Utopian Effects, Dystopian Pleasures

by Peter Fitting (Author)
Others XXIV, 436 Pages

Table Of Content

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Like More’s Utopia, this collection documents an extended dialogue between countless scholars, artists, and friends of the author who have helped to shape the field of Utopian Studies, and not all of whom could ever be acknowledged here. For my own part, I am thankful to Tom Moylan, with whom I first discussed the idea of the “Fitting Reader” some years back over dinner in Belfast, and who, along with Raffaella Baccolini and Michael Kelly of the Ralahine Utopian Series editorial board, ensured it would not remain a merely abstract utopian project. Nor could this volume have been realized without the skilled assistance of Anthony Mason, Christabel Scaife, and Philip Dunshea at Peter Lang. I am also grateful to Fredric Jameson, whose influence is tangible throughout many of these essays, for agreeing to pen the Introduction. Above all, I am indebted to Peter Fitting, who many years ago tracked me down within the cloisters of the University of Toronto, where I was laboring away on my doctorate, in order to discuss the pressing matter of hollow earth utopias. Over countless dinners and bottles of wine shared with he and Barb, Peter offered his friendship and guidance, showing me that I was already a utopian in spirit, and indoctrinating me into the mythical “Peter Fitting group.” He also recruited me into the Society for Utopian Studies, where I’ve met so many brilliant and generous scholars who remain among my strongest influences and closest friends, and who together have guided my editorial judgment in preparing this volume.

The essays collected here were previously presented at many scholarly meetings around the world, or published in journals and collections:

Chapter 1 was originally published in Science Fiction Studies 6 (1979), 59–76.

Chapter 2 was presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Society for Utopian Studies, Saint John campus, University of New Brunswick, in September, 1982.

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Chapter 3 is a revised version of a paper read at an international conference on “Teorie e Prassi Utopiche nell’Età Moderna e Postmoderna” cosponsored by the University of Rome and the University of Reggio Calabria in May 1986; and, in a different form, at the eleventh annual meeting of the Utopia Studies Association in Monterey California (October 1986). It appeared in Sociocriticism 7 (1988): 11–25, and in Utopia e Modernità: Teorie e prassi utopiche nell’èta moderna e postmoderna. Ed. Giuseppa Saccaro Del Buffa and Arthur O. Lewis. 2 vols. (Rome: Gangemi editore, 1989), 1: 541–52.

Chapter 4 is a revised version of a talk given at the 1989 meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies at Asilomar, in Monterey, CA, and appeared in Utopian Studies 2.1 & 2 (1991): 95–109.

Chapter 5 originally appeared in Utopian Studies, 7(2) (1996), 93–112.

Chapter 6 was originally published in Arena Journal 25/26 (2006), 37–51.

Chapter 7 was first published in Science Fiction Studies 36/1 (March 2009), 121–131.

Chapter 8 appeared in Caliban 22 (1985), 43–56, and in Utopian Studies 1 (1987), 23–36.

Chapter 9 originally appeared in Science Fiction Studies 12/2 (July 1985), 156–183.

Chapter 10 is an expanded and revised version of an article, “The Decline of the Feminist Utopian Novel,” written for Border/Lines [Toronto] 7/8 (Spring/Summer 1987), 17–19. Earlier versions were presented at the Eaton Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy held at the University of California at Riverside (April 1987) and at the twelfth annual meeting of the Utopia Studies Association at Media, Pennsylvania (October 1987).

Earlier versions of Chapter 11 were read at the annual meetings of the Society for Utopian Studies (Lexington, KY) and the Modern Language Association (Chicago), and at an international conference on “L’Utopie et ses métamorphoses” in Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland. This version was published in Science-Fiction Studies 19.1 (56) (March 1992): 32–48.

Chapter 12 is a revised version of a paper read at the 1993 meetings of the Popular Culture Association (New Orleans) and the Society for Utopian Studies (St. Louis), and appeared in Utopian Studies 5.2 (1994): 4–15.

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Chapter 13 appeared in Utopian Studies 11/1 (2000), 91–108.

Chapter 14 is a revised version of a paper read at the annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies in Boston in October, 1988. It was published in Utopian Studies IV, Ed. Lise Leibacher-Ouvrard and Nicholas D. Smith (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1991), 90–96; and appeared in revised form in Styles of Creation: Aesthetic Technique and the Creation of Fictional Worlds, Eds. George Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992), 153–64.

Chapter 15 is a longer version of a paper read at the sixteenth annual meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies, which appeared in Utopian Studies 4.2 (1993): 1–17.

Chapter 16 appeared as part of a Symposium on Alien with Jackie Byars, Jeff Gould, Peter Fitting, Judith Newton, Tony Safford, Clayton Lee, Charles Elkins and M.A., published in Science Fiction Studies 7/3 (November 1980), 278–304.

Chapter 17 is an expanded and revised version of a paper read at an international conference (July 1986) on “Philip K. Dick et la Science Fiction Moderne,” cosponsored by the Université de Paris IV (Sorbonne), Le Centre Franco-Américain Universitaire (Paris), and the University of California at Riverside, and published in Science-Fiction Studies 14 (1987): 340–54.

Chapter 18 is a revised and expanded version of an article originally published in Cineaction 11 (Winter 1987–1988), pp. 42–51, and reprinted in George Slusser and Eric Rabkin, eds., Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993, pp. 114–131).

Chapter 19 appeared in Utopian Studies 13/1 (2002), 69–93. The photographs of Chandigarh appear courtesy of the Fondation Le Corbusier.

Chapter 20 appeared in Utopia Method Vision: The Use Value of Social Dreaming, edited by Tom Moylan and Raffaella Baccolini (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007), pp. 245–266.

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Editor’s Preface

This collection assembles twenty essays by Peter Fitting, Professor Emeritus of French and Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, and a leading global expert in Utopian Studies. Written over a span of thirty years (1979–2009), these essays provide an unprecedented glimpse into the changing currents of utopian thought and expression in recent times, as well as the formation of both Utopian and Science Fiction Studies as scholarly fields in their own right, developments in which Fitting has been instrumental.

Throughout his career, Peter Fitting has been at the forefront of ongoing debates and developments in utopian literature, film, and popular culture. An active member of the Society for Utopian Studies since 1976, he served as President from 1994 to 1998, has organized more annual meetings than any other member, and keeps in close contact with the Society’s Executive. This long-standing affiliation has brought Fitting into close contact with the field’s most influential scholars over the years, including Darko Suvin, Ruth Levitas, Jean Pfaelzer, Fredric Jameson, Lyman Tower Sargent, Hoda Zaki, Kenneth M. Roemer, and Tom Moylan, to name just a few of the voices engaged within this volume. In fact, no matter what areas of Utopian Studies has interested Fitting at any given moment – whether it be eighteenth-century Norwegian literature, colonial architecture, postapocalyptic cinema, or lesbian biker fiction – the Society was for him always the most important experiment of all. He continues to serve as an Editorial Board member of the journal Utopian Studies and a Consultant for Science Fiction Studies, in which several of the chapters collected here were first published. Other essays were presented at meetings around the world, or have appeared in diverse journals and collections, in both French and English, many of which are currently out-of-print.

Many of these works have already taken on a life of their own as reprints and critical touchstones. Fitting’s early work on the science fiction of Philip K. Dick was the subject of a 2001 feature article in Lingua Franca, ←xix | xx→which describes his visit to the famed author’s California home in May of 1974. After that cordial afternoon discussing science fiction, the notoriously paranoid Dick wrote to J. Edgar Hoover’s successor to warn about the “weird Marxist talk” of “the Peter Fitting group,” which he believed was following orders from Stanislaw Lem (Heer 2001). While Fitting in fact never met the Polish author, his understanding of utopia has been informed by his long-standing personal connections with some of the most highly respected authors writing in the genre today, including Margaret Atwood, Peter Watts, Nalo Hopkinson, Carl Schroeder, and Kim Stanley Robinson, as well as many of the formative scholars of science fiction and utopia.

The utopian genre is a motley collection of eclectic projects and designs for living across the eras, and Fitting is at heart a collector – of lesser-known authors, rare books and stamps, industrial thrash albums, foreign films, and French wines. The essays collected here are similarly diverse in their subjects and concerns, yet coalesce around several major themes within Utopian Studies, including gender politics, technology, ideological closure, and the crucial question of how to transform utopian visions into social practice. These essays touch on numerous aspects of utopian and dystopian fiction, cinema, criticism and theory, raising questions about the meaning and value of Utopia in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Though written years apart, their concerns and theoretical approaches often overlap and intersect, returning to and reopening earlier debates with a fresh eye, and developing themes in a long theoretical arc that often extends over decades. Together, they weave a compelling account of the origins and development of Utopian Studies as a field over the past four decades.

As the first collection to bring Fitting’s writings together in one place, Dystopian Pleasures will make his most influential and salient essays about utopian, dystopian, and science-fiction narratives available to a new generation of writers and scholars. The essays collected here are particularly notable for their approaches to twentieth- and twenty-first-century utopian fiction and film, including cyberpunk, space opera, invasion narratives, and feminist utopias. However, Fitting’s range of reference is exceptionally broad, extending across the history of utopian literature, from Thomas More’s Utopia, to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers and planners, to modernist and postmodernist SF, all the while making fascinating forays ←xx | xxi→into architecture, popular music, and other media. This long historical view allows him to trace what he calls the constant “reconsideration of the utopian project itself,” from its mid-twentieth-century period of decline to its revival and migration to SF in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by its second decline with the “dystopian turn” in film, and the rise of feminist pessimism in fiction of the 1970s and 1980s.

Re-reading these essays today, one cannot help but be struck by their relevance to current popular literature and film, which has for some time been dominated by decidedly pessimistic, dystopian, and anti-utopian visions, as Fitting shows in his chapters on utopian violence and postapocalyptic film. Even when exploring utopias of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in his “Short History of Utopian Studies,” or discussing the role of men in feminist utopias, his essays have a strikingly contemporary and urgent tone that stems from their unwavering focus on the material effects of utopian expression on the here and now. Likewise, his chapters on the original Alien and Blade Runner films hold renewed interest following the recent reboots of these franchises, while his previously unpublished essay on “Contemporary Fantasy and the Utopian Impulse” sheds light on the significance of the current boom in fantasy novels, films, and TV shows.

These essays offer endless insights into the history of utopian novels and films, while constantly drawing connections to social and political issues of the day that remain just as relevant to the twenty-first-century reader: from women’s rights and gender equity to violence and gun control, capitalist excess, education reform, the state of the publishing industry, Middle Eastern conflict, and the challenges of effecting lasting political change. Such considerations lead him to examine the full spectrum of utopian politics, ideologies, and modes of representation. Whether in his clear-eyed assessment of right-wing utopias as genuinely utopian, rather than merely satiric or anti-utopian in “Utopia Beyond Our Ideals,” or in his insistence on comparing feminist and anti-feminist utopias in his “Reconsiderations of the Separatist Paradigm,” Fitting never shies away from exploring the less obviously hopeful forms of social dreaming, the cultural surplus that exceeds the immediate mystifications of any given text. This unflinchingly dialectical approach ensures that Fitting’s writing is attentive to the rise of new, ambiguous forms of utopian expression that depict “the struggle ←xxi | xxii→for utopia rather than the image of a finished and harmonious utopian society.” His essays are ever alive to this struggle within utopianism itself, which is manifest in narratives that present only partial solutions, and that feature characters who (unlike the blithely happy mouthpieces of conventional utopias) are fully aware of the contradictions of their own society and subjectivity, yet uncertain of how to improve them.

Part I explores the history and development of utopian literature and film, with an emphasis on utopia both as narrative genre and as method of ideological and cultural critique. Whether discussing the history of “hollow earth” travel narratives (which he explores in his 2004 critical anthology, Subterranean Worlds), contemporary fantasy novels, or the disciplinary contours of Utopian Studies itself, these essays coalesce around the critique of capitalism, and an insistence on the urgency of searching for alternatives to the political status quo.

Part II has a dual focus. The central group of essays addresses the role of gender relations in utopian narratives by women, including cyberpunk novels, dystopias, novels about BDSM and violence, and feminist separatist novels that envision worlds by and for women which are largely devoid of male influence. The latter category inevitably raises questions of audience, and of whether or not such narratives need to appeal to readers of all genders. Accordingly, this group of essays is bookended by two chapters theorizing the reception of utopian narratives that challenge their readers’ normative expectations. For readers immersed in a contemporary climate of media bubbles and ideological Balkanization, these essays refreshingly consider how utopias written from the perspective of particular social groups or political tendencies (whether radical or conservative) transcend narrowly partisan concerns to stoke our collective desire for another world and a more adequate human future. And for those with little hope of witnessing real social progress, Fitting’s focus on gendered violence leads him to an understanding of how such a patently counter-factual genre as the utopia can compel concrete political action in the real world.

The final section examines the utopian role of media and technology, considered as both represented spaces and spaces of representation. It opens with the 1993 essay that first defined the genre of utopian film, followed by chapters about several high-profile SF films of the 1980s and 1990s, and an ←xxii | xxiii→account of urban planning in Chandigarh that considers modernist utopian spaces from an architectural perspective. All of these essays explore how new narrative media and technologies manage to negotiate the competing demands of utopian wish-fulfillment and ideological containment. The volume closes with the author’s account of his progress as a utopian scholar alongside the emergence of the field itself, with a retrospective summary of his own general theoretical and methodological framework, reasserting his understanding that the Utopian Moment arrives only when the text goes “beyond some estranged representation of the present, […] to give us a glimpse of what an alternative might actually look and feel like.” Here, Fitting poses one final time the urgent question of how we might become the citizens and subjects that a utopian society demands.

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The historical situation in which these essays were written will demonstrate how central Peter Fitting’s work has been within the development of science fiction. We cannot call the 1960s (a period that roughly ran from 1953 to 1975) SF’s “golden age”: that term is already taken, and rightly designates the emergence of a whole SF-Pulp culture in the 1930s and 1940s, organized around scientific gadgets, narrative twists, more credible visions of aliens, space ships, outer galaxies, and the like – a period that produced a generation of remarkable writers of whom Asimov and Heinlein were only the most ambitious. Anthologies old and new can still demonstrate the durability of many of these gems, whose spirit was then prolonged in the television era by the immortal Star Trek series.

In the 1960s, however, something new began to happen in this field, which it would be abusive to characterize in any simple way. Yes, writers appeared of a very different kind than their predecessors – Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin come to mind, the first emerging from unsuccessful mainstream novels expressing the boredom and desperation of the Eisenhower years; the second from a different kind of dissatisfaction, which would gradually become the second feminism (Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness was published in the same year as a book by her college roommate called Sexual Politics).

It would not be quite right to see the new generation in terms of a high art/ Mass culture division, although there may be something to that. Nor should one concentrate entirely on the way in which the genre pioneered in the Golden Age was appropriated for what will later on be called social issues; but in retrospect, Dick’s preoccupations with drugs and schizophrenia can be seen as the initial trickle of a flood of new and hitherto taboo themes involving sexuality, race, and politics. Yet it is with something of that transition that we tend to think of the 1960s in general: certainly the postwar younger generation had more mature interests than the popular mechanics that absorbs its prewar equivalent.

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But the 1960s were also a period of formal innovation; and it sheds a different light on the new SF of the period to remember that it was contemporaneous with the nouvelle vague in film, and that Brian Aldiss, one of the emergent British practitioners, actually wrote something you could call a “nouveau roman.” Happenings, abstract expressionism, rock ’n’ roll, Black Mountain, Beckett’s plays – all those marked the appearance of new forms of SF that were not the least achievements of the new period; and Peter Fitting wrote on all of those, in a catholicity of taste and interest that characterized so many of us at the time, and that prepared the later work collected here.

But I have not yet mentioned the most important innovation in science fiction during this formative new period, which will in our own time today have been overtaken by fantasy and dystopia in yet another unexpected historical reversal. This new event of the 1960s was certainly marked and even motivated by the new SF models I have alluded to, but it involved the emergence of a different kind of discourse, mainly Science Fiction theory, in which Fitting was heavily involved. As the term suggests, the new writing on SF was distinguished from an older criticism by its relationship to and stimulation by that whole wave of literary and cultural theory in general that accompanied all the other innovations I have mentioned and is often (perhaps too narrowly) associated with a French structuralism that took its inspiration from the 1950s anthropological studies of Claude Lévi-Strauss.

But what could be more anthropological than SF, and especially the newer kind, in which all kinds of aliens proved not so alien to us and projected the most complex and interesting social formations, as in Lem, Dick, Le Guin, Delany, Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Joanna Russ, and many others? Meanwhile, the foundational work of Darko Suvin gave SF a new legitimation and a new and literary-philosophical generic status, and led to the publication, in 1973, of the journal Science Fiction Studies, around which (as is so often the case with intellectual movements) the new production of SF theory coalesced and in which Fitting was significantly involved.

It has been said that on or around 1980 human nature changed, and the world along with it. Reagan/Thatcher free-market politics, video and the Internet, the emergence of China and the newly industrializing “tigers” along with it, the “era of stagnation” in the USSR, stock market exuberance, ←2 | 3→and new music and new lifestyles – all of these developments characterized a situation in which all of the older forms, including the SF of the 1960s and 1970s, confronted the challenges of obsolescence and, in particular, the quite unexpected event of the sudden disappearance of the future.

This was not the same kind of development as the ominous premonitions of the 1950s and the imminence of nuclear disaster; or of sputnik and the race to the moon; or the developments of the newer pharmaceuticals, the epidemics like AIDS, and the seemingly endless wars that began with Vietnam in the 1960s and Afghanistan in 1979. Rather, it had the feeling of a Donald Barthelme story: we woke up one day and the future was no longer there.

Political revolution was no longer on the agenda; the rich were securely in possession of 80 percent of the world’s wealth; the middle classes (in America at least) securely in possession of that immortal regime of constitutional “freedom and democracy” that was designed to last forever but could be imported nowhere else in the world; the poor now had mass demonstrations and movements, radical religions, irreversible natural degradation and indestructible ghettos and camps, homelessness and incurable life expectancies, which led nowhere politically and seemed designed to last forever. So everyone had the future they deserved, and nothing now awaited anyone in the way of change. The era of stagnation had now extended to the world as a whole (in the form of globalization): accelerationism without growth, special effects without innovation, corporations without individuals.

This is the point then at which Science Fiction mutates into Utopia. The Utopianism of the new century is the response to and the correlative of the disappearance of the future, which it is an attempt to restore and to reinvent, but of whose stubborn absence it is also a symptom. The present collection documents the multiple forms desperately taken by a Utopian politics and a Utopian aesthetics, in a situation in which the old “serious” SF has been replaced by the cheapest and easiest kind of dystopia and an overwhelming flood of the fantasy novels. Theory gnaws in frustration on the barren landscapes of postmodern dystopias, and comes up empty-handed on fantasy in general (even when it is of the quality of Game of Thrones). Meanwhile, novel, film, and TV meld into one another, with hosts of unemployed zombies waiting at the door for parts.

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Fitting’s essays here now grapple with this historical dilemma, scan its past and its origins, and, if they do not attempt prediction or prophecy (what would you have to predict if the future no longer exists?), then at least lay the groundwork for an assessment of that present in which we will continue to exist.

