How to Read a Utopia
One of the reasons I maintain a social media presence (behind keeping up with a select group of people, promoting Rowan Tree Editing and having a sounding board for all the absurd thoughts that stream though an average day) is to promote the utopian genre. And recently, in the course of doing this, I was asked to recommend one. I asked the question I always ask on the rare and joyous occasion upon receiving such a request. That is, it depends, what kind of utopia are you looking for? What are your preoccupations? What type of worlds appeal?
The utopia, going back at least as far as Thomas More’s titular early modern book, is incredibly diverse. It is older than the modern novel (and arguably a key influence on the formation of that so versatile medium) and it has been through various iterations. The first utopias stuck close to the template provided by More. Notable examples from this period include Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun, Johannes Valentinus Andreae’s Christianopolis (my personal favourite of the three) and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. These philosophical works focus on pristine, self-contained city or island states, geographically removed, often allegorical and occult in nature.
The next highly influential (although disappointingly more essayistic than fiction) utopia is James Harrington’s nearly unreadable (although, to be fair, I did read it) The Commonwealth of Oceana. It was written on the eve of Charles I’s execution in a panic and derived very much from the political contestations of the English Civil War. It would go on to influence the American political system and the Scottish philosopher David Hume (who wrote a response nearly one hundred years later, Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth).
There are many liminal cases of utopias that follow this book. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Voltaire’s Candide and much of the poetry of William Blake (as beautifully argued by the Marxist literature scholar A. L. Morton) can lay claim to belonging to the tradition in various ways—some complex, some straightforward. From the seventeenth century’s preference for a nonfiction speculative account, back to the wry fiction of the sixteenth century, a steadfastly and more mature fictional bent is emerging.
This genre will flourish from the mid-nineteenth century and right into the early twentieth. Étienne Cabet’s communistic if naïve Travels in Icaria, W. H. Hudson’s allegorical and surreal A Crystal Age, Edward Bellamy’s autocratic Looking Backward, Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s often troubling (especially in its attitudes to the disabled) New Amazonia, William Morris’s stunning News from Nowhere, H. G. Wells’s slightly confused The Sleeper Awakes, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist Moving the Mountain and Herland.
The nineteenth century utopia is often hinged on a time travel conceit, rather than a journey to some distant place. Although the latter is not exhausted as a trope, as it will make a decisive reappearance in sci-fi space opera utopias such as Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star. This would take off in a big way in the 1970s revival and continue to the present. Women’s voices would become particularly dominant at this time; we have Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground.
The genre’s alleged death, its eclipsing by dystopia, is grossly exaggerated. Quite recently (by historic standards certainly) we have been able to enjoy Iain M. Banks’s Culture series, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Robert Llewellyn’s News From Gardenia, Nisi Shawl’s Everfair and Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway. And all of that is without even mentioning the diffusion of the genre’s concerns into other works. Everything from Marvel films (Black Panther) to miniature wargame lore (see the background for the Tau faction of Warhammer 40,000) feature distinctly utopian concerns.
This is a very potted account, and I got into more depth in my ebook Writing Utopia (available to order, and free to Rowan Tree Editing patrons), where there is a revised version of part of my doctorate thesis that gives a much more extensive look at the chronology of utopia. But it does give some sense of the flavour of this genre, its range. Something I establish in more depth in the book is that this is a genre intensely in communication with itself, so to anyone thinking of reading within it I would strongly advise to read thoroughly.
One way to describe this genre is as a conversation of texts. You cannot understand the richness of the tradition (or good dystopias either) without a broad reading. Morris makes less sense without Bellamy, Bacon without Andreae, etc. These books maintain a dialogue that goes back to the beginnings of modernity (to More’s moral objections to the emerging class forces of his period, to the violences of the enclosures and a new secular form of rulership) and has encompassed many new concerns since then. Concerns about the ordering of a good society; the concerns of women suffering the patriarchy; the concerns of people oppressed by racism; the concerns of ecology.
Utopia still has much to say, both good and bad. Its ability to straightforwardly convey the most intimate values of the author is, I have argued before on this blog, a sign of the genre’s essential courage. In terms of narrative, as Shawl’s historical what-if utopia demonstrates, there remains room to innovate. The best way to read utopia, then, is to read with the intention of writing your own. Whether you write a short story (I edited an anthology of examples) or a novel, you can engage most powerfully in the tradition by responding directly to it.
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