Posted by voidmanufacturing on October 1, 2008
Utopia and Science Fiction*
There are many close and evident connections between science fiction and utopian fiction, yet neither, in deeper examination, is a simple mode, and the relationships between them are exceptionally complex.** Thus if we analyse the fictions that have been grouped as utopian we can distinguish four types: (a) the paradise, in which a happier life is described as simply existing elsewhere; (b) the externally altered world, in which a new kind of life has been made possible by an unlooked-for natural event; (c) the willed transformation, in which a new kind of life has been achieved by human effort; (d) the technological transformation, in which a new kind of life has been made possible by a technical discovery.
It will of course be clear that these types often overlap. Indeed the overlap and often the confusion between (c) and (d) are exceptionally significant. One kind of clarification is possible by considering the negative of each type: the negative which is now commonly expressed as “dystopia.” We then get:
(a) the hell, in which a more wretched kind of life is described as existing elsewhere; (b) the externally altered world, in which a new but less happy kind of life has been brought about by an unlooked-for or uncontrollable natural event; (c) the willed transformation, in which a new but less happy kind of life has been brought about by social degeneration, by the emergence or re-emergence of harmful kinds of social order, or by the unforeseen yet disastrous consequences of an effort at social improvement; (d) the technological transformation, in which the conditions of life have been worsened by technical development.
Since there can be no a priori definition of the utopian mode, we cannot at first exclude any of these dystopian functions, though it is clear that they are strongest in (c) and (d), perceptible in (b), and barely evident in (a), where the negative response to utopia would normally have given way to a relatively autonomous fatalism or pessimism. These indications bear with some accuracy on the positive definitions, suggesting that the element of transformation, rather than the more general element of otherness, may be crucial. We find:
(a) The paradise or the hell can be discovered, reached, by new forms of travel dependent on scientific and technological (space-travel) or quasi-scientific (time-travel) development. But this is an instrumental function; the mode of travel does not commonly affect the place discovered. The type of fiction is little affected whether the discovery is made by a space voyage or a sea voyage. The place, rather than the journey, is dominant.
(b) The externally altered world can be related, construed, foretold in a context of increased scientific understanding of natural events. This also may be an instrumental function only; a new name for an old deluge. But the element of increased scientific understanding may become significant or even dominant in the fiction, for example in the emphasis of natural laws in human history, which can decisively (often catastrophically) alter normal human perspectives.
(c) The willed transformation can be conceived as inspired by the scientific spirit, either in its most general terms as secularity and rationality, or in a combination of these with applied science which makes possible and sustains the transformation. Alternatively the same impulses can be negatively valued: the “modern scientific” ant-heap or tyranny. Either mode leaves open the question of the social agency of the scientific spirit and the applied science, though it is the inclusion of some social agency, explicit or implicit (such as the overthrow of one class by another), that distinguishes this type from type (d). We must note also that there are important examples of type (c) in which the scientific spirit and applied science are subordinate to or simply associated with a dominant emphasis on social and political (including revolutionary) transformation; or in which they are neutral with respect to the social and political transformation, which proceeds in its own terms, or, which is of crucial diagnostic significance, where the applied science, though less often the scientific spirit, is positively controlled, modified, or in effect suppressed, in a willing return to a “simpler,” “more natural” way of life. In this last mode there are some pretty combinations of very advanced “non-material” science and a “primitive” economy.
(d) The technological transformation has a direct relation to applied science. It is the new technology which, for good or ill, has made the new life. As more generally in technological determinism, this has little or no social agency, though it is commonly described as having certain “inevitable” social consequences.