Fredric Jameson

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The Modern Anglo-American SF Novel: Utopian Longing and Capitalist Co-optation

The aim of this paper is to explore the interplay between ideology and utopian longing in the modern SF novel. Western SF is, on the one hand, a form of ideological production, one of the ways in which capitalism speaks itself and determines our ways of perceiving reality, one of the ways through which the real problems and conflicts present in society are transformed into false problems and imaginary resolutions. On the other hand, SF is also an important contemporary manifestation of what Ernst Bloch, for instance, has referred to as “utopian longing,” humanity’s continued striving for an “adequate future1” – a tradition which took on new force and direction in the bourgeois world following the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, which were attended by the belief in the possibility of cognitive progress. Yet this blending of “utopian hopes and fears with the popularizations of the social and natural sciences” (Suvin 1974: 256) was followed, in the mid-nineteenth century, by a sense of failure and gloom. Nonetheless, twentieth-century SF is crucially determined by the combination of these anticipations of liberation with the possibilities of science and technology; SF can be seen as a contemporary focal point for the struggle between, on the one hand, the artistic manifestation of the ←7 | 8→desire for an alternative, emancipated world “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Marx and Engels: 29) and, on the other, capitalism’s ability to preempt and co-opt each new eruption of the emancipatory desire. This is the reason why science has been more and more frequently turned against the utopian impulse, and why the positivist tradition has become, in present-day capitalism, a major repressive force. This is how Fredric Jameson describes the phenomenon in his account of Herbert Marcuse’s new understanding of utopia:

Where in the older society (as in Marx’s classic analysis) Utopian thought represented a diversion of revolutionary energy into ideal wish-fulfillments and imaginary satisfactions, in our own time the very nature of the Utopian concept has undergone a dialectical reversal. Now it is practical thinking which everywhere represents a capitulation to the system itself, and stands as testimony to the power of that system to transform even its adversaries into its own mirror image […] For Marcuse, it is the Utopian concept – ‘the attempt to draft a theoretical construct of culture beyond the performance principle’ which henceforth […] embodies the newest version of a hermeneutics of freedom.2 (Jameson 1971: 111)

SF has, of course, been defined in a variety of ways. When it is situated within certain literary traditions for thematic fields, without taking into account its social and historical context, its contemporary significance ←8 | 9→is obscured. SF has been defined as well as the literature of “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin 1972: 372–383);3 but this definition, despite its merits, limits SF to a form of knowledge, to an understanding of the present. SF is, certainly, a continuation of various literary traditions; it does use many traditional themes; and, at its best, it is the educational, cognitive literature Darko Suvin defines it to be. But such definitions do not deal with the historical specificity of the SF of the last thirty-five years4 in its Anglo-American form, nor with its effect upon its readers. As I shall attempt to show in the following paper, the specific characteristics of modern SF lie in its combination of utopian impulse and ideological containment within several distinct thematic configurations of the future and of science. In the traditional novel, the utopian impulse is manifest in what the Hegelian Lukács described as a yearning for totality, for some lost sense of wholeness which the novelist attempts to restore to a fragmented reality – a longing which is familiar to us in the fictional evocations of a nostalgia for some earlier, lost age. In SF this longing is often associated with the future. But the emancipatory thrust of SF, its ability to imagine alternatives, is often blunted and deformed. Charles Grivel has shown that the predominant ideological functioning of the French novel in the late nineteenth century lay in the mystification of the reader’s awareness of his deforming, alienated reality; a reduction, Grivel argues, of social antagonisms to personal conflicts (Lukács 1971).5 Ideological recuperation in the SF novel, on the other hand, lies not only in this familiar reduction of the social to the personal, but also in the displacement of the personal/social dimension to science. Character has traditionally been the central focus of the novel, but SF reverses the usual foreground-background structure of the traditional ←9 | 10→novel: characters are moved into the background, while objects, the products of technical application of the laws of nature, occupy the foreground (Feenberg 1977: 14).

Modern SF begins in 1937, when Campbell assumed the editorship of Astounding Science Fiction. Its birth was a part of the changing nature and role of the U.S. scientific community on the eve of World War II (Feenberg 1977: 13–22).6 SF was at that moment a literary genre which expressed the views of a group without power – scientists and engineers – who felt that science and technology were far more important in shaping history than was generally admitted. Whether in Campbellian SF7 or in the scientific community itself – as reflected in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and particularly in the figure of Robert Oppenheimer – the ideological delusion involved was that science and technology were the privileged solution to the world’s ills.

This first period (the 1940s) corresponds to the success of Astounding as can be seen in many of the works of the period, beginning with Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and his Foundation novels. The nine stories of I, Robot (1940–1950) relate the different stages in humanity’s development and utilization of robots, from the first robot helper to the installation of giant robot computers to manage the Earth’s economy. These stories are known primarily for Asimov’s formulation of the “Three Laws of Robotics” and the puzzles posed by quirks in robot behavior based on the Three Laws. ←10 | 11→But the stories center on human distrust of robots, an obvious metaphor for human fears regarding science and its powers; and two of the stories deal explicitly with the question of technological solutions to human problems, by way of a robot politician (“Evidence”) or a future in which the machines (“the vastest conglomeration of calculating circuits ever invented […] robots within the meaning of the First Law”) are “in complete control of [human] economy,” an outcome which is shown to be both necessary and good (“The Evitable Conflict”).

More significantly, science and technology are also presented as beneficial and critical forces in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (which also appeared in Astounding between 1942 and 1947). The Foundation uses scientific techniques to map and predict human behavior (“psychohistory”: an alloy of psychology, statistics, and theory of history), thus shortening the imminent galactic Dark Ages through strategic interventions in the development of various worlds. Again, this represents an imaginary resolution in which the combination of utopian longing and science has been debased in an inadvertent foreshadowing of the recent political interventions of U.S. imperialism. The world’s difficulties are presented as susceptible to scientific solutions while the utopian impulse has been suffocated in the characteristically American abuse of science through subservience to an apparatus of control. Asimov’s psychohistory is designed not to bring about a different, better world, but to preserve the already existing society from external threats. The possibility of real change and the reality of history are denied through the Spenglerian cyclical model of history and through the return to a future in which the ethics and economics of capitalism have been maintained. And this colonization of our future is not simply Asimov’s response to the threat of Fascism, but also to the threat of alternative social structures the “Communist menace” – insofar as psychohistory can be understood as Asimov’s answer to dialectical materialism.8

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In the first type of classical Anglo-American SF, then, there is an explicit resolution of human problems through the application of technology, a resolution which displaces those problems from the socioeconomic to the technological sphere. But the optimism that attended this privileging of science, the faith in a specifically scientific resolution of human problems elaborated in the late 1930s and 1940s ended at Hiroshima and with Oppenheimer’s disgrace, when the U.S. scientific community realized that their idealistic dreams of political power were illusory. In SF, disillusionment was expressed in the anti-scientific fictions of the 1950s. This category includes many of the best known works of the period, from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1951, 1953)9 and James Blish’s Case of Conscience (1953, 1958) to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1950, 1953) and Walter Miller Jr.’s Canticle for Leibowitz (1955, 1959).

The modification of my first type of SF had already been taking place in the stories of Clifford Simak published as City (1952, which also appeared in Astounding from 1944 to 1951). These stories trace the final centuries of human life on Earth and its replacement by alternate forms of intelligent life, including dogs which establish a “peaceable kingdom,” Venusian “lepers,” and other, more negative forms, from the mysterious, inhuman mutants to the regimented, hierarchical ant society which will dominate the Earth in the year 14,000. While human ideals are shown to be meaningful and life-giving, humans themselves, according to Simak, are flawed because of their manual dexterity, which leads them to seek technical solutions to problems, and because of their innate aggressivity. The dogs genetically improved by humans (with grafted vocal cords and artificial lenses) will take over from a humanity which has lost its raison d’etre; and when these intelligent animals confront some of humanity’s old problems they will find new, non-violent and non-technical, solutions. Simak is one of the first writers to link science with “innate aggressivity”; at the same time, he nonetheless advances an emancipatory alternative to the alienating and repressive aspects of contemporary life through a transcendence of what ←12 | 13→he considers human nature to be. But if Simak’s work can be read as the continuation of the utopian impulse, akin to the utopian visions of the English philosopher W. Olaf Stapledon, the rejection of technology will become, in the SF on the 1950s, a rejection of the utopian possibility itself.10

A distinction must be made at this point between anti-technological and anti-utopian SF. Anti-technological SF, as exemplified by City, rejects the privileging of technological solutions to human problems which was characteristic of the first type of SF outlined above. Anti-utopian SF, on the other hand, couples with that negation of science and technology a denial that it is possible to reconstitute the social and economic order, to eliminate the inequitable distribution of our resources and the domination and exploitation grounded in the class structure of our society. This denial is justified by raising objections such as the flawed character of “human nature,” the problem of freedom, and so on.11

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is anti-technological but not anti-utopian. In this near future where firemen find and burn books, the average city dweller alternates between wall-sized television screens and suicide attempts, while the government wages an ever-expanding war. The novel ends with the nuclear destruction of the city – for Bradbury technology itself is the cause of modern alienation – and with the hero’s escape and discovery of the nomadic “book people.” Bradbury’s negation of capitalism and the attendant utopian longing is articulated not in terms of the future, but in ←13 | 14→terms of a return to an earlier pre-industrial world. But in other novels of the 1950s, particularly in Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz and Blish’s Case of Conscience even this nostalgic form of utopian hope is refused, and human suffering and conflict are blamed solely on human nature.

In Canticle, Miller uses the theme of a new Dark Ages; but in complete opposition to Asimov’s Foundation, science is not the means of salvation, but the cause of perdition. As the novel begins, the Earth is recovering from a nuclear holocaust. In the desert, an isolated monastery has set itself the task of preserving the few remaining and now incomprehensible writings from the preholocaust period – for in the immediate aftermath of nuclear destruction, the ravaged population, in a Luddite frenzy, hunted out and destroyed books and scientists. Centuries later, when a new Renaissance dawns, scientific knowledge and morality again part company. And in the novel’s final section, the reconstructed nations of the world again attack each other with nuclear missiles. The ending is, nonetheless, ambiguous: some members of the monastery escape in a spaceship with the books, while at the monastery we witness the awakening of an ambiguous new woman, “preternaturally good,” “without Original Sin.” Here utopian longing is clearly identified with science and is just as clearly condemned by emphasizing flawed human nature. The hope for cognitive progress is explained by reference to the serpent’s words in the Book of Genesis account of the original fall: “For God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes will be opened, and you shall be as Gods” (Miller 1959: 20). The belief in the possibility of a new Eden of Earth is thus but a temptation of the devil – a familiar religious view which is explicitly demonstrated by the title of a work by the Christian theologian Thomas Molnar: Utopia: The Perennial Heresy.

Similarly, Blish’s Case of Conscience raises and then attempts to repress even more firmly the utopian impulse. In this novel, the misery and frustration of the over-crowded “shelter society” on a future Earth are juxtaposed to the harmonious world of Lithia. But Lithia, in all its alien perfection, is shown to be a Satanic creation; an interpretation which is confirmed by the upheavals caused by a Lithian visitor to Earth – a visit analogous to C.S. Lewis’s depiction of the scientific emissary of Satan, Weston, who goes to a new Eden (on Venus) to tempt a new Eve (in Perelandra, 1944; U.S. title, ←14 | 15→Voyage to Venus). This depiction of the utopian impulse as a temptation of the devil is a specifically religious response to human hopes for a better world “here below.” Yet the deferral of hope from this world to a Christian heaven (as in Canticle) is in Blish perceived as somehow inadequate: at the end of Case of Conscience, the Earth’s inhabitants riot, destroying their dehumanizing “shelter society.”

In these novels of the 1950s we see, then, the negation of the first, “scientific” type of SF, a condemnation of what is seen as the false and dangerous claims of science; in the last two examples this is accompanied by a repudiation of utopian longing. But the complete rejection of this hope is ideologically unacceptable, for it far too explicitly negates the underlying optimism of “the American Way of Life.” In this sense, the Asimovian type of SF was an accurate reflection of the American way of confronting problems – by refusing to see that some problems were caused by the capitalist structure of society itself and by imagining instead that these problems could be resolved through technology. The negation of this type of SF in the 1950s is incomplete, for no new solutions are offered for human suffering and conflict. And in the last two examples discussed, these negative conclusions themselves were already contradicted, however unsatisfactorily, by the ambiguous endings. The 1950s witness the appearance, then, of a third phase where this implicit negation of capitalism is recaptured and defused through a rechanneling of the utopian impulse into another kind of imaginary resolution. For insofar as “human nature” was the illusory obstacle to utopia in the second phase (whether through innate aggressivity or Original Sin), the SF of the late 1950s takes as its central theme the concept of a changed human nature. This is effected by depicting various parapsychological possibilities, particularly telepathy.

Within this vision of transcending human nature – already present in Simak’s City – there are two directions: the possibility of utopia and its denial. Clarke’s Childhood’s End presents human transcendence within a denial of utopia. Significantly, his novel begins with an evocation of the Space Race. But scientific research ends with the arrival of the Overlords who institute a new Golden Age in which humanity turns from competition and drudgery to what is soon perceived by some as an empty kind of leisure. Clarke’s vision, however, involves transcendence: the Overlords are not the ←15 | 16→bringers of utopia, but witnesses to the death of Earth, midwives to the birth of a new telepathic entity. That entity will join in a larger Overmind which roams the universe seeking to join to itself other races ready to forego the physical world and individual identity. Science and cognitive progress are explicitly rejected as steps toward a higher state: the intellectually and scientifically advanced Overlords are repeatedly described as sterile, while human efforts, as embodied in the utopian experiment at New Athens – a device analogous to the Cyprus Experiment in Huxley’s Brave New World are cruelly denied. Only the children are capable of transcendence; in the course of their transmutation they forget friends and family, lose their humanity and identity, and finally abandon the material realm itself. This thinly disguised Christian transcendence is only a misanthropic restatement of the anti-utopian, anti-scientific quietism of the preceding novels of Bradbury, Blish, and Miller.

But in two other well-known works of the 1950s, telepathy is the key to a specifically human transcendence: in John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955; U.S. title Rebirth) and in Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1952, 1953). All of the novels mentioned so far, from I, Robot through Childhood’s End, deal with the themes of science and the future in terms of the larger social context humanity at large is somehow always in question. But in the utopian version of this new type of SF – a permutation of the original scientific model – human problems will be solved and the possibility of human progress reconstituted by improved interpersonal communication. After the original reduction of human problems to technical ones, this is the development of a new false problem that of a “breakdown in communications” and the illusory belief that improved communications would, by itself, lead to understanding and cooperation on a world scale.

In Wyndham’s post-cataclysmic world a rigid, hierarchical, agricultural society has slowly emerged from the rubble. Based on the Old Testament accounts of the Flood and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the surviving humans on Labrador have developed a religious explanation for the “Tribulation.” Mutations – which, according to the alternate, scientific perspective of the novel, form part of a natural process of reclamation of the devastated lands – are seen as sinful, Satanic temptations which must be ruthlessly destroyed, whether in the community’s crops or ←16 | 17→in their children. Yet Wyndham describes the emergence within this static, authoritarian society, of a new and undetected mutation in a few of the children – a telepathic ability which grants the children a more meaningful sense of community, while it also forces them to flee the society which tries to destroy them.

Wyndham’s argument for the desirability and necessity of change, where telepathy – improved communications – is the obvious “next step,” is made even more explicit in Sturgeon’s More Than Human, in which children and social outcasts form a new collective entity in the midst of our present society. Sturgeon’s Homo Gestalt is another variation of the use of telepathy as a symbol for the transcendence of the “human condition.” As opposed to Clarke’s inhuman suppression of the self and to Wyndham’s brutal dismissal of the pretelepaths, Sturgeon’s vision of the future development of our species emphasizes human emotions and ideals in a utopian metaphor for new collective alternatives to capitalist bourgeois individualism. And Sturgeon’s novel concludes with the invocation of an even larger collectivity of which Homo Gestalt was only a “cell among cells”: “here was the Guardian of Whom all humans knew – not an exterior force, nor an awesome Watcher in the sky, but a laughing thing with a human heart and a reverence for its human origins” (ch. 3: 20).

The preceding three-part model of the SF of the 1940s and 1950s is no longer appropriate to the changed conditions and writing of the last eighteen years. For this model was intended to explain what I understand to be the dominant currents in SF in its “classical” period, and to illustrate my definition of SF as a specific balancing of ideology and utopian impulse through a study of the configurations that obtain in the use of the themes of science and of the future. To do this, I have tried to follow the SF of the 1940s and 1950s through three stages. In the first, the concept of progress – the utopian impulse – was allied with a conception of science which obscured rather than clarified the concrete dimension of human suffering and conflict. The reaction to this first configuration again obscured the concrete: it blamed science for humanity’s “false hopes” while showing that, because of human nature, any real progress was impossible. Even when the utopian impulse reasserted itself, in the novels of telepathy, ←17 | 18→human problems were shifted to the private sphere. And by the late 1950s, despite the optimism of works like The Chrysalids and More Than Human, SF seemed to have reached an impasse.

The 1960s were a period of turmoil and change for SF as for American society at large. The boom of the early 1950s had suddenly ended – there had been some forty different SF magazines in 1953 and by the end of 1957 there were only ten – and the reactions to the scientific stance of Astounding (as well as the public’s own distrust of the optimistic claims for science) were increasing: science fiction as such was in decline. The walls of the SF “ghetto” – the closely-knit community of writers and readers – were crumbling as the central importance and popularity of the magazines declined. Until the late 1950s the magazines had been the primary outlet for SF writing and exchanges (through letter columns, editorials, and reviews). But now there was an increasing amount of publishing outside the magazines, and these new outlets were reaching a new and different readership whose interests and literary backgrounds extended beyond the traditional horizons of SF.

The decline and resurgence of SF between 1957 and 1965 has been explained in various ways. The successful launching of the first Soviet satellite (in 1957) triggered a revival of interest in science and science studies in the U.S. while coinciding with (or hastening) the decline in SF. According to some, it was the reality of space flight which rendered SF obsolete. From my perspective, it is also clear that the final phase of the first model – the “spontaneous” development of telepathy – was a dead end, an alternative which took any possibility for change or improvement out of human hands.

The early 1960s were a time of increasing tensions within U.S. society during which the utopian impulse was reinvested in the concrete, in a surge of emancipatory activity – in the collective actions of blacks, women, and other oppressed groups, in the demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, and in the Student Movement and the Counter Culture – which challenged the smooth functioning of U.S. capitalism. This decomposition of America’s carefully constructed image of itself has been frequently described in terms of a “breakdown in values.” And in the mid-1960s some critics began to write about SF, because it was a genre outside the literary norms and conventions of the Establishment, as the locus for a creative ←18 | 19→search for viable new myths.12 In retrospect, the exploration of new value systems in SF writing seems most apparent in the New Wave search for new literary techniques and in the popularity of mystico-religious themes. Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) is the most famous example of the latter. This novel was to become one of the cult books of the 1960s and did much to attract new readers to SF. The novel begins as a wry critique of the foibles of twentieth-century homo americanus, in which the satirical technique of the foreign visitor who naively observes and comments on society is combined with Heinlein’s familiar rugged individualism. But the account of the Martian-raised human’s rescue and education gives way to escapism as the hero founds a new religion based on the communal sharing of minds, bodies, and money and using the magical properties of the Martian language.

Although this may not be what Judith Merril meant when she began writing about SF and “New Mythologies,” Heinlein’s interest in new religions is a by now familiar phenomenon which does characterize one response to the contemporary sense of crisis: the belief that the present sorry state of affairs is due exclusively to the bankruptcy of the established moral and ethical values of our society, a bankruptcy which can only be resolved on the individual and spiritual level. But the SF of the 1960s which participated in the Counter Culture vogue for alternate value systems and lifestyles was part of a larger mystification of the sociopolitical dimensions of our crisis. Like the Counter Culture itself, this was a negation of the repressive features of capitalism that ultimately had to fail insofar as it diverted emancipatory energies from the public and political spheres to the merely individual and private.

At the same time there was another, similar kind of SF in which the reaction to our crisis took the form of an equally mistaken and unrewarding search, not for new moral and spiritual values, but for a new aesthetics the search for new literary forms and techniques adequate to dealing with what was perceived as the changed reality of the 1960s. SF of this type sought to resolve external conflicts by transforming them into aesthetic subjects and ←19 | 20→problems. The British writer J.G. Ballard is symptomatic for this, and an examination of his work, from the Drowned World (1962) and the Crystal World (1966) to his “condensed novels” of the late 1960s, when he abandoned SF altogether, may make it possible to understand the importance and interdependence of New Wave and New Mythology in SF.

