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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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PHILLIP E. WEGNER Introduction (2012)


Robert C. Elliott’s The Shape of Utopia is the fourth volume of the Ralahine Classics, and an exceptional addition to the series. Elliott’s short book, originally published in 1970, should be of great interest to contemporary scholars and students. Indeed, it is perhaps only with the distance of the last four decades, and the dramatic changes that have occurred in that time in literary and cultural scholarship, that we can begin to appreciate properly Elliott’s achievement. First, although largely overlooked in recent years, The Shape of Utopia inf luenced in significant ways some of the seminal works of what at that moment were the emergent fields of utopian and science fiction studies. For example, Darko Suvin invokes the book in his landmark 1973 essay, “Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genology, a Proposal, and a Plea” (now reprinted in Suvin’s Ralahine collection, Defined by a Hollow: Essays on Utopia, Science Fiction and Political Epistemology [2010]). And Louis Marin writes in his indispensi- ble Utopiques: jeux d’espaces (1973), “L’ouvrage essentiel est, sur ce point, le livre de Robert C. Elliott” (“The essential work is, on this point, the book of Robert C. Elliott”) (Utopiques 108; Utopics 82). (I will return momentarily to the specific point to which Marin refers here.) The inf luence of Elliott on Marin’s work was even more immediate, as in the years both their books were published, they were colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, in the Department of Literature that...

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