We can now clearly describe some significant relations between utopian fiction and SF, as a preliminary to a discussion of some modern utopian and dystopian writing. It is tempting to extend both categories until they are loosely identical, and it is true that the presentation of otherness appears to link them, as modes of desire or of warning in which a crucial emphasis is obtained by the element of discontinuity from ordinary “realism.” But this element of discontinuity is itself fundamentally variable. Indeed, what most has to be looked at, in properly utopian or dystopian fiction, is the continuity, the implied connection, which the form is intended to embody. Thus, looking again at the four types, we can make some crucial distinctions which appear to define utopian and dystopian writing (some of these bear also on the separate question of the distinction of SF from older and now residual modes which are simply organizationally grouped with it):
(a) The paradise and the hell are only rarely utopian or dystopian. They are ordinarily the projections of a magical or a religious consciousness, inherently universal and timeless, thus commonly beyond the conditions of any imaginable ordinary human or worldly life. Thus the Earthly Paradise and the Blessed Islands are neither utopian nor science-fictional. The pre-lapsarian Garden of Eden is latently utopian, in some Christian tendencies; it can be attained by redemption. The medieval Land of Cokaygne is latently utopian; it can be, and was, imagined as a possible human and worldly condition. The paradisal and hellish planets and cultures of science fiction are at times simple magic and fantasy: deliberate, often sensational presentations of alien forms. In other cases they are latently utopian or dystopian, in the measure of degrees of connection with, extrapolation from, known or imaginable human and social elements.
(b) The externally altered world is typically a form which either falls short of or goes beyond the utopian or dystopian mode. Whether the event is magically or scientifically interpreted does not normally affect this. The common emphasis is on human limitation or indeed human powerlessness: the event saves or destroys us, and we are its objects. In Wells’s In the Days of the Comet the result resembles a utopian transformation, but the displacement of agency is significant. Most other examples, of an SF kind, are explicitly or latently dystopian: the natural world deploys forces beyond human control, thus setting limits to or annulling all human achievement.
(c) The willed transformation is the characteristic utopian or dystopian mode, in the strict sense.
(d) The technological transformation is the utopian or dystopian mode narrowed from agency to instrumentality; indeed it only becomes utopian or dystopian, in strict senses, when it is used as an image of consequence to function, socially, as conscious desire or conscious warning.
1. No contrast has been more influential, in modern political thought, than Engels’ distinction between “utopian” and “scientific” socialism. If it is now more critically regarded, this is not only because the scientific character of the “laws of historical development” is cautiously questioned or sceptically rejected; to the point, indeed, where the notion of such a science can be regarded as utopian. It is also because the importance of utopian thought is itself being revalued, so that some now see it as the crucial vector of desire, without which even the laws are, in one version, imperfect, and, in another version, mechanical, needing desire to give them direction and substance. This reaction is understandable but it makes the utopian impulse more simple, more singular, than in the history of utopias, it is. Indeed the variability of the utopian situation, the utopian impulse, and the utopian result is crucial to the understanding of utopian fiction.
This can be seen from one of the classical contrasts, between More’s Utopia and Bacon’s New Atlantis. It is usual to say that these show, respectively, a humanist and a scientific utopia:
that excellent perfection of all good fashions, humanitye and civile gentilnesse [More — first English translation, 1551];
the end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible [Bacon, 1627].
It can be agreed that the two fictions exemplify the difference between a willed general transformation and a technological transformation; that More projects a commonwealth, in which men live and feel differently, while Bacon projects a highly specialised, unequal but affluent and efficient social order. But a full contrast has other levels. Thus they stand near the opposite poles of the utopia of free consumption and the utopia of free production. More’s island is a cooperative subsistence economy; Bacon’s a specialised industrial economy. These can be seen as permanent alternative images, and the swing towards one or another, in socialist ideology as in progressive utopianism, is historically very significant. One might indeed write a history of modern socialist thought in terms of the swing between a Morean cooperative simplicity and a Baconian mastery of nature, except that the most revealing trend has been their unconscious fusion. Yet what we can now perceive as permanent alternative images was rooted, in each case, in a precise social and class situation. More’s humanism is deeply qualified: his indignation is directed as much against importunate and prodigal craftsmen and labourers as against the exploiting and engrossing landlords — his social identification is with the small owners, his laws regulate and protect but also compel labour. It is qualified also because it is static: a wise and entrenched regulation by the elders. It is then socially the projection of a declining class, generalized to a relatively humane but permanent balance. Bacon’s scientism is similarly qualified: the scientific revolution of experiment and discovery becomes research and development in an instrumental social perspective. Enlarging the bounds of human empire is not only the mastery of nature; it is also, as a social projection, an aggressive, autocratic, imperialist enterprise; the projection of a rising class.
