be more attractive to the oppressive, white male. After the narrator’s courtship of Augustine becomes successful because of her dream ordering her to be with him, they have sex, which, according to the narrator, “was a ritual to cancel out the rape, a purified re-enactment” (Bryant 107). This notion is never challenged, and Augustine is subjected to a life of watching over the narrator, “I will always, always be with you when you call” which suggests that Augustine has either developed a form of Stockholm syndrome, or is again following her dream’s orders (Bryant 131). Augustine’s death follows this pattern as well, being killed for the betterment of a movement by oppressed peoples.

Even after death, she protects the narrator, “from the center of my being the light broke in waves, in orgasmic waves, outward to the extremities of my body,” however his description continues to suggest exploitation of Augustine because of his sexual diction used to describe her approval of his action (Bryant 218). Bryant’s choice to make Augustine not only the sacrificial character, but also the exploited character, furthers the trope of the magical negro, in which authors choose black actors or characters in order to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of a white community. Her choice to abuse Augustine’s character provides the argument that Ata is not as utopian as it seems, and in fact, black stereotypes are still perpetrated, and black females are still at a disadvantage by order of their dreams– suggesting that a higher power conserves such inequality.

Vonnegut also employs exploitation in his short story, taking the inequality already present in our current society and expanding it in order to show that the hierarchy that we as a society have come to ignore is only capable of enlarging when tempted with technology. The story begins by saying, “death, barring accidents, was an adventure for volunteers,” which is used to exploit “the invisible man” such as the narrator (Vonnegut 1, 6). While it is never explicitly stated, it is assumed that the narrator’s wife became pregnant by accident, and is thus put in the position of “pick[ing] out which one of the triplets is going to live,” which, although extreme, mirrors our current society in the way that unexpecting families are often forced to choose between poverty and having children, symbolized by the narrator being trapped in a seemingly endless morose situation, in which no matter what he chooses, happiness is unattainable (Vonnegut 6).

The system that forces such an unfair situation on unsuspecting victims comes to a collapse as Wheling draws a revolver, and uses the doctor’s policy against him, stating “It’s only death” (Vonnegut 8). The juxtaposition of Wheling’s forced choice with the Doctor’s ironic unwillingness to die, exposes the unfairness of a system that supposedly practices utilitarianism with population control. This is Vonnegut’s way of critiquing the progression of our nation, which also prides itself on utilitarian practices. By revealing exploitation, as well as hypocrisy, Vonnegut is able to simultaneously critique our current system as well as warn against possible future outcomes, such as population control– which has been a proposed as a solution to our current global issues– or revolution– (symbolized by the murdersuicide performed by Wheling) which naturally comes with oppression from people in positions of ultimate power.

By fear mongering their audiences against technology, as well as exploring the ways that our current society exploits underrepresented groups, and thus, the possibility of more advanced oppression, the authors create a comprehensive argument for a reconsideration of where our world is heading, if not a complete upheaval of our current system. However, both authors also create a utopian universe in which there are still inequalities, in the case of Vonnegut, way worse than our current situation. This is most likely because the authors are calling for an exhaustive thought processes on behalf of readers into what progression should truly consist of, and how to get there effectively. By crafting pseudo-utopian worlds, the authors clearly express how easily a harmless concept can become just another way to serve those in power, simply preserving the hierarchy that has been present historically.

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Pseudo-Utopian Societies in Popular Culture: Bryant and Vonnegut's Works. (2022, Oct 30). Retrieved from

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