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Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.

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The concept of a utopia or "Ideal State" is linked to religious ideas of Heaven or the Promised Land and to folkloristic ideas like the Isles of the Blessed, but it is essentially a future-historical goal, to be achieved by the active efforts of human beings, not a transcendental goal reserved as a reward for those who follow a particularly virtuous path in life. The term was coined by Thomas More in Utopia (Latin edition 1516; trans 1551; many editions since), although More's work has far more Satire than practical Politics in it; he derived the word from "outopia" (no place) rather than "eutopia" (good place), although modern usage generally implies the latter, and modern works recapitulating More's ideas – including The New Moon: A Romance of Reconstruction (1918) by Oliver Onions and The Rebel Passion (1929) by Kay Burdekin – do so more earnestly than he did.

It can be argued that all utopias are sf, in that they are exercises in hypothetical Sociology and political science. Alternatively, it might be argued that only those utopias which embody some notion of scientific advancement qualify as sf – the latter view is in keeping with most Definitions of SF. Frank E Manuel and Fritzie P Manuel, in Utopian Thought in the Western World (1979), argue that a significant shift in utopian thought took place when writers changed from talking about a better place (eutopia) to talking about a better time (euchronia), under the influence of notions of historical and social progress. When this happened, utopias ceased to be imaginary constructions with which contemporary society might be compared, and began to be speculative statements about real future possibilities. It seems sensible to regard this as the point at which utopian literature acquired a character conceptually similar to that of sf. The scientific imagination first became influential in utopian thinking in the seventeenth century: an awareness of the advancement of scientific knowledge and of the role that science might play in transforming society is very evident in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (bound in with Sylva Sylvarum 1626; 1627 chap) and Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1637). Bacon's claims for the utopian potential of technological advance are extravagant, and inspired at least two later writers to undertake the fragment's completion (R H Esquire in 1660 and Jos. Glanvil in 1676); but works such as The Blazing World (1668) by Margaret Cavendish, Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) by Jonathan Swift and Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson embody a very different attitude, Parodying the efforts of Scientists and inventors and mocking their presumed unworldliness. It was left to a school of French philosophers during the second half of the eighteenth century to become the first strident champions of the idea that moral and technological progress went hand in hand. L S Mercier's pioneering euchronian novel, L'an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771; trans as Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred 1772) proposed that the perfectibility of mankind was not only possible but inevitable, with the aid of science, mathematics and the mechanical arts. Another member of the school, Restif de la Bretonne, concluded La découverte australe par un homme volant, ou le Dédale français ["The Southern-Hemisphere Discovery by a Flying Man, or the French Daedalus"] (1781) with a description of a utopian state based on the principles of natural philosophy and scientific advancement. Scepticism was not, however, entirely overcome. Aristotle's doubts about the workability of Plato's Republic, based on the observation that its citizens would lack incentives to make them work, remained to be countered; and the end of the eighteenth century produced Malthus's objection – that population increase would always outstrip resources no matter how much Technology increased production – to the utopian optimism of William Godwin (1756-1836).

Despite the international popularity of Mercier's book, the nineteenth century was well advanced before the utopian potential of scientific progress was widely celebrated in English literature. Jane Loudon's anonymous Scientific Romance The Mummy! (1827) has some utopian undertones, but Mary Griffith's Three Hundred Years Hence (in Camperdown, coll 1836; 1950) was the first English-language utopian novel to endorse Mercier's optimism wholeheartedly. In many of the classic UK utopias of the nineteenth century there is a strong vein of antiscientific romanticism. Lord Lytton's The Coming Race (1870) is more occult romance than progressive utopia. Samuel Butler's satirical Erewhon (1872) and its sequel are Pastoral and antimechanical insofar as they are utopian at all. W H Hudson's A Crystal Age (1887) is a mystical work whose pastoral Ideal State remains inaccessible to the civilized man who stumbles into it. Richard Jefferies's After London (1885) is even more extreme in its nostalgia for barbarism. This romantic pastoralism extended into twentieth-century UK scientific romance in the works of J Leslie Mitchell and S Fowler Wright, both of whom glorified a life of noble savagery in opposition to the idea of utopia as a city, and a similar suspicion continues to infect modern UK sf. Nineteenth-century US writers, by contrast, tended to see their emergent nation as the true homeland of progress – a presumption brought to full flower in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887 (1888), which provoked a great many imitations and replies in kind, including Alvarado M Fuller's A.D. 2000 (1890), Arthur Bird's Looking Forward: A Dream of the United States of the Americas in 1999 (1899), Paul Devinne's The Day of Prosperity (1902) and Herman Hine Brinsmade's Utopia Achieved (1912). Most of the dissenting voices objected to Bellamy's socialism on political grounds, although Ignatius Donnelly's pioneering Dystopia Caesar's Column (1890) argued that technological society's historical momentum was towards greater inequality and social injustice, and the most famous of the UK replies, William Morris's News from Nowhere (1890), objected to the prospect of humanity living in idleness while machines supplied its needs. Nevertheless, Bellamy's book became the archetype of a whole school of mechanized utopias; further technology-glorifying novels in its wake included The Crystal Button (1891) by Chauncey Thomas and Limanora (1903) by Godfrey Sweven. Other nations discovered prophets of technological utopia: the German statesman Walther Rathenau (1867-1922) wrote Von kommenden Dingen (1917; trans Eden and Cedar Paul as In Days to Come 1921) and Der neue staat (1919; trans Arthur Windham as The New Society 1921), while H G Wells became the UK's great prophet of utopian progress in such works as A Modern Utopia (1905), Men Like Gods (1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). But scepticism was further renewed too. Anatole France's Sur la pierre blanche (1905; trans as The White Stone 1910) pays homage to Wells, but has a citizen of a future utopian state declare that peace and plenty are insufficient to ensure happiness, which is a problem of an entirely different kind. E M Forster, in "The Machine Stops" (November 1909 Oxford and Cambridge Review), objected much more fiercely, asserting that Wellsian dreams were sterile and would lead to stagnation of the human mind. Alexandr Moszkowski's Die Inselt der Weisheit (1922; trans as The Isles of Wisdom 1924) set out to show that all utopian schemes are absurd, and that real people could not live in them.

