BOOKS IN REVIEW
A Utopian Project
Kenneth Roemer, ed. America
as Utopia. Burt Franklin & Co., 1981. vi+410p. $21.95.
America as Utopia could be an excellent text around which to build an
upper-division or graduate literature class with a title such as "Visions of
America" or "Possible Worlds: America and the Utopian Tradition." Most of
the essays are a little too sophisticated for freshmen, and while most experts will find
the bibliographies useful they will discover little that is new in the critical
approaches. One could design a reading list for a class which included most of the authors
covered in the critical essays--Hawthorne (The Blithedale Romance), Bellamy (Looking
Backward), Morris (News From Nowhere), Skinner (Walden Two), Rimmer
(The Harrad Experiment), Twain (A Connecticut Yankee...), London (The
Iron Heel), Vonnegut (Player Piano), Cooper (The Crater), Rand (Atlas
Shrugged), Le Guin (The Dispossessed), and perhaps three or four more
(especially feminist utopias)--and use the "Case Studies," the "Themes,
Types and Forms," and the "Bibliographic and Historical Surveys" sections
of the book to generate critical and research papers. The critical readings are
stimulating, and to a large degree the book succeeds in its purpose, which, as the editor,
Kenneth Roemer, states it, is to "introduce both the novice and the expert to a
spectrum of provocative approaches that will help him or her to understand American
utopian literature and to elaborate upon the methods offered here or to develop new
approaches" (p. 10).
The readings are divided into four major sections: "The Authors' Views,"
"Case Studies," "Themes, Types and Forms," and bibliographies. In
addition to these, Roemer has written an informative (although not strikingly original)
introduction: "Defining America as Utopia." There he explains the purpose of the
book; the importance of studying American utopian literature, a genre "essential for
anyone who wants to understand America" (p. 14); and his working definition of a
literary utopia, "a fairly detailed description of an imaginary community,
society or world--a 'fiction' that encourages readers to experience vicariously a culture
that represents a prescriptive, normative alternative to their own culture" (p.
3). He also reproduces as an "Epilogue" chapter 11 of Le Guin's The
Dispossessed "because the episode incorporates echoes of many of the visions of
perfection and nightmarish prophecies that intrigued the contributors to this collection
and have inspired American utopian literature from the European discovery of the New World
through the appearance of modern utopian science fiction" (p. 12). Finally, besides
"Notes on the Contributors," the text has very useful author, short-title, and
subject indices, the last of which is particularly thorough and thus extremely helpful in
tracking down thematic elements in American utopian fiction.
With few exceptions, the critical essays and the bibliographic entries are uniformly
good. The weakest section is clearly the first--i.e., the essays by Edward Bellamy, B.F.
Skinner, Robert Rimmer, and Thomas Disch commenting on their own work and on utopias in
general. Rimmer's remarks on "synergamous marriages" (!) are superficial, and
his autobiographical chestpounding--the renaissance businessman-cum-novelist--is sheer
self-advertisement. Disch's "Buck Rogers in Jerusalem" is worldly,
condescending, and, ultimately, foolish. After dismissing utopian writing as
"notoriously dull" and "silly" (p. 53), he argues that the main
problem with utopias is that they do not assume "the grand equivocalness of
everything, that's always been the subject of good fiction," that they require a
"deliberate singleness of vision, a decision to accentuate the positive, that can be
the death of a limber intelligence" (p. 53). "Limber"?--or flaccid? Should
one assume that everything is equivocal? Does all good literature assume that everything
is ambiguous? Perhaps this stance is a luxury that only some intellectuals can
afford, and perhaps that is why genuine reform or revolutionary movements have little use
for intellectuals. Why is it necessary to assume that everything is up for grabs
all of the time? Disch argues, á la Karl Popper, that utopias "bring out
the totalitarian in all of us," presumably because the author writing utopias has the
audacity to suggest that he or she might have a vision of a society more nearly perfect
than the one which forms the context of the fiction. One could just as well say that any
political structure which impels a society in a particular direction-- consciously or
unconsciously--has elements of totalitarianism in it because politicians believe that
moving in a certain direction is better than moving in another direction. Moreover, at
least the writer and her or his readers know that they are reading fiction and
not a social charter. At best this literature explores the possibilities and consequences
of human action; at worst, utopists inspire their readers to move in a specific direction,
with the power of the inspiration being a consequence of the writer's art and not the
number of tanks he or she commands.
Bellamy's two essays explaining how he came to write Looking Backward hold
primarily historical interest. A close reader (or an informed instructor) can show how the
1889 essay relates to Bellamy's earlier novels and recalls his debt to Hawthorne; the 1894
essay might be read as one reads Poe's explanation in The Philosophy of Composition of
how he wrote "The Raven." The best and most useful essay in this group is B.F.
