Four Utopias?

The Golden Age crop

At the end of the nineteenth century, there appeared four immensely influential utopian novels: Edward Bulwer Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000−1887 (1888), and William Morris’s News from Nowhere, or An Epoch of Rest (1890). Each of them combined, in differing degrees, elements of the lost-world romance, early science fiction, Swiftian satire, and pastoral fantasy. Each also examined contemporary notions about science, feminism, progress, religion, Darwinism, eugenics, and societal reform. Though inevitably dated in some ways, all four still make for enjoyable and thought-provoking reading, especially these days when a bizarre presidential election — fought between, among others, a billionaire tycoon, a democratic socialist, and a hard-bitten politico — proffer such dramatically different views of our country and its future.

Edward Bulwer Lytton is now commonly remembered for the line “It was a dark and stormy night” and for the annual “bad writing” contest that bears his name. He was, in fact, one of the most astonishing of all Victorian men of letters, being the most popular playwright of his time, a bestselling novelist throughout his life, and, not least, the author of two highly influential occult romances, Zanoni (which features the entity called “the dweller of the threshold”) and A Strange Story, as well as the classic horror tale “The Haunted and the Haunters.” Still, his most widely read book today is probably The Coming Race.

Told by an unnamed American, the story relates the discovery of a powerful humanoid civilization inside a hollow earth. The Ana, also called the Vril-ya, are seven feet tall, Sphinx-like in their stern impassivity, exceptionally long lived, capable of flight with artificial wings, and quite possibly descended from frogs. After being discovered by these super-beings, the interloper from the earth’s surface is placed in a coma-like sleep, so that the Vrilyan language can be implanted in his brain at the same time that his mind is being read. Afterward, he is treated as a kind of pet but allowed to explore this strange subterranean world.

He learns, for instance, that its women are more scholarly than the men, and stronger and taller; they also choose their own husbands. Automata perform the menial tasks. Children — because of their natural heartlessness– act as hunters and soldiers. At one point, the narrator accompanies a twelve-year-old boy sent out to destroy a dinosaur-like monster and finds himself used as bait. All the Vril-ya carry staffs imbued with vril, a mysterious form of energy sometimes likened to electricity, at other times to some kind of mesmeric fluid. Like a laser or death ray, a vril staff can heal or kill (usually through incineration). It can also be used to control minds and bodies.

The Ana eschew all violent emotion. Their faces, we are told, “are the faces of sculptured gods” and inspire a feeling of awe. Serene and indolent, with neither prominent vices nor salient virtues, they have mastered a godlike equanimity, as they “dwell in an atmosphere of music and fragrance.” Their mantra is: “No happiness without order, no order without authority, no authority without unity.” As one of the Ana sententiously tells the narrator:

See you not that the primary condition of mortal happiness consists in the extinction of that strife and competition between individuals, which, no matter what forms of government they adopt, render the many subordinate to the few, destroy real liberty to the individual . . . and annul that calm existence, without which, felicity, mental or bodily, cannot be attained? Our notion is that the more we can assimilate life to the existence which our noblest ideas can conceive to be that of spirits on the other side of the grave, why, the more we approximate to a divine happiness here.

Note that last sentence: The Vril-ya live as if they were already spiritual beings. Still, they will kill quite mercilessly if they feel threatened, going so far as absolute genocide: “Life is never taken away for food or for sport, and never spared where untamably inimical to the Ana.”

As time goes by, the narrator — half pet, half prisoner — grows increasingly oppressed with the dullness and monotony of a civilization modeled after “a virtuous and well-ordered household.” The human soul is too refractory for such static, Olympian perfection: “I began to feel that, whatever our dreams of perfectibility, our restless aspirations toward a better, and higher, and calmer sphere of being, we, the mortals of the upper world are not trained or fitted to enjoy for long the very happiness of which we dream or to which we aspire.”

In the end, the narrator escapes back to the earth’s surface, but he carries with him a terrible knowledge: On some future date the Ana will claim the entire planet as their own, eradicating mankind with their vril staffs. They are the coming race.