We cannot abstract desire. It is always desire for something specific, in specifically impelling circumstances. Consider three utopian fictions of the late nineteenth century: Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871); Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888); William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890).
The Coming Race is at one level an obvious example of the mode of technological transformation. What makes the Vril-ya, who live under our Earth, civilized is their possession of Vril, that all-purpose energy source which lies beyond electricity and magnetism. Outlying underground peoples who do not possess Vril are barbarians; indeed the technology is the civilisation, and the improvement of manners and of social relations is firmly based on it alone. The changes thus brought about are the transformation of work into play, the dissolution of the State and in effect the outlawing of competitive and aggressive social relations. Yet it is not, for all the obvious traces of influence, either a socialist or an anarchist utopia. It is a projection of the idealised social attitudes of an aristocracy, now generalised and distanced from the realities of rent and production by the technological determinism of Vril. In its complementary liberation of sexual and family relations (in fact qualified, though apparently emphasized, by the simple reversal of the relative size and roles of women and men) it can be sharply contrasted with the rigidities of these relations within More’s humanism. But this is of a piece with the aristocratic projection. It is (as in some later fantasies, with similarly privileged assumptions) a separation of personal and sexual relations from those problems of care, protection, maintenance, and security which Vril has superseded. Affluence delivers liberation. By contrast the greed, the aggression, the dominativeness, the coarseness, the vulgarity of the surface world — the world, significantly, both of capitalism and of democracy — are easily placed. They are what are to be expected in a world without Vril and therefore Vril-ya. Indeed there are moments when Vril can almost be compared with Culture, in Matthew Arnold’s virtually contemporary Culture and Anarchy. Arnold’s spiritual aristocracy, his spiritual force beyond all actual classes, has, though, been magically achieved, without the prolonged effort that Arnold described, by the properties of Vril. It is in each case desire, but desire for what? A civilising transformation, beyond the terms of a restless, struggling society of classes.
What has also to be said, though, about The Coming Race is that desire is tinged with awe and indeed with fear. The title introduces that evolutionary dimension which form this period on is newly available in utopian fiction. When the Vril-ya come to the surface they will simply replace men, as in effect a higher and more powerful species. And it is not only in his unVril humanity that the hero fears this. Towards the end he sounds the note that we shall hear so clearly later in Huxley’s Brave New World: that something valuable and even decisive — initiative and creativity are the hovering words — has been lost in the displacement of human industry to Vril. This was a question that was to haunt the technological utopia. (Meanwhile, back in 19th century society, an entrepreneur took his own short-cut. Inspired by Lytton he made a fortune from a beef extract called Bovril.)
Bellamy’s Looking Backward is unquestionably a utopia, in the central sense of a transformed social life of the future, but it is in a significant way a work without desire; its impulse is different, an overriding rationalism, a determining total organisation, which finds its proper institutional counterparts in the State-monopoly capitalism which is seen as the inevitable “next stage in the industrial and social development of humanity” (the order of adjectives there is decisive.) That this forecast, rather than vision, was widely taken as socialism is indicative of a major tendency in Bellamy’s period, which can be related to Fabianism but has also now to be related to a major current in orthodox Marxism: socialism as the next higher stage of economic organisation, a proposition which is taken as overriding, except in the most general terms, questions of substantially different social relations and human motives. Morris’s critique of Bellamy repeated almost exactly what is called the Romantic but is more properly the radical critique of utilitarian social models — that “the underlying vice … is that the author cannot conceive … anything else than themachinery of society”: the central point made in this tradition, from Carlyle’s Signs of the Times onward. Morris’s fuller response was his News from Nowhere, but before we look at this we should include a crucial point about the history of utopian writing, recently put forward by M. H. Abensour in his Paris dissertation “Formes de l’utopie Socialiste-Communiste.”
