3 minute read

Utopia and Anti-Utopia

Looking Backward, Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, News from Nowhere, A Modern Utopia

Modern literary utopianism emerges out of the divided heritage of the nineteenth-century socialist utopia, with its antithetical images of the future represented, in the English-speaking world, by Edward Bellamy and William Morris. Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) portrays a scientific-industrial state of the collectivist or ‘totalitarian’ type that would be satirized in the two most influential twentieth-century anti-utopias, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The pastoral communism of Morris's News from Nowhere (1890) anticipates aspects of the ecological and feminist utopianism of the late twentieth century. Both the collectivist and the ecological utopia share a futurological orientation inherited from the tradition of scientific socialism.

Although he was the author of several utopian future-history novels, H. G. Wells's major formal utopia, A Modern Utopia (1905), is set on a parallel world in the present day. Wells's version of the scientific-industrial state includes universal welfare benefits, a centralized bureaucracy, and a meritocratic hierarchy reflecting the fascination with élites that recurs throughout utopian thought. The Wellsian utopia was parodied in E. M. Forster's ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), and in Brave New World where eugenics and behaviour control are used to perpetuate social stratification. A Modern Utopia remains influential for two main reasons. As a deliberate summing-up and synthesis of the earlier tradition—a work of ‘utopography’ as well as a utopia—it reflects the interdisciplinarity of utopian thought, and anticipates the more recent emergence of utopian studies as an intellectual field. Wells's acknowledgement of the difficulty (and yet the necessity) of combining didactic exposition with imaginative narrative exemplifies the formal problem of utopian fiction, a much-maligned genre. Also influential is his championship of the dynamic as against the static utopia. Each ‘hopeful stage’ of society is provisional rather than definitive, and at the heart of his Utopia Wells places a scientific élite, the Samurai—the modern descendants of Plato's Guardians—part of whose function is to destabilize Utopia and promote further progress.

The possibility of endless progress held out by modern scientific cosmology found its most far-reaching embodiment in Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930), a narrative of the next two billion years. Here the subject is not the perfect society but the successive evolutionary transformations of the human stock. Stapledon's successors are to be found in the future-history cycles of science-fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, with their diffused utopianism, rather than in the utopian genre more narrowly conceived (see science fiction). The near-future utopia, by contrast, typically shows the quality of life improved by measures of rational planning, political reorganization, or behaviour control, sometimes confined to a small community as in B. F. Skinner's Walden Two (1948). In Aldous Huxley's Island (1962), the people of Pala practise Buddhism and enjoy the fruits of intermediate technology until invaded by a rapacious neighbour backed by the multinational oil companies. Ursula K. LeGuin's Anarres in The Dispossessed (1974) and Ernest Callenbach's breakaway North American republic in Ecotopia (1975) provide further examples of the strictly regulated, bounded utopia. The feminist utopia, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (1915) to Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (19879), relies either on sexual segregation or on control of reproductive methods. Of all these societies it may be asked whether the intellectual daring that went into setting them up can continue to flourish within them. By contrast, the value of mental and emotional freedom remains paramount in the fictional anti-utopia, a genre whose warnings about the threats posed by scientific and industrial progress are heard throughout the century, from Jack London's The Iron Heel (1907) to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985). See Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times (1987), by Krishan Kumar, and Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference (1995), edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Treā€Taliesin Cardiganshire to Hilda Vaughan Biography