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.

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