In Ballard’s disaster novels, the sense of crisis and impending catastrophe is transposed from the realm of history to that of nature. The responsibility for the cataclysm, as well as the possibility of doing anything about it, is effectively removed from the domain of human activity. In Drowned World, the Earth has lost some of the outer layers of the ionosphere; temperatures have risen, and this in turn has altered plant growth and melted the polar ice caps, flooding much of the planet whose geographical features have reverted to the tropical lagoons of the Triassic Period. While the remaining humans cluster in UN enclaves at the poles, Ballard’s hero is drawn to the disaster zone, an inner response to the cataclysm which is explained on several different levels. Biologically, this response is a kind of devolution triggered by the genetically encoded memories of the Triassic; spiritually, it represents the promise of Nirvana contained in this devolution; and aesthetically, it finds its correlative in the author’s florid descriptions of the terminal landscape.

These attitudes are even more explicit in the Crystal World, where the aesthetic and spiritual significance of the cataclysm lies “in the transfiguration of all living and inanimate forms […] the gift of immortality a direct consequence of the surrender by each of us of our own physical and temporal identities” (Ballard 1991: 202–203). In Crystal World, the Earth – indeed the entire universe – is undergoing a process of crystallization in which time is replaced by space, as beings and objects are metamorphosed into radiant, iridescent jewels. Ballard’s hero is again drawn to the disaster area. But here, even more explicitly than in Drowned World, human problems will be solved not through resistance, but through an acceptance of the aesthetic and reconciliatory dimensions of the cataclysm. The hero is a doctor who, in the beginning, tries to help the victims of crystallization; but in the end, he suggests that the hospital send all its patients into the crystallizing forest. The novel is set in Africa, but both the hero’s emotional problems and the larger racial tensions of the African continent are understood finally ←20 | 21→as aesthetic problems – as “problems of lighting” – contrasts which will be reconciled and transcended in the transfigured crystal world.

Much of the SF associated with the New Wave belongs to this category; and the “speculative” nature of much of this writing lies not in the exploration of new social and human possibilities, but in the discovery and uses of various modernistic literary techniques (as exemplified in Ballard’s acknowledged debt to the Surrealists, or in Judith Merril’s frequent inclusion of surrealist writers in her “Best of the Year” SF anthologies of the late 1960s). At the same time, as in Ballard’s resolution of racial conflict in Crystal World, much New Wave writing moves from the aesthetic resolution of various problems to the literary exploitation of controversial topics, most evident in Harlan Ellison’s “revolutionary” anthology, Dangerous Visions (1967). The significance of SF’s discovery of the avant-garde is perhaps best summed up in the words of Roland Barthes, writing in 1956 on the French avant-garde:

The avant-garde is always a way of celebrating the death of the bourgeoisie, for its own death still belongs to the bourgeoisie; but further than this the avant-garde cannot go; it cannot conceive the funerary term it expressed as a moment of germination, as the transition from a closed society to an open one; it is impotent by nature to infuse its protest with the hope of a new assent to the world: it wants to die, to say so, and it wants everything to die with it. (1972: 69)13

Finally, within this first category of the SF of the 1960s – that of a search for new values – there is a third type of false solution which resembles the earlier scientific model: a revival or continuation of the earlier belief that human problems are above all scientific problems. In the 1960s, this imaginary scientific resolution coincides with the discovery of ecology.

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A first example is Frank Herbert’s best-selling Dune (1965), which is dedicated to “dry land ecologists.” In his portrayal of Paul Atreides and the desert world of Arrakis, Herbert balances a description of the ecology of Dune with an account of the “historical” forces which have led to a galactic crisis. The novel is the story of Paul’s revenge for the death of his father as well as an ecological puzzle in which the reader gradually pieces together the reality of Dune. But behind the events lie neither historical forces nor individual will. There is, rather, biological determinism, “the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes,” which has brought Paul and the Fremen together to bring about that mixing of genes in the only possible way, “the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolls over everything in its path: jihad” (1965: 22). History and the possibility of human endeavor and change are again reduced to “natural” forces; while ecology is, in this novel, an illusory scientific justification for a kind of wish-fulfillment analogous to that offered by the machines which gave Van Vogt’s Gosseyn (in the Null-A novels of the 1940s) the ability to transcend time and space and his own death, or by the Martian language which gave Michael Valentine Smith and his followers unlimited powers in Stranger in a Strange Land.

Like Heinlein’s novel, Dune is not the elaboration of some new science, but another instance of fraudulent New Mythology, the contemporary diversion and reinvestment of the utopian impulse in the yearning for false security offered by messiahs and dictators. The real meaning of that type of security is evident in the transformation of Paul’s lieutenant, Stilgar: “Paul saw how Stilgar had been transformed from the Fremen naib to a creature of the Lisan al-Gaib, a receptacle for awe and obedience. It was a lessening of the man” (1965: 11). Dune is, in fact, a denial of the utopian possibilities of science, for the ecologist Kynes had given the Fremen both a dream and a practical means for the gradual transformation of their hostile and barren world, and this utopia is lost when the Fremen accept Paul as their Messiah.

Other, more recent examples of ecological SF can be found in the works of John Brunner, particularly Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Sheep Look Up (1972). These immense novels are skillfully constructed and carefully researched forecasts of the bleak future which awaits us if we continue to ignore the ominous warnings of scientists and futurists about the ←22 | 23→consequences of our abuses of the biosphere. In Stand on Zanzibar Brunner juxtaposes, through a mosaic technique, various characters, countries, and plots to create a depressing vision of a near future in which overpopulation has become the world’s major problem. There is one ray of hope (analogous to the “spontaneous” emergence of telepathy in some of the novels of the 1950s) – a “peace gene” which, if successfully synthesized, could counter man’s innate aggressivity and allow him to come to terms with the problem of overpopulation. While this ending can scarcely be taken seriously, the basic point of the novel seems to lie in its tour de force quality as the technical solution of an artistic problem: how to encompass and articulate in a single work the diversity and range of the coming catastrophe?

The Sheep Look Up is without even the minimal optimism of Zanzibar as it focuses on the USA and the inevitable results of a continued ignoring of ecological imperatives. Again the crisis is situated in the pseudo-scientific context of the pop neo-Malthusianism of the 1960s. Brunner’s dire predictions resemble the forecasts of the Club of Rome and the recent discussions of “Lifeboat ethics.”14 In Brunner’s account of twelve months in the final collapse of a USA ravaged by pollution, malnutrition, and disease, there is no place for resistance or hope. In the final scene the United States are burning, which provides a solution to the ecological crisis as outlined in the final pages of the novel: “We can just about restore the balance of the ecology, of the biosphere […] if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species.” Like the destruction of the ←23 | 24→hateful city in Fahrenheit 451, the destruction of America would cleanse the world.

There were other writers in the 1960s who used SF to criticize U.S. society by means of a more thorough and explicit identification of the social and political nature of capitalism. This tradition had begun in the pages of Galaxy magazine in the 1950s with the masterpiece of Pohl and Kornbluth, “Gravy Train” (1952; published as a novel in 1953 as The Space Merchants), a satirical look at a USA under the control of competing advertising empires. In the 1960s the critique of capitalism reappeared in the writing of some of the young U.S. New Wave writers – in works such as Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration (1968), Joanna Russ’s Picnic on Paradise (1968), and Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron (1969).

But in a rather different fashion, the most interesting SF of the 1960s is to be found among the nineteen novels written by Philip K. Dick during this period.15 There is constant reference to the oppressive features of capitalism in his novels, but in a very different vein from the above examples. Rather than satire or critique, each of his novels shows a lived experience of attempted escape through his characters’ struggle to maintain and comprehend a fragmented and disintegrating reality. Although the following comments apply, I think, to all his novels, I will mention three of his best known works: Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1966), and Ubik (1969). In each of these novels there is, juxtaposed to the given “reality” of fictional world within the novel, at least one other “reality”: in Man in the High Castle, the alternate reality of a 1950s USA in which Japan and Germany have won World War II is contrasted with the “reality” of an SF novel in which the U.S. won; in Three Stigmata, the “reality” of the novel as perceived by various characters is undermined and replaced by drug-induced hallucinations; and in Ubik, a group of characters struggles against the “temporal regression” of their “reality” – a struggle ←24 | 25→which apparently takes place in an artificially maintained “half-life” following their deaths in an explosion. Despite the bizarre nature of these condensations of the situation in these novels (which is certainly typical of all of Dick’s work), each work is the account of a struggle for understanding and meaning, the narrative of the characters’ desperate attempts to distinguish illusion and reality – a search which, in each case, proves futile. The utopian dimension of these novels lies, I think, in Dick’s continued rejection of a fictional resolution to the dilemma confronting his characters – which is, in fact, recognition that nothing short of the actual transformation of the world itself could resolve human conflict and alienation. His recurrent depiction of the characters’ agonizing experience of an illusory and disintegrating reality is not only the psychological correlative of our everyday experience of alienation, but a powerful representation of the workings of ideology itself. The centering of his novels around the “problem” of reality is an artistic realization that our own “reality” is, in many ways, an imaginary construct: that “reality” is an unconscious, ideologically determined conditioning and shaping of our needs and perceptions which conceals and deforms the real causes of human suffering and conflict while it creates in us “repressive instinctual needs and values,” “permeated with the exigencies of profit and exploitation” (Marcuse 1969: 17).16

Dick’s unending production of imaginary and illusory realities is a monument to the force of “negative thinking,” for the alternatives he holds out elude escapism and co-optation because of his characters’ continual return to confrontations with the present in the midst of this frustrating search for understanding. His heroes cannot accept the illusory escape offered them. They always seem to return, with varying degrees of hope and despair, to an existentialist commitment to struggle, just as the Martian colonists in Three Stigmata return from their drugged fantasies to the reality of life in Chicken Pox Prospects. The “interoffice memo” which serves as the epigraph to the novel sums up that attitude: “I mean after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s sort of a bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that ←25 | 26→even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?” (Dick: 2011)

The central theme of Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection (1967), in which strange mutated beings roam a post-holocaust Earth, is myth itself – the tenacity of the old myths and the necessity of “working through” them so that new values and meaning appropriate to a changed reality can be created. The novel ends with the destruction of the old myths, but in subsequent novels Delany does not seem to have moved very far toward the elaboration of new “myths.” And in the overrated and self-indulgent Dhalgren (1975) he seems to have come to resemble Ballard, a young master in the technical appreciation and aesthetic exploration of the rubble of ruined cities. Yet his latest novel, Triton (1976), is much more interesting insofar as his ability to experiment with and imagine what might loosely be called different “living arrangements” is gradually being extended from interpersonal to societal dimensions.

Finally, within the context of SF’s generic ability to provide a place for imagining utopian alternatives, the critique of capitalism and specifically of sexism has produced some of the most significant SF of the last ten years as exemplified by the work of Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ.17 Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness (1969) signaled a return to social speculation in which the imagining of alternate societies grows out of an examination of the social and political structures of the author’s own world. Le Guin’s story of an emissary from a future federation of intelligent worlds and his mission to the planet Gethen, where he tries to persuade two nations to accept membership in the Ekumen, uses an alien setting to examine human sexuality and sexism. There are serious weaknesses to Le Guin’s analysis of ←26 | 27→human sexual bipolarity, particularly insofar as it “explains” human conflict. As the Ekumen “Investigator” states (ch. 7), the ambisexuality of the Gethenians has resulted in a world in which, “there is no division of humanity into strong and weak, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.” Because, as this outside observer explains in her report, ambisexuality has “little or no adaptive value,” it seems likely that the Gethenians were an experiment perhaps with the object of eliminating war: “Did the Ancient Hainish postulate that continuous sexual capacity and organized social aggression, neither of which are attributes of any mammal but man, are cause and effect? […] The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive […] seem not to be very aggressive.” As Fredric Jameson has argued “Gethenian physiology solves the problem of sex“ by an “excision of the real,” by doing away “with everything that is problematical about it” (1975: 226), in much the same way that the description of Gethen’s arrested political development is, according to Jameson, “an attempt to imagine something like a West which would never have known capitalism”: “It becomes difficult to escape the conclusion that this attempt to rethink Western history without capitalism is of a piece, structurally and in its general spirit, with the attempt to imagine human biology without desire which we have described above; for it is essentially the inner dynamic of the market system which introduces into the chronicle-like and seasonal, cyclical, tempo of precapitalist societies the fever and ferment of what we used to call progress. The underlying identification between sex as an intolerable, well-nigh gratuitous complication of existence, and capitalism as a disease of change and meaningless evolutionary momentum, is thus powerfully underscored by the very technique – that of world reduction – whose mission is the utopian exclusion of both phenomena” (1975: 228).18 Despite these criticisms, Left Hand of Darkness is significant because it has expanded the framework for understanding and modifying human behavior; it is important not for its answers, but for the range and imagination with which the questions are posed.

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In more recent works – Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and Russ’s Female Man (1975) – the authors have elaborated two explicitly utopian worlds. Le Guin’s “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres, the moon to which the anarchists have emigrated, is a harsh and inhospitable world where the struggle for survival provides the common purpose holding this society together. And yet, after 170 years of isolation from the mother world of Urras, the anarchist ideals have slowly been undermined by the gradual reemergence of hierarchy and privilege. Russ’s world of Whileaway, on the other hand, is a less industrialized future Earth without men, an extremely practical and unsentimental utopia. Both women have reservations about the utopian project itself, and these works are important, not as literal models for the future, but insofar as they use utopian horizons for an analysis of the possibilities and shortcomings of their own society. The transition to the utopian world raises other questions, and in this regard Russ seems more realistic than Le Guin: the latter’s Odonians have an available moon on which to construct their utopian society; Russ’s Whileaway is finally revealed as having arisen not through reform nor through chance (the Whileawayans’ belief that a plague had killed all the men) but through violence in a literal war between the sexes. Each utopia is juxtaposed to a critical portrait of our own society: whereas Russ’s recreation a contemporary U.S. is limited by her feminist perspective (which, like Le Guin’s explanation in Left Hand that human aggressivity is rooted in sexual bipolarity, denies the primacy of social and economic contradictions in the emergence and development of sexual exploitation),19 Le Guin’s Urras is a caricature of the Earth’s “three worlds” (US/USSR/Third World).20

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My defense of these variants of utopian horizons will raise disagreements in those who disagree with the limited nature of their critique of contemporary society as well as from those who find these utopias too timid and restrictive those for whom utopia lies beyond the hardships of Annarres or the pragmatism of Whileaway. But their importance lies in the revival of utopian thought itself, in the willingness and ability to again envisage emancipatory alternatives.

The thematic configurations of science and the future have developed, as I have tried to show, over two fairly distinct periods. In the first, the optimistic vision of the late 1930s and 1940s – according to which human problems could be solved through technics – was also a repudiation of the desirability of a fundamentally different social order. This faith in science was followed, in the aftermath of Hiroshima, by disillusionment and rejection of science, and then by a denial of even the hope of a world without war or scarcity. This surge of anti-utopianism focused on the essentially flawed character of human nature; like the religious world view of the inhabitants of Labrador in The Chrysalids, this was a view grounded in the belief that the very hope for change or an end to suffering in this world was “sinful.” Thus the utopian impulse reemerged in the 1950s as a transcending of human nature – but a transcending accomplished not through human design (through science and technology), but accidentally (through mutation) or as part of some “higher plan” (as in Childhood’s End: compare also the “teaching machines” in Clarke’s scenario for the film 2001 [1968]).

In the early 1960s the immediacy of existing social conflicts and the pressure for change broke through the apathy, complacency, and ideological self-deception of U.S. society. This led also to the birth of a new SF in the 1960s. The outbreak of emancipatory activity was matched, in a first phase, by various forms of ideological rechannelings of the utopian impulse, a co-optation with at least three different forms which I discussed under the heading of “New Mythology”: (1) the primarily aesthetic preoccupations of the New Wave; (2) the appeal to exotic new religions with their promises of immediate answers and gratification; and (3) the new science ←29 | 30→of ecology. But the 1960s also generated a SF which was, at its best, both critical and utopian – works in which the original recognition of the role of science and reason in human emancipation are reaffirmed. The hero of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is a physicist whose theoretical work will lead to the development of an instantaneous communication device which will make possible a league of worlds (the Ekumen of Left Hand of Darkness). Although this seems to suggest that problems in communication are at the heart of human conflict and suffering, Le Guin goes beyond the accidental or divine solutions of the 1950s SF: the ansible is a human invention, the product of human thought and design and thus an important symbol of humanity’s growth and self-liberation.

I will not venture to predict what future developments might take place in SF writing. But it is worth observing, first of all, that SF has traditionally articulated the possibilities which science and technology hold as instruments for transforming the world; and secondly, that books like The Dispossessed do promise to supply a new basis for the utopian longing for emancipation that has always been – more or less – a fundamental impulse behind and inside SF.

1Cf. among his few works translated into English, Ernst Bloch, Philosophy of the Future (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970).

2Jameson is referring specifically to Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1955). Marcuse’s position, and my own definition of SF, are grounded in the liberating possibilities of science: “Utopian possibilities are inherent in the technical and technological forces of advanced capitalism and socialism: the rational utilization of these forces on a global scale would terminate poverty and scarcity within a very foreseeable future” (1969: 4). “Is it still necessary to state that not technology, not technique, not the machine are the engineers of repression, but the presence, in them, of the masters who determine their number, their life span, their power, their place in life, and the need for them? Is it still necessary to repeat that science and technology are the great vehicles of liberation, and that it is only their use and restriction in the repressive society which makes them into vehicles of domination?” (1969: 12). For a more pessimistic exposition of the inherent limitations of science from within the same philosophic tradition, see Theodore W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Herder & Herder, 1972).

3See also Marc Angenot’s definition, “that group of narratives of conjectural imagination that describe a society axiomatically different from the empirical society around the author. The described state of affairs is estranged with a view to liberating the social imagination and promoting a rational criticism […],” “Science Fiction in France before Verne,” Science Fiction Studies 5 (1978), 58.

4This chapter was originally published in Science Fiction Studies 6/1 (March 1979), 59–76.

5See also Lucien Goldmann, Towards a Sociology of the Novel (London: Tavistock Publications, 1975). Charles Grivel, Production de l’interet romanesque (The Hague: Mouton, 1973).

6In such an overview, an initial difficulty lies in the establishment of the corpus. I have based my study on the following selections of long stories and novels: (1) Jack Williamson’s composite list of novels from his 1971 brochure “Science Fiction in College”; (2) the 1975 Locus poll, “All Time Best Novel” (No. 172, April 15, 1975); (3) the Hugo awards (begun in 1955 and given each year by the vote of fans at the World Science Fiction Convention); (4) the Nebula awards (given each year since 1965 by the Science Fiction Writers of America); (5) the SFWA anthologies, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: I, stories (ed. R. Silverberg, New York: Avon Books, 1971), IIA, novellas, ed. Ben Bova (London: Gollancz, 1973), and IIB, novellas (ed. B. Bova, London: Gollancz, 1973).

7Campbell’s “best” editorials from Astounding were selected and published by Harry Harrison as Collected Editorials from Analog (New York: Doubleday, 1966); see also Leon Stover’s pro-Campbell history of SF, La Science-fiction américaine (Paris: Aubier Montaigne, 1972).

8For some articles which address the same problems as the present one, see Charles Elkins, “An Approach to the Social Functions of American Science Fiction,” Science Fiction Studies 4 (1977), 223–227; and Gerard Klein, “Discontent in American SF,” Science Fiction Studies 4 (1977), 3–13; and specifically on Asimov, Elkins, “Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Novels,” Science Fiction Studies 3 (1976), 26–36. All three are rptd. in R.D. Mullen and Darko Suvin, eds., Science-Fiction Studies: Second Series:Selected Articles on Science Fiction 1976–1977 (Boston, MA: Gregg Press, 1978).

9The first date in parentheses refers to magazine publication, the second to book publication. In many cases, the novel is an expanded version of the original story.

10Stapledon’s most important novels are Last and First Men (United Kingdom: Methuen, 1930), the extraordinary Starmaker (United Kingdom: Methuen, 1937), and Sirius (United Kingdom: Methuen, 1944). For an annotated bibliography of his work, see Curtis C. Smith, “The Books of Olaf Stapledon,” Science Fiction Studies 1 (1974), 297–299.

