• Rowan Fortune

The Courage of Utopia

This is part of a new #FridayFlashback series of rereleased, re-edited and sometimes extended essays. This one was originally published on the former iteration of the Rowan Tree Editing website, Jan 30 2017. It's a very concise piece on my love of the utopia as a genre.

‘The only safe way of reading a Utopia is to consider it the expression of the temperament of its author.’ ~ William Morris

Finding a dystopia for our times is topical (Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here or Nathanael West’s A Cool Million might fit the mood), but more attention could also be given to the terrifying dimensions of past utopian writing. The rustic paradise of William Morris’ News from Nowhere is made possible by a great bloodbath; the setting of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Equality is a monotonous and hedonistic conception of perfection that happily countenances racial segregation; Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia is predicated on the balkanisation of the United States; Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race requires genocide and Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s New Amazonia features eugenic policies against the disabled.

Utopias are fascinating because the author risks exposing their dystopic tendencies, while in dystopias they defensively point to dystopic tendencies elsewhere.

It has long been my belief that Utopia is the superior genre; it requires writers to commit to an idea about society. In contrast, however great, a dystopia is an easier gesture. Utopias are fascinating because the author risks exposing their dystopic tendencies, while in dystopias they defensively point to dystopic tendencies elsewhere. The utopian author courts exposing their most monstrous ideas, the dystopian gives their historical limits the excuse of cynicism. A critic of the utopians is spoilt for material on which to launch a just complaint, a critic of dystopias must often settle for their mere deficit of optimism or imagination—a fairly muted case. We live in an age when seeing beyond present horrors is no simple task, but to do so we must also risk exposing how we are ourselves host to those horrors. This is the courage of the utopian, and it is sorely needed.

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