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Iris Tsui

Common Law & English Literature

Year of study:


Law and Order in Utopian/Dystopian Fiction


To know what society fears, look at their dystopias. In the aftermath of two world wars, Nineteen Eighty-Four emerged as a surveillance state sharing characteristics of far-right Nazi totalitarianism and far-left Stalinist socialism. Observing the unearthing of the roots of American Puritanism and the marked bias against women, Margaret Atwood penned The Handmaid’s Tale, an imagining of a patriarchal system defined by theocratic totalitarianism and female degradation. The dystopian elements of these societies are defined by an underlying legal order that actively works to shape religion, sexual pleasure and language—the building blocks that make up our lives.

This research arises out of the observation of an impression that legal and political scholars seem to share: that dystopias always seem to come on the heels of its opposite, the utopia. If legal orders are the bones that form the utopian society, what is it about the law that turns utopia into the very thing they sought to destroy?

By drawing on political theories of anarchism and the ambiguous utopia of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, this study aims to show how the dystopia and utopia are not binary opposites but deeply interlinked in a symbiotic relationship, and the role of the law in the creation of both. If the threat of dystopia compels us to constantly recreate utopia, law must constitute only a reaction to social issues, allowing us to prudently and incrementally inch towards utopia.


It is my conviction that law and literature are fundamentally of the same nature: they are malleable, fluid, and subject to interpretation. The difference? Literature is a distorted mirror being held up to a fractured society, amplifying the turmoil and suffering that remains hidden. Law is a tool that can either deepen or relieve that suffering. Coming from Hong Kong, a former colony with a similar legal system that has been incrementally but steadily transformed over the years, I am deeply interested in the potential of speculative fiction to explore where the law is taking us by casting a backward glance at the legal orders and societal progressions of the past. If literature seeks to steer us close to the edge of the abyss by creating a vision of what a dystopia legal reality could look like, the law must strive to steer us away from that disastrous fall. Having observed how the function of dystopian fiction has veered towards a radical pessimism in recent decades, I hope to show how it can—and needs to—return to the path of radical hope.

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