11George Kateb, Utopia and Its Enemies (New York: Schocken, 1963), is a good study of the literary, philosophical, and political attacks made on utopianism. Mark Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), is a valuable study of twentieth-century dystopian fiction. The “concern for freedom” as a literary response to the possibility of an alternate social and economic order is best illustrated in two anti-utopias, Y. Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). For a powerful critique of Huxley’s antiutopianism, see Theodore Adorno’s “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in his Prisms (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976), 97–117.

12E.g., Judith Merril in the book review columns of the magazine Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1965–1969.

13See also H. Bruce Franklin’s assessment of the prevalence of disasters in the SF in the 1950s and 1960s, “Chic Bleak in Fantasy Fiction,” Saturday Review (July 15,1972), 42–45. For some explanations of the avant-garde’s role in the commodification of art in late capitalism which deny the negational or emancipatory function I have been arguing, see R. Estivals, “L’avant-garde culturelle, le gauchisme et la societe de consummation” in Actes du VIe Congrès de l’Association Internationale de Littérature Comparée (Stuttgart, 1975); and particularly the concept of “artificial negativity” in Telos 35 (Spring 1978) in P. Piccone, “The Crisis of One Dimensionality,” 43–54; and Tim Luke, “Culture and Politics in the Age of Artificial Negativity,” 55–72.

14For an explanation and critique of Garrett Hardin’s widely publicized “Lifeboat ethics,” see John Vandermeer, “Hardin’s Lifeboat adrift,” in Science for the People 8 (January 1976), 16–19: “Metaphorically, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded lifeboats. Continuously, so to speak, the poor fall out of their lifeboats and swim for a while in the water outside, hoping to be admitted to the rich lifeboat, or in some other way to benefit from the ‘goodies’ on board. What should the passengers on a rich lifeboat do? This is the central problem of ‘the ethics of a lifeboat.’ ” Garrett Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics,” Bioscience (October 1974) as quoted in Vandermeer (1975: 16). For an explanation and critique of the Club of Rome’s 1972 report, The Limits to Growth and its subsequent 1974 report, Mankind at the Turning Point, see David Jhirad, Marian Lowe, and Paolo Strigini, “The Limits to Capitalist Growth,” in Science for the People 7 (May 1975), 14–19, 34–37.

15Among the most significant of Dick’s novels, I would include Time out of Joint (1959), Man in the High Castle (1962), Martian Time-Slip (1963), Penultimate Truth (1964), Dr. Bloodmoney (1965), Now Wait for Last Year (1966), Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1966), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Ubik (1969). For a complete bibliography of Dick’s work, as well as a sampling of critical reactions, see the special number of Science Fiction Studies 2 (March 1975).

16See also his One-Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964).

17I should mention as well the feminist and utopian fictions of Marge Piercy, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970) and Woman on The Edge of Time (1977), as well as the anthologies of “SF stories by women and about women” edited by Pamela Sargent, Women of Wonder (1974) and More Women of Wonder (1977). Among feminist critiques of SF should be mentioned Joanna Russ’s reviews over the past few years in Fantasy and Science Fiction, and two articles in Extrapolation: Beverly Friend, “Virgin Territory: Women and Sex in Science Fiction,” 14 (December 1972), 49–58; and Mary Badami, “A Feminist Critique of Science Fiction,” 18 (December 1976), 6–19.

18The word “utopian” in Jameson’s final sentence is used in the older, pejorative sense of “illusory” rather than in the way I have been using it.

19The two opposing views of the emergence and development of human sexuality and sexism are set out in Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975), as opposed to Friedrich Engels, The Origin of The Family, Private Property and The State (1884) and Wilhelm Reich, SexPol: Essays, 1929–1934 (New York: Vintage Books, 1972).

20Joanna Russ has written a very critical and searching review of The Dispossessed in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (March 1975), 41–44; see also her “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” in Images of Women in Fiction, ed. Susan Koppelmen Cornillon (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Press, 1972), 79–94. Given her critique of Le Guin and the promise of The Female Man, it must be added that Russ’s latest novel, We Who Are About To … (1977), was a keen disappointment. For some other approaches to the same theme see Pamela J. Annas, “New Worlds, New Words,” Science Fiction Studies 5 (July 1978), 143–156, and Beverly Friend, “Virgin Territory,” Extrapolation 14 (December 1972), 49–58.

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Contemporary Fantasy and the Utopian Impulse

The basic perspective of this paper is my sense that there is a fundamental contradiction at work in contemporary forms of popular culture – a tension between “utopian” and “ideological” functions.1 By “utopian” I mean the ways in which a work speaks to and articulates, in however deformed or disguised a fashion, both a refusal of the world as it is presently constituted, and the yearning for a qualitatively different world, a realm of freedom in which repression and alienation are no more. In this context, the “ideological” is then the work’s contrary function as a reaffirmation and legitimization of the status quo, the ways in which the work defuses and co-opts the contestatory and as a reaffirmation and legitimization of the status quo, the ways in which the work defuses and co-opts the contestatory and emancipatory tendencies it has aroused.

I began this examination of recent fantasy with some familiar preconceptions shared by many SF fans and critics, namely that fantasy is more shallow and “escapist” than SF; and that the increasing popularity of fantasy – relative to SF – was a regressive and worrying development. Certainly the fantasy with which I was familiar – from Tolkien and Conan through Stephen King and Donaldson – seemed to confirm this opinion. But as I read further, I began to realize that feminism has had an influence on fantasy similar to its effect on SF since the 1960s. In this attempt to present an overview of recent fantasy fiction, I have limited myself to four well-known and representative works. The four works are: Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines, Elizabeth Lynn’s Dancers of Arun (Book II of the ←31 | 32→“Chronicles of Tornor”), Patricia McKillip’s “Riddle-Master” trilogy and Stephen Donaldson’s trilogy, “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever.” These four works illustrate continuum running from SF to “full” fantasy along an axis of “distance” from the empirical environment of our “world.” Motherlines is the closest; it is set against the background of a post-cataclysmic Earth in which life continues in the shattered “Holdfast” city – a world in which women are slaves. The alternate world of the novel is that of the “Wild” – the Plains where nomadic groups of women live in the manner of Plains Indians. This novel might be called SF (although the author calls it “science fantasy”), and I have included it inasmuch as, like the other works under consideration, it depicts a world without technology. Indeed, the world and themes of Motherlines very much resemble the world of Arun in Lynn’s “Chronicles of Tornor” – a small Earth-like pre-industrial land of farming and trade, to which I shall return in a moment.

The worlds of McKillip and Donaldson are, on the other hand, examples of full fantasy worlds far removed from our own Earth. The “High One’s Realm” in McKillip’s trilogy is, with its kingdoms and cities, a feudal world filled with magic; while the “Land” of Donaldson’s trilogy is even further from our own empirical environment, for in addition to magic, it includes a variety of fantastic, non-human creatures (including Giants, Wraiths, Demons, “ur-viles,” etc.) The High One’s Realm is made up of six kingdoms governed by hereditary rulers whose authority is vested in the “Land-Law” – the ruler’s organic awareness of people and things, past and present, which compose that kingdom and those separate awarenesses are in turn bound together in the High One’s awareness of his Realm. Donaldson depicts an even simpler society of integrated communities living in complete harmony in the plains and woods of the Land, united under a single, all-embracing world-view whose spiritual and political center lies with the Lords of Revelstone Keep.

Turning briefly to the narratives of these four works, Motherlines recounts Alldera’s flight from the Holdfast and her integration into the tribal society of the “riding women.” Her presence, and her pregnancy, produces tensions in this community. The women resist accepting someone with different ways, from outside the original “motherlines” (that is, the descendants of the original “mothers” from the Holdfast laboratories who developed ←32 | 33→the techniques of parthenogenesis). Heretofore they have ignored the small community of recently escaped women – the “free fems” – who live on the edge of the Plains, but Alldera becomes the bridge between the two groups as they gradually come to appreciate and understand one another. The novel ends with the possibility of further disruptions as the free fems, with Alldera, plan to invade the Holdfast.

The land of Arun, which we see at 100 year intervals in Lynn’s trilogy, is also in flux. Dancers of Arun is the furthest of the four works under consideration from a traditional fantasy plot. It is again the story of initiation: that of Kerris, a one-armed boy raised as an outsider in the northern keep of Tornor until his brother comes and takes him away to the South to live in Elath, the “witch-town” – so named because of the psi-powers of many of its inhabitants. In Elath Kerris learns to accept himself – his telepathic ability as well as his physical handicap – and he learns too the importance and function of his brother’s way of life in the chereas, or group of dancers, which presents in the trilogy, a project for human freedom and development which grows out of and transcends the older, more traditional customs and patterns of life in Arun. The chereas are the companies of men and women who, “joined by love and respect and skill,” travel the land, “dancing, teaching the weapon’s arts, and drawing the hearts of all who watched them […] into harmony.”

In opposition to the minimal narratives of Charnas and Lynn, the fantasies of McKillip and Donaldson are filled with epic battles and extraordinary events. Moreover, unlike the pictures of growth and transformation in the former novels, change is threatening in the works of McKillip and Donaldson where a magical, harmonious land is threatened by elemental, non-human forces. (The locus classicus of this type of fantasy is of course Tolkien.)

McKillip’s Riddle-master trilogy, like Lynn’s Dancers, tells of the growth of the hero, Morgon, who only recognizes and accepts the full import of his extraordinary powers in the third book of the series. The basic structure of the trilogy is that of a quest; the solution of each riddle leads to new riddles, and to a continually deepening and expanding situation which becomes a struggle for the survival of the Realm itself. Whereas Kerris’s acceptance of his telepathic abilities (in Dancers) was a part of the struggle ←33 | 34→to make Arun a happier and more human society, it was only a small part of an unending process. Morgon on the other hand is a hero. The fate of the High One’s Realm depends on him; on his acceptance of his special powers and unique role.

The world is also threatened in the “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant,” but both the hero and the threat are different, and the tone of the novels is much more somber and grim. In McKillip, the threat to the Realm was a thirst for power and the tone of the novels is much more somber and grim. In McKillip, the threat to the Realm was a thirst for power and control on the part of some of the prehuman “Earth-Masters.” In Donaldson’s work, the malevolent Lord Foul seeks to destroy the Land and its inhabitants. As in Tolkien, the struggle has a metaphysical dimension. Lord Foul is an incarnation of absolute evil, while the hero, Thomas Covenant, has been summoned to the Land by the “Creator” to lead the fight against Lord Foul. But the narratives are not my main concern. As is the case with many utopian and SF novels, the narratives in these four works serve, I think, primarily as the occasion to present a fantasy world. Consequently, an important part of my assessment of these works has to do with the worlds themselves; and with the differences between the more “ordinary” worlds of Charnas and Lynn, with their focus on social arrangements and material life, when juxtaposed to the exceptional characters and worlds of McKillip and Donaldson.

To assess these works in terms of their worlds I shall use two criteria, of which the first involves the thematics of change and permanence. It is my contention that in the worlds of Charnas and Lynn the utopian impulse is nourished and encouraged, whereas that same negation of the world as it is and the longing for a disalienated world is defused and co-opted in the fantasies of McKillip and Donaldson. It will be my purpose to set out the reasons for such a judgment, which have to do with the kind of attitudes a work develops or discourages – attitudes toward the desirability and possibility of change, for instance, as well as toward the focus and modalities of change. Certainly, all of these works suggest, through the very creation of other, alternate worlds, a negation of life as-it-presently-exists in the developed capitalist countries in which these works are written and read. Moreover, in their rejection of technology and what they see ←34 | 35→as the alienating effects of industrialized society, these four works share a yearning for an organic, “ecological” wholeness through an acknowledgment of the importance of the natural environment and its significance for human well-being. But in McKillip and Donaldson, this return to a more ecologically whole life carries with it the implication of a “natural order” which the authors then extend from the physical, external world into the social sphere, and more specifically into social forms which reproduce relations of domination and exploitation. By the depiction of a society which lives according to the patterns and rhythms of nature, these two authors understand not simply a closer, more balanced relationship to the natural environment, but an unchanging hierarchical social order in which everyone knows instinctively and accepts without question his or her place in that society. Such a view thus subtly discourages the propriety of social reform while it conditions the reader to an acceptance of his or her lot in life.

In these two works there is an implicit rejection of change – specifically of social change – under the disguise of a rejection of technology. Moreover, the foundations of technology and technological change – science and the scientific method – are themselves displaced as the principal (and value-free) means of understanding and acting upon external reality. In their place, Donaldson and McKillip put magic; the mastery of secret forces and powers which transcend or supersede the observed “laws” of nature. Just as the validity of the scientific method is denied by the recourse to magic and mysteries in these novels, so too the worlds themselves are no longer “neutral.” Instead, these two worlds are “ethically charged,” invested with Good and Evil. Human suffering is not explained in terms of specific, historical causes, but as the result of an eternal, transhistorical struggle between Good and Evil (in Donaldson), or in a less metaphysical form (in McKillip) as the result of “pre-human” (i.e., animal) nature – the lust for power. Such an explanation, I would argue, effectively denies the possibility of substantively improving the human condition.

On the other hand, change is not so threatening in the worlds of Charnas and Lynn, although individual characters as well as groups and communities are shown struggling to adjust to change. Although life in these novels is also represented as close to the rhythms and patterns of ←35 | 36→nature, social structures and practices are not tied to those patterns, and they are not presented as fixed and unchanging, but subject to the ongoing processes of history. At the other end of the spectrum from Donaldson’s absolute forces of Good and Evil, Charnas explicitly identifies the “negative” forces at work in her world and ties them to equivalent forces in our own world: the exploitative and oppressive rule of men.

In these four works the utopian impulse manifests itself through the nostalgic evocation of an edenic past. But in the works of McKillip and Donaldson, the collective anxieties and tensions of life under capitalism are explained and resolved as the result of an estrangement from and perversion of the pattern of nature’s rhythms. The awakened desire for an end to alienation and want is then defused through the portrayal of a happier, conflict-free world in which social relations of domination and exploitation are legitimized as “natural,” while the real causes of human want and alienation are mystified. In these worlds the only hope for the future lies in the willing return and submission to an even more repressive and limited past – unlike the worlds of Charnas and Lynn where, however much they resemble the critique of technology and technological change I have been describing, they nonetheless suggest that hope lies instead in the future, in the transformation and amelioration of their societies.

The second criterion I will use to distinguish between those worlds in which the utopian impulse is fostered and those in which that impulse is co-opted lies in the representation of everyday life. By everyday life I mean, first of all, the daily lives of the characters as well as their function in a social context. And secondly, I understand by everyday life a cluster of issues which feminism has put on the agenda for any serious project of social transformation, most specifically the issues of sexuality and gender roles, as well as questions about the “family.”

The consideration of the representation of everyday life suggests a difference between the works of Charnas and Lynn which lift us out of our own lives through the portrayal of an alternative social order in which our daily lives and our work activity could be a vital means of self-realization and the works of McKillip and Donaldson, on the other hand, which lift us out of our lives through the portrayal of the magical, exceptional existence of a hero with whom the reader can identify for a time before returning ←36 | 37→to his or her own drab and unsatisfying life. The heroes of McKillip and Donaldson are above the duties and tedium of daily life, in stark contrast to the central characters in Charnas and Lynn who are depicted in their daily routines, at work and at play. On reflection, however, the reader may realize that the hero’s exceptional existence is sustained through the unquestioning acceptance of a host of characters “behind the scenes” – the farmers and cooks and maids and tailors and soldiers and so on who provide for and make possible the hero’s adventurous existence. It is no wonder, then, that the worlds of McKillip and Donaldson are fixed, hierarchical societies in which each character knows and accepts his or her place in that social order. In terms of the reader, the effect is, I think, quite different. Charnas and Lynn give us hope, not by offering us an order. In terms of the reader, the effect is, I think, quite different. Charnas and Lynn give us hope, not by offering us an exceptional existence, but through the promise of a world in which the activities of all are validated, a world in which “the free development of each would be the condition of the free development of all” (Marx and Engels 1959). Donaldson and McKillip merely reaffirm the ideology of individualism. They reinforce the reader’s acceptance of the world as it is in exchange for the illusory promise of a private escape – an escapism whose “real life” corollary is the winning lottery ticket rather than any amelioration of the community as a whole.

If life is more “real,” more immersed in the quotidian in the novels of Charnas and Lynn, it also contains more moments of happiness and pleasure, of sensuousness and sensuality; and there is an emphasis on physical and emotional well-being. This properly utopian dimension – a world of human self-realization within the context of a community – is particularly evident in the untraditional sexual and “family” arrangements in these works. In McKillip and Donaldson the hierarchical and fixed sociopolitical structures of their societies are reproduced in the basic social unit – the nuclear family. Moreover the almost complete absence of sexuality in fact reaffirms the primacy of the patriarchal family as well as what Marcuse called, “the repressive order of procreative sexuality.”

Along with the shift in focus from the magical and heroic dimensions of traditional fantasy to the qualities and textures of everyday life, Charnas and Lynn raise the issues of sexuality and the family. Their societies ←37 | 38→function in a communal way. In Charnas’s society of riding women, the different communities or “camps” resemble the societal organization of the Plains Indians. These camps in turn are made up of different “tents” of five or six women who raise collectively, as “sharemothers,” their babies until they are old enough to leave the tent and live on their own with the other children in the “childpack.” Within the camps, decisions are made in common, in open debate, although there is a chosen “chief” who deals with administrative questions. Sexual relations among the women are open and non-monogamous, and are depicted as an affirmative and integral part of their lives. In this novel, social forms as well as those of sexuality and child-rearing are, it might be argued, the result of a society without men. However, this suggests not a “perversion” of the natural order, but rather the emergence of new social forms which are no longer based on relations of domination; and it reminds us that our present social organization and family structures are neither “natural” nor immutable.

These ideas are carried even further in Lynn’s Dancers. In the land of Arun the various towns, keeps and cities are independent, joined together by trade, by a common language and by a tacit (or explicit) recognition of each community’s autonomy, although this latter situation is threatened in each of the novels of the trilogy. There are traditional political and familial forms, but this is a society in process, an imperfect world from which a freer and more human world is struggling to emerge. In the town of Elath in Dancers we see three generations living and working together with no radical changes in child-rearing itself. But, unlike the traditional social groupings in McKillip and Donaldson, this village functions in a communal way without most of the basic elements of the traditional patriarchal family. There is no sexual division of labor (except in child bearing itself) and there are no taboos or restrictions placed on sexual activities (except against incest between generations). As in Motherlines, sexuality is portrayed as an important and satisfying part of the characters’ lives. Many of the characters (in both this novel and in The Northern Girl, Book III of the series) – and this includes adolescents as well as mature adults – are depicted as sexually active, while homosexual relationships are an accepted and normal part of the characters’ sexual lives.

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To conclude, then, in the more traditional works of McKillip and Donaldson, everyday life is mystified through the exceptional life and adventures of the hero. Change, whether change in the larger social structures or in the more intimate customs, attitudes and organization of private life, is rejected, while traditional forms and patterns are presented as the reflection of an innate natural order. In the works of Charnas and Lynn, on the other hand, the authors seem convinced that these traditional patterns and customs are neither given nor natural, but an integral part of the existing relations of exploitation and domination at work in our own society. Consequently, much of the fascination and thrill of traditional fantasy has been substantially reinterpreted; the heroic dimension has been replaced with a concern for new forms and patterns of daily life which would allow the emergence of a genuinely human world, beyond the existing forms of social and sexual oppression which the works of McKillip and Donaldson seem to reaffirm.

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1This paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Society for Utopian Studies, Saint John campus, University of New Brunswick (September 1982).

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Ideological Foreclosure and Utopian Discourse

the incontrovertible point [is] that most 20th century writers who care to speculate about possible societies seem to have lost their utopian dreams.

(Walsh 1962: 17)

l’hégémonie discursive d’une époque ne sert pas tant à imposer des thèmes obliges et des formes canoniques qu’elle ne semble viser à refouler certaines “choses” dans l’impensable ou l’extravagant.

