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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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CHAPTER 5 The Fear of Utopia


“ ‘Utopia,’ ” a writer in Encounter announced a few years ago, “has become a bad word.” As if to prove his point, the bad word was worked hard when in the summer of 1961 the Soviet Union published a statement of the new program by which it proposed to bring communism to the Russian people within this generation. Scores of Western writers used the term “utopian” to belabor Mr. Khrushchev’s vision, not only as something remote and unattainable—Le Monde’s story carried the sardonic headline “La Promesse de l’age d’or”—but as something evil. Utopia, as we have seen, has always in some sense been related to satire, and Marx used the word as a bludg- eon; but the generally unpleasant associations investing the term today are relatively new. Although one would need a very large computer to plot in detail the course of “utopia’s” fall from grace, the evidence of literature is adequate to provide an outline of the descent. By and large usage has been faithful to Thomas More’s punning coin- age: the play on the Greek ou topos: no place, and eu topos: good place. The two senses—the one associated with escape into the timeless fantasies of the imagination, the other with the ef fort to construct models of the ideal society, whether in fiction or otherwise— are inextricably bound up in our use of the term today. But if More coined the word, he was by no means the first to give form to man’s...

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