Just as Bulwer Lytton’s novel is regarded as a pioneering work of science fiction, so Samuel Butler’s Erewhon — an anagram for “nowhere,” which is one meaning of the word “utopia” — may be the most scathing prose satire in English after Gulliver’s Travels. Butler himself was the iconoclastic son of a clergyman, made his fortune in New Zealand through raising sheep and later settled in London, where he wrote essays, painted, translated Homer, and produced his famous autobiographical novel, The Way of All Flesh. Erewhon was his first book, published at his own expense and shocking in its relentless mockery of the received doctrines and conventions of the Victorian age.

After the narrator — whose name is Higgs — daringly crosses a series of mountain ranges in an unidentified country, he discovers a bountiful land guarded by ten gigantic and dread-inspiring statues (which likely represent the Ten Commandments). Once past them, Higgs encounters a dark-complexioned people of exceptional beauty, who seem to live happily under somewhat primitive conditions; at least there are no machines to be seen. He soon concludes that they must be descendants of the lost tribes of Israel and quietly resolves to gain immortal fame by converting them to Christianity.

An obvious intruder, Higgs is initially clapped into prison, where he is taught the language of Erewhon by his jailer’s daughter, who, naturally enough, falls in love with the fair-skinned and light-haired stranger. Once released, though, Higgs is transferred to the capital city and there begins to learn more about this topsy-turvy, yet oddly familiar world.

In Erewhon illness is a crime. Judges regularly hand down severe sentences, because “the infliction of pain upon the weak and sickly was the only means of preventing weakness and sickliness from spreading.” Misfortune of any kind, “or even ill treatment at the hands of others, is considered an offense against society, inasmuch as it makes people uncomfortable to hear of it.” Ethical transgressions, by contrast, earn the guilty only sympathy and commiseration. Higgs actually lodges with a highly respected embezzler who has ruined an old woman: Mr. Nosnibor must undergo treatment by a “straightener” — a kind of psychologist — while the widow he defrauded fortuitously died before she could be remanded to the Misplaced Confidence Court.

In Erewhon, there is a Hospital for Incurable Bores and a College of Unreason, where undergraduates learn hypothetical languages and study Inconsistency and Evasion. Conformity is all-important. As the Professor of Worldly Wisdom says: “It is not our business to help students to think for themselves. Surely this is the very last thing which one who wishes them well should encourage them to do. Our duty is to ensure that they shall think as we do, or at any rate, as we hold it expedient to say we do.” Academic papers are marked down for “want of sufficient vagueness.”

The nation’s Musical Banks — parodying the Church of England — are paid lip service but trade in a worthless currency that no one cares about. Instead, luck is viewed “as the only fit object of human veneration.” At funerals, people send the bereaved little boxes filled with artificial tears. The Erewhonians also hold that the invisible spirits of the unborn “are perpetually plaguing and tormenting the married of both sexes, fluttering about them incessantly, and giving them no peace either of mind or body.” It is only because of this “pestering” that babies are brought into the world. The actual birth — otherwise known as “the final importunity ” — elicits great sympathy for the parents.

Higgs, it turns out, has been granted special treatment because of his good “character,” by which is meant his unusually light hair. But he nearly gets thrown back into prison when he unexpectedly shows the king his watch: In Erewhon, mechanical devices are now anathema. Five or six hundred years earlier its inhabitants realized that machines were evolving faster than humans and soon would take over the world. That age’s great prophet warned against mankind’s growing bondage to machines: “How many spend their whole lives, from the cradle to the grave, in tending them by night and day? Is it not plain that the machines are gaining ground upon us, when we reflect on the increasing number of those who are bound down to them as slaves, and of those who devote their whole souls to the advancement of the mechanical kingdom?”

There’s much more to Erewhon, but it should be clear how relentlessly the book satirizes evolution, education, religion, and all the hypocrisies of Butler’s time. Its final chapter may be its most devastating. Having escaped back to England, Higgs realizes that a fortune could be made by using armed troops to round up Erewhonians as slave labor and ship them to nearby sugar plantations. There, “as soon as they could be spared from their work,” they would be “thoroughly grounded in the Church Catechism, while the whole of every Sabbath should be devoted to singing psalms and church-going.” Best of all, notes Higgs, “the supply of Erewhonians would be unlimited, and they could be packed closely and fed at a very reasonable cost.”