Abensour establishes a crucial periodisation in the utopian mode, according to which there is, after 1850, a change from the systematic building of alternative organisational models to a more open and heuristicdiscourse of alternative values. E.P. Thompson, discussing Abensour in New Left Review No. 99 (1976), has interpreted this latter mode as the “education of desire.” It is an important emphasis, since it allows us to see more clearly by contrast, how examples of the mode of “willed social transformation” can be shifted, in their essence, to the mode of “technological transformation,” where the technology need not be only a marvellous new energy source, or some industrial resource of that kind, but can be also a new set of laws, new abstract property relations, indeed precisely new social machinery. But then, when we have said this, and recognized the contrasting value of the more heuristic mode in which the substance of new values and relations is projected, with comparatively little attention to institutions, we have to relate the change to the historical situation within which it occurred. For the shift from one mode to another can be negative as well as positive. To imagine a whole alternative society is not mere model-building, any more than the projection of new feelings and relationships is necessarily a transforming response. The whole alternative society rests, paradoxically, on two quite different social situations: either that of social confidence, the mood of a rising class, which knows, down to detail, that it can replace the existing order; or that of social despair, the mood of a declining class or fraction of a class, which has to create a new heaven because its Earth is a hell. The basis of the more open but also the vaguer mode is different from either. It is a society in which change is happening, but primarily under the direction and in the terms of the dominant social order itself. This is always a fertile moment for what is, in effect, an anarchism: positive in its fierce rejection, of domination, repression, and manipulation; negative in its willed neglect of structures, of continuity and of material constraints. The systematic mode is a response to tyranny or disintegration; the heuristic mode, by contrast, seems to be primarily a response to a constrained reformism.
It is then not a question of asking which is better or stronger. The heuristic utopia offers a strength of vision against the grain; the systematic utopia a strength of conviction that the world really can be different. The heuristic utopia, at the same time, has the weakness that it can settle into isolated and in the end sentimental “desire,” a mode of living with alienation, while the systematic utopia has the weakness that, in its insistent organisation, it seems to offer little room for any recognisable life. These strengths and weaknesses vary, of course, in individual examples of each mode, but they vary most decisively, not only in the periods in which they are written but in the periods in which they are read. The mixed character of each mode then has much to do with the character of the 20th-century dystopias which have succeeded them. For the central contemporary question about the utopian modes is why there is a progression, within their structures, to the specific reversals of a Zamyatin, a Huxley, an Orwell — of a generation of SF writers.
It is in this perspective that we have now to read News from Nowhere. It is commonly diagnosed and criticised as a generous but sentimental heuristic transformation. And this is substantially right, of the parts that are made ordinarily to stick in the mind: the medievalism of visual detail and the beautiful people in the summer along the river are inextricable from the convincing openness and friendliness and relaxed cooperation. But these are residual elements in the form: the Utopians, the Houyhnhnms, the Vril-ya would have found Morris’s people cousins at least, though the dimensions of universal mutuality have made an identifying difference. But what is emergent in Morris’s work, and what seems to me increasingly the strongest part of News from Nowhere, is the crucial insertion of the transition to utopia, which is not discovered, come across, or projected — not even, except at the simplest conventional level, dreamed — but fought for. Between writer or reader and this new condition is chaos, civil war, painful and slow reconstruction. The sweet little world at the end of all this is at once a result and a promise; an offered assurance of “days of peace and rest,” after the battle has been won.
Morris was strong enough, even his world is at times strong enough, to face this process, this necessary order of events. But when utopia is not merely the alternative world, throwing its light on the darkness of the intolerable present, but lies at the far end of generations of struggle and of fierce and destructive conflict , its perspective, necessarily, is altered. The post-religious imagining of a harmonious community, the enlightened rational projection of an order of peace and plenty, have been replaced, or at least qualified, by the light at the end of the tunnel, the sweet promise which sustains effort and principle and hope through the long years of revolutionary preparation and organisation. This is a genuine turning-point. Where the path to utopia was moral redemption or rational declaration — that light on a higher order which illuminates an always present possibility — the mode itself was radically different from the modern mode of conflict and resolution.
