Cookie policy: This site uses cookies to simplify and improve your usage and experience of this website. Cookies are small text files stored on the device you are using to access this website. For more information on how we use and manage cookies please take a look at our privacy and cookie policies. Your privacy is important to us and our policy is to neither share nor sell your personal information to any external organisation or party; nor to use behavioural analysis for advertising to you.

None

We have ways of making you noble

The Faber Book of Utopias - 2099

Ernest Callenbach takes note of a totalitarian tinge to a collection of utopian writings and reviews a new vision of a techno-future set in 2099.

In The Faber Book of Utopias , editor John Carey has gone far beyond the usual collected-and-introduced-by mode. He opens the book with a witty and graceful introduction; he provides biographical background on all the writers he excerpts and sketches their general positions; sometimes he interpolates comments to stitch together sections of a work. All this is done very smoothly; though long, the book is painlessly readable. Writers from earlier times are all modernised (eg Hobbes); English works are sometimes even "translated" (Sir Thomas More).

The first half of the collection may strike some readers as unduly esoteric, but it is a contribution of Carey's to make us realise that many early and 19th-century utopian writers could be surprisingly boring, with their sleazy jewel-encrusted architecture, their placid nudity, their witless inattention to the support systems essential for human life. (Until Campanella, in 1603, all utopias presupposed slavery; presumably the slaves produced all the food. Campanella's Solarians work because they like it and are well educated for it through visual aids.)

Most people read utopias not for their often daffy particulars, but for the light that an alternate world may throw on the current human condition,offering relief from the dark oppression of received ideas. Otherwise, utopias would all be like Freeman Dyson's cool description, included here, of future bioengineered microbes, self-replicating machines and a vast supply of comets for interstellar dwelling spots.

Amplitude is a prime virtue in collections like this for general readers as for teachers. Educators will thus welcome the volume's bountiful coverage of standard works, from Plato's Republic to Aldous Huxley, including fragments from Gulliver's Travels , James Hilton's Lost Horizon and Nineteen Eighty-four . But Carey has also turned up an astonishing wealth of lesser-known utopias, including one managed by Christ returned to earth.

In such a vast compendium, we want the guide leading us to be trustworthy,and in his introduction and early introductory passages Carey appears almost remorselessly sensible. It is tempting to assume a snooty tone in discussing utopias, but Carey is consistently decent towards both the demented (De Sade) and the level-headed (Robert Owen or Trollope). Moreover, though he exudes wry scepticism, he never implies that utopias are a worthless endeavour. But neither does he exert himself to explore reasons why utopias may be thought provoking, at least for the age in which they were written, nor why there have been so many of them. Nor does he venture to analyse how much of utopian thinking is in fact rearward facing, so to speak, a disguised treatment of issues from the recent past of the culture producing them, and sometimes polemical in intent. For a literature professor, he is also surprisingly unconcerned with their structures or literary style.

Early on, Carey writes that utopias elude definition, but this may tell us more about him than the form. He allows that utopias must be expressions of desire (or, in the case of dystopias, fear) but there is hardly a literary genre of which we could not say the same. His justification for including some of Robinson Crusoe , that Crusoe's "spiritual growth makes the island a utopia rather than a dystopia", is a loophole large enough to drive half of English literature through.

This lack of a taste for defining the form authorises a certain quirkiness as Carey's selections unroll; the works he considers "evidently utopian" include some bizarre specimens. He treats us to Dickens's venomously racist bile against non-noble "savages" carried to London for exhibitions. He also includes a fair number of literary bagatelles, such as Andrew Marvell's "Bermudas", Joseph Conrad on joyous youthful experiences in the merchant marine, and other items that can only be considered utopian with a deal of stretching, such as Thomas Traherne's ode to the world through a child's eyes, Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address", or D. H. Lawrence's Etruscan Places . Shamelessly, if delightfully, he even includes Edward Lear's "Jumblies". And while Rupert Brooke satirising Christian ideas of heaven through a utopia for fish is a palpable hit, what can we say about about the inclusion of Kipling's Jungle Book ?

Carey also gladly hops over the line between utopian and travel writing, to Bougainville's observations of encounters with Polynesians and Tacitus on the Germans. Carey does not bother to tell us why Tacitus is here, though he is copious enough on why he includes Margaret Mead's errors about the Samoans. Ebenezer Howard's city-planning proposals are included too, although they are not fictional.

We read compendia to satisfy personal curiosities as well as to gain a general grounding in the topic at hand, and Carey's collection offers many threads to follow. As a sometime practising utopian myself, I thus looked through the book partially hoping to find precursors or at least distant relatives of my Ecotopia . An imaginative attempt to conceive fundamentally different environmental conditions by Gabriel Tarde envisaged a new glacial age in which people learned to live under the ice. The first utopia featuring renewable wind, wave and solar energy was written in Pittsburgh in 1833; the author was also prescient in envisaging the clear-cutting of forests and the production of wood products in moulds, utilising what we would now call resin.