(Angenot 1984: 29)

My interest in recent utopian fiction has led me back to the 1950s and the recollection that only a short time ago, utopias had been declared obsolete. In this context, the revival of utopian themes in the 1970s raises questions about what can or cannot be written at a given historical moment and about how and why certain themes and genres enter or re-enter public consciousness and discourse.1 Although there were ostensibly no utopias during the 1950s, this “absence” can be charted and studied in the flourishing of its reverse – the anti-utopia. In this paper, I would like to present the first part of an investigation of the absence of utopias in English during the 1950s: a mapping of the permutations of utopian writing in this period, particularly anti-utopias ←41 | 42→and science fiction.2 For, according to most critics, the anti-utopia had, by the middle of the twentieth century, become the most important form of modern utopian writing; moreover such anti-utopian writing was now produced primarily within the generic boundaries of science fiction. However, while many critics have discussed this rise in anti-utopian themes, few have attempted to classify its forms or to map the predominantly dystopian permutations of the utopian writing and science fiction of the 1950s.

There are three facets of the inadequacy of existing descriptions of the forms of utopian discourse of the 1950s. There is, not surprisingly, a shortage of criticism limited to the consideration of a single moment like the 1950s (but see Chapman 1975). Critical writing about utopia, even when it has an historical focus, tends to be in much larger sweeps. Manuel’s “third period,” for instance, covers the entire twentieth century (Manuel 1966: 71); while Berger’s study of pessimistic and dystopian science fiction (Science Fiction and the New Dark Age) spans the last forty years. I am interested in restricting my investigation to this specific period as a way of trying to understand and explain why utopias could seemingly be written off at a particular moment only to appear with such force a decade later. Secondly, there is the question of the corpus, of the works to be considered. While I will restrict myself to a single decade, I will use a net broad enough to capture all the various manifestations of utopia, including science fiction and anti-utopias. Finally, there has not really been an attempt to set up principles of classification for utopian writing which are historically ←42 | 43→specific. Critics have developed abstract models which incorporate all utopian writing; but in dealing with specific socio-historical units, critical analysis has been limited to unsystematic lists of the major developments.3

To map the possibilities of utopian discourse during the 1950s, I will use a classificatory system, based on A.J. Greimas’s “semantic square,” with which I will generate a basic calculus (or combinatoire) based on a functional opposition central to contemporary utopian writing: the contrast between change and the fear of change. This method and its results should not be taken as necessarily correct or adequate, but as a heuristic device to help me to discover the permutations of utopian writing at this specific moment.4

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According to Darko Suvin, whose genealogical clarifications are essential to any serious study of science fiction and utopia, a utopia is:

the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community, this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis. (Suvin 1979: 49)

The utopian “verbal construction” of an alternative to one’s own community involves a dual operation: at the same time that it sets out a model for a better society, it also, at least implicitly, criticizes the existing society – just as social satire implicitly points to an ideal state of affairs. (“Utopia explicates what satire implicates, and vice versa,” Suvin 1979: 54.) The contrast between the “author’s community” and the better world implies as well the desirability of change, of a movement toward that more perfect society. Anti-utopian fiction, on the other hand, is based on a fear of change, and may include both explicit constructions of imaginary worlds which are meant to be worse than the present, and the implicit or explicit critique of utopian ideals.

Using Greimas’s “semantic rectangle,” the opposition between change and fear of change generates eight types which I will use to map the specific permutations and characteristics of utopian/dystopian writing in the 1950s. CHANGE – more specifically social change, the utopian society toward which the reader is invited to move – generates first of all its opposite, STASIS, the status quo of the “author’s community.” Moreover, as the opposition utopian I dystopian implies, each of these categories has a positive and a negative pole. CHANGE includes both utopian writing (+) and social satire posited in the desirability of change (−), while STASIS is grounded in a fear of change, and includes both works which defend the status quo (+) and works which challenge the desire for change (−). CHANGE also generates two further terms: NOT-CHANGE and NOT-STASIS. NOT-CHANGE signals an impasse, combining fear of change with a rejection of the status quo, whether in works which stress the impossibility of change (−) or which propose an “existentialist” acceptance of the status quo (+). NOT-STASIS, finally, attempts to resolve this impasse. While continuing to reject social change, it introduces the possibility of ←44 | 45→other forms of change based on/organized around an organic or biological model: evolution (+) and devolution (−). These positions can be schematically represented as follows:

Figure 1Semantic field of 1950s Utopian/Dystopian Writing

Let us now see how these eight categories account for the various manifestations of utopian and anti-utopian writing in English during the 1950s.


Traditionally, utopias and utopianism – at least since the nineteenth century – have been linked with socialism. Not surprisingly, then, there are no explicitly utopian works from a socialist or communitarian perspective in the 1950s – as opposed to the utopian revival of the 1960s and 1970s.5 There are however two other types of writing which fall into this category.

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+ Utopia (Focus on change):

Utopias written from a non-socialist and non-communitarian perspective, which are critical of the status quo, as in B.F. Skinner’s Walden II (1948) and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Social Satire (Focus on status quo):

Works which by their criticism of the author’s own society also imply the outlines of a more perfect society (e.g., Pohl & Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, 1953; Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451; Vonnegut, Player Piano).

STASIS (Defense of Status Quo/Fear of Change)

Opposed to CHANGE is “fear of change”: works which reverse the properties just outlined and warn of the dangers of change, either by portraying the status quo in positive terms (+), or by the portrayal of a dystopian future based on the development or imposition of “foreign” political forms and values (−). The latter category – the political anti-utopia – is defined and illustrated by Orwell’s 1984 (published in 1949) which has become synonymous for this type of writing.6 The explicit defense of the status quo, on the other hand, is a minor form, which is illustrated by some non-fiction works of the period which championed the U.S. (e.g., Morris L. Ernst’s Utopia, 1976 [1955]).7

←46 | 47→

Anti-Utopia (focus on change): Orwell, 1984.

+ Encomium (focus on status quo): Morris Ernst, Utopia, 1976.

NOT-CHANGE (The Simultaneous Rejection of Utopian Ideals and the Critique of the Status Quo)

The third category is made up of novels which reject utopian aims and ideals even as they acknowledge the flaws of the present system – contradictory themes which are nowhere more evident than in the novels of James Blish, Case of Conscience (1958) and Walter Miller Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959). Such a position is based on the critique of the utopian premise of the perfectibility of human beings through the presentation of the flawed character of human nature as in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). The positive manifestation of this category includes works which are equally critical of the present and of the possibility of change, but which nonetheless see the possibility of some human hope – a characteristic which is evident in much of the writing of P.K. Dick (e.g., Eye in The Sky, 1957).

Resignation (Focus on fallen human nature, impasse): J. Blish, Case of Conscience, W. Golding, Lord of the Flies, W. Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz.

+ Existentialism (Attempts to resolve the impasse): P.K. Dick, Eye in the Sky.

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NOT-STASIS (The Rejection of the Status Quo and of Utopian Ideals Leads to the Imagining of Modes of Change Other Than the Technological or the Political)

Building on the previous three categories, the fourth is made up of fictions which reject the status quo while refusing the utopian possibility of social or technological change; fictions, then, which propose a nonhistorical transformation, outside human agency, and of which the most famous example would be the transcendent ending of Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953). This category, in its opposition to the scientific solutions of the traditional utopian answers of earlier science fiction, is perhaps the dominant model of 1950s science fiction, particularly in its positing of a biological model of human evolution, most noticeably through the theme of telepathy as a key to improved human communications (Sturgeon, More Than Human [1953]; Wyndham, The Chrysalids [1955]). The negative dimension of this final category comprises works which, similar to the impasse portrayed in Blish and Miller in the previous category, use the organic model to show not the emergence of some new or higher form of human being, but its opposite – the gradual return of humanity to some prehuman state; not evolution, but devolution. This latter theme was introduced in Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), but it is one which U.S. writers, at least until the 1960s (with the full impact of the New Wave,) had difficulty portraying.8 This development is already apparent, however, by the early 1960s in Britain, in B. Aldiss’s Hothouse (1962) and in what is perhaps the most remarkable of J.G. Ballard’s disaster novels, The Drowned World (1962).

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+ Evolution:

(organic): T. Sturgeon, More than Human, J. Wyndham, The Chrysalids;

(transcendental): A.C. Clarke, Childhood’s End.

− Devolution:

(organic): B. Aldiss, Hothouse;

(transcendental): J.G. Ballard, The Drowned World.

The above schema, while not necessarily complete, is an attempt to map the internal configurations of utopian and anti-utopian writing within a specific field of discourse (English-language writing), at a given historical moment (the 1950s). Moreover, it is not meant to be only an abstract account of the various possibilities inherent in the form, but a way of organizing the actual manifestations of utopian discourse during that period.

Within the basic opposition we saw, first of all, four primary forms: utopia and anti-utopia, encomium and social satire. Most critics see only two forms in this opposition, utopia and anti-utopia: firstly, because the celebration of the status quo (encomium) is usually seen as falling outside the possibility of narrative; and, more importantly, because the critics interested in these questions often do not distinguish between anti-utopia and social satire. There is a useful distinction to be made here, however, based on the attitudes expressed toward the core values of the “author’s community.” The anti-utopia is a rejection of foreign values which threaten that community’s intrinsic organization and beliefs, whether in the fear of political change (i.e., socialism), or in Huxley’s critique of both Americanism (the conformity and efficiency of the assembly line, of consumerism, etc.) and of the Soviet system. Social satire, on the other hand, focuses on the flaws and negative developments in one’s own system – advertising and the implicit nature of capitalism in Space Merchants, or the more ambiguous critiques of the American Way of Life in Bradbury and Vonnegut. While the two may overlap, the anti-utopia usually implies a defense of the values and structures of the author’s community which social satire, on the other hand, seems to question. The anti-utopia sometimes ends with the destruction of the dystopian society and the return to the community’s original ←49 | 50→values, while social satire seems to go further and imply the development of a new society. Insofar as they critique the values of their society, both Fahrenheit 451 and The Space Merchants, for instance, end with the brief description of a utopian alternative (although in Bradbury it is a nostalgic evocation of the lost American past).

This description appears to confirm that there are few explicit instances of utopian writing in the 1950s. As compared to thirty-eight dystopias, Sargent (1975) mentions only five novels in his discussion of science fiction utopias published in the 1950s, including three novels by Clarke which I have described as examples of anti-utopias.9 Indeed, although I did cite two utopias at the beginning of this paper, many critics do not consider Walden Two to be a utopia at all. In Berger’s study, for instance Skinner’s work is used to illustrate the thematic group “Ignoble Utopias.” While one ←50 | 51→must recognize, I think, that in terms of Suvin’s definition, Walden II is a utopia, this example (and the primarily negative reactions to Skinner’s proposals) serves to illustrate and confirm the low fortunes of the utopia at the time.

The positions I have proposed for the first part of this model show the predominance of the fear of change during the 1950s. This fear of social change blocks the imagining of alternatives to the “American Way,” except as negative, frightening and ominous prospects. Beyond the opposition CHANGE/FEAR OF CHANGE, the final two categories suggest forms of utopian discourse outside these traditional categories; and ways in which the suppressed utopian impulse works its way through and beyond this “blocking” of utopian writing. The category of NOT-CHANGE described an impasse – a critique of the status quo as well as a rejection of the implicit solution of a willed change in the status quo. In the case of Blish and Miller, this is a familiar theological rejection of the possibility of a “heaven on Earth” which is perhaps best demonstrated in the subtitle of Thomas Molnar’s critique of utopianism: Utopia: The Perennial Heresy (1967). As opposed to the religious belief in Original Sin and the impossibility of an earthly utopia, Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a secular rejection of utopianism, based on human “innate aggressivity.” In response to this impasse, ←51 | 52→I described first of all, “existentialist” solutions – attempts to build a meaningful life from within the system, as at the end of Dick’s Eye in the Sky where the characters turn to handicrafts manufacture.

The category of NOT-STASIS, finally, is the imagining of modes of transformation which do not involve human agency, but find their impetus and cause in the “natural” world. Given the general negative attitudes toward science at the time and the blocking of explicitly utopian themes, this category becomes the dominant area of science fiction writing in the 1950s (Fitting 1979). As I explained above, this finds its outlet in organic images – evolution (and devolution) – particularly in the widespread portrayal of the “natural” development of telepathy.

As I stated at the outset, this mapping of the possible forms of utopian discourse was a necessary first step in trying to understand the absence of utopias in the 1950s. In a subsequent study I shall discuss the critical explanations for this absence, before attempting to draw my own conclusions.10

1This is a revised version of a paper read at an international conference on “Teorie e Prassi Utopiche nell’Età Moderna e Postmoderna” cosponsored by the University of Rome and the University of Reggio Calabria in May 1986; and, in a different form, at the eleventh annual meeting of the Utopia Studies Association in Monterey California (October 1986). For a discussion of the revival of utopian themes in the 1970s, see Chapter 8, “Positioning and Closure.” For a discussion of the theoretical starting point of this article, see Marc Angenot, “Le discours social: problématique d’ensemble,” Cahiers de recherche sociologique 2/1 (April 1984), 19–45.

2(A) Anti-utopia as the most important manifestation of modem utopian writing – before the revival of the 1970s: “These pessimistic forecasts of strictly regimented societies must be considered the most important type of modern utopian fiction” (Gerber: 67). “In our time the utopian impulse has been largely replaced by dystopian projections of disastrous current trends” (Scholes and Rabkin: 174). See also Bouchard et al. (1985: 190–204).

(B) Anti-utopia as predominantly science fiction: “the great anti-utopias of the twentieth century constitute […] a single kind of fiction, for which there is no other name than science fiction” (Hillegas: 5). “Strictly and precisely speaking, utopia is not a genre but the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction” (Suvin 1979: 61). There are several critics who maintain that SF was an optimistic genre until the 1960s, but this is very much a minority view. See Gerard Klein (writing from France [1977]), 3, and Huntington, 140.

3In what is perhaps the most comprehensive and systematic attempt to classify the types of utopian writing, Guy Bouchard proposes a classificatory system for all utopian (and dystopian) writing which contains 192 categories, a system whose complexity and range far exceed my purpose in trying to understand the specificity of the 1950s and the particular absence or “blocking” of utopian writing within a single language at that time (1985: 184–190). On the other hand, in his Science Fiction and the New Dark Age (1976), Harold Berger posits three general categories for the “anti-utopias of modem science fiction,” under which he elaborates twelve thematic groups: I. The Threat of Science: (1) “Hostility to Science,” (2) “Man vs. Machine,” (3) “The Synthetic Experience,” and (4) “Ignoble Utopias”; II. The New Tyrannies: (1) “The Totalitarian State of the Future,” (2) “The Mind Invasion,” (3) “Commerce and Exploitation,” and (4) “The Revolt of Youth”; III. Catastrophes: (1) “Nuclear War,” (2) “The Population Explosion,” (3) “Race War in America,” and (4) “The Obsessional Catastrophe.” Berger’s categories, while dealing based on many of the works I will discuss, are primarily labels based on the types and “causes” of the dystopian visions portrayed. Although it identifies many of the major themes of recent dystopian fiction, it is not internally consistent or coherent as a classificatory system; and it is not able to suggest possible utopian (or other) absences within the writing of the period. Raymond Williams (1980: 196–212) does develop an abstract model of the forms of utopian writing which is based on eight categories, four “positive” (utopian), and four negative (dystopian) which negate the previous four types: (1) (+/−) the “heaven” (or “hell”); (2) (+/−) the “externally altered world”; (3) (+/−) the “willed transformation”; and (4) (+/−), the “technological transformation.” However, only his third category, “willed transformation,” is “characteristic, in the strict sense” of utopia and dystopia (199). See also Greven-Borde (1995).

4For an application of Greimas to science fiction, see Fredric Jameson, “After Armageddon: Character Systems in Dr. Bloodmoney,” Science Fiction Studies 2 (1975), 31–41. See also Jameson’s “Forward” to A.J. Greimas, On Meaning: Selected Writings in Semiotic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987). The opposition change/fear of change is basically a subjective one, but it is derived from science fiction’s particular ability to mediate our contradictory hopes and fears about the future (see Chapter 1 in this volume, “The Modern Anglo-American SF Novel”; Jameson 1973).

5Although there were no socialist utopias in English, 1957 was the year of the publication of Yefremov’s Andromeda. See the chapter “Russian SF and its Utopian Tradition” in Suvin (1979), particularly pp. 265–268.

61984 is often considered as the third of a triptych of anti-utopian classics; the others are Zamyatin’s We (1924) and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).

7Ernst’s work is not a novel but, as he puts it, “a dream for our republic in 1976” (3). It is an optimistic projection of what the United States will be twenty years hence, based on the flourishing of the intrinsic qualities and values of the American Way of Life. While the author sees problems and obstacles along the way toward a nation of “Energy, Leisure, Full Rich Life” (1969: 305), he does not propose a change in the essential characteristics of the United States, but the full realization of their potential. For a further discussion of the intellectuals’ praise for America during the 1950s, see the chapter “The Celebration of America” in Richard Pells, The Liberal Mind in a Conservative Age: American Intellectuals in the 1940s & 1950s (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 130–147, and the chapter, “The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus,” in Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 67–98, as well as his defense of his methods for this chapter, 504–507. See also Miller and Nowak (1977), passim. I have used a non-fictional work as an instance of this category, because the novel works on a dynamic of tension and resolution. Praise is almost by definition descriptive and static. Fiction, according to Charles Grivel, maintains the status quo by representing a threat to the existing order which is resolved at the novel’s end. All fiction, thus, might be said to seek to defend the status quo. The status quo is defended, not by directly praising, but by presenting a threat to the system which is subsequently undone. This underlies the problem of the “static” nature of utopian fiction, and, at least on a fictional level, the success of dystopias. Within such a perspective, it might be argued that the most important “utopian” work of the decade was Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1955).

8Traditionally, the destruction of the world has been, in many ways, a taboo theme in popular writing. If the classic narrative portrayed a threat to the social order whose eventual rejection figured the return to normalcy, there is not much room for the portrayal of the destruction of the social order. Science fiction, even at its grimmest, has always found a way to pull back from the edge, at least until the 1960s. The imposition of these norms can best be seen, for instance, in the almost artificial ending of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898) where the seemingly invincible Martians are suddenly thwarted in their conquest of the Earth by their susceptibility to terrestrial germs. U.S. SF has often portrayed humanity growing and spreading through the galaxy, colonizing and so on. In The Time Machine (1895), he was able to portray the end of humanity in the very distant future. For a discussion of these themes in science fiction, see the various essays in Eric Rabkin, Martin Greenberg, and Joseph Olander, eds., The End of the World (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983). British and European writers have often seemed humbler, and more aware of the issue of imperialism. Imperialism has rarely been a theme in U.S. SF, the exception being Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1973). Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937) is perhaps the best known example of a more humble vision of humanity’s role in the universe and of the possible extinction of the Earth, along with Clarke, from his Childhood’s End (1953) to Rendezvous with Rama (1973). See also S. Lem’s Solaris (1961). In U.S. SF this attitude only really changed in the 1960s. Thomas Disch’s The Genocides (1965) is an early example of this shift in attitudes.

9Two (of the three) Clarke novels are the same, for The City and The Stars is a revised version of Against the Fall of Night. For a description of the anti-utopian character of this work see Tom Moylan, “Ideological Contradiction in Clarke’s The City and the Stars,” Science Fiction Studies 4 (1977), 150–156. The five novels Sargent (1975) mentions on his list of science fiction utopias published in the 1950s are: Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, along with his Against the Fall of Night (1953) and the City and the Stars (1956); William Walter’s Curve of Snowflake (1956), and Benjamin Appel’s dystopian Funhouse (1959). Sargent’s complete bibliography of utopian writing (1979) includes perhaps a dozen utopias published during the 1950s (including the novels of Rand and Skinner), as opposed to almost eighty dystopian novels (primarily categorized as “authoritarian dystopias”), of which six are referred to as “communist dystopias.” Although Sargent’s bibliography is an invaluable work, there are always difficulties in distinguishing utopias and anti-utopias, as can be seen in the debates around Skinner’s Walden Two (see Berger 1976: 53–65), or in my categorizing of Clarke’s Childhood’s End as an anti-utopia. Without being able to discuss at length the issue here, I do not consider works which include utopian societies to be necessarily utopian. Childhood’s End portrays two utopian societies which are rejected within the context of the novel: the “Golden Age” which follows the Overlords’ arrival and which is presented as ultimately boring, and the utopian experiment of New Athens (a community of artists), which is again very deliberately depicted as lacking in some essential quality. The novel depicts these utopian goals and societies in order to critique them, to argue that without some higher transcendental goals and purpose, the human race is doomed to repeat the sterile despair of the Overlords. The other two Clarke titles are versions of the same novel, and again contain, I would argue, a critique of the utopian ideal rather than a defense of it.

