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The Shape of Utopia

Studies in a Literary Genre


Phillip E. Wegner

Upon its original publication in 1970, Robert C. Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia influenced both some of the major scholars of an emerging utopian and science fiction studies, including Darko Suvin, Louis Marin and Fredric Jameson, and authors of new utopian fiction ranging from Ursula K. Le Guin to Kim Stanley Robinson. The book establishes a deep genetic link between utopia and satire, and offers scintillating readings of classic works by Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Aldous Huxley and others. It charts the rise of an insidious «fear of utopia» that comes to characterize the first half of the twentieth century and investigates some of the aesthetic problems raised by the efforts to portray a utopian society, before concluding with brilliant speculations on the emerging practice of «anti-anti-utopia» – the reinvention of utopia for contemporary times. This Ralahine Classics edition also includes a new introduction by Phillip E. Wegner which situates the book in its context and argues for its continued significance today; a 1971 review of the book by the late author of utopian science fiction, Joanna Russ; and an opening tribute by one of Elliott’s former students, Kim Stanley Robinson.


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KIM STANLEY ROBINSON A Tribute to Robert C. Elliott (2012)


When I took Robert C. Elliott’s seminar on satire, at UC San Diego in 1975, he opened all of our eyes to the deep time behind this genre, taking it back into the shamanistic magic of the Paleolithic, then on through the centuries into modern literature. During this long traverse he made it clear that utopia could be understood as the f lip side or the next step of satire, the dialectical turn at which point writers had to put their cards on the table and explain just what they thought would constitute the good society, the absence of which justified the savagery of their attacks on things as they are. Elliott’s class and his books made for an unusually wide look at literary materials rarely discussed at all in English departments of that time, and we benefitted greatly from his anthropological and historical approach; literature felt bigger and deeper when he was done with us. I enjoyed also bringing the work of Philip K. Dick to his attention, and we agreed that in his early satirical novels Dick had clearly tried to lay a curse on Senator McCarthy in the style of Archilochos. Now it is a great pleasure to see Elliott’s groundbreaking work on utopia returned to print. The same kind of wide-ranging approach that Elliott brought to satire is here is trained on utopia, beginning a discussion of utopian fiction that has never stopped. His book still makes a thought- provoking contribution to that discussion.

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