The Problem of Rivendell–Or, Utopia isn’t Very Interesting…Except when it is

I’ve been thinking about utopia scenes in F&SF and thought I’d share the process here.

One of the legacies that the Lord of the Rings has left high fantasy is the trope of the sylvan utopia. Rivendell, Lothlorien, and to a lesser extent the Shire itself and the house of Bombadil are all manifestations of the beautiful rural/sylvan idyll.

As a reader and lover of the Lord of the Rings these places are dear to my heart. As a reader and writer of things not the Lord of the Rings, their legacy all too often causes me stress.

Even the most skilled of writers, a Tolkien say, has to handle moments of downtime like those in Lorien or Rivendell very carefully. This is as true of technological and other future utopias of science fiction as it is of the sylvan sort in fantasy.

One reason for this is that long descriptions of utopia have a tendency toward the boring. Another is that they all too often come at the expense of other things, like plot and character development. Finally, one person’s beautiful idyll is another’s trite fairy tale is a third’s description of techno-naptime.

This is especially true at the front end of a story when reader interest is at its weakest. Starting out with even five pages of utopian idyll instead of conflict is very likely to result in the reader putting down the book and never picking it up again.

Now, there can be very good reasons to start out slow, most often the desire to show the reader all that the lead character is about to lose when the raiders come and destroy everything important (Piper’s Space Viking), or when the protagonist shoulders a burden to protect that very idyll (Lord of the Rings), but it’s something to be approached with great caution, or so it would seem to me.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog December 18 2007, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)