10See Chapter 8, “Positioning and Closure.”

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Utopia Beyond Our Ideals: The Dilemma of the Right-Wing Utopia

the freedom of writing implies the freedom of the citizen. One does not write for slaves. The art of prose is bound up with the only regime in which prose has meaning, democracy. (Sartre 1983: 47)

It may well be asked why so many “modern” utopias are socialist – indeed, the two categories almost became coextensive during the nineteenth century. A sociological account would connect the proliferation of socialist theories with the inception and development of capitalism and the visible injustices which resulted. (Goodwin and Taylor 1982: 45)

The Problem: Definitions and Distinctions

As has been pointed out many times, the categories of utopia and socialism, “almost became coextensive during the nineteenth century.” Since the revival of utopianism and utopian scholarship in the 1970s, there has been a growing realization that there are also utopias which eschew and even reject socialist ideals; and some critics have begun to argue that the “coextensiveness” of utopianism and socialism might be the result of historical factors rather than evidence of an essential and intrinsic political content of the utopia.1 The existence of “capitalist” ←53 | 54→and, more generally, of “right-wing” utopias poses a dilemma for those scholars who, like myself, came to the study of utopia as a continuation of an involvement in socialist and feminist politics. In the following I will probe this dilemma, before examining some typical right-wing utopias.

A reading of the standard definitions of utopia does little to resolve the question of the political “contents” of the imaginary society, as, for instance, in Darko Suvin’s formulation, which makes no reference per se to the political features of the utopia:

Utopia is the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical institutions, norms, and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community. (Suvin 1979: 49)

In their study of utopianism and political theory, The Politics of Utopia, Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor seem, at first, to have found a way of denying utopian status to potential utopias based on the work’s contents. Goodwin and Taylor begin with the stipulation “that anything purporting to be a utopia should have universal scope and offer benefits to all those within this frame of reference” (1982: 18). These conditions would in fact eliminate, on the grounds of their elitism and restricted benefits, most of the works I propose to study. Unfortunately, this stipulation of universality is then qualified by the admission that the condition that “all must benefit equally” is itself the imposition “of a particular ideal” (1982: 18). Egalitarianism itself is but one form of the fictional evocation of a better place; the utopia “should aim to benefit everyone, albeit to differing degrees” (1982: 18; emphasis added).

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Despite Goodwin and Taylor’s reasoning about egalitarianism, the temptation to rely on some ontological definition of utopia as a way of excluding elitist, sexist, or racist works from the utopian family has played an important role in the establishment of the utopian canon, as can be seen in the critical reaction to B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two.

I will return to the Skinner controversy in a moment. It is already clear that however satisfying the expulsion of certain works from the utopian family might be, it simply avoids the problem being discussed. Socialists may have little difficulty in acknowledging that the model societies proposed in some older left utopias are no longer adequate or acceptable today, and indeed this critical distance in the name of egalitarianism was at the core of many of the feminist utopias of the 1970s. But insofar as right-wing utopias reject egalitarianism, such works raise a different problem. The coextensiveness of English-language utopias and the socialist tradition was based not only on a mutual commitment to egalitarianism, but on a repudiation of a status quo based on private property. Indeed, the rejection of the status quo may be seen as a fundamental formal characteristic of the utopia insofar as it is the obverse of the utopia’s positive imagination of an alternative to the present. “Every utopia, by its very existence, constitutes an ad hoc criticism of existing society” (Goodwin and Taylor 1982: 29). Insofar as the existing society of the author is one based on private property, the right-wing utopia raises the question of how and why the utopian form could be used to promote ideologies which were already, ostensibly at least, hegemonic.

To understand these questions more fully, let us briefly look at the differences between left and right utopias. As Lyman Tower Sargent and others have argued, and as a reading of the feminist utopias of the 1970s quickly shows, there are two major areas of opposition between right and left: private property and equality (Sargent 1981: 199).

This right/left dichotomy is made explicit in the right-wing utopias. For instance, while decrying “the threat of communist domination,” and requiring all candidates for office to “renounce their membership in […] political parties or thought groups,” Hunt’s “Alpaca constitution” makes a provision for “two worldwide opposing philosophies,” “Liberal” and “Constructive,” which recapitulate the right/left opposition while making clear where the author’s sympathies lie:

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LIBERAL – Stressing privileges for the masses; progress unhampered by tradition; humanitarianism regardless of property rights; paternalistic government; social gains and associated and similar objectives.

CONSTRUCTIVE – Stressing inviolate property rights: individual initiative; the profit motive, free markets; protection against governmental monopoly and associated and similar objectives. (1967: 187)

On the other hand, for the left utopias of the twentieth century, human freedom and equality are not possible under capitalism, a system by which the means of production are in private hands, or in which egotism and the profit motive are the creed.

Nowhere is this opposition more clearly stated than in Neil Smith’s deliberate reversal of the meaning of Le Guin’s term “propertarian.” Early in Smith’s novel, The Probability Broach, one of his characters explains: “Propertarians believe that all human rights are property rights, beginning with absolute ownership of your own life” (12). Smith acknowledges that he has taken the term from Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; but whereas in Le Guin, “propertarian” was a term of abuse – the grasping egotist – Smith uses it as a positive term, to designate those enlightened men and women who respect the primacy of private property. Le Guin sums up the contrary left utopian belief in the fundamental incompatibility of equality and private property when the central character of The Dispossessed explains that on the world of Anarres, “no one eats while another starves.”

For the left utopists, human happiness depends on economic equality, or at least on economic security, as summed up in Marx’s dictum, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Yet real equality also depends on the dismantling of the discriminatory structures built into the innate competitiveness of capitalism. Left utopias (particularly those of the 1970s) are not satisfied with an explicit pledge of equality of opportunity. Instead left utopias attempt to challenge and transform the ways that inequality, as it derives from race and gender, as well as class, functions as a part of our society. Some right utopias do talk about equality of opportunity, but there is an underlying assumption that inequality is not a systemic problem: and in any case, it is not the role of the state to attempt to counter inequality. To the contrary, life is usually described in terms of the “survival of the fittest”: nothing should be allowed to interfere with ←56 | 57→these “natural” processes for weeding out the weak and the infirm. More tellingly, the main characters of these utopias are usually white males, while society’s “others” are relegated to their traditional roles.2

Some Right-Wing Utopias

This contradiction between the utopian form and the inclusion of apparently non-utopian features was at the heart of the debates which followed the publication of B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two in 1948. Beginning with a brief look at the controversy around Skinner’s utopia, I want to discuss seven representative utopian novels which illustrate the parameters of the right-wing utopia. These diverse novels include Ayn Rand’s classic Atlas Shrugged (1957); three popular science fiction novels: Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty (1981), and Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach (1980); and three examples of utopias published by politically committed small presses: H.L. Hunt’s Alpaca Revisited (1967), Jill von Konen’s Camp 38 (1984), and Andrew Macdonald’s The Turner Diaries (1978). Although my examination of these novels will be somewhat abbreviated, I hope nonetheless to give a preliminary description of the principal types of utopian conventions and models they employ, before raising again the question of their place in the utopian classification. (In so doing, I will leave the question of the relative literary merit of these various works aside.)

In his elaboration of “capitalist eutopias,” Sargent proposes two basic types of positive capitalist utopia: “works that picture a completely or nearly completely free-enterprise economy,” and “works that suggest that although capitalism is the best economic system, it needs reform” (Sargent 1981: 193). But these two categories are not mutually exclusive (Hunt’s Alpaca Revisited appears in each), and do not really help in trying to establish types of right-wing utopias. In concluding that these works are “similar in form and purpose” to other utopias, however, Sargent returns to the issue with which I began, the puzzle of the capitalist utopia:

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there is still the problem of why, in comparison to socialist eutopias, they are so rare […] Utopias are primarily vehicles for criticism. In the United States the defender of capitalism has generally believed that the best possible world already exists. Thus the main criticism implied in the construction of an alternative society would be inappropriate. The prevalence of the antisocialist dystopia in the twentieth century makes the same point; it is designed to show that we are falling away from the good society […] But the genre was used, and it was used to criticize the failings of the capitalist system and to show that improvements were possible. (Sargent 1981: 202)

In the following I have used a rudimentary classification system based on both positive and negative features; one which takes into account the utopia’s critique of and distance from the status quo, as well as considering the contents and form of the alternative society. There are three general headings: capitalist, libertarian and apocalyptic. By “capitalist,” I am referring to works which are only marginally, if at all, critical of the status quo and which stress instead the preservation of “The American Way of Life.” The difference between it and the libertarian utopia lies not so much in the laissez-faire premise that too much government regulation and interference have brought American free enterprise to its knees, but in the emphasis on the need for drastic changes to confront this crisis. The second characteristic of the libertarian utopia is its abandonment of the Christian heritage, which informs the ideology of the New Right and the so-called Moral Majority today. The “apocalyptic” is marked by the conviction that existing society must be destroyed. However, in contrast to left utopias which also often reject the possibility of reform, apocalyptic utopias differ radically from left utopias (and from capitalist and libertarian utopias) in terms of their explanations of the problems, and in terms of the types of solutions the new society embodies.

Walden Two

Whether we like it or not, Walden Two is a utopia. It was clearly intended as a utopia, and it conforms to all of the formal characteristics of the genre, including the familiar narrative of the visit to the experimental community, a detailed exposition of its ideals, and a picture of life in the new ←58 | 59→society. In fact, there is not one utopian visitor, but two: a skeptical philosopher whose doubts and suspicions grow with each new discovery, and the narrator who ultimately decides that this is indeed the ideal society.

This novel is important, however, not because it typifies the right-wing utopia, but because it illustrates the dilemma with which I began. Walden Two is a problematic utopia not because of its form, but because of its content. Its problematic utopianism is evident from the attitudes of critics toward it, as can be seen in the following comments from the closing pages of Negley and Patrick’s influential anthology, The Quest for Utopia:

It is ironic to conclude our survey of utopian speculation in the pessimistic mood engendered by Walden Two. We have descended from the heights of confidence in man’s capacities and noble aspiration for his progressive betterment to a nadir of ignominy in which he is placed on a par with pigeons. (1952: 583)3

Skinner’s critics argue that, instead of producing a society of free men and women, his reliance on conditioning will simply reproduce the mindless, programmed beings of Huxley’s Brave New World. Yet, as Krishan Kumar has argued, if we try to read the novel dispassionately, suspending for a moment our awareness of the controversy around behaviorism, Skinner’s analysis and suggestions are often reasonable, and in fact overlap with much of the left critique of modern mass society. On the one hand, according to Kumar, Skinner addresses two significant failures of liberal philosophy. “The first is that liberalism has not been able to deal at all adequately with the situation of the ‘happy slave’ [… The second] has to do with the variety of ‘progressive’ and ‘permissive’ techniques currently practiced in many social institutions [which constitute] weak forms of social control” (1987: 370–371). From a positive, utopian perspective, Kumar continues, there is also something to be said for Skinner’s proposals:

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Given that he chose to include eugenics, collective child-rearing, the destruction of the family, equality of work and rewards, common property and centralized planning, (the attacks on his work were) hardly unexpected. What needs to be emphasized is his considerable success in rescuing these practices from their disfigurement with Nazism and Stalinism. He shows that, given a suitable tentative attitude towards them, they are practices with a real potential for overcoming some of the fundamental discontents of modern society. (1987: 378)

Kumar concludes that Walden Two is unlike other utopias insofar as “it is a utopia of means, not ends.” “Most utopias have as their main emphasis a vision of ultimate goals […] To [Skinner] the goals of any perfected society are self-evident […] What has always flawed utopian schemes, Skinner argues, and destroyed utopian communities, is the lack of a scientific theory of human behavior which would enable those values to be realized” (1987: 349).

The Capitalist Eutopia

H.L. Hunt’s Alpaca Revisited is the account of a young idealist’s decision “to go out into the world centers of thought and culture and seek a cure for [his country’s] political plight” (1967: 6). The hero’s plan is threefold: “First, to formulate a comprehensive charter, or constitution, for national government. Second, to get it adopted without internal revolution. Third, to make it work, to the people’s advantage” (1967: 19).

The novel is composed almost entirely of discussions of the different articles of a new constitution for a small South American country, followed by the text of the constitution, which itself takes up forty pages of the 220-page book. There are several appendices, including one composed of the mostly pro forma replies of various “Heads of Foreign Nations” to whom he had sent copies of his model constitution. A section is also included which explains how “patriots” can act to protect “their liberty and the Nation’s independence and sovereignty” against atheism and communism, by actively “promoting Christianity and Freedom” (1967: 221). Another appendix explains that the UN Charter is flawed because of the ←60 | 61→one nation, one vote principle, which gives too much power to the “international Communist conspiracy” (1967: 206).

This last idea is the key to the Alpaca constitution, which is based on the principle of “selective suffrage”; instead of one citizen, one vote, there is a provision for awarding “responsible citizens” with up to five additional votes, “based on age, experience, active interest and involvement in government, and tax paid” (1967: 191).

As I have said, the novelistic components of Alpaca Revisited are minimal. Moreover, the narrative of the drafting of a model constitution is different from most literary utopias which describe instead the already functioning alternative society, although literary utopias often include an explanation of “how the change came about.” Hunt’s novel ends as the new constitution is voted into place by the citizens of Alpaca. I have included this work because it exemplifies an aspect of my starting point: utopias include a critique of the status quo, something which is almost completely absent here. If it were not for the appendices and concern for protecting the United States against “atheism and Communism,” the reader might wonder just what the book’s intentions were. In keeping with this theme of defense and the security of American “independence and sovereignty,” one could argue that the Alpaca Constitution is not meant for the United States, but for other countries, as a way of organizing the rest of the world, in order to best safeguard U.S. Christian capitalism. Thus the novel concludes with the “Freedom Team’s ‘fervent hope’ ”:

that what they had done would not stop with Alpaca; in the many countries similarly situated, or faced with the threat of communist domination, they could watch hopefully for similar plan teams to spring up following their example. […] [However] they had no way of foreseeing the agitation which led minorities in the USA into demonstrating, a step-up in crime rates, then to riots and finally near-insurrection. […] Nor could Team Members anticipate that the United States and some other democracies would begin offering and paying a premium for movements so far to the left that they could be called communistic or socialistic, or at least atheistic. (1967: 155–156)

Niven and Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty begins with that same specter of “agitation” among minorities and stepped-up crime rates, in order to make a more concrete utopian proposal for affluent Americans. Here the ←61 | 62→agitators’ ideology is not communism, but a combination of environmentalism (“The Friends of Man and The Earth” – FROMATES, and their guerilla wing, the “American Ecology Army”), and a festering class resentment at the spectacle of wealth and advantage in the midst of poverty and despair. The novel describes the “arcology” of Todos Santos and its 250,000 inhabitants, built on the ruins of an area of Los Angeles and surrounded by the crumbling city:

Terrorists had tried to start riots by starting fires in one of the ghetto areas. It had worked fine. They threw so many firebombs that they started a firestorm and burned down square miles of city, leaving a hideous, angry scar, a lot of people homeless, and unemployment soaring. When the consortium that owned Todos Santos offered to rebuild and create a hundred thousand jobs, and solve the fresh-water problem in the bargain, Congress and the state legislature and everybody else had fallen all over themselves to give the money people the incentives they demanded. (1982: 90)

The plot involves the attempts of the American Ecology Army to sabotage and discredit the utopian experiment. The underlying philosophy of Todos Santos, which is owned by a Swiss Corporation and is expected to show a profit, is summed up in the social-Darwinist graffito, “THINK OF IT AS EVOLUTION IN ACTION.” This slogan becomes the justification for the residents of Todos Santos to defend their privileged way of life. As a reporter describes it, “an ugly mood has developed lately […] typified by a phrase which has caught on in Todos Santos” (1982: 177).

Niven and Pournelle are explicit in their linking of “liberal” social ideas and the disintegration of the American Way of Life; they are unable or unwilling, however, to imagine a widespread or national solution. Theirs is a better society within the boundaries of the United States, to which admittance is strictly limited, and in which democracy has been replaced by safety. In exchange for a relatively free, comfortable and above all safe existence, residents have handed over a number of rights and freedoms. Protection is based on an efficient and omnipresent security system which monitors and watches over residents. This is an elitist utopia, restricted to the wealthy few who can afford to live there; it is not a vision of social transformation, but of the ultimate security system.

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In some ways, Oath of Fealty resembles the libertarian utopias, later to be discussed. Instead of exhorting “patriots” to uphold the American Way of Life, Oath of Fealty turns its back on a decaying system in order to imagine an armed and insulated retreat for affluent Americans. However, the libertarian utopias will go further in their rejection of the status quo and in disdain for the Christian “heritage” of values and beliefs. Oath of Fealty is a transitional work which does not fully engage with the shortcomings of the United States. Yet there are other utopias which critique much more forcefully what they see as the United States collapsing under the weight of a bloated and restrictive government.

The Libertarian Utopia

Much of the philosophical bases of the libertarian position have been developed from the work of Ayn Rand. Rand’s 1957 Atlas Shrugged developed many of the same themes by juxtaposing a collapsing America with glimpses of a utopian alternative. The book is an extensive portrait of the devastation of the United States at the hands of “looters” and “wreckers” who, in Rand’s account of the decline of the United States, are identified not as men and women motivated by greed and self-interest, but as those who subscribe to the mistaken ideals of altruism. The novel tells of a small group of exceptional men who refuse this “philosophy of guilt”:

We are on strike against martyrdom, [John Galt declares], and against the moral code that demands it. We are on strike against those who believe that one man must exist for the sake of another. We are on strike against the morality of cannibals […] our terms are a moral code which holds that man is an end in himself and not the means to any end of others. (1957: 740)

From their hidden valley, Galt and his friends watch and wait as the outside society falls apart:

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We did not know whether we’d live to see the liberation of the world or whether we’d have to leave our battle and our secret to the next generations. But now we think that we will see, and soon, the day of our victory and of our return. […] when they have no pretense of authority left, no remnant of law, no trace of morality, no hope, no food and no way to obtain it – when they collapse and the road is clear – then we’ll come back to rebuild the world. (1957: 748)

Although Rand’s novel is more than a thousand pages in length, there is little actual description of the utopian society. Unlike the utopias of Heinlein and Smith (which I discuss below), Rand’s individualism leads her to reject the possibility of a collective solution: “We are not a state here,” Galt says of the hidden valley, “not a society of any kind – we’re just a voluntary association of men held together by nothing but every man’s self-interest” (1957: 747).

On the other hand, Heinlein and Smith describe, in some detail, the features and working of an alternative society. The plot of Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is modeled on the American colonies’ breakaway from Britain, and uses the science fiction convention of starting over on an empty and available moon (a convention that is also used in such left utopias as Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or Samuel Delany’s Triton [1976]). There is some discussion of the social and economic structures of the lunar economy, and of its underlying libertarian principles (“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” TANSTAAFL), but the novel’s primary focus is on the mechanics of revolution, and the developing personality of a sentient computer. The utopian lunar colony is juxtaposed to an Earth in crisis which is collapsing primarily because of the mistaken “liberal” social and economic policies of various governments.4

Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach makes many of the same points, using a different science fiction convention: that of the parallel or alternative reality in which the history of the United States has unfolded differently (as in P.K. Dick’s celebrated Man in the High Castle, 1962). Here, Thomas Jefferson’s decisive addition of the word “unanimous” to the Declaration of Independence has produced a libertarian “Confederacy.” In this alternate ←64 | 65→United States, the Declaration of Independence reads, “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the unanimous Consent of the Governed” (1980: 302). Without unanimous consent, the Congress cannot act; consequently, there have been few laws or taxes enacted over the past two hundred years. In our “federalist” United States, the “consent of the governed” is decided by a bogus majority rule, which has led to the proliferation of unnecessary and costly regulations and a vast bureaucracy to enforce them. Like the preceding two novels, The Probability Broach juxtaposes a decaying United States, grinding to a halt under the weight of government regulations and bureaucracy, with a healthy, vibrant alternative.