Both The Coming Race and Erewhon are classic examples of the “lost world,” or “lost civilization,” subgenre of utopian or dystopian fantasy. The other favored mode for depicting the effects of comprehensive social engineering is the journey into the future. In Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Morris’s News from Nowhere, the protagonist falls asleep in the nineteenth century but awakens a hundred or more years later. Through conversations with a local wise man, he then gradually learns the principles and customs of — in this case — two radically different visions of a socialist heaven on earth.

In Looking Backward, Julian West — a rich young Bostonian, preparing to marry his sweetheart — has trouble sleeping, so he constructs a sealed underground chamber in his house, where no noise can penetrate. One night something goes wrong: Having employed a mesmerist to place him into a restful trance, West enters a state of suspended animation and only emerges from it in the year 2000.

He is immediately given lodgings with a Dr. Leete, his wife, and their beautiful daughter, Edith. Through long talks with the doctor and afternoon strolls around the new Boston with Edith, West learns how centralization has brought prosperity and universal contentment to the United States. Bigness, it turns out, is better. Early in the twentieth century, “the industry and commerce of the country . . . were intrusted to a single syndicate representing the people, to be conducted in the common interest for the common profit.” In essence, the U.S. became one great business corporation. Cooperation replaced competition. Individual “hoards” were absorbed into the shared wealth and stock of the nation.

At the heart of the new communal society is the highly regimented industrial army. Everyone must serve in it between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five. For the first three years recruits are toughened up with rough labor. Afterwards, each person chooses a trade or profession that matches his or her natural aptitudes. Allowance is made for jobs that are unpopular or difficult: “The principle is that no man’s work ought to be, on the whole, harder for him than any other man’s for him . . . If any particular occupation is in itself so arduous or so oppressive that, in order to induce volunteers, the day’s work in it had to be reduced to ten minutes, it would be done.” Nothing is regarded as menial, while diligence in the national service alone earns one honor and repute.

In return, the nation guarantees the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of everyone, from cradle to grave. There are no wages, no money. Instead each citizen draws on a credit card — really a debit card — charged with the standard uniform allowance. Goods are procured at gigantic stores, where the buyer examines samples, makes a selection, and leaves an order. A central warehouse then dispatches the item via huge pneumatic tubes directly to one’s home – a pre-Internet vision of the triumph of e-commerce.

In general, these future Bostonians avoid the useless burden of too much stuff in their lives, while housework and home cooking hardly exist, except when undertaken as hobbies. People now dine in vast public restaurants, where each family has its own reserved table. Concerts and sermons are delivered to homes through a kind of radio-phone. Crime is rare since it lacks the usual motives (inequality, the desire for money) and is generally treated as a disease, an atavism. The refined citizenry naturally values education: “No single thing is so important to every man as to have for neighbors intelligent, companionable persons.” After forty-five, people devote the rest of their long lives to pursuing their avocations and enjoying the beauties of their city. The nineteenth-century world of strife and pessimism has given way to fraternity and joy, as well as near equality between the sexes.

By the end of Looking Backward, West has fallen in love with Edith, who, it turns out, is the great-granddaughter of his old sweetheart and may even be her reincarnation. But then, when all looks bright for the lovers, West awakens one morning to find himself back in his sealed chamber. Was it all then just a dream? He walks out into Boston and beholds only woe and wretchedness. In despair, he bursts in on a dinner party and cries out to the assembled guests: “I have been in Golgotha. I have seen Humanity hanging on a cross . . . Do you not know that close to your doors a great multitude of men and women, flesh of your flesh, live lives that are one agony from birth to death? Listen! Their dwellings are so near that if you hush your laughter you will hear their grievous voices, the piteous crying of the little ones that suckle poverty, the hoarse cries of men sodden in misery turned half-way back to brutes, the chaffering of an army of women selling themselves for bread.”

When he first wrote Looking Backward, Bellamy thought of it as just “a fairy tale of social felicity.” But the book proved instead a bible of socialist thought — and the most popular American novel of the nineteenth century (except for Uncle Tom’s Cabin). It sold a million copies within a decade. Bellamy Clubs, nationalist periodicals and a populist political party further promulgated the book’s vision, while the author himself revisited his future in an 1897 sequel called Equality. There he makes even clearer that the sexes and races are treated equally. Bellamy’s work famously inspired the great union leader Eugene V. Debs, and some of his ideas were taken over by the Industrial Workers of the World.