Hugo Gernsback was a confirmed euchronian and an enthusiastic propagandist for technological progress. His Pulp magazines lent what aid they could, practically and imaginatively, to the cause. In Modern Electrics he serialized his own utopian romance Ralph 124C 41+ (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; 1925), and he regarded "scientifiction" as a means of promoting the magnificent potential of modern Technology. By the time Amazing Stories was founded in 1926, however, there had been a considerable loss of faith in utopian thought, and dystopian images of the future were becoming commonplace. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), a scathing satirical attack on scientific utopianism as expressed in J B S Haldane's Daedalus (1924), tipped the balance decisively in favour of anxiety about how the technologies of the future might be used. Despite Gernsback's inspiration and intention, Genre SF has never been strongly utopian. The early sf pulps abounded with adventure stories set in pseudo-utopian futures where poverty and injustice were nowhere in evidence but, when sf writers like David H Keller turned their attention to serious speculation about the future, unease was manifest. Miles J Breuer in "Paradise and Iron" (Summer 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly), Laurence Manning and Fletcher Pratt in "City of the Living Dead" (May 1930 Wonder Stories) and John W Campbell Jr in "Twilight" (November 1934 Astounding as by Don A Stuart) all warned that decadence and decline might be the consequence of overdependence on machines. Where utopian states were manifest in pulp sf, as in The Sunken World (Summer 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly; 1949) by Stanton Coblentz, they were often small enclaves facing imminent destruction. This was the fate of utopian dreams outside the sf establishment, too: after World War One they were mostly relegated to the status of the Isles of the Blessed, as pleasant impossibilities.

Thus utopian thought since the Great War dissociated itself to a large extent from the idea of progress; it was most commonly encountered in connection with the idea of a "historical retreat" to a way of simpler life, as in James Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933), in the very elaborate Islandia (1942) by Austin Tappan Wright and its various sequels by other hands, in Watch the North Wind Rise (1949; vt Seven Days in New Crete 1949) by Robert Graves, in Aldous Huxley's Island (1962), in In Watermelon Sugar (1968) by Richard Brautigan, and in Ecotopia (1974 American Review #19 as "First Days in Ecotopia"; 1975) and its sequel by Ernest Callenbach. Even the recent past has been restored by the momentum of nostalgia almost to the status of a utopia, in such novels as Time and Again (1970) by Jack Finney. Utopian designs extrapolating individual hobby-horses are still produced – early examples include Erone (1943) by Chalmers Kearney and Walden Two (1948) by B F Skinner – but large-scale attempts to imagine a technologically developed future state which is in any sense of the word ideal tend to be highly ambivalent: in Herman Hesse's Magister Ludi (1943; trans 1950; vt The Glass Bead Game) the hero finally rejects the ideal on which his society is based, and Franz Werfel's phantasmagoric Stern der Ungeborenen (1946; trans as Star of the Unborn 1946) imagines a futuristic demi-Paradise which is still under threat from rebellion and war, and retains many horrors.