The novels of Heinlein and Smith were written as science fiction and as such, particularly in the case of Heinlein (who has often been ranked as “the most popular SF writer of all time”5), this has meant a wider readership for their works than for the other utopias under consideration. Following Rand’s own loathing for altruism and state intervention, the libertarian utopias argue for an economic laissez-faire model which extends to the sphere of personal behavior and freedom; in the championing of absolute individual autonomy, these utopias have abandoned other traditional American values, most importantly the Christian moral values and religious beliefs which are at the core of Hunt’s Alpaca.


Finally, there are those utopias which reject reform. A better society is not possible until the existing one has been levelled, a view already expressed in John Galt’s triumphant words previously cited. Similar to Rand’s elite, the members of Camp 38, in von Konen’s novel of the same name, believe that the outside world is corrupt and doomed. However, while there are references to the impending collapse and its causes, this is not Camp 38’s primary focus, for it describes in detail a functioning, self-sufficient ←65 | 66→community based on specific principles and ideals – a utopia to which I shall return.

There are, of course, more extreme visions of the collapse and its aftermath, visions which appear in a subgenre of popular fiction which shares some themes with utopian fiction: contemporary “survivalist” novels, such as the popular series of Jerry Ahern and William Johnston.6 However, these survivalist communities are not really utopias since they are so small and fragile, barely more than an extended patriarchal family. Yet, the principles and ideals of self-sufficiency are apparent; if and when the fighting is over, a small but strong and self-reliant community will remain. (It is also interesting to note that one of the archetypes of this proto-utopian, survivalist fiction is Robert Heinlein’s 1964 Farnham’s Freehold.) These novels should be viewed as limit cases, works which mark the boundary of the utopian genre insofar as they express an apocalyptic need to begin over from the ruins of this world.7

In addition to economic collapse or the outbreak of nuclear war, there is another possible way of explaining the destruction of the existing society – its violent overthrow. The only solution, explains the protagonist of The Turner Diaries, is “to destroy the System, root and branch, and build something radically and fundamentally different in its place” (Macdonald 1987: 51). This idea is a familiar element in some left utopias, of which the best known examples would be Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975). From a right perspective, the necessity of change through violence in the United States seems unusual. I have already argued that the libertarians were critical of what the United States had become, but this did not involve a total ←66 | 67→renunciation; Smith proposed the addition of one word to the Declaration of Independence, while Heinlein modeled his lunar rebellion on the breakaway of the American colonies from Britain. Indeed, it is the left which is usually viewed as attempting to import a “foreign” ideology (socialism and communism) or as rejecting reform.8

In The Turner Diaries it is no longer a question of returning to pure capitalism or to some original intent of the Constitution. The extent of Turner’s rejection is made clear from his reaction to the call for new elections:

Doesn’t the old fool understand that the American people voted themselves into the mess they’re in now? Doesn’t he understand that the Jews have taken over the country fair and square, according to the Constitution? (1987: 173)

There are other narratives of violent upheaval in which American patriots fight back against an invasion – the imposition of a foreign ideology by force – as in the film Red Dawn (1984), or in the Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle science fiction novel Footfall (1985). According to Macdonald’s racist conspiracy theory, it is no longer the communists, but Jews who have taken over the United States government, although Macdonald also stresses the un-American and foreign by calling it the “Zionist Occupation Government.” The Turner Diaries is the account of the armed struggle of a dedicated band of guerillas to preserve Christian values and the white race – a book which because of its outline of racist ideology and the mechanics of guerilla warfare in the United States, has been labelled “the bible of the racist right.”

There is also a legitimate question whether The Turner Diaries is a utopia at all. I have included it by analogy with Jack London’s The Iron Heel (1907) which is usually classed as a utopia. As London’s classic, the body of the novel depicts a violent struggle, while the liminal or framing text reveals that years have passed since the events depicted and that a utopian society has emerged:

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[Turner] helped greatly to assure that his race would survive and prosper, that the Organization would achieve its worldwide political and military goals, and that the Order would spread its wise and benevolent rule over the earth for all time to come. (Macdonald 1987: 211)

The racist ideal society of The Turner Diaries tests the limits of the neutrality of the formal definition of utopia. The other example of an “apocalyptic” utopia, von Konen’s Camp 38, is quite different. Formally, it is certainly a utopia; it describes a functioning, self-sufficient community held together by a set of common ideals. Nonetheless, these ideals are difficult to describe. The book is subtitled, “Current Model of Northern European Lifestyle Before Christianity”; and there are numerous references to a “pre-theocratic” or “pagan” culture, as well as to the legends which inform Wagner’s Ring cycle. It also includes advertisements for other Sovereign Press publications, including Thomas Jefferson’s American Christian Bible in which Jefferson allegedly “cut away from the words and story of Jesus the mutilating Judaic injections.” On the next page, however, anti-Semitism is followed by anti-Catholicism, and an advertisement for a book entitled The Pagan Bible (von Konen 1984: 195).


I am trying to suggest that the increasing incidence of right-wing utopias is a complex phenomenon which demands further study. My original reaction, to deny that such works are utopias at all, avoids the larger issue of why visions of an alternative society should be important for those whose ideals might be said to have already triumphed. As my brief examination has shown, most of these works were written as critiques of the present reality of the United States, or at least as critiques of what the authors perceived that reality to be. Leaving aside the “capitalist utopia,” which does not really criticize the United States, I have described two rather different groups of right-wing utopias.

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There is, first of all, the cooler, more calculating vision of the libertarians (which includes Oath of Fealty). Theirs is indeed a recognition and rejection of the “compromises” capitalism has made, insofar as modern capitalist states are mixed economies with developed welfare systems. From another perspective, this was not so much a compromise as it was the price to be paid in order to avert more far-reaching upheaval and change: to some extent, it was the development of the welfare state which served to convert the revolutionary potential of a militant working class into today’s more reformist socialist and labor parties.

While libertarianism is often associated with permissive moral standards, and with the conviction that the state has no place in the control of personal morality – whether it be sexual behavior and censorship, or Sunday closing laws and the regulation of alcohol consumption – these libertarian utopias go far beyond the defense of permissiveness and individual freedom. Libertarian utopias insist that the state has no role at all to play in the social or economic sphere. As John Galt explains in Atlas Shrugged:

The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules. (Rand 1957: 1062–1063)

However, Galt’s ideal government is still far too intrusive for Smith and Heinlein:

A free, unregulated laissez-faire market should, and can, take care of everything government claims to do, only better, cheaper, and without wrecking individual lives in the process. (Smith 1980: 13)

The Turner Diaries and Camp 38 fall into a very different category, and illustrate an opposite pole to the libertarian rejection of any mandated code of behavior or set of religious beliefs. While I have stated that it is difficult to characterize precisely the ideology of Camp 38, it is not libertarianism or individualism. Instead, the novel describes a community held together by a rigorous and harsh, albeit very brief, set of rules. These “items of agreement” are based on the notion of the “sovereign individual” and especially forbid groups from having power over individuals, but all members of the ←69 | 70→community are bound by these rules, and death is “the invariable penalty for breaking [them]” (von Konen 1984: 52).

Moreover, rituals and culture are designed to reinforce this “Northern European Lifestyle,” particularly through a modified performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle which plays an integral role in binding the community together – a rather strange irruption of High Art into the rugged, elemental life of the inhabitants of Camp 38.

The racist “Christian Identity” ideology which informs The Turner Diaries is much more coherent, and much more explicit in its rejection of the primacy of individual rights. As demonstrated in Earl Turner’s explanation of a decision to execute one of their members who questions the need for violent revolution:

His were the motivations of a libertarian, the sort of self-centered individual who sees the basic evil in government as a limitation on free enterprise.

Someone asked him whether he had forgotten what the Organization has repeated over and over, namely, that our struggle is to secure the future of our race, and that the issue of individual freedom is subordinate to that one, overwhelming purpose. (Macdonald 1987: 51, 52)

Their struggle is based on “an essentially religious attitude” (1987: 52), for Turner “understood” that he and the others were “truly the instruments of God in the fulfillment of His Grand Design” (1987: 71).

The Turner Diaries and Camp 38 are also the most explicitly “intentional” of the works I have discussed; the works were published pseudonymously by small, right-wing presses whose catalogues are comprised of books outlining their respective world views. In addition to my copy of Camp 38, for instance, I received an unsolicited and unsigned brochure entitled, “An Evaluation of Our American Heritage” which explains the “publishing policy” of Sovereign Press and its dedication to “Individual Sovereignty.”9

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Rather than exclude the extremist rantings of Macdonald (and according to Canadian “hate literature” legislation, the book is probably illegal), I would like to briefly explore the dimensions of the utopian in such a work. While the society and principles outlined are fundamentally abhorrent, to some extent the utopian may also be measured by the strength of a work’s refusal of this world. Although The Turner Diaries is profoundly mistaken in its understanding of the causes of the current situation, it springs from a rejection of the present system.

In the conclusion of his The Political Unconscious, “The Dialectic of Utopia and Ideology,” Fredric Jameson asks:

[H]‌ow is it possible for a cultural text which fulfills a demonstrably ideological function, as a hegemonic work whose formal categories as well as its content secure the legitimation of this or that form of class domination – how is it possible for such a text to embody a properly Utopian impulse? (1981: 288)

He answers that “all class consciousness is Utopian insofar as it expresses the unity of a collectivity”:

The achieved collectivity or organic group of whatever kind – oppressors as much as oppressed – is Utopian not in itself, but only insofar as all such collectivities are themselves figures for the ultimate concrete collective life of an achieved Utopian or classless society. (1981: 289–290)

In this development of what Jameson calls “Bloch’s luminous recovery of the Utopian impulse” (1981: 287), he argues that the utopian may be found in all forms of class consciousness, including fascism and racism, or, I would add, in the extremist convictions of Macdonald and von Konen. Macdonald’s is a coherent world-view, a dream which, however perverted and sick, is of a world of like-minded men and women, freed at last from the humiliations and oppression they have had to endure. This is not to justify or exonerate its violent racism; but the contrast between it and the libertarian utopias points to a possible explanation of the dilemma with which I began, when I asked what attractions the utopian form could possibly have for those whose ideas and ideology have ostensibly triumphed. For the libertarians, interest in these recent utopias may be described, to use a metaphor which refers to the social-Darwinist image ←71 | 72→of “red in tooth and claw,” as the “scent of blood”: a decade of Reaganism and Thatcherism has given the apostles of greed the hope of an imminent roll-back of the social and political gains of the past fifty years and the prospect of a return to an unregulated market.

The Turner Diaries and Camp 38, on the other hand, suggest very different origins, grounded not in Rand’s “radiant selfishness of soul,” but in the suffering and rage of some victims of the unchecked greed and plunder of American Capitalism.

I have not resolved my original dilemma, but at least I hope to have succeeded in showing that the increase in right-wing utopias is of more than a purely scholarly interest. It is important insofar as it coincides to some degree with the waning of the left and feminist utopias of the 1970s. These works should serve to remind us that even the modest liberal gains that have been made over the past few decades are under attack. Perhaps we should read them as we read the dystopia, as warnings of what the future holds if we fail to resist.

1One of the first examinations of this question was Lyman Tower Sargent’s 1981 article “Capitalist Eutopias in America,” in Kenneth M. Roemer, ed., America as Utopia, pp. 192–205. However, in addition to the “capitalist eutopias” he mentions, there are other “right-wing utopias” (like those described by Michael Orth in a paper given to the 1988 meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies), which are not necessarily capitalist. At the same time, there has also been an increasing interest in the “utopian” dimension of fascism. See Alice Kaplan’s Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986); as well as Frank Dietz’s review of Jost Hermand’s Der alte Traum vom neuen Reich: Volkische Utopien und Nationalsozialismus, in Utopian Studies 1/1 (1990), 137–140.

2See Chapter 9, “So We All Became Mothers.”

3For accounts of the novel and the ensuing debate see: Berger (1976: 51–65); Kateb (1972: 139–216); and Kumar (1987: 347–378). The best-known attack on Skinner’s “ignoble utopia” was Joseph Wood Krutch’s The Measure of Man (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1954).

4For a polemical indictment of liberal social policies toward the third world, see Jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of the Saints (New York: Scribner, 1975).

5Locus 319 (August 1987), 1.

6For a complete listing and description of these novels, see Paul Brians’s annotated bibliography of the “Atomic War in Fiction,” Nuclear Holocausts (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1987).

7This is not unlike the warnings of various evangelical believers in the coming “Tribulation” (e.g., Hal Lindsey). Such religious views reject, of course, the possibility of an earthly utopia. These questions are also discussed in Coates’s Armed and Dangerous. See also Kevin Flynn, and Gary Gerhardt, The Silent Brotherhood: Inside America’s Racist Underground (New York: Free Press, 1989). I should note too that some critics, much to the chagrin of the author, have discussed Le Guin’s utopia Always Coming Home as an after-the-bomb world.

8This is a long-established view. In 1935, Earl Browder, the head of the Communist Party (USA), coined the slogan “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism” to try and combat this image of a “foreign” ideology (Earl Browder, What is Communism? [New York: Vanguard Press, 1936]).

9The militant racist and religious views of this segment of the radical right were depicted in Costa-Gavras’s film Betrayed (1988); and there is a synopsis of The Turner Diaries given by the radio talk-show host in Oliver Stone’s film Talk Radio (1988), which is based on the murder of a Denver talk-show host – an event which is often seen as the “opening shot” in the survivalist right’s armed rebellion.

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Buried Treasures: Reconsidering Holberg’s Niels Klim in the World Underground

Who in this country ever hears of Baron Holberg’s Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground, in spite of the fact that since the book appeared in 1741, it has been translated into thirteen languages and published in more than sixty editions? […] Even though Klim is one of the best examples of the imaginary voyage – only Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire Comique de la Lune and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels are more famous – the author’s name is unfamiliar to most students of eighteenth-century literature. (McNelis 2004: vii)

I will speak first of Subterraneous Cavities and Waters, because they will be of easier dispatch, and an introduction to the rest. That the inside of the Earth is hollow and broken in many places, and is not a firm and united mass, we have both the Testimony of Sence and of easie observations to prove. (Burnet 1965: 93–94)

In 1836 the United States Congress passed a bill establishing what would become the first and most famous American naval scientific exploration, the “United States Exploring Expedition” which lasted from 1838 to 1842 and which led to the establishment of a national museum of natural history – the Smithsonian Institution – to house the more than 50,000 specimens collected. This expedition began in what the historian William Stanton has called the “fervent foolishness” of one man, John Cleves Symmes, Jr., a self-educated former soldier who in 1818 issued his “Circular Number 1,” “sending copies to ‘each notable foreign government, reigning prince, legislature, city, college, and philosophical society, quite around the earth’ ” (Stanton 1975: 8). In it Symmes wrote: “I declare that the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the ←73 | 74→world will support and aid me in the undertaking” (quoted in Stanton 1975: 8).

The fortunes of the idea that the earth was “hollow and habitable within,” from classical references to the underworld to esoteric and New Age writers today who continue to defend this notion, have been recounted elsewhere, most notably by Walter Kafton-Minkel in his Subterranean Worlds: 100,000 Years of Dragons, Dwarfs, the Dead, Lost Races & UFOs from Inside the Earth (1989). Stanton’s study of the first U.S. Exploring Expedition is a fascinating account of one of the more intriguing episodes in that history.1 In this essay I shall clarify the history of the hollow earth and its relevance to utopianism through a close examination of the first major utopia to use it (and the first significant fictional representation of the hollow earth), Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum, Novam Telluris theoriem ac Historiam Quintae Monarchiae adhuc nobis incognita exhibens (1741).

Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754) was probably the most European of Scandinavian writers before Ibsen and certainly the best known; he is often referred to as the “father” of Danish and Norwegian literature.2 Although he is usually remembered today as the “Moliere of the North” for his satirical plays, like so many other eighteenth-century figures, he was also the author of historical and political works, philosophical and legal essays, ←74 | 75→“Moral Reflections” and autobiographical “Epistles,” and an important subterranean utopia: The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground, with a New Theory of the Earth and the History of the Previously Unknown Fifth Kingdom. Written in Latin, and quickly translated into a number of European languages, Klim, although now neglected, had a wide influence at the time, and stands on its own as an important eighteenth-century utopia.3

←75 | 76→ ←76 | 77→

As I will try to show, Klim does merit our attention; for it is not only a significant utopia, but its imaginative qualities are equally worthy of attention. One way of appreciating Klim is to look at it in comparison to the work from which it is often seen to be derived, Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World (Gulliver’s Travels, 1726).

Because it was published fifteen years after Gulliver’s Travels, interest in Holberg’s utopia has long been overshadowed by Swift’s work. It is usually remembered as one of the many works inspired by Swift’s classic, although one of the first major twentieth-century studies of Gulliver’s Travels raises the possibility that Swift’s work may have been based on Holberg’s. Although this seems unlikely, manuscript copies of Niels Klim had been circulating for at least a decade before its publication. In any case, the two works were certainly contemporaneous, and there are some important similarities, most particularly in the narrative of a voyage to a number of imaginary countries as the vehicle for utopian satire.4

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Holberg’s utopia recounts the adventures of Niels Klim after his fall through the earth’s crust into the center of the earth where a solitary planet moves about a subterranean sun. The first utopian part of his adventures is set in the land of Potu (= utop), which is inhabited by a race of intelligent and mobile trees. Although he is eventually recognized as “a rational animal” (for there are unintelligent apes in Potu and the Potuans’s initial reaction is analogous to the Houyhnhnms’s assumption that Gulliver is a Yahoo), Klim is never able to attain full Potuan status. In a land in which important statements are repeated three times, his quickness is seen as a flaw, and he is nicknamed “Overhasty” (78).5 In utopian fashion he is assigned ←78 | 79→a task in keeping with his character: because he moves so much faster than the trees he is made the king’s chief messenger. Klim is frustrated by this prospect, however, for he has just received his university diploma and he aspires to a position in keeping with his degree. (“I thought it the greatest debasement imaginable for one who was a candidate for holy orders and a Bachelor of Arts in the Upper World, to be changed into a vile Subterranean court messenger” [2004: 44].)

After several years as a messenger, he is commissioned to make a tour of the entire planet of Nazar and to report back to the king. The planet is only 600 miles in circumference, and his trip takes him two months instead of the two years it would take a tree. In this section of the book the author turns from utopia to satire, as Klim visits twenty-seven different provinces. The descriptions of these countries – all inhabited by different species of intelligent trees who speak the same language as the Potuans – are very brief, and most present satirical sketches of alternative societies. For instance, in the province of Quamso everyone is happy, healthy and bored; in Lalac, where there is no need to work, everyone is unhappy and sickly; in Kimal the citizens are wealthy, and spend all their time worrying about thieves; and in the “land of Liberty” everyone is at war.

When Klim returns to Potu, his account of the trip around the planet immediately becomes a best-selling book, and he is again frustrated when he is told that he must nonetheless continue as the king’s messenger. In a foolish attempt to improve his status, Klim tries to find a brilliant innovation “that should demonstrate the excellence of my genius and wipe away my present infamy” (2004: 79). But changes come very slowly to Potuan society; its laws and institutions have evolved over centuries and proposed changes are examined and judged at length; and there are severe penalties for rash or injurious proposals.

Foolishly, then, Klim settles on a proposal to “exclude women from the administration of public affairs” (2004: 123). Instead of a promotion, ←79 | 80→Klim is banished to the “firmament,” the underside of the Earth’s crust, to which he is carried by a giant bird. His adventures on the Earth’s inner crust begin in the kingdom of Martinia – a country of intelligent apes who, because of their preoccupation with fashion and their changeableness, may be seen as a caricature of the French (“light, frothy, talking creatures that have a smooth, fluent jargon of words without the least mixture of seriousness or gravity” [2004: 135]; “a light babbling race of creatures, and vast admirers of novelty” [2004: 130]). Too late, Klim realizes that he has been “translated from a land of sages to a country of fools” (2004: 135). Now he is thought too slow, but because of his strength he is made one of the Syndic’s “body chairmen [… with] the honor of carrying only [the Syndic] or his lady” (2004: 135). In Martinia, however, Klim is able to enhance his status through his wits, and he soon makes a fortune by introducing wigs to the Martinians. His success is short-lived, however, for after he rebuffs the advances of the Syndic’s wife, he is accused of trying to seduce her. In exchange for a guilty plea he is sentenced to the galleys.

