Science Fiction Studies


#82 = Volume 27, Part 3 = November 2000

Veronica Hollinger

Old Dreams, New Stories

Chris Ferns. Narrating Utopia: Ideology, Gender, Form in Utopian Literature. Liverpool UP, 1999. xii + 268 pp. £32 hc; £14.95 pbk.

It’s a truism almost universally acknowledged that most of those old-fashioned Renaissance utopias written during the Age of Exploration were introduced to readers by way of a narrative paradigm that’s become both uninteresting and outdated. Since the nineteenth century, according to this version of history, creators of utopian literature have invested a lot of time and energy in rewriting all those tales of castaway travelers reaching mysterious lost lands, getting Cooks-Tours-with-running-commentaries, and then returning home to tell their tales to anyone willing to listen. Really, that kind of thing just isn’t done anymore. In these enlightened times, any utopian story worth its salt has definitively broken with outmoded tradition and has become both open-ended and self-consciously critical of the utopias of yesteryear. And progress is a wonderful thing.

That being said, why bother to write a full-length study about the narrative structure of utopia? How can there be that much left to say about the traditional utopian plot? One doesn’t have to read too far into Chris Ferns’s Narrating Utopia, however, before becoming caught up in Ferns’s own story about how that old-fashioned paradigm has kept coming back to haunt so many later utopian texts, including many associated with the more experimental efforts of the past century. As Ferns explains his project: "While it is true that a number of writers have set out to represent utopia as other than a prescriptive and authoritarian ideal, the influence of the traditional utopian narrative paradigm has proved more difficult to escape. It is the nature of that influence, the reasons for its persistence, and its effect on the sociopolitical character of the imagined utopia, that constitutes the main focus of my study" (xi). The result is one of the most insightful examinations of utopian literature to appear in recent years, as useful in its own way as Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible (Methuen, 1986) or Ruth Levitas’s The Concept of Utopia (Syracuse UP, 1990).

Setting the scene for his analysis of the inevitable articulations between aesthetics and politics, Ferns opens Narrating Utopia with an excellent introduction providing a broad outline of some of the complexities of utopia-as-genre, including an overview of the constraints built into the literary utopia as the result of its paradigmatic form. This chapter also traces the growing influence of mimetic realism on nineteenth- and twentieth-century utopian literature as it virtually abandoned the form of the traveler’s tale and increasingly took on features of the modern (science fiction) novel. In spite of these transformations, however, Ferns emphasizes the ongoing influence of older narrative structures, resulting over time in significant dissonances and tensions between an essentially conservative narrative form and increasingly oppositional ideological content.

In this introductory chapter, Ferns situates his own work within the ongoing critical/theoretical narratives of utopian studies, especially those tracing the transformation from static to dynamic sociopolitical models. He also provides an even-handed and informative review of some of the major representations of the idea of utopia, including efforts by contemporary critics such as Angelika Bammer ("partial visions") and Tom Moylan ("critical utopias") to (re)conceptualize contemporary utopian literature in order to ensure its ongoing relevance. Ferns’s analytical perspectives include historical context, ideological orientation, and narrative structure, and to this tripartite framework he adds a fourth: the question of gender. As he observes at the end of his introduction: "if the overwhelming majority of utopian dreams of order have been written by men, it is equally the case that the recent resurgence in utopian dreams of freedom has been predominantly the work of women" (27). For Ferns, questions about gender relations are central to any study of the utopian imagination because gender has conventionally served, and continues to serve, as a political flashpoint for both conservative and radical visions.

The paradigmatic utopian narrative is, in Ferns’s words, a "curious hybrid of classical dialogue and [Renaissance] traveller’s tale" (13) and he isolates three kinds of utopian writing constructed upon this original site. The first is centralist and authoritarian in emphasis (e.g., Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis [1626]), designed to ensure order, security, and economic plenty; it is typically monologic in its didactic effect and static in its treatment of time and history. The second type, which includes both the dystopia and the anti-utopia, develops through a rejection of this earlier narrative (e.g., George Orwell’s 1984 [1948]); it tends to emphasize the nightmarish features of a totalitarian social order supported by burgeoning technological development. The third type explores a range of libertarian positions (e.g., Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed [1975]) and is typically represented as open-ended and dialogic in its narrative development; its promise is freedom in a world of oppression rather than order in a world of disorder.

The first section of Narrating Utopia, "Dreams of Order," opens by tracing features of the utopian narrative paradigm in three exemplary Renaissance utopias: Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun (1602), and Bacon’s The New Atlantis. This chapter is followed by a discussion of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) as examples of "The Dream of Order in the Modern World" and by a chapter on the rise of dystopian writing in the first half of the twentieth century, "The Dream as Nightmare." The second half of Ferns’s study, "Dreams of Freedom," opens with a chapter on "Libertarian Alternatives" and includes readings of William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1905), and Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962); this is followed by a chapter on separatist utopias written by women that concentrates on Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915) and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground (1979). Ferns’s final chapter looks at what are, in his view, some of the most successful narrative revisions in contemporary utopian writing—in particular Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) and Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. Noting the current lack of a wide readership for utopian fiction, and noting as well the relative brevity of the resurgence of utopian writing in the 1960s and 1970s, Ferns nevertheless concludes his study by agreeing with Ruth Levitas’s arguments for the ongoing relevance of utopian writing: "the role of utopia has changed: the purpose of utopian narrative has become less the advocacy of specific alternative sociopolitical formations, and more the stimulus and education of desire" (231).

