If Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward has had over 150 sequels or other fictional responses, then it is high time News from Nowhere had a few sequels as well; and George Duncan has made a spirited effort in this direction in his Return to Nowhere, serialised in recent issues of the USA Morris Society Newsletter. A Canadian carpenter attends a lively book group meeting at which Morris’s utopia is discussed, and he wakes up the next morning in Nowhere itself, but twenty years after William Guest’s own visit there. So Ellen is now forty rather than twenty as in Morris’s text, old Hammond is dead, Dick and Clara have broken up again, and so on.
For my taste, there is rather too much focus on the previous William Guest visit, which takes time and energy away from exploring the new social and personal realities of this updated Nowhere. Certain significant cultural and political developments have indeed taken place: a group of ‘refusers’ lives off the new society without contributing anything to it in terms of work (the exact opposite of Morris’s Obstinate Refusers, who can’t stop working), and they arouse considerable resentment from other Nowherians; tokens are being used as a kind of currency as a result of certain undefined local problems; and a religious revival of sorts seems to be underway, initiated by old Hammond himself. These would all be interesting avenues to explore, though they remain undeveloped both politically and narratively: is a new exploitative leisure class really beginning to emerge, does Nowherian economics not work after all, is the return of religion a good or a bad thing, how do these three cultural developments relate to each other, and might they ultimately add up to a dangerous challenge to Nowhere’s communism? Such questions are raised, but not gone into.
In the case of the new personal developments, too, Duncan’s sequel seems to go half-way and no further. Ellen has taken over from old Hammond as custodian at the British Museum, which in my view makes her too much of a clone of the old man himself and ignores the wider political role which such a charismatic figure might play in her society She has had a child by Dick Hammond, but we see very little of this daughter Claire and thus do not really get a sense of what a new generation of Nowherians is making of socialism’s current problems and ultimate future. The narrator and Ellen head upriver together and get as far as her cottage at Runnymede, where the sequel ends; and this really does leave us frustratedly betwixt and between. The sacred spaces for Morris, the crucial locales where Nowhere’s future will surely be decided, are London and Kelmscott; and Runnymede is neither one nor t’other.
So while I admire the wit and energy with which George Duncan has composed his brief follow-up to Morris’s text, I feel that the political pressure behind this sequel is in the end too low, that having brilliantly fast-forwarded Nowhere by twenty years, it doesn’t then quite know what cultural and political questions to ask of this new reality. Still, Duncan has very welcomely broken the ice for us, and we can now hope that this pioneering News from Nowhere sequel will lead to many more.