From social satire the book now becomes almost entirely fantasy. As a galley slave, Klim is taken on a trading voyage to the Mezandorian islands, which lie across a vast sea, constituting, as Klim puts it, “a kind of Indies for the Martinians,” (2004: 149). They are inhabited by various fabulous creatures, beginning with a country of jack-daws at war with their neighbors the thrushes, and including a malodorous land of creatures who speak “a posteriori,” and a country of string basses who communicate by music. “Their necks were pretty long with little heads upon them; their bodies were slender and covered with a smooth kind of bark or rind in such a manner as that a pretty large vacuity was left between the rind and the body itself. A little above the navel Nature had placed a sort of bridge with four strings […]. One of these hands was employed in holding the bow, as the other was in stopping the strings” (2004: 156–157).

After a shipwreck he finds himself in a remote country inhabited not by intelligent animals or trees, but by primitive humans, who, of all the creatures of the subterranean world, “alone were barbarous and uncivilized.” Klim sets out to redress the situation, intending “that this reproach would soon be removed and that [they] would recover that dominion which Nature has given to man over all other animals” (2004: 81). One of ←80 | 81→the bitterest ironies for Klim lay in the fact that every subterranean race he encountered – plant and animal – with the single exception of the human Quamites, were civilized. Unlike Gulliver’s loathing of the Yahoos, Klim takes it upon himself to civilize the Quamites; but this civilizing mission is perhaps the most Swiftian part of the book. Using his knowledge he is able to manufacture gunpowder and to conquer, one by one, all of the countries of the firmament.6 Klim’s many conquests lead him to see himself as the “Alexander of the Subterranean world” (2004: 204), and he becomes a tyrant. When his subjects rebel, he is forced into flight; looking for shelter, he falls into the same hole through which he had previously fallen, thus returning to Norway. There he meets an old friend to whom he tells his story, but the friend convinces him that in this time of religious persecution, he would do well to conceal his adventures. Although he was once an emperor, Klim accepts an appointment as a curate, marries and has children. After his death, his friend publishes the manuscript.

Compared to Gulliver’s Travels, there is a reversal in the book’s order. Niels Klim begins with the visit to the utopia and then moves to satire and from there to fantasy, while Gulliver visits the best society last. The order of visits is equally important to the development of the two characters, for it is clear that Gulliver’s appreciation of the Houyhnhnms follows from his previous experiences; he would not have had the same reaction had he discovered them earlier. If anything Niels Klim undergoes a contrary transformation, growing only more insensitive and selfish while he is in the underworld. At the beginning Klim is unable to appreciate the utopian society, but there is a dawning realization of its advantages as he travels around Nazar. Yet, when he returns to Potu, he is as determined as ever to improve his standing, an ambition which leads to his banishment. Similarly, upon his arrival in Martinia he thinks that he has been transported from a country of sages to a land of fools, but this insight is quickly forgotten ←81 | 82→when he discovers possibilities for advancement, first by inventing wigs and then by becoming a tyrant. He remains throughout an amusing but sometimes perceptive observer, a comic figure rather than Swift’s acerbic and misanthropic commentator.

The major differences between Gulliver’s Travels and Niels Klim derive from the more utopian emphasis of the latter, and from the larger place given to fantasy.7 Although both works are constructed as imaginary voyages, Klim visits dozens of different countries, only one of which (Potu) is dealt with at length. The six or so countries visited by Gulliver, on the other hand, include some utopian features – particularly in Brobdingnag and the Country of the Houyhnhnms – but Swift’s descriptions of alternate societies are more detailed and more satirical; and in fact many critics describe Gulliver’s Travels as the rejection of utopia (Kumar 105–106). As Robert Elliott writes, “the most perfect utopia Gulliver writes of is England (unless, that is, one happens to be a horse).” (1970: 53). In the case of the Houyhnhnms, as Elliott points out, their society does not form a utopia in the sense of a society which humans could attain: “The Houyhnhnms, who cannot conceive of what is evil in a rational creature, who find it unnecessary to struggle to achieve virtue, have not the human curse to cope with. Their utopia is given, like the Golden Age; it is not created in terms applicable to the human condition” (1970: 66; emphasis in original).

Holberg is aware of this problem, for in his depiction of the society of Potu, he imagines a utopian society whose laws and customs have evolved through a process of trial and error. To distance his utopia from a naturally good society, he also includes a sketch of a primitive society similar to that of the Houyhnhnms. In “The Country of Innocence,” the inhabitants ←82 | 83→are “governed not by laws, but by their own innate virtue and disposition” (104). Although Klim acknowledges them to be happy, it is not without some hesitation: “[For] if they had no vices, they had no politeness, art, or elegance, nor any of those things which, though in reality no virtues, are yet extremely like virtues and render men civilized and social. To say the truth, I seemed here to be rather in a forest of real trees than in a rational society” (104).

This points to a continuing utopian debate about education, passion and “effortless virtue” which we know better through the controversy around B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948). George Kateb sums up Skinner’s position in the latter’s “warm approval” of a comment made by T.H. Huxley: “if some great Power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being turned into a sort of clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should instantly close with the other” (as cited in Kateb 1972: 160). After laying out the advantages of a society with “no scope for moral choice,” Kateb goes on to list the disadvantages of what he perceives Skinner’s solution to be. “Is it not true that choice – moral or otherwise – is the hallmark of the civilized man, and that it is the ever-present necessity to choose that distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation […]? A society in which moral choices ceased to be made would be a society permeated by sluggishness and indolence, and possessed of a vegetable quality; it would be a return to an Edenic state, and as such would be no mere return, but a regression” (1972: 164; emphasis in the original). Kateb’s description of the “vegetable quality” of this society of effortless virtue is striking in view of Klim’s reaction to the inhabitants of the Country of Innocence, when he stated that he seemed “here to be rather in a forest of real trees than in a rational society.”

In traditional terms, then, Potu is a utopia, while the many provinces of Nazar offer frequent opportunities for satire. The description of the Philosophical Region, for instance, constitutes a satire similar to Swift’s depiction of the Academy of Lagado. Here the philosophers are eager to dissect Klim, not out of evil intentions or “bad design [… but] for the sole illustration of the science of anatomy” (2004: 97). Instead of Swift’s biting satire, Holberg’s satire is more comical, and the author focuses on what ←83 | 84→would be missing in a society whose sole preoccupation was abstract speculation. Instead of a land of beauty and wisdom, he finds a dirty, unkempt city: “Philosophers and swine indifferently walked the streets, nor was the one distinguished from the other but by shape, being otherwise perfectly alike in dirt and nastiness” (2004: 94). He is saved from dissection by a philosopher’s wife who then makes advances to him, for in this country “the fate of married ladies was extremely hard, for that their philosophic husbands, immersed in learning, neglected conjugal duties” (2004: 97).

As this example suggests, Holberg has added a third element to the customary two-sided utopian structure, for in addition to the conventional juxtaposition of the author’s reality and the ideal society, the many provinces of Nazar provide Holberg with the opportunity to satirize various alternatives which have been imagined as utopian solutions. This rejection of utopian extremes can be seen in the “Land of Reason,” a country where the wisdom of its citizens has produced a “republic [which] languished for want of fools” (l00). Klim realizes that even wisdom can exist in excess: “Folly is to society what fermentation is to the stomach; too much, or none at all, are alike injurious” (101). This image sums up very well what might be called Holberg’s philosophy of moderation. In various cases, Holberg attacks the expectation that happiness depends on an unlimited supply of something which is lacking, as Klim visits unhappy countries with an abundance of doctors, philosophers, health, wealth or long life. Holberg also addresses the opposite utopian extreme, the belief that the elimination of the source of some present-day evil would bring happiness. Thus Klim visits countries without law, without religion, and without work, where again the inhabitants are dissatisfied and unhappy, in contrast to the citizens of the enlightened monarchy of Potu which is a utopia because of its calm respect for the Golden Mean.

Holberg’s own Enlightenment ideas lead to a number of such “reasonable” compromises, the most striking of which lies in his utopian emphasis on social and sexual equality: “for among [the Potuans] there was no difference of sexes observed in the distribution of public posts; but an election being made, the affairs of the republic were committed to the wisest and most worthy” (2004: 23). Discovering that the President of the Senate was a woman, and indeed one whose decrees displayed so much wisdom that they were “deemed so many oracles,” Klim exclaims: “Bless ←84 | 85→me! thought I, what if the wife of our mayor of Bergen were to sit in judgement instead of her husband? What if the daughter of Counsellor Sorensen, that all-accomplished young lady, were to plead at the bar instead of her stupid father? Our laws would never receive the least dishonour from them, nor would justice be so often violated” (2004: 25).

Again we can see the principle of sexual equality in the terms of the judgment against Klim which leads to his banishment: “And as a country may often labour under a want of able persons, we think it a great folly […] to render one entire half of the nation incapable and unworthy of employment solely upon account of their birth” (124). Like his satire of other “extreme” utopian suggestions, the satirical Nazar section of the book includes a society (Cocklecu) in which gender roles have been reversed, one in which “long and ancient custom had so blinded them [that they] quietly believed it was Nature’s appointment that the government should be lodged in female hands, and that it was the business of the other sex to spin, to weave, to clean the house, and upon occasion take a beating from their wives” (2004: 90).8

There are three issues in his depiction of the utopian society of Potu which particularly concern Holberg: religion, government, and education.9 Holberg’s concern with the religion of utopia stems from his experience of intolerance, at home and abroad.10 Holberg juxtaposes the religious practices of the Potuans to two extremes: the excess of religion and its complete absence. Klim describes the utopian religion as follows: “[In Potu it] is ←85 | 86→prohibited to comment upon the sacred books [or] to dispute about the essence and attributes of God […]. They are unanimous in adoring one Supreme Being by whose almighty power all things were created and by whose providence they subsist. Let but this principle be uncontroverted, and they never molest anyone for entertaining different sentiments concerning a method of worship” (2004: 52).

On the other hand, the book contains several instances satirizing religious intolerance, including a description of European religious practices from the perspective of a subterranean, as recounted in a manuscript Klim discovers entitled Tanians’s Journey to the Superterranean World, or a Description of the Kingdoms and Countries upon Earth, a brief work along the lines of Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes: “The religious opinions of the Europeans are very sound and agreeable to right reason. They are under an injunction carefully to study the books in which the rule of faith and practice is contained, in order to discover their true sense and meaning […]. [B]‌ut if any should chance to understand a thing in a different sense from the majority, he is punished for this defect of judgement by fines, imprisonment, whipping, and even sometimes by dying at a stake” (2004: 188).11

The other extreme – the absence of religion – is illustrated by the country of Mikolac where there are laws but no religion. When Klim is robbed and seeks legal redress, he discovers that laws without underlying religious belief are worthless: “From hence it appeared what a weak unsettled society that must be which depends for its security upon human laws alone, and how frail are all political edifices unless cemented together by religion […] no safety can be expected in a country too atheistical to have the least sense of religious obligation” (2004: 109).

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Holberg’s utopian mean as applied to the role of religion is reiterated through the juxtaposition of utopian ideal and excess in the final two countries Klim visits in his trip around Nazar, Jochtana and Tumbac. Because Jochtana allows the open practice of different religions, Klim assumes that this land must surely be “the seat of disorder, confusion, and insecurity”; instead he finds “agreement and concord” (2004: 117–118). In Tumbac, on the other hand, where there is a single religion, the inhabitants are “extremely devout and extremely censorious” (2004: 119): “The citizens here were all Catos, all censors of manners. They walked up and down the streets with pensive looks and folded arms, declaiming against the vanity of the times and condemning every innocent pleasure” (2004: 121). Because they are so morose and sanctimonious, Klim concludes that their zeal must flow “from some vicious humours, or a predominance of the bilious juices, than from true piety” (2004: 121).

While the description of the religion of the Potuans may be seen as similar to other utopian descriptions of a natural religion (like those to be found in More or among the Australians of Foigny and Veiras), the Potuans are at pains to stress that nature is not enough.

[These doctrines] must appear like mere natural religion; and so indeed it did at first to me. But they assert that all was divinely revealed to them and that some ages ago they received a book which contained their system of faith and practice. Formerly, they say, our ancestors lived contented with the religion of nature only; but experience taught them that the sole light of nature was insufficient, since all those noble principles through the sloth and carelessness of some were forgot, and through an airy philosophy of others […] were utterly depraved and corrupted. Hereupon God gave them a written law. Hence it appears how great is their error who obstinately deny the necessity of a revelation. (2004: 57)

As with the Potuan religion, and despite the fascination exercised on him and other utopian writers by the often romanticized – or strictly fictional – accounts of naturally good societies in Australia or the Americas, Holberg continued to believe in the need for laws and institutions. His description of the utopian government – in this case an hereditary monarchy – rejects a fully egalitarian society while insisting that the necessary institutions and customs can only come about through a process of trial and error. Thus, Klim is told of a failed experiment in which the king was ←87 | 88→replaced with an elected official: “For since right reason seemed to require that rulers should excel their subjects in wisdom and all the endowments of the mind, hence it was thought necessary that virtue should be more regarded than birth and that he should be elected for their sovereign who should be thought the most excellent and worthy among the subjects” (2004: 58). Following this reasoning, a philosopher was elected, but this democratic experiment soon led to disaster: “For since the new sovereign was raised from the meanest fortune to the height of power, his virtues and all his arts of government could not procure or maintain that veneration, that respect, that majesty, which is the great support of a monarch’s power” (2004: 58).

This is an “enlightened despotism” (Jones 1980: 198), one in which the monarch has a “paternal [rather] than a regal power” (Holberg 2004: 60). “Among the laws of this kingdom, the most salutary is that by which the princes endeavour to preserve an equality between the subjects, that is, as far as the nature of government will admit. You see here no different ranks and titles of honour. Inferiors obey their superiors, and the younger the elder, and this is all” (2004: 60).12

Although the Potuans have tried and rejected democracy, equality, including sexual equality, remains a fundamental principle, for it was Klim’s proposal to “exclude women from the administration of public affairs” (2004: 123) which led to his banishment. At the same time, the principle of equality has limits. This is a hereditary monarchy where adolescent trees (and Klim) are tested for their aptitudes and assigned occupations ←88 | 89→accordingly: “The natives of this empire are not divided into nobles and commons. Formerly indeed this distinction obtained. But when the sovereigns observed that the seeds of discord spring from hence, they wisely removed all such privileges as were derived from birth, so that virtue alone is now the test of honour […]. The sole pre-eminence of birth consists of a plurality of branches. The offspring is counted noble or ignoble for this reason, because the greater plenty they have, the fitter they are for all manual operations” (2004: 51).13

Holberg does distinguish between nature and culture, recognizing the tendency to try and pass off as natural customs and beliefs which were originally the result of decisions which have now been forgotten. For when Klim argues that men are naturally superior to women, he is told “that [he] confounded custom with nature, since the weakness we impute to the female ←89 | 90→sex is derived solely from education” (2004: 92). At the same time, observation and reason lead Holberg to a number of judgments about what is or is not “natural.” Consider the Potuans’s reasoning about the advantages of breastfeeding when compared to the Potuan critique of singing hymns to God. When Klim tries to argue – in the case of a high official who has just borne a child – that breastfeeding is “too troublesome and too mean an employment for so great a matron,” he is told that all mothers suckle their children: “mothers who disdain to nourish their own issue dissolve one of the finest and strongest ties of nature” (2004: 65–66). In the case of singing hymns, on the other hand, the Potuans hold “it ridiculous to express grief and penitence in musical measures, since the displeasure of the Deity is to be appeased by sighs and tears of real sorrow, not by the artifice of tunes and instruments” (2004: 53). In general, then, Holberg is careful to distance himself from a complete reliance on either nature or reason, as we have seen in the depictions of both religion and government in the utopian society of Potu. For in the first case, reason was tempered by revelation, while in the second there was a need for law and a hereditary monarchy.

Finally, as might be expected from the comment “that [he] confounded custom with nature, since the weakness we impute to the female sex is derived solely from education” (92), education in Potu follows many of the same lines. Here is his description of the utopian curriculum:

The studies pursued […] are history, economy, mathematics, and law. As to their divinity, since it is so short and concise as the whole is contained in the compass of a couple of pages importing that we ought to love and adore Almighty God, the Creator and Governor of things, Who in some state of existence hereafter will reward virtue and punish vice […] so it is no academical study, nor indeed can it be, since it is prohibited by law to have any controversy about the essence or attributes of God. [Medicine] in like manner, is not reckoned among the studies of the university; for since these trees live all sober lives, internal diseases are almost wholly unknown. (2004: 71)

The novel begins with Klim’s graduation and he frequently refers to his university diploma, perhaps most preposterously as he is floating around the planet Nazar and is approached by a “grim, huge griffin”: “So great was ←90 | 91→my terror that, unmindful of my starry dignity to which I was newly advanced, in that disorder of my soul I drew out my university testimonial, which I happened to have in my pocket, to signify to this terrible adversary that I had passed my academical examination, that I was a graduate student, and could plead the privilege of my university against anyone that should attack me” (2004: 12–13). Holberg’s satire of contemporary educational practices seems strongest in Klirn’s indignant discovery that disputation, rather than an essential skill for academic achievement and success, is for the Potuans a form of comic theatrical performance.

For at set times of the year, wagers being laid, and a reward assigned to the conquerors, the disputants engage like a couple of gladiators, and much upon the same terms that fighting cocks or any such battling animals do among us. Here it was a custom among the great to maintain a set of disputants, as we do a pack of hounds, and to give them a logical education, that they may be fit for engagement at the stated times of the year […].

I was often present at these entertainments, and that with no small vexation. For it seemed to me a horrid and shameful thing that such noble exercises, which give lustre to our schools, should here be prostituted on the stale. And when I called to mind that I myself with the highest applause had disputed in public, and had obtained the laurel, I could scarce withhold my tears. And not only the dispute, but the method of disputing incensed me. For they hired certain stimulators […] who, when they observed the ardour of the disputants to flag, just pricked their sides with lancets to rekindle it and to rally their declining spirits. (2004: 28)

Klim’s chagrin is deepened when, after explaining that he “had written three dissertations upon the slippers of the ancients,” his host bursts out laughing. “His wife, alarmed with the noise, flies to know the cause of it; but I was so much out of humour that I disdained to answer her, for I thought it a burning shame so grave and solid a matter should be treated with that ridicule and contempt. But understanding from her husband the truth of the case, she laughed as violently” (30).14

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Lest I should seem to speak too arrogantly here, let it be understood that I allude not to my work, but to the scope and design of my work. I say it is the duty of a moral philosopher to instruct, rather than to declaim with tragical fury against vices which the sinners themselves acknowledge. Such is the object of The Journey to the World Underground; what degree of skill or dexterity the author may have shown in the execution of it, others must decide. (Holberg 1970: 170)


XXIV, 436
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2021 (May)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XXIV, 436 pp., 4 fig. b/w, 1 table.

Biographical notes

Peter Fitting (Author)

</i>Peter Fitting is an emeritus Professor of French at the University of Toronto and the former Director of the Cinema Studies Program. Author of more than fifty articles on science fiction, fantasy and utopia—from critical analyses of the works of various SF and utopian writers (from P.K. Dick to Marge Piercy); to theoretical examinations of the reading effect in utopian fiction, the problem of the right-wing utopia, or gender and reading; to overviews of cyberpunk, feminist utopias and the turn from utopia in the 1990s, or the Golden Age and the foreclosure of utopian discourse in the 1950s; as well as articles on SF and utopian film and architecture. He has also completed a critical anthology of subterranean world fiction. He has had a long-time commitment to the study of utopia through his work with the Society for Utopian Studies (for which he has twice served as president).</i>


Title: Utopian Effects, Dystopian Pleasures