Still, one prominent English socialist disliked the book intensely, especially for its emphasis on bigness, regimentation and the allocation to government of so much power over the individual. In his review of Looking Backward, William Morris — poet, novelist, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, the fin-de-siècle’s Renaissance man — complained that “a machine-life is the best that Mr. Bellamy can imagine for us on all sides; it is not to be wondered at that his only idea for making labor tolerable is to decrease the amount of it by fresh and ever-fresh developments of machinery.” In News from Nowhere, Morris instead argued for the essential place of handcrafts, small farms and village life, emphasizing that “the true incentive to useful and happy labor is and must be pleasure in the work itself.”

His book begins when a socialist thinker named William falls asleep one winter’s night and awakens to a beautiful June day. Without explanation, he has somehow been transported into a future England of the twenty-first or twenty-second century. The polluted, refuse-laden Thames of his own time is now clear and pure, running with salmon. He encounters handsome people of all ages, gaily dressed in rather medieval garb, leading simple, fulfilling lives. The women, in particular, “are clothed like women, not upholstered like arm-chairs.” Everyone is kindly, though confused by their visitor’s strange ignorance. William, who gives his last name as Guest, explains that he’s from a faraway place.

Morris’s utopia, we gradually learn, is utterly decentralized and regulated only by humanity’s natural goodness. Children aren’t pent up in schools but pick up life skills as they grow up. “You see,” Guest is told, “children are mostly given to imitating their elders, and when they see most people about them engaged in genuinely amusing work, like house-building and street-paving, and gardening, and the like, that is what they want to be doing. At one point, Guest and his new friend Dick enter a tobacco shop, which is minded by a little girl and boy. The children are polite and attentive, the girl supplies her strange visitor with a handsome pipe, some Latakia tobacco, and a beautifully embroidered pouch to hold it. Before Guest and Dick leave, her brother appears with a tray and glasses of wine for their visitors. It is all immensely charming.

There is, of course, no money in this idyllic future. Neither are there prisons or police officers or any serious form of government. Machines, while not anathema as in Erewhon, are nonetheless simply things of a distant past no one cares about. This is a world of the true anarchist vision of universal brotherhood. People typically address each other as “Neighbor.”

In a chapter called “Concerning Love,” we learn that open marriages are now the norm. Dick, we discover, is in love with a young woman named Clara, and she apparently with him. Yet Guest learns from Old Hammond, who spends his days in the crumbling British Museum, that the couple lived together in the past and had two children. But “then she got it into her head that she was in love with somebody else. So she left poor Dick; I say poor Dick, because he had not found anyone else.” However, Clara’s new relationship didn’t work out and she now hopes, as does Dick, that they will reunite. No stigma is attached to anyone involved in this affair.

Men and women are equals, even though — as Old Hammond says — “everybody likes to be ordered about by a pretty woman: why, it is one of the pleasantest forms of flirtation.” Serious jealousy and sexual misery are now infrequent: “You will find that what lay at the bottom of them was mostly the idea (a law-made idea) of woman being the property of the man, whether he were husband, father, brother, or what not. That idea has of course vanished with private property, as well as certain follies about the ‘ruin’ of women for following their natural desires.”

Like Julian West in future Boston, Guest worries that he may be too tainted by the archaic values he grew up with ever to fit into this fresh and open society. So Morris makes this visit to the future into an actual dream. During a country feast with his new friends and the woman Guest has fallen in love with, the whole pageant fades into air, into thin air. Returned to the England of his own time, Guest takes comfort in remembering the words of his now-lost beloved: “Go back and be the happier for having seen us, for having added a little hope to your struggle. Go on living while you may, striving, with whatever pain and labor needs must be, to build up little by little the new day of fellowship, and rest, and happiness.”

As fiction, all these novels tend to be talky, sometimes little more than informational soliloquies periodically interrupted by a bit of romancing or sightseeing. Yet all four writers possess engaging styles, Butler being exceptionally witty, Bellamy elegant, and Morris limpid and clear; even Bulwer Lytton avoids prolixity and keeps things moving right along. Most important, whether appealing or appalling, the four societies depicted compel us to look at our own more critically. Each underscores that the way we live now needn’t be the way we must always live. Surely, this election year, already so fraught and improbable, makes that point, too: American are hungry for change. But what kind? Perhaps the real lesson of these visionary classics can be best summed up in a famous line from Yeats: In dreams begin responsibilities.