Thomas More, the author of Utopia, the place that is nowhere, but is very interesting nonetheless. Totally communistic, since ownership of property is said to be the root cause of all social evil and injustice. He wasn’t the first to propose such an idea, of course. There’s always Plato’s Republic, to which he refers often in the text.
Some old books are rather dry, and I have to prod myself to keep reading, since I want to see how the argument runs out and to note the passages which are echoed down through the ages, but this book is not one of them. It’s written in a rattling good style, and the character who recounts his long stay among the Utopians, grows nearly apoplectic with rage when he describes the evils of European society. He does this in response to the urging of More that he should become an advisor to some great prince, so that Europe can share in the benefit that his knowledge of the Utopians might bring. Not so! To become an adviser would render him either an accomplice to evil, or get him branded as a lunatic or traitor for speaking his mind. He’s rather an absolutist, and so are the Utopians.
The word utopia has a bad ring to it these days, because we associate it with unrealistic visions of ideal societies produced by fuzzy minded dreamers. More was not one of those, and reading his book, it’s pretty clear that there are some nasty things about Utopia, and some pretty amazing things. His intent was to prod us to examine our political topography. Take this sample of excoriating dialog:
But what,” said he, “if I should sort with another kind of ministers, whose chief contrivances and consultations were, by what art the prince’s treasures might be increased. Where one proposes raising the value of specie when the King’s debts are large, and lowering it when his revenues were to come in, that so he might both pay much with a little, and in a little receive a great deal: another proposes a pretence of a war, that money might be raised in order to carry it on, and that a peace be concluded as soon as that was done; and this with such appearances of religion as might work on the people, and make them impute it to the piety of their prince, and to his tenderness for the lives of his subjects.
And for those of you who remember my and Karl Marx’s rants about the enclosure movement in England:
The increase of pasture,’ said I, ‘by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men, and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men the abbots, not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.
The utopian novel now has a long history, and many of them, dystopic and not, hark back to More. One of the best, and least known, is We, by Zamayatin, a book of which George Orwell was fond. Published in 1928, it has many of the themes and details that we are familiar with from so many anti-utopian sci-fi nightmares of film and print: the ritual incineration of those who are deemed of no use to society; the complete regulation of sexual intercourse, in this case with a system of randomly distributed chits and a proscribed time for copulation, the only part of the day during which one can draw the curtains; and the total alienation of the city from the natural world. Zamayatin’s book also has a wickedly dark sense of humor and a bewitching femme fatale that make it tremendously entertaining. Unlike More, it’s a satire.
Moving along, we get to Brave New World, as fresh today as when it was written by Aldous Huxley in the 1930s, and arguably the only thing of his still worth reading. Deliciously funny, and rapier sharp – it depicts a world in which people are cloned in factory nurseries and the deity of the day is Henry Ford, honored by taking his name frequently in vain (“By Ford!“). The various genetically engineered classes of citizens dose themselves with Soma to ease the pain of existence when they are not hypnotized at the “feelies”, multi-sensory movie shows, or having promiscuous sex. He made “pneumatic” a synonym for sexy.
There’s 1984, of course, the greatest of the dystopias, ideal worlds gone sour. Too little attention is paid to Orwell’s humor in this book, although it can be hard to focus on it amid the horrific descriptions of methodical torture used to reduce Winston Smith to a pliable mass of human mush. The movie version produced in ’84 actually did a good job of bringing some of it out – it is a satire, after all, albeit one of the darkest, blackest shade. Read the appendix to the book in which the logic of Newspeak is laid out in full, and you can’t help but chuckle at Orwell’s inventiveness, and his precscience – no wonder “Orwellian” is a term so much in use these days. It’s double-plus good, I tell you!
And speaking of appendices, that brings me to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, a worthy successor to 1984, and the only novel of this genre that approaches it in conveying the horror of living in a totalitarian, all powerful regime. Atwood’s wicked humor is equal to Orwell’s and Zamayatin’s, and it’s on display in the marvelous appendix to the novel in which we learn, by way of an academic paper presented several centuries after the action of the book, of the full origins of the story it recounts in the dystopic land of Gilead. It’s a land that is recovering from an ecological disaster that drastically reduced the fertility rate. A land in which women are treated purely as a organisms to produce more citizens, and their every movement is carefully controlled. Sex, of course, is completely ritualized and regulated, but it all takes place in a world filled with people old enough to remember how it was before, which is part of what gives the story its eerie power. I wish I could read that learned paper on “Late 21st Century Gilead and 20th century Iran: A Comparison of Theocratic Despotisms” that is mentioned in the appendix. It might have lessons for us today. From the few hints dropped in the text, Gilead occupies the space now called the USA.