Utopias Module Week 1: Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000-1887; Morris, News From Nowhere

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Utopias: are they didactic blueprints for an ideal society or more playful imaginative creations? See the writings on Thomas More. Are utopias aspirational or analytical?

* "Meta-Utopias" -- which are open to multiple readings -- More, Well's A Modern Utopia.
* "critical utopias" -- Moylan, Demand the Impossible cites, e. g. Le Guin, Russ -- which are aware of the limitations of utopianism.
* The difference between a utopia which we find unpalatable and a dystopia e.g. the world of 1984. ("The object of power is power.")
* Early utopias displaced in past time -- "golden age of the past": then space -- some perfect undiscovered society; later ones displaced in future time (or space/time). But quite early examples of "perfect" societies on the moon -- Cyrano de Bergerac (1657). 19th century saw humanity coming into contact with superior races beneath the earth or on other worlds; e.g. Bulwer Lytton, The Coming Race (1871), Percy Greg, Across the Zodiac (1884).

Utopian fiction is not necessarily sf -- but it increasingly moves towards it. Does sf have a specifically utopian/dystopian stance? Imaginary voyages and speculations about life on other worlds may involve utopian speculation, but the motives of creation may be different from more overtly utopian novels e.g. B. F. Skinner's behaviourist utopian Walden 2 (1948), which is sf only because it is scientific speculation.

Raymond Williams ("Utopia and Science Fiction" in Patrick Parrinder, ed. Science Fiction: A Critical Guide) distinguishes four types of utopias:

1. The PARADISE -- "a happier kind of life is described as simply existing elsewhere."
2. The EXTERNALLY ALTERED WORLD -- "a new kind of life has been made possible by an unlooked-for natural event."
3. The WILLED TRANSFORMATION -- "a new kind of life has been achieved by human efforts."
4. The TECHNOLOGICAL TRANSFORMATION -- "a new kind of life has been made possible by a technical discovery."

There can of course be overlaps, especially between 3 and 4; and each category can also stand for a dystopia -- e.g. "Paradise" can be "Hell".

The first category can include utopias/dystopias reached by space or time travel, but is often religious or fantastical in tone. The second category can include science fiction tales of catastrophe. Both tend to exclude human agency. The third category is the more traditional "utopian" mode and the fourth focuses less on human agency than on the means of transformation.

Edward Bellamy (1850-1898)

Writer of Gothic fictions before turning to Utopian fiction in Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888) and its sequel, Equality (1897).

* The narrator (Julian West) wakes in a technology-based, socialist utopia in the year 2000.

The future is shown through conversation and tourism, with a romantic sub-plot.

* He is introduced to the development of the "new society" by Dr Leete and his daughter Edith -- the logical development of capitalism, implemented by "common sense" rather than revolution. The change "had been long foreseen. Public opinion had become fully ripe for it."
* Basically a political tract, but technological gadgetry is part of this future: e.g. music by telephone (Ch 11). Goods delivered by pneumatic tube from central stores (Ch 10) and purchased by credit card (Ch 9). The labour force is enlisted in an "industrial army" until the age of 45. Only those who have served their time, or doctors, teachers, artists ("liberal professions") have the vote (Ch 17). Women are an "allied force" with their own "general and judiciary" (Ch 25).
* Efficiency through scale: "It is like a gigantic mill, into the hopper of which goods are being constantly poured by the trainload and shipload, to issue at the other end in packages of pounds and ounces, yards and inches, pints and gallons, corresponding to the infinitely complex personal needs of half a million people." (Ch 17)

Vast popularity of the book in America and Britain: "Bellamy clubs" founded to press for the ideas within the books.

* Note dislocation of time in first paragraph: "I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857. 'What,' you say, 'eighteen fifty-seven? That is an odd slip. He means nineteen fifty-seven of course.' I beg pardon but there is no mistake. It was about four in the afternoon of December 26th, one day after Christmas, in the year 1857, not 1957, that I first breathed the east wind of Boston, which I assure the reader, was at that remote period marked by the same penetrating quality characterising it in the present year of grace, 2000."
* The story is addressed to readers in 2000. But it is "really" read by Bellamy's contemporaries in 1888. (And of course is now read by readers in 2000!)
* West wakens back in the 19th century (Ch 28) and attempts in vain to persuade people of the truth of his vision. But as he is being attacked by a mob he wakes up back in Dr Leeke's house: that had been the dream.
* Edith Leete is the great-granddaughter of the Edith who was West's fiancee. Ferns points out Oedipal imagery: the subterranean chamber, the mother/lover fusions in both Ediths.

* Militarism of the organisation of labour.
* How far are women liberated, or how far are they given a little freedom (from e.g. domestic drudgery) to allow them to fill their tradition roles of desirable ornament.
* 19th century America is on the brink of chaos, but the revolution comes about with no violence at all. The "great consolidations of capital" may have been oppressive but they were also efficient. The State became "the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed" (Ch 5).
* Meals taken in common dining rooms or cooked in public kitchens. Washing done in public laundries.
* Goods chosen in warehouses and delivered.
* "Piped" not live music.

