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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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ROBERT C. ELLIOTT Preface (1970)


Just as in utopia it is easier to specify what has been avoided than what has been achieved, so it is easier to say what this book is not than what it is. It is not a history of utopias. Although the essays herein take into account most of the best-known literary utopias, including negative ones, and some fairly obscure examples of the kind, there is no attempt whatever at histori- cal coverage. Ideology is not the central concern here either, although any study of a genre so imbedded in social and political issues must have its own ideological biases. I have not tried to conceal my own deep ambivalence about utopian modes of thought. The essays that follow are of two kinds: interpretive studies of indi- vidual literary utopias and genre studies of the utopian mode itself. They are connected by certain thematic interests that run through the book. One of the themes is structural and, I suppose, functional; it has to do with the relation of utopian literature to satire: the use of utopia as a strategy of satire, the distribution of positive and negative elements in the two genres. Gonzalo’s utopian speech in The Tempest ref lects the theme in part: I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things; for no kind of traf fic Would I admit; no name of magistrate; Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, And use of service, none … All things in common nature should produce Without sweat or endeavour;...

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