Carey's political inclinations seem fuzzy. He refers to Bellamy's "totalitarian dream" but merely calls a blatantly exterminatory utopia "surprisingly illiberal". He enjoys Orwell's exposure of "the confusion and hypocrisy that have dogged the cause of English Socialism", but is silent on the idiocies of Toryism. He calls Dr Johnson's Rasselas "perhaps the wisest book ever written" because it is a satire against hope. He chooses the most bitterly genocidal of H. G. Wells's many utopias and dystopias, Anticipations . The weakness of utopian writers he is most alert to is their temptation, conscious of the human frailty and venality that surrounded them, to imagine a New Man (as the Bolsheviks finally put it) who would be noble in every way, and thus to fall into imagining that nobility can be enforced, if only the enforcers are given enough power. But Carey does not express curiosity about the roots of such attitudes among Europeans, which surely include the centrist, authoritarian character of the church that dominated western thinking for so many centuries and gave us, after all, that bizarrely "utopian" institution, the Inquisition.

Carey is sensitive to the personal origins of attitudes, as with Hobbes's experience of governmental life, which then as now conduced to a conviction of the malign character of our species. But he is puzzled by the contradiction in Hobbes between his view of "true human nature" (all selfishness) and his recognition of the human desire for just government. Hobbes knew little, as of course did most of the writers represented in this collection, of other cultures - in particular, of how they all have elaborate rules and mostly live by them. However, fantasies about true human nature underlie not only much utopian writing but also Freud, penal codes, tax laws, and indeed most of any society's doings, ancient or modern. Many utopian writers are distinguishable from other writers, in fact, by their attempts to address, usually by reversing them, the basic ruling fantasies of their age. But we will not learn this from Carey.

When Carey gets to the past two decades or so, his easy inclusiveness deserts him. For one thing, he seems to have a blind spot for Americans, which is doubly distressing because of the perennial utopian currents in American political thought: he includes Condorcet, but not the "Declaration of Independence". Austin Wright, whose Islandia may well be the most successful utopian novel of all time, is omitted. Worse still, and quite surprisingly, Carey seems almost unaware of the two main streams of recent utopian writing.

The first of these is the proliferation of utopias that have turned away from the authoritarianism that Carey sees in the utopian impulse towards increasingly anarchist, decentralist, ultra-democratic, ecologically aware,and often feminist visions, the approach we see in Dorothy Bryant, Starhawk or Ursula Le Guin. The exclusion of Le Guin is particularly vexing: The Dispossessed and Always Coming Home make her, I think, one of the greatest 20th-century authors. Carey makes space for only one significant work of this sort, Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time .

Nor does Carey give representation to the category of recent writing in which dystopian visions have been most powerfully addressed: science fiction. In particular, no work included here deals with our problematic relations to increasingly intrusive and sophisticated machines - perhaps the dominant theme of contemporary science fiction. Dystopian science fiction, indeed, has been going through a wrackingly creative period of confronting the sinister future of modern technical society - the kind of work that culminated in the films Blade Runner and The Road Warrior .

Carey's omissions are serious, because they leave only a token few writers in the book who try to envisage a democratic and truly representative social order. Early on, Carey notes that Hobbes "advocates totalitarianism", but almost all his writers do. Carey remains convinced of a "utopian fixation with sameness and regimentation". And this, I think,together with what seems to be an unfamiliarity with science fiction, must be what led Carey to miss how contemporary utopian thinkers have actually been reacting to the growing authoritarian power of globalised capitalism.

For educators, The Faber Book of Utopias offers a treasure trove of earlier utopias. As assigned reading, it can be used to expose students to the varied history of utopian thinking. However, its chief educational value will probably be as a source of clues to older works that might be assigned in full; it offers no help in choosing contemporary works that are of lively relevance to the way we live now.

Yorick Blumenfeld's 2099: A Eutopia is an intriguing attempt to outflank the authoritarian/anarchist dichotomy by envisioning a techno-future of cooperative, non-violent communards whose genetic and psychological makeup is benignly controlled by MI (Mechanical Intelligence). Like many utopian novels, 2099 is structured as a visit to the new world by a sceptical and self-important journalist, Deric. (He comes from ultra-capitalist "NorAm" and although he is not a complete Ugly American, he turns out to be an unwitting human bio-weapon.) Most of the book consists of Deric's gradually less hostile news reports alternating with suspicious journal entries by Ivia, his guide. These two sources throw contrasting light on the ideas and, rather abstractly, the life practices of the Yare community.

Many philosophical issues are broached with regard to obligatory utopian topics: education, family, art, drama, religion and democratic process. There is also some imaginative material about super-high-tech theatre and the ecstatic states it engenders. But we do not get any engaging fix on either character, and Ivia's worries about an attraction between her theatre director mate and Deric are thin and tedious. Worse, we never get a clear portrait of how the Yare subsist, how they interact except in abstract discussions, what their sex life is like, or why they are colonising Mars.

Blumenfeld is too interested in general ideas to write the kind of dense, biologically observant, ethnographically rich and psychologically nuanced utopia that Ursula Le Guin gives us, for instance in Always Coming Home . It is only in such work as hers, which we can legitimately consider literary as well as utopian, that the lasting promise of the form can be appreciated.

Ernest Callenbach is the author of the bestselling Ecotopia . He was a commissioning editor with University of California Press.

The Faber Book of Utopias

Editor - John Carey
ISBN - 0 571 19785 X
Publisher - Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 557

  • Print
  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Share
  • Save
Jobs