We see methods of distribution or consumption, not production.

* Is the impetus of Utopia merely the self-preservation of the rich? If all are wealthy, the rich cannot be threatened? "Is a man satisfied, merely because he is perfumed himself, to mingle with a malodorous crowd? ... No single thing is so important to every man as to have for neighbours intelligent, companionable persons." (Ch 11) Exactly how are the Leetes different from the cultivated bourgeoisie of Bellamy's time? "The elimination of poverty and injustice allows them to live the good life of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, only with a clear conscience." (Ferns, Narrating Utopia, 83.)
* Do we find this a "good place"? If not, why? Where does utopia become dystopia? Is it in the mundane details, or in the sense that there may be something hidden? How do we know that our informants in a Utopia are telling the truth?

William Morris (1834-1896)

Artist, poet and political activist. Joined Social Democratic Federation in 1883 and was a member until 1890. Financed and edited its journal The Commonweal.

Reviewed LB in The Commonweal (Jan 1889). Earlier described it as a "Cockney Paradise". He objected to the role of machinery:

* "a machine life is the best which Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at then that his only idea of making labour tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by means of fresh and ever fresh developments of machinery." (quoted NFN (ed. Redmond), p. xxxvii).

News From Nowhere is an "answer" to LB. Published in The Commonweal Jan-Oct 1890.

* Same device of a narrator awakening in the future.
* Nostalgic, pastoral. But does present us with a history between "then" and "now"; the revolution came about through conflict.

Handcrafts, rural, idyllic. Work is play -- in the fields, on the roads: the first person he meets is "like some specially manly and refined young gentleman, playing waterman for a spree." (Ch 1)

History of the transformation: the cause of the 19th century malaise was the economic system of "cheap production" and the World Market (Ch 15).

* But: Travelling up the Thames (Ch 24):
" ... but every now and then we came on barges, laden with hay or other country produce, or carrying bricks, lime, timber and the like, and these were going on their way without any means of propulsion visible to me -- just a man at the tiller, with often a friend or two laughing and talking with him. Dick, seeing on one occasion this day that I was looking rather hard on one of these, said: 'That is one of our force-barges; it is quite as easy to work vehicles by force by water as by land.'
  I understood pretty well that these 'force vehicles' had taken the place of our old steam-power carrying, but I took good care not to ask any questions about them, as I knew well enough both that I should never be able to understand how they were worked, and that in attempting to do so I should betray myself, or get into some complication impossible to explain; so I merely said 'Yes, of course, I understand." (Ch 24)

* So there is some form of industrialised power? Earlier references to irksome work being done by "vastly improved machinery" (ch 15) and, more ambiguously, "the great change in the use of mechanical force" (Ch 10) which resulted in the disappearance of the great centres of manufacturing. Factories, e.g. are replaced by local workshops.
* Is there discontent? See Ellen's grandfather who asks the narrator if he doesn't really find the country changed for the worse. (Ch 23)

Also note:
* The climate of this future England -- a hot summer, where the haymaking doesn't appear to be interrupted by rain. But Morris's utopians are exposed to the weather -- Bellamy's are protected from it by covered sidewalks. (Ch 14)
* The erotic undercurrents of the final journey up the Thames after Ellen joins the party. Compare the ambiguity of this ending with that of Bellamy's, which questions "What right had I to hail a salvation which reproached me, to rejoice in a day whose dawning I had mocked?" (Ch 28)
* Precariousness/passivity of the narrator: In Bellamy, West's position in the future is achieved through mesmerism and made ambiguous by the trick penultimate ending. In NFN the narrator is also out of place in the future, and his last few minutes in it are marked by being unseen by anyone except for, maybe, Ellen. He seems to fade away, while the Utopians avoid asking him searching questions as if they know he is not "really" there (see Dick's return after the talk with Old Hammond).

See Ferns, Narrating Utopia, p. 153/4 -- transfer to the future a "second birth": childhood innocence. The journey on the Thames a voyage upstream to the source/womb.

Morris influenced by More's Utopia: his Kelmscott Press published an edition of the book for which he wrote an introduction.

Another reply to Bellamy:
For another reaction to Bellamy, see the rewritings of his utopian fiction by Mack Reynolds, which suggest how a Utopia can become, or be read as, a Dystopia by interrogating its truthfulness.

Mack Reynolds, Looking Backward, from the year 2000 (1973)

Reynolds is a left-wing socialist, also a writer for John W. Campbell's Astounding.

In his novel and its sequel Equality (1977) he rewrites Bellamy in a more science fictional mode. Julian West is from 70s, placed in cryogenic deep-freeze to preserve his body until a cure is found for his illness. The "telephoned" music of the earlier novel is expanded to become vast databanks. The darker implications of Bellamy are expanded into a melodramatic plot.

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