Morris’s chapters “How the Change Came” and “The Beginning of the New Life” are strong and convincing. “Thus at last and by slow degrees we get pleasure into our work”: this is not the perspective of reformism, which in spirit, in its evasion of fundamental conflicts and sticking points, is much nearer to the older utopian mode; it is the perspective of revolution — not only the armed struggle but the long and uneven development of new social relations and human feelings. That they have been developed, that the long and difficult enterprise has succeeded, is crucial; it is the transition from dream to vision. But it is then reasonable to ask whether the achieved new condition is not at least as much rest after struggle — the relaxed and quiet evening after a long, hard day — as any kind of released new energy and life. The air of late Victorian holiday is made to override the complexities, the divergences, the everyday materialities of any working society. When the time-dreamer finds himself fading, as he looks in on the feast at the old church, the emotions are very complex: the comforting recall of a medieval precedent — “the churchales of the Middle Ages”; the wrench of regret that he cannot belong to this new life; and then also, perhaps, for all the convinced assent to the sight of the burdens having been lifted, the impulse — and is it only unregenerate? — of an active, engaged, deeply vigorous mind to register the impression, though it is put into a voice from the future, “that our happiness even would weary you.” It is the fused and confused moment of the longing for communism, the longing for rest and the commitment to urgent, complex, vigorous activity.
2. When utopia is no longer an island or a newly discovered place, but our familiar country transformed by specific historical change, the mode of imagined transformation has fundamentally changed. But the historical agency was not only, as in Morris, revolution. It was also, as in Wells, some kind of modernising, rationalising force: the vanguard of Samurai, of scientists, of engineers, of technical innovators. Early rationalist utopias had only, in the manner of Owen, to be declared to be adopted; reason had that inevitability. Wells, refusing popular revolution, belonged to his time in seeing agency as necessary, and there is a convincing match between the kind of agency he selected — a type of social engineering plus a rapidly developing technology — and the point of arrival: a clean, orderly, efficient and planned (controlled) society. It is easy to see this now as an affluent state capitalism or monopoly socialism; indeed many of the images have been literally built. But we can also, holding Morris and Wells together in our minds, see a fundamental tension within the socialist movement itself — indeed in practice within revolutionary socialism. For there are other vanguards than those of Wells, and the Stalinist version of the bureaucratic Party, engineering a future which is primarily defined as technology and production, not only has its connections to Wells but has to be radically distinguished from the revolutionary socialism of Morris and of Marx, in which new social and human relations, transcending the deep divisions of industrial capitalist specialisation, of town and country, of rulers and ruled, administrators and administered, are from the beginning the central and primary objective. It is within this complex of tendencies — of efficient and affluent capitalism set against an earlier capitalist poverty and disorder; of socialism against capitalism in either phase; and of the deep divisions, within socialism itself, between the reformist free-riders with capitalism, the centralising social engineers, and the revolutionary democrats — that we have to consider the mode of dystopia, which is both written and read within this extreme theoretical and practical complexity.
