Friday 26 January 2018

The Utopian Field 1890-91

I.F. Clarke’s The Tale of the Future … An Annotated Bibliography (1972) makes an exhilarating, if also somewhat crazy, read as it lists and gives brief plot summaries of a huge number of utopias and dystopias one had never heard of before.  We are used to relating Morris’s News from Nowhere, which appeared as a serial in 1890 and in book form in 1891, back to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) or even, at a pinch, to W.H. Hudson’s  A Crystal Age (1887); but Clarke’s volume suggests that there are many more future fictions which might be seen as constituting the literary field into which Morris intervenes.

Such works from the 1880s seem dominated by fears around the notion of a Channel Tunnel, as with How John Bull Lost London (1882), in which ‘French troops, disguised as tourists, pour through the Channel Tunnel and take London’, a fiendishly clever ploy which Emmanuel Macron might consider using to reverse Brexit.  The relevant works of the early 1890s contain, unsurprisingly, a fair number of fictional responses to Looking Backward quite apart from Morris’s own.  Mostly these seem to be predictable anti-socialist screeds, as with Looking Ahead (1891), in which ‘the plans adopted to bring about the industrial millennium had instead only brought about the shoddy feudalism which I saw around me’.

Others sound more politically ambivalent.  F.W. Hume’s The Year of Miracle (1891) starts with ‘a fanatical socialist spread[ing] the germs of a plague in London’, but ‘an ideal state emerges’ none the less.  K. Folingsby’s Meda: A Tale of the Future (1891) starts in Morrisian territory – ‘by A.D. 5575 cities have been abandoned’ - but then soars off into somatic fantasy: ‘physiological development has reached the point where mankind can live on air’; I’m not sure quite how appealing that prospect would be to Dick Hammond or Ellen.  The Christ that is to be (1891) has a Morrisian starting point, since its Europe of A.D. 2100 is a ‘socialist community’, but it then clairvoyantly forecasts major aspects of our own troubled historical moment; for its China has become ‘a great power’.

There are also technological utopias of the Francis Bacon kind – oil pipelines built between Europe and America, and so on – and feminist utopias such as Gloriana; or, the Revolution of 1900 (1890).  So a fullscale study of the detailed interactions of News from Nowhere and the whole range of its immediately contemporary utopias and future tales would be very welcome indeed.

Saturday 13 January 2018

From Whileaway to Nowhere

Doing some preparatory reading for my Utopias half-unit, which I’m teaching this term for the first time in several years, I find myself returning to Joanna Russ’s remarkable The Female Man (1975) and recalling those curious moments where its utopian realm, Whileaway, could be taken to bear upon Morris’s News from Nowhere. 

Take, for instance, this, which considerably complicates the utopian time-traveller Janet Evason’s emotional relationship with the teenager Laura Wilding back in the bad old world: ‘Taboos on Whileaway: sexual relations with anybody considerably older or younger than oneself … The taboos in Whileawayan society are cross-age taboos’.  If Morris’s William Guest had been able to learn of this interdiction, he might have prudently saved himself a great deal of emotional pain in his somewhat infatuated relation with Ellen in Nowhere, she being no less than thirty-five years younger than himself.

But if one Nowherian relationship might thus have been stopped in its tracks, another might have been successfully conjured up in its place.  Among his long stretches of utopian exposition in the British Museum, Morris’s Hammond declares that ‘I am old, and perhaps disappointed’; but Russ’s Whileaway provides just the figure we want to jolt him out of his melancholy and hopefully return him to a more active libidinal existence: ‘The Old Whileawayan Philosopher was sitting cross-legged among her disciples (as usual) when, without the slightest explanation, she put her fingers into her vagina, withdrew them, and asked, “What have I here?” … She was immensely entertained by this passion for myth-making’.  No worry about breaking Whileawayan age taboos here; for she is a perfectly apt one-hundred-and-three years old to Hammond’s one-hundred-and-five.  If only we could actually cross-breed the utopias, so that the two might meet!