It is the new millennium. Full employment, material abundance and social harmony characterize an age that can truly be described as golden. Monumental architecture defines the great cities, universal healthcare has created a disease-free world and electronic broadcasting has become a pervasive, yet wholly beneficial tool.
When Edward Bellamy forecast this future more than 100 years ago in Looking Backward From 2000 to 1887, he joined a long tradition of crystal ball-gazing writers with detailed blueprints for a perfect world. And even if their varied predictions have never been fully realized, these imagined realms are often even more popular now than when they were first published. All the major novels of the utopian canon have been reprinted in new “millennium editions” over the last few years, capitalizing on a revived interest in future-gazing at the turn of the new age.
Thomas More set the tone when he appropriated the word “utopia,” suggesting Greek words meaning “no place” and “good place,” as the title for his anonymously published novel in 1516. In the few hundred years since, utopia has come to be the realm where authors’ imaginations roam free, unlike many of the inhabitants of these “ideal societies.”
More’s Utopia reads like a realistic travel journal related by an old sea dog. Raphael Hythlodaeus outlines in minute detail his visit to an as yet uncharted, but highly progressive, island in the New World. With a universal healthcare system so well-resourced that “everyone would rather be ill in hospital than go home,” More’s perfect society also outlaws hunting as “barbaric,” uses science to reclaim land for agriculture and accepts women priests. But with the benefits of a perfect order comes the downside of control. This utopian world is hierarchical, with a working-class bound to hard labor. Utopian citizens need passports to travel between towns, with slavery one of the punishments for being caught “wandering around the countryside” without the right papers.
But it seems More was more interested in the shortcomings of his own society than in finding the perfect order for a new one. A hair-shirt wearing religious puritan, he rejected what he saw as the decadent values of Henry VIII’s reign. To avoid the head-chopping censure of his king, however, he was forced to keep his attacks subtle.
More satirized greed and materialism in Utopia by turning on its head “the way we treasure up gold.” Plates in his ideal society are made of earthenware, while silver and gold are reserved for making chamber pots.
More’s Utopia, which he describes on its title page as “a splendid little book, as entertaining as it is instructive,” established a precedent for those utopian writers who followed him. Even when these novels seem like nothing more than one person’s ideals imposed on a grand scale, their satiric attacks on the author’s own society should never be overlooked.
What 19th century socialist and designer William Morris thought of Edward Bellamy’s grandly designed utopian world in Looking Backward is not recorded. But the two writers were polar opposites in their reactions to the Industrial Revolution, a time that was the golden age of utopian novels.
From Oscar Wilde to Mark Twain, the second half of the 19th century drew authors to the utopian genre. Some wrote utopias to celebrate the inexorable progress of the Victorian age. Others cautioned against unrestricted “scientific advancement.” Bellamy was one who embraced the new possibilities.
Julian West, the main character in Looking Backward, awakens after a century of sleep to encounter a technological paradise of shopping malls, credit cards and endlessly piped music in late 20th century Boston. Healthcare and employment are guaranteed, and efficient central planning has standardized education and industry. An extensive paternal government has reached out to order away poverty, inequality and all social ills.
Armed with our knowledge of the failure of Soviet central planning, it is easy to dismiss Bellamy’s brave new world for advocating a Big Brother political system. But his vision drew contemporary plaudits, and dozens of Bellamy societies sprang up across North America to lobby the government on grand social change.
Over in Victorian England at around the same time, Morris, a prominent socialist activist and designer, presented a very different ideal world.
In his 1890 News From Nowhere, he used a romanticized ecologically balanced society to challenge the complacent belief that science and technology would discover the right formula to land humanity at the threshold of a real utopia. William Guest, (a thinly disguised appearance by Morris in the novel) falls asleep one night on a train “in a vapor bath of hurried and discontented humanity.” When he awakes, he finds himself in the late 20th century. But instead of a benevolent scientific paradise, he encounters a vibrant pastoral landscape. Still, Morris makes it clear that in his ideal society “machines of the most ingenious and best-appointed kinds are used. . . . [but they] should be our servants and not our masters.”
A contrast to Bellamy’s pages of meticulous detail, which read like a blueprint for ordered perfection, is Morris’s rejection of any political order in his ideal society. In a satiric dig at what he saw as the repressive government system of his day, the shortest chapter in News From Nowhere, titled “Concerning Politics,” is less than half a page long.
With its environmental concerns and warnings against blindly embracing scientific and industrial innovation, News From Nowhere is not so easily dismissed as a product of its time. But one issue relegates it to the same level as most other utopian novels. The ideal society in nearly all utopian books is less than liberating for the women who live in them. Usually they are nothing more than the exotic love interest for the traveler from the author’s own time.
It took a novel from Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1915, to break the mold for women in utopian novels. But Gilman had to write for a distinctly masculine audience to get her message across.
Herland, recently re-released after 60 years out of print, reads like a boys-own adventure. But it is a social document on the struggle of pre-franchise women. The novel features the discovery by three young American men of a South American society, hidden by mountains and peopled exclusively by women for 2,000 years. The women are able to reproduce parthenogenically (without men) and live unlike any other women on earth.
In Gilman’s ideal society, bringing up children without men creates a revolutionary new social structure. Each child’s welfare in Herland is the direct concern of her mother as well as the entire society. This leads Van, one of the visiting men, to marvel at a system “calculated to allow the richest, freest growth, [which has] remodeled and improved the whole state.”
The theme of female liberation, this time combined with male enlightenment, was continued in the 1970s with Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, where the women of Washington, Oregon and Northern California play an equal role in the move to secede the area from the United States and create a “stable-state” eco-society.
But while most utopian novels contain a few accurate predictions about what a future ideal world might look like, more often they describe societies that most people would not want to live in.
Painting an accurate likeness of heaven on earth is not as important to many utopian novelists as attacking the failings of the real world and encouraging readers to do the same. That they do this in satirical and entertaining ways is the reason many of these works have endured as novels even when some of their political ideas have become obsolete.
John Lee is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, London Observer, New Zealand Herald and other publications.
Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002