Within genre sf those novels which can be cited as examples of analytical utopian thought retain the same deep ambiguity, tending towards rejection. Theodore Sturgeon's Venus Plus X (1960) constructs a hermaphrodite utopia for evaluation by a man of our time, who fails the test by failing to overcome his prejudice against hermaphroditism even though it points, though ambiguously, towards an ideal society. James Blish and Norman L Knight boldly devised a "fascist utopia" for A Torrent of Faces (1967), but the state seems hardly ideal. Mack Reynolds's determined revisitation of Bellamyesque ideas in Looking Backward from the Year 2000 (1973) was carried enthusiastically forward in his Equality in the Year 2000 (1977), but then ran into accumulating doubts in his Perchance to Dream (1977) and After Utopia (1977). Ursula K Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) carries the subtitle "An Ambiguous Utopia". Samuel R Delany's Triton (1976), presumably in response, is subtitled "An Ambiguous Heterotopia", implying that the word has been devalued along with the dream and carrying forward the notion that human individuals are so different, and so prone to change, that only a very heterogeneous society could possibly aspire to provide utopian opportunities for all – an idea less convincingly developed in Reynolds's Commune 2000 (1974) and R F Nelson's Then Beggars Could Ride (1976). Suzy McKee Charnas's Motherlines (1979) – a sequel to her dystopian Walk to the End of the World (1974) – follows Le Guin in tying uncompromising idealism to social deprivation. Frederik Pohl's JEM: The Making of a Utopia (1979) is relentlessly cynical, although The Years of the City (fixup 1984) does try to accept the challenge of developing solutions to the world's problems, as (less convincingly) does James E Gunn's Crisis! (fixup 1986). Even a Hard-SF writer like Poul Anderson tends to attribute utopian qualities to low-technology societies like that of the "Maurai" in Orion Shall Rise (1983), although a more robustly apologetic line is taken by some other libertarian writers, notably Larry Niven and Jerry E Pournelle in their quasi-utopian "arcology" or Keep in Oath of Fealty (1981) – which extrapolates ideas earlier developed in Mack Reynolds's The Towers of Utopia (1975) – and James P Hogan in Voyage from Yesteryear (1982). It is perhaps significant that in the works of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, both proselytizers for the beneficence of technological advance, there is very little utopian thought. The imagery of Clarke's optimistic Imperial Earth (1975) cannot compare with that of The City and the Stars (November 1948 Startling as "Against the Fall of Night"; 1953; exp and much rev vt 1956), which echoes Forster's "The Machine Stops" and Campbell's "Twilight", while Asimov's dystopian settings for Pebble in the Sky (1950) and The Caves of Steel (1954) are described far more graphically than utopian Trantor, which is already in terminal decline as the Foundation series begins. Sf in Soviet Russia, as pioneered by Ivan Yefremov's Andromeda (1958; trans 1959), had for a while a presumed mission to look forward to the promised socialist utopia, and undertook a more enthusiastic championship of the alliance of technology and socialism than may be found in even Bellamy or Wells, but the mission faltered well in advance of the collapse of Soviet communism; the novels of the Strugatski brothers in particular – notably Trudno byt' bogom (1964; trans as Hard to be a God 1973) and Khishchnye veshchi veka (1965; trans as The Final Circle of Paradise 1976) – display an anxiety comparable to that of contemporary Western sf.

The necessity for works of fiction to be dramatic and the fact that workable plots require conflict inhibit the use of sf to display utopian schemes. These still fit more comfortably into popular works of Futures Studies like Brian M Stableford and David Langford's The Third Millennium: A History of the World 2000-3000 A.D. (1985), which offers a moderately detailed image of a future where a kind of utopia has been secured by technological advancement, especially in the biological sciences. Perhaps the most utopian setting in popular modern sf is the post-scarcity, quasi-communist, AI-mediated galactic society of Iain Banks's Culture sequence, in which drama is supplied by Future War waged for ideological reasons against the Culture, as in Consider Phlebas (1987); by the Culture's weakness (reminiscent of the USA) for intervening in less utopian societies through its "Special Circumstances" black-ops arm, as in The Player of Games (1988), Use of Weapons (1990) and with particularly disastrous unintended effects in Look to Windward (2000); and by internal factionalism, as in Excession (1996). To the end of Banks's career the Culture remained a highly attractive place to live, yet with ample room for Space-Opera action on its fringes.

Threats to a future utopia or near-utopia also provide story-energizing conflict in such works as Charles Stross's Saturn's Children (2008) and Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 (2012); further examples abound.

Two relevant theme anthologies are The New Improved Sun: An Anthology of Utopian Science Fiction (anth 1976) edited by Thomas M Disch and Isaac Asimov's Utopias (anth 2000) edited by Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams. [BS/DRL]

see also: Bioshock; Economics; Feminism; History of SF; Libertarian SF; Mainstream Writers of SF; Optimism and Pessimism; Proto SF.

further reading (highly selected)


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