Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Guardian's 1000 Novels

So this morning, finally, on day six of the series and under the rubric 'Science Fiction and Fantasy', News from Nowhere has featured in The Guardian newspaper's '1000 Novels Everyone Must Read' set of supplements. I'm pleased it's there, of course, but goodness me, the quality of the description of Morris's utopia leaves an awful lot to be desired.

'Strongly influenced by Edward Bellamy's hugely popular Looking Backward': well, yes, but 'influence' in this case actually means absolute point-by-point rejection of Bellamy on virtually every aspect of his centralist, high-tech, reformist, urban utopia!

'Having gone to sleep on the London underground, the narrator awakes to find himself in 20th-century Hammersmith'. Morris's narrator William Guest does not go to sleep on the underground train; he gets back to Hammersmith and goes to bed, and finally to sleep, in his own house. Nor does he wake up in the '20th century'. As Krishan Kumar states firmly in his fine edition of the work: 'The revolution occurs in 1952; William Guest's visit takes place some 200 years later' (p.138). So: 22nd century, not 20th.

Guest later, the Guardian entry tells us, 'travels up the river to Runnymede, where Magna Carta was signed'. Well, yes, it was signed there, though the book itself makes nothing of that fact; much more crucially, however, Guest at Runnymede meets the energetic and enigmatic figure of Ellen, the woman he falls deeply and troublingly in love with as the river journey continues.

And they end up doing 'some idyllic haymaking in Oxford'. Wrong again. Guest and company pass through Oxford by boat. The hay-making is taking place much further upriver at Kelmscott. When did The Guardian's 'JS' last read News from Nowhere, one dolefully wonders?

Mind you, in a supplement that misses out Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed and Kim Stanley Robinson's stunning Mars trilogy, the most important recent science-fictional utopias of them all, we should, I suppose, be glad that Morris gets a look in at all.


Anonymous said...

Just to add:

(i) That there are further errors in the NFN entry. For example, we are told that Guest spends time 'in what used to be the British Museum'. It is, of course, still the British Museum in the book ("Yonder is the British Museum, where my great-grandfather mostly lives.").

(ii) 'JS' is identified in the paper as John Sutherland. Presumably the UCL Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature. (I don't think you should grant him anonymity.)

(iii) Some will suspect the entry falls into a pattern of what might be called 'distinguished insensitivity' here (see previous comments on John Carey).

Birdalone said...

News from Nowhere appears to be one of those books that public figures - politicians and academics in particular - always claim to have read, always cite as an early inspiration, and always conveniently forget in later life. A recent Prime Minister I believe commented on its early influence on his political career - I think he must have been reading a very different version to me.

Owlfarmer said...

Your reminder of Morris's having written NFN as a direct, negative response to Looking Backward made me wonder what life would be like had Morris imagined his utopia first--and if Morris societies had sprung up all over instead of Bellamy societies. My own great grandmother was a confirmed Bellamyite, and spent much of her life espousing his views. Alas.