As always, dear readers, welcome.
In 1516, an English intellectual and sometime diplomat, Sir Thomas More (1477-1535),
published a book with the easy-to-remember title: De Optimo Rei Publicae Statu Deque Nova Insula Utopia Libellus Vere Aureus, Nec Minus Salutaris Quam Festivus
(This is from the Basel publication of 1518.)
“Concerning the Best Situation of a State and About the New Island ‘Utopia’, A Little Book Not Only Golden [But] No Less Beneficial Than Witty”
which was, in time, not surprisingly shortened to Utopia.
(This is from the second English translation, by Bishop Burnet, in 1684.)
It claimed to be a kind of travel tale, in which More cleverly uses the background of the account of Amerigo Vespucci’s (1451-1512),
(from a posthumous portrait)
voyages to the New World, published in 1505,
(It says in Italian: “A Letter of Amerigo Vespucci about the islands new discovered in his four voyages”.)
to present a fictional participant, Raphael Hythlodaeus, who is not the “mariner” (nauclerus) More at first takes him to be, but someone “not unlearned in Latin and extremely adept in Greek” (linguae latinae non indoctus, et graecae doctissimus), being a philosopher, rather than a sailor.
In the text which follows, Hythlodaeus describes to More in great detail a newly-discovered island, Utopia, which has an idealized communal state.
The word “utopia” could be read two ways:
1. a Latinized version of Greek eutopia, “a fine place”
2. a Latinized version of Greek outopia, “no place”
In fact, as More’s original Latin name for it was Nusquama, from Latin nusquam, meaning, among other things “nowhere”, and adding to this Raphael’s last name, “Hythlodaeus”, from the Greek word [h]uthlos, “nonsense”, we can see that More intends us to see this place as something to be discussed, but not believed.
From the same ending, -topia, we can also find a much darker possibility, a dystopia, literally a “bad place” and this term, as the very useful Etymonline informs us, which began as a medical term for “internal organ out of place”, had become, by the 1860s, the opposite of the other possible meaning of utopia as “good place”.
When I think about dystopias in terms of literary history, I immediately think first of the future world depicted by HG Wells (1866-1946)
in his 1895 short novel, The Time Machine.
Originally published as a series in The New Review, it describes, among other spots on his trip into the future, the unnamed protagonist’s time in the England of 802,701ad. Here, the landscape is populated by the Eloi, who live above ground and seem like the ultimate ideal of Arcadians: simple, childlike people, like Victorian aristocrats, who consume but don’t produce, and, as the time-traveler soon discovers, the Morlocks, who live below ground and are, it seems, the descendants of all the millions of lower-class people who were the actual workers and producers in Victorian times. The Eloi, it turns out, only exist because of the Morlocks, but, in return, the Morlocks exist because they feed upon the Eloi.
More’s Utopia was clearly meant as a commentary upon early 16th-century society and, in the stratification of the English population into only two groups, one idle, but harmless, the other diligent but malevolent (besides consuming the Eloi, they steal the time machine and attempt to capture the traveler), we can easily imagine that Wells is suggesting that all is not well in late-Victorian society. Other, later dystopian works, like Aldous Huxley’s 1932 Brave New World,
in which a society is ruled by those who control its genetics, and Orwell’s 1984
where we see what appears to be a worn-out post-WW2 Britain as a kind of regimented and fear-ridden Stalinist state, provide much more detailed versions of a grim future (but such fun to read about) and my most recent experience is clearly an even more elaborate version of such a future.
I’ve just finished the first volume of Philip Reeve’s
series, Mortal Engines,
and its setting—a bleak far future, in which many of the world’s cities, the initial focus being on London, are now mounted on huge treads and roam the empty countryside, gobbling up smaller cities.
The word “steampunk” has been attached to this future by some critics, and I can see why, it being a sort of alternate history in which elements of many centuries are all mixed together—electricity with airships,
(a wonderful image, by David Wyatt)
firearms with swords, but it’s also a dystopia, the London depicted
in particular being a kind of monstrous exaggeration of current London, with the workers of the city being divided into guilds and social stratification being extreme, the richest and most powerful living at the top, the poor majority residing in the lowest tiers, and technology, in the form of the Engineering Guild, being the dominant.
It’s perhaps a sign of the present day, however, in that, for all that I can think of more dystopias in modern fiction, I’m stumped to think of utopias in the sense of “good places”—perhaps the best we can hope for, then, as that all of these dark places are and will remain utopias in Thomas More’s sense.
Learn Newspeak (just in case),
And know that there is always
In 1909, E.M Forster (1879-1970), whom you might know as the author of A Room with a View, A Passage to India, and my favorite, Howards End, published a really creepy—because it’s so prescient—short science fiction story, “The Machine Stops”. I won’t say anything more about it, except that it’s, for the present, an especially striking example of a dystopia: http://www.visbox.com/prajlich/forster.html