Jun 25 2010

Utopian Fiction

J. C. Hallman


Eden Hexagonal Structure, photo by Eva Kröcher (image used under the terms of the GFDL.)


The history of utopian literature is very nearly the history of civilization. Lewis Mumford claimed in The City in History that the original utopias—those of Plato and Aristotle—were a reaction to the dystopia of Athens, upending the usual argument that dystopia is the result of utopian experimentation gone wrong. In fits and spurts, and in a variety of forms, utopian literature has played a central role in the advent of almost every significant ideology in history, from democracy to fascism. In the contemporary era, when literature seems increasingly disconnected from the real world, the books here offer a reminder that literature can, and perhaps should, seek to shape society.

Utopia by Thomas More

The great irony of utopian thought is that it started as a kind of joke—More was scandalized when some readers of this 1516 novel missed the satire and took his description of a functional, rule-bound pagan community as a blueprint for a perfect society. The combination of Lucian's outrageous storytelling and Amerigo Vespucci's travel narrative began the utopian genre, and perhaps the art of travel writing as well.

Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright

Wright's thousand-page 1942 epic novel was culled from his papers after he was killed in a car accident in 1931. Most utopian romances are pretty bad—after all, how does one generate narrative tension in a story about a perfect society? But Wright's book is an exception, and he delivers a compelling love story where others in the genre give short shrift to plot to get to the ideology they hope to espouse. Islandia leaves one rooting for its people as well as for its politics.

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy

In the middle of the twentieth century, Looking Backward was well regarded, with some critics ranking it behind only Das Kapital in influence, though Bellamy's book is now largely unread. His tale of a man waking to a world improved by socialism after sleeping for more than one hundred years was an American best seller, triggering more than two hundred Bellamy Clubs dedicated to instituting his ideas. Bellamy was more interested in socialism than he was in storytelling: The plot of Looking Backward borrows heavily from the plot of a feminist utopian novel, Mary Griffith's Three Hundred Years Hence, published in the 1830s.

Island by Aldous Huxley

Today, dystopian fiction is far more popular than the utopian sort—Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, and, of course, Aldous Huxley are perennials of summer reading lists. But dystopian writers often have a utopia clinking around somewhere. In Island, Huxley describes a paradise about to be exposed to the horrors of the modern world. His Eden is filled with hints of the alternative drugs, therapies, and philosophies he experimented with throughout his life—yoga, Scientology, and the chewing therapy of Horace Fletcher.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Known today almost exclusively for a dystopian short story, "The Yellow Wall-Paper," Gilman was a prolific author in the early twentieth century, and wrote utopian fictions that were serialized in her self-published magazine. The second of these, from 1915, was not published in book form until 1979 and now appears in two volumes, Herland and With Her in Ourland. "I wrote it to preach," Gilman said of her fiction. "If it's literature, that just happened."

Walden Two by B. F. Skinner

Skinner, writing in 1945 while between academic posts, offered an odd proposal in this volume: forcing people to behave well with modification techniques wouldn't be such a bad thing, even if it looked like fascism. Understandably, it took Walden Two a while to catch on, though it eventually became one of the twentieth century's most influential utopian fictions.

J. C. Hallman is the author of In Utopia: Six Kinds of Eden and the Search for a Better Paradise, to be published in August by St. Martin's Press.

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