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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 9Red Sphinx: The Mechanics of the Uncanny in The Time Machine 221


Chapter 9 Red Sphinx: The Mechanics of the Uncanny in The Time Machine The tomorrow in today is alive … — Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope I Utopian and science fiction have often been identified as forms of lit- erature defined by their capacity for estrangement, as I indicated in my Introduction. ‘One of the supreme functions of SF as a genre’, Fredric Jameson, for instance, has argued, is ‘the “estrangement”, in the Brechtian sense, of our culture and institutions – a shocked renewal of our vision such that once again, and as though for the first time, we are able to per- ceive their historicity and their arbitrariness, their profound dependency on the accidents of man’s historical adventure’.1 In this chapter, I want to propose that the estrangement ef fect generated by utopian and science fic- tion is especially unsettling if it implies not simply that the apparently solid culture and institutions structural to capitalist society will be dif ferent, at some more or less imaginable time in the future, but that they are dif ferent; that is, it is especially unsettling if it insinuates the suspicion that society is in some incipient sense already other than it appears. The finest utopian and science fiction intimates that an inchoate future is secretly gestating 1 Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), 255. 222 Chapter 9 in the present – like the alien incubated in John Hurt’s body at the start of Ridley...

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