Thus Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) projects a black amalgam of Wellsian rationality and the names and phrases of revolutionary socialism in a specific context of mobile and affluent corporate capitalism. This sounds and is confused, but the confusion is significant; it is the authentic confusion of two generations of SF itself, in its powerful dystopian mode. “Community, Identity, Stability”: this is the motto of the Brave New World State. It is interesting to track these ideals back into the utopian mode. Stability, undoubtedly, has a strong bearing; most of the types of utopia have strongly emphasised it, as an achieved perfection or a self-adjusting harmony. Huxley adds the specific agencies of repression, manipulation, pre-natal conditioning, and drugged distraction. Western SF has been prolific in its elaboration of all these agencies: the models, after all, have been close to hand. Stability blurs to Identity: the manufacture of human types to fit the stabilised model; but this, crucially, was never an explicit utopian mode, though in some examples it is assumed or implied. Variability and autonomy, within the generally harmonious condition, are indeed among its primary features. But now, under the pressures of consumer capitalism and of monopoly socialism, the mode has broken. As in the later stages of realist fiction, self-realisation and self-fulfillment are not to be found in relationship or in society, but in breakaway, in escape: the path the Savage takes, like a thousand heroes of late-realist fiction, getting out from under the old place, the old people, the old family, or like a thousand SF heroes, running to the wastes to escape the machine, the city, the system. But then the last and most questionable irony: the first word of the motto of this repressive, dominating, controlling system is Community: the keyword, centrally, of the entire utopian mode. It is at this point that the damage is done or, to put it another way, is admitted. It is in the name of Community, the utopian impulse, and in the names of communism (Bernard Marx and Lenina) that the system is seen as realised, though the actual tendencies — from the degradation of labor through an ultimate division and specialisation to the organised mobility and muzac of planned consumption — rely for their recognition on a contemporary capitalist world. In this 1946 foreword Huxley continued his running together of historically contrary impulses but then, interestingly, returned to utopia, offering a third way beyond the incubator society and the primitive reservation: a self-governing and balanced community, little different in spirit from Morris’ future society except that it is limited to “exiles and refugees,” people escaping from a dominant system which they have no chance or hope of changing collectively. Utopia then lies at the far end of dystopia, but only a few will enter it; the few who get out from under. It is the path travelled, in the same period, by bourgeois cultural theory: from the universal liberation, in bourgeois terms, through the phase in which the minority first educates and then regenerates the majority, to the last sour period in which what is now called “minority culture” has to find its reservation, its hiding-place, beyond both the system and the fight against the system. But then what is so strange is that this last phase, in some writing, returns to the utopian mode, throwing strange questions back to the whole prior tradition: questions which disturb the apparently simple grammar of desire — that desire for another place and another time which, instead of being idealised, can be seen as always and everywhere a displacement, but which can itself be transformed when a history is moving.
Not in Utopia — subterranean fields
Or in some secret island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us — the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!
Wordsworth’s emphasis, it is true, can go either way: into revolutionary effort, when history is moving; into a resigned settlement when it goes wrong or gets stuck. The utopian mode has to be read, always, within that changing context, which itself determines whether its defining subjunctive tense is part of a grammar which includes a true indicative and a true future, or whether it has seized every paradigm and become exclusive, in assent and dissent alike.
For the same consideration puts hard questions to the now dominant mode of dystopia. Orwell’s 1984 is no more plausible than Morris’s 2003, but its naturalised subjunctive is more profoundly exclusive, more dogmatically repressive of struggle and possibility, than anything within the utopian tradition. It is also, more sourly and more fiercely than in Huxley, a collusion, in that the state warned against and satirised — the repression of autonomy, the cancellation of variations and alternatives — is built into the fictional form which is nominally its opponent, converting all opposition into agencies of the repression, imposing, within its excluding totality, the inevitability and the hopelessness which it assumes as a result. No more but perhaps no less plausible than Morris’s 2003; but then, in the more open form, there is also Morris’s 1952 (the date of the revolution), and the years following it: years in which the subjunctive is a true subjunctive, rather than a displaced indicative, because its energy flows both ways, forward and back, and because in its issue, in the struggle, it can go either way.
3. The projection of new heavens and new hells has been a commonplace in SF. Yet perhaps a majority of them, just because they are so often literally out of this world, are functions of fundamental alteration: not merely the intervention of altered circumstance, which in the type of the externally altered world is a minor mode of the utopian, but a basic recasting of the physical conditions of life and thence of its life forms. And then in most stories this is a simple exoticism, generically tied to the supernatural or magical romance. There is a range from casual to calculated fantasy, which is at the opposite pole from the hypothesised “science” of SF. Yet, perhaps inextricable from this genre, though bearing different emphases, there is a mode which is truly the result of a dimension of modern science: in natural history, with its radical linkages between life-forms and life-space; in scientific anthropology, with its methodological assumption of distinct and alternative cultures. The interrelation between these is often significant. The materialist tendency of the former is often annulled by an idealist projection at the last, mental phase of the speculation; the beast or the vegetable, at the top of its mind, is a human variation. The differential tendency of the latter, by contrast, is often an overriding of material form and condition: an overriding related to idealist anthropology, in which alternatives are in effect wholly voluntary. Yet it is part of the power of SF that it is always potentially a mode of authentic shift: a crisis of exposure which produces a crisis of possibility; a reworking, in imagination, of all forms and conditions.
