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The Spectre of Utopia

Utopian and Science Fictions at the "Fin de Siècle"


Matthew Beaumont

In the late nineteenth century, a spectre haunted Europe and the United States: the spectre of utopia. This book re-examines the rise of utopian thought at the fin de siècle, situating it in the social and political contradictions of the time and exploring the ways in which it articulated a deepening sense that the capitalist system might not be insuperable after all. The study pays particular attention to Edward Bellamy’s seminal utopian fiction, Looking Backward (1888), embedding it in a number of unfamiliar contexts, and reading its richest passages against the grain, but it also offers detailed discussions of William Morris, H.G. Wells and Oscar Wilde. Both historical and theoretical in its approach, this book constitutes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the utopian imaginary, and an original analysis of the counter-culture in which it thrived at the fin de siècle.


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Chapter 4City of the Absent: Socially Empty Space from Shelley to Bellamy 97


Chapter 4 City of the Absent: Socially Empty Space from Shelley to Bellamy When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts of f by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere. — John Wyndham, The Day of the Trif fids I Looking Backward is important in the history of utopian thought, as I have implied in previous chapters, both because of its impact on the late nineteenth-century socialist movement and because, reconfiguring utopia as an imaginable if not imminent future, it almost single-handedly reclaimed utopian romance as a viable form of political propaganda. It might be added, as a postscript, that the subsequent political trajectory of what William Morris condemned as its dream of ‘machine life’ is virtually allegorical of the fate of utopia in the twentieth century.1 Nationalism, Bellamy’s name for this type of socialism in which, after the era of monopoly capitalism, the state itself acts as a giant corporation, assumed increasingly unacceptable overtones in the twentieth century, retroactively inf lected as it seemed to be by Nazism on the one hand and Stalinism on the other.2 So, in a percep- 1 William Morris, ‘“Looking Backward”’, in Political Writings: Contributions to Justice and Commonweal, 1883–1890, ed. Nicholas Salmon (Bristol: Thoemmes, 1994), 423. 2 Slavoj Žižek has recently reminded us that L’Ordine nuovo, the title of Gramsci’s journal in the 1920s, was later appropriated by the Fascists; and has added forcefully 98 Chapter 4 tive introduction to Looking Backward, published in 1960,...

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