In order to set the scene for its readings of more recent utopian literature, Narrating Utopia builds upon a particular representation of what we might call the "primal scene" of utopian narrative, a scene constructed through a mixture of dialogue and traveler’s tale and exemplified in the utopias of More, Campanella, and Bacon. Ferns identifies what he considers to be the central features of this primal scene, especially its evocation of desire for a kind of maternal security maintained within an explicitly patriarchal order frequently given to masculinist dreams of colonization and domination. In its valorization of utopian perfection, this exemplary narrative de-emphasizes historical change. As evidenced in its tour-structure, in the traditional utopia, "Time, no matter how extensive, is empty of content; whereas the space of utopia is full" (65).

Ferns reads the later utopian fictions of Bellamy and Wells as demonstrations of the particular ideological grip of this originary narrative paradigm, not least in how both Looking Backward and A Modern Utopia continue to look backward in their constructions of gender relations. As Ferns suggests, "the continuing use of a specific narrative form"—and both Bellamy and Wells continue to deploy the tried-and-true structure of the utopian tour—"is liable to have ideological consequences in terms of content" (73). Gender relations provide a kind of test-case in Ferns’s readings of these texts, and for him their regressive nature is paralleled by their conservative constructions of class, politics, economics, and production (Looking Backward, for example, never depicts work as such, only a kind of continuous middle-class consumption). What strikes me as particularly interesting here is the fact of Wells’s quite self-conscious attempt to break away from the traditional utopian paradigm, especially in A Modern Utopia, and the degree to which the conservative values of earlier authoritarian utopias nevertheless continue to mark his work.

Ferns’s chapter on dystopias is equally valuable, providing a useful link between the authoritarian visions of Bellamy and Wells and the libertarian writings of Morris, Bogdanov, and (the later) Huxley, and tracing the ongoing influence of conventional narrative structure even in fictions whose aim is to debunk the very idea of utopianism. Ferns argues, for instance, that "In its parodic inversion of the utopian dream of order, dystopian fiction effectively rewrites its underlying fantasy of the patriarchal appropriation of the powers of the mother, focusing instead on the dream of the son’s unsuccessful rebellion against the father" (126). It is fairly obvious from this reading that most dystopian fiction—Ferns’s major exception is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)—is unlikely to provide a more satisfactory construction of gender relations than is most utopian fiction. Nor is it surprising, consequently, to read the same backward-looking gender representations in the libertarian texts of Morris, Bogdanov, and Huxley, all of whom espouse, in spite of their many otherwise radical propensities, ideas about an essential and "natural" femininity. Ferns concludes this section on libertarian alternatives with the not very cheering observation about utopian fiction that "If its narrative problems seem largely associated with an inability to break away from an increasingly anachronistic narrative model, the aspects of existing social relations that it seems most consistently unable to reimagine are those to do with gender" (174). (In this, the utopian imagination demonstrates striking similarities to the science-fictional imagination.)

The final chapters of Narrating Utopia focus on some classic utopian texts written by women. Not surprisingly, given the repeated failures of male-authored utopian fictions to address questions of gender, these texts tend to situate gender at the center of their efforts to rethink social and political structures; it is also Ferns’s contention here that a fundamental revisioning of gender "can result in fundamental changes to the narrative paradigm we have so far seen at work" (175). In fact, however, Narrating Utopia demonstrates that even feminist revisions of the utopian paradigm cannot so easily free themselves from its abiding influence, especially those revisions that continue to espouse essentialist ideas about the nature of gender. In detailed readings of Gilman’s Herland and Gearhart’s The Wanderground, Ferns examines some of the ways in which both Gilman and Gearhart replicate features of the gender relations of their real-world societies, maintaining, in spite of their challenges to other aspects of those societies, some powerfully conservative ideas about women and femininity.

Narrating Utopia concludes with discussions of some of the texts identified by Tom Moylan as "critical utopias," texts that focus on change and conflict as well as on stasis and balance. In terms of his own critical paradigm, Ferns finds the most successful revision of traditional utopianism in Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time; he calls particular attention to how the novel’s dialectical narrative structure keeps the dialogue between the real and the utopian in constant play, and he emphasizes Piercy’s commitment to a processual narrative of utopian coming-into-being. Ferns also finds particular merit in the dialectical narrative design of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. In fact, his discussion of Le Guin’s novel is also a determined defense against some of the criticisms to which it has been subjected in recent years for perceived shortcomings in (among other things) character and gender relations. Ferns uses his discussion of The Dispossessed to call attention to what he sees as "a new orthodoxy among commentators" (220), and whether readers agree with him or not, it’s always salutary to be reminded that even academics might be influenced by fashions and fads. Narrating Utopia ends with a metacritical challenge to contemporary utopian studies to itself demonstrate some of the features of the open-ended and libertarian utopian text, to resist its own tendencies towards authoritarianism and monologism.

I have only two complaints to make about this very good book. The first, which I admit is relatively minor, is that Ferns tends not to give enough information about the original publication dates of the texts he reads, neither in the body of his text nor in his bibliography. The second, which I realize may not be a concern for every reader, is his decision to focus only on classic texts, ignoring virtually any utopian fiction written after the 1970s. It is clear that, for Ferns—as for many others—the heyday of utopian writing is over, at least for now; but having called attention early on to the hybrid nature of utopia as a literary genre, he nevertheless tends to dismiss such important experiments as Samuel R. Delany’s Triton (1976). He also ignores such challenges to the utopian tradition as Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), as well as such significant recent contributions to the genre as Kim Stanley Robinson’s meta-utopian Pacific Edge (1988). While the absence of recent and relevant utopian fiction is disappointing, however, it remains a relatively minor drawback to an excellent study that will prove useful to students of utopian literature for a long time to come.

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