In this at once liberating and promiscuous mode, SF as a whole has moved beyond the utopian; in a majority of cases, it is true, because it has also fallen short of it. Most direct extrapolation of our own conditions and forms — social and political but also immanently material — has been in effect or in intention dystopian: atomic war, famine, overpopulation, electronic surveillance have written 1984 into millennia of possible dates. To live otherwise, commonly, is to be other and elsewhere: a desire displaced by alienation and in this sense cousin to phases of the utopian, but without the specific of a connected or potentially connecting transformation and then again without the ties of a known condition and form. So that while the utopian transformation is social and moral, the SF transformation, in its dominant Western modes, is at once beyond and beneath: not social and moral but natural; in effect, as so widely in Western thought since the late 19th century, a mutation at the point of otherwise intolerable exposure and crisis: not so much, in the old sense, a new life as a new species, a new nature.
It is then interesting within this largely alternative mode to find a clear example of an evidently deliberate return to the utopian tradition, in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974). It is a return within some of the specific conditions of SF. The alternative society is on the moon of a far planet, and space-travel and electronic communication — to say nothing of the possibilities of the “ansible,” that device for instantaneous space-wide communication developed from the theory of simultaneity — permit interaction between the alternative and the original society, within a wider interaction of other galactic civilisations. At one level the spaceship and the ansible can do no more, technically, than the sea voyage, the cleft in the underground cavern and, crucially, the dream. But they permit, instrumentally, what is also necessary for another and more serious reason: the sustained comparison of the utopian and the non-utopian options. The form of the novel, with its alternating chapters on Anarres and Urras, is designed for this exploratory comparison. And the reason is the historical moment of this looking again at utopia: the moment of renewed direct social and political hope, a renewed alternative social and political morality, in a context with one variable from the ordinary origins of the utopian mode, i.e. that within the world in which the hope is being interestedly if warily examined, there is not, or apparently not, the overwhelming incentive of war, poverty, and disease. When Morris’s dreamer goes back from 21st to 19th century London the questions are not only moral; they are directly physical, in the evidently avoidable burdens of poverty and squalor. But when Le Guin’s Shevek goes from Anarres to Urras he finds, within the place provided for him, an abundance, an affluence, a vitality, which are sensually overwhelming in comparison with his own moral but arid world. It is true that when he steps out of his place and discovers the class underside of this dominant prosperity the comparison is qualified, but that need only mean that the exuberant affluence depends on that class relationship and that the alternative is still a shared and equal relative poverty. It is true also that the comparison is qualified, in the text as a whole, by what is in effect a note that our own civilisation — that of Earth, which in its North American sector Urras so closely and deliberately resembles — has been long destroyed: “appetite” and “violence” destroyed it; we did not “adapt” in time; some survivors live under the ultimate controls of “life in the ruins.” But this, strictly, is by the way. Urras, it appears, is not in such danger; Anarres remains the social and moral option, the human alternative to a society that is, in its extended dominant forms, successful. It is among its repressed and rejected that the impulse stirs, renewing itself, after a long interval, to follow the breakaway revolution, anarchist and socialist, which took the Odonians from Urras to a new life on Anarres. Shevek’s journey is the way back and the way forward: a dissatisfaction with what has happened in the alternative society but then a strengthened renewal of the original impulse to build it. In two evident ways, then, The Dispossessed has the marks of its period: the wary questioning of the utopian impulse itself, even within its basic acceptance; the uneasy consciousness that the superficies of utopia — affluence and abundance — can be achieved, at least for many, by non-utopian and even anti-utopian means.
