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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 6 Aesthetics of Utopia


The title page identifies Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) as a novel. Most reviewers, accepting the designation without question, proceeded to belabor the book accordingly: despite its interesting ideas, one of the worst novels ever written, Frank Kermode decided; and William Barrett, outraged, accused Huxley of abandoning the novelist’s task altogether in order to make propaganda. The indignation of other writers who took this line rose in proportion as they resisted the free love and drugs of utopian Pala. Wayne Booth, however, made a start at sorting out the literary issues.lxxxii Although it calls itself a novel, Island actually belongs, he said, to another, non-Leavisonian “great tradition,” along with Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, Rasselas, Erewhon—works which use fictional devices to provoke thought. Booth avowed his interest in Island, although he felt unable to pronounce an aesthetic judgment, the criteria for this “nameless and tricky genre” not yet having been worked out. He issued a cordial invitation to critics to do the working. Northrop Frye and Richard Gerber had already made notable incur- sions into the field. Gerber’s Utopian Fantasy (1955), although ostensibly concerned with English utopian fiction from 1900 to 1955, is in fact a wide- ranging and acute study of most of the interesting generic problems. The last third of the book, called “Aesthetic Concretion,” deals with precisely the issues that must be clarified if the simple confusions which bedevilled reviewers of Island are to be avoided; and if I disagree with Gerber’s con- clusions, I want to record my...

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