Skinner's "Utopia as an Experimental Culture." Skinner provides a short but
interesting perspective on the history of utopian writing and in one section,
"Objections to a Designed Culture," does what Disch fails to do, examines
seriously the issue of totalitarianism inherent in any aspect of social
engineering: "Design implies control, and there are many reasons why we fear it"
(p. 37). One may not agree with Skinner's scientific analysis of human behavior and of
"genetic and cultural design" (p. 41), but at least he addresses the
The "Case Studies" section concentrates on particular works: Darko Suvin
deals with Morris and Bellamy, Frederick E. Pratter with the "speculative
fiction" of Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, Gorman Beauchamp with The Iron
Heel and "Goliah," and David Hughes with Vonnegut's Player Piano. Suvin's
erudite and balanced essay on Bellamy and Morris not only describes the literary and
socio-political elements that went into the construction of the two authors' utopias but
clarifies their specific contributions to utopian literature--e.g., Bellamy's
understanding that "the construction of a social system for the reader is also
the reconstruction of the hero" (p. 60). In addition, Suvin makes a point which
every reader and critic of utopia should memorize:
...There is no doubt that the political surface or indeed backbone of a utopian tale is
of a high and possibly central significance to it. That level is, however, isolatable from
the whole of the narration only at the expense of not treating it as what it primarily and
irreducibly is--a narration. In fact, other structural levels--such as the
fictional treatment of characters, time, and space--and the degree of their congruence
with the ideologico-political level largely account for the success or failure of the
tale, including its message. (p. 72)
Beauchamp, writing under the title "Utopian Dystopia and Dystopian Utopia,"
sheds light on London's lesser-known work, "Goliah," and makes important
connections between it and The Iron Heel. At the same time, he also explains the
"paradox that disturbs many readers of the latter: "Its destructive, dystopian
impact is rendered with such dramatic force that its ultimate utopian promise seems
compromised." (p. 96).
Hughes's five-page article on Player Piano is provocative; his thesis is that
Vonnegut's dystopia is "terrifying because it is inner-directed, unlike...[the human
enslavement in] Brave New World and 1984" (p. 108). He bases this
assertion, in turn, on Vonnegut's view of man as a "fallen" creature, doomed to
repeat his mistakes forever. However, in so short an essay, Hughes can do little more than
suggest the ways in which this vision receives elaboration. Certainly his thesis needs
more development, especially with regard to the coercive power of the state and the
manipulations of corporate capitalism. One could argue that to "explain"
dystopia on the basis of man's "fallen" nature is to "explain away"
dystopia and to ignore the complex specificity of Vonnegut's and other writers'
I am not overly receptive to psychological approaches to literature, particularly when
they are applied to utopian fiction, which by definition emphasizes the socio-political
dimensions of experience; and perhaps for that reason I find Pratter's essay comparing the
speculative fiction of Mark Twain and William Dean Howells the least satisfactory in this
section of America as Utopia. Roemer's desire to include a variety of approaches
to the study of utopia certainly justifies its inclusion, and Pratter himself argues that
"it is important not to overlook the unconscious dimension speculative writing"
(p. 78). While this approach has always struck me as an attempt to explain the known (the
text) by the unknown (the unconscious), I have nothing against it in principle, provided
that the interpretation of the latent content--assuming that "the creation of
imaginary societies" is analogous to the function of dreaming-- can be firmly
anchored in the manifest content of the story itself. Why should we assume that the
"'lost island' or 'happy valley' is clearly a rejection of reality for the fantasy
warmth of the womb" (p. 79)? Pratter is doing what Freud specifically warned against
but psychological and psychoanalytic critics seem unable to resist--establishing a symbol
dictionary which interprets each image, metaphor, and symbol prior to its occurrence in
the text rather than establishing the meaning of these tropes on the basis of their
function within the text itself. In discussing the role of Hank Morgan, the hero
of A Connecticut Yankee, why should one "accept the elemental equation
between the speculative hero, trying to understand this strange new world into which he
has been thrown, and Clemens the utopian author" (p. 82)? What, specifically, in the
text allows us to do this? Why should we not equate Merlin with Twain? As for Howells'
Altrurian romances, A Traveler from Altruria and Through the Eye of the
Needle, what is one to make of Pratter's assertion that "their escapist aspects
enabled the author to circumscribe his anxieties without really confronting them" (p.
84)? In what sense are the novels "escapist"? Escape from what to what? What
does "