The shift is significant, after so long a dystopian interval. It belongs to a general renewal of a form of utopian thinking — not the education but the learning of desire — which has been significant among Western radicals since the crises and also since the defeats of the 1960s. Its structures are highly specific. It is a mode within which a privileged affluence is at once assumed and rejected: assumed and in its own ways enjoyed, yet known, from inside, as lying and corrupt; rejected, from in close, because of its successful corruption; rejected, further out, by learning and imagining the condition of the excluded others. There is then the move to drop out and join the excluded; the move to get away, to get out from under, to take the poorer material option for a clear moral advantage. For nothing is more significant, in Le Guin’s contrasted worlds, than that Anarres, the utopia, is bleak and arid; the prosperous vitality of the classical utopia is in the existing society that is being rejected. This is a split of a major kind. It is not that Anarres is primitivist: “they knew that their anarchism was the product of a very high civilization, of a complex diversified culture, of a stable economy and a highly industrialized technology” (§4). In this sense, the modification of Morris is important; it is clearly a future and not a past, a socially higher rather than a socially simplified form. But it is significantly only available in what is in effect a waste land; the good land is in the grip of the Urrasti dominance. It is then the movement Huxley imagined, in his 1946 foreword. It is not the transformation, it is the getaway.
It is a generous and open getaway, within the limited conditions of its wasteland destination. The people of Anarres live as well, in all human terms, as Morris’s cooperators; mutuality is shown to be viable, in a way all the more so because there is no abundance to make it easy. The social and ethical norms are at the highest point of the utopian imagination. But then there is a wary questioning beyond them: not the corrosive cynicism of the dystopian mode, but a reaching beyond basic mutuality to new kinds of individual responsibility and, with them, choice, dissent, and conflict. For this, again of its period, is an open utopia: forced open, after the congealing of ideals, the degeneration of mutuality into conservatism; shifted, deliberately, from its achieved harmonious condition, the stasis in which the classical utopian mode culminates, to restless, open, risk-taking experiment. It is a significant and welcome adaptation, depriving utopia of its classical end of struggle, its image of perpetual harmony and rest. This deprivation, like the waste land, may be seen as daunting, as the cutting-in of elements of a dominant dystopia. But whereas the waste land is voluntary deprivation, by the author — product of a defeatist assessment of the possibilities of transformation in good and fertile country — the openness is in fact a strengthening; indeed it is probably only to such a utopia that those who have known affluence and known with it social injustice and moral corruption can be summoned. It is not the last journey. In particular it is not the journey which all those still subject to direct exploitation, to avoidable poverty and disease, will imagine themselves making: a transformed this-world, of course with all the imagined and undertaken and fought-for modes of transformation. But it is where, within a capitalist dominance, and within the crisis of power and affluence which is also the crisis of war and waste, the utopian impulse now warily, self-questioningly, and setting its own limits, renews itself.
*ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. This essay will appear in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. Patrick Parrinder, forthcoming from Longmans (London, 1979).
**SELECT SECONDARY LITERATURE: M.H. Abensour, Utopies et dialectique du socialisme(forthcoming); John Fekete, The Critical Twilight (UK 1977); John Goode, “William Morris and the Dream of Revolution,” in John Lucas, ed., Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century (UK 1971); A.L. Morton, The English Utopia (UK 1969); Patrick Parrinder, H.G. Wells (US 1977); Darko Suvin, “The Alternate Islands,” Science-Fiction Studies, 3 (Nov. 1976); E.P. Thompson, William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (new edn. US 1977); Raymond Williams, Orwell (UK 1971).
There are many connections between science fiction and utopian fiction, yet neither is a simple mode, and the relationships between them are complex. If we analyze the fictions that have been grouped as utopian we can distinguish four types: a) the paradise, in which a happier life is described as simply existing elsewhere; b) the externally altered world, in which a new kind of life has been made possible by an unlooked for natural event; c) the willed transformation, in which a new kind of life has been achieved by human effort; and finally d) the technological transformation, in which a new kind of life has been made possible by a technical discovery. (Dystopian narratives may be discussed by inverting these terms, the utopian paradise becoming dystopian hell, for instance.) Among the texts discussed in the light of Engels’s distinction between “utopian” and “scientific” socialism are Bacon’s New Atlantis, More’s Utopia, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.