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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 7 Anti-Anti-Utopia: Walden Two and Island


Against the optimistic utopias of the nineteenth century, Erewhon stands eccentric and interesting, modern in its alienation, its rejection of the dominant mystique of the age. “Do not machines eat as it were by man- nery?” Today, almost overwhelmed in the f lood of black visions of the future, two positive utopias, alienated from alienation, ask questions of our time as urgent as those of Butler. B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948) and Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) are daring ventures, full against the dominant imagination of the twentieth century. Perhaps only one as contemptuous of history as Skinner or one as desperately conscious of history as Huxley could have made the plunge. In any event, Walden Two and Island are our utopias, the two post-modern visions of the good place that speak most cogently against despair. Inevitably, Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor hovers over both. Skinner, an eminent behavioral psychologist turned writer of fiction, deliberately evokes the Grand Inquisitor topos by his delineation of T.E. Frazier, also a behavioral psychologist, the guiding genius of the fictional community called Walden Two. The community has the traditional uto- pian aim: the happiness of its members, the achievement of the Good Life. Unembarrassed by philosophical complexities, Frazier has no doubts about what the good life consists of: health, a minimum of unpleasant labor, the chance to exercise talents and abilities, full opportunity to develop inti- mate and satisfying personal relationships, plenty of relaxation and rest. To this unquestionably attractive goal Frazier adds another constituent: freedom from...

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