Sunday, 20 January 2019

News from Atlantis

Morris’s utopia is not often related to Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), since the latter inaugurates those utopias which celebrate extreme technological inventiveness to satisfy ever-expanding human desires, while News from Nowhere seems rather to belong to that alternative tradition, deriving from Thomas More himself, in which human desires are simplified and a more sustainable, low-tech economy thereby comes into being.  However, perhaps we should constellate Morris and Bacon, however perverse that might seem, just to see what may happen. 

In News from Nowhere the Houses of Parliament have become a Dung-Market, a metamorphosis which we usually take as a satirical comment on the party politics of Morris’s own time.  But suppose we resituate that Morrisian detail within the scientific experiments so exuberantly outlined at the end of Bacon’s utopian fragment: ‘We also have furnaces of great diversities, and that keep great diversity of heats … Besides, we have heats of dungs … These divers heats we use, as the nature of the operation we intend requireth’.  So perhaps the parliamentary dung-heap is actually some kind of heat-generating scientific experiment, possibly being conducted by those invisible engineers who have also invented the ‘force’ that powers Morris’s new society.

If there is a possible Baconian derivation here, so too might there be in William Guest’s swimming in the Thames early in the book.  For during courtship in New Atlantis, ‘they have near every town a couple of pools … where it is permitted to one of the friends of the man, and another of the friends of the woman, to see them severally bathe naked’.  So Guest in the river may be demonstrating his rather faded 56-year-old physical charms to a female gaze that he is not actually aware of at this point in the book.  Perhaps the 42-year-old Annie is watching him from the Hammersmith Guest House to report on his physical prowess to a female friend of hers, or even just for her own satisfaction, since there is a faint flicker of erotic interest between these two figures before Guest heads up the Thames to his disastrous infatuation with the 20-year-old Ellen. 

So let’s not confine News from Nowhere too rigidly within the ‘ecotopian’ lineage.  It has sometimes been described as ‘soft science fiction’, and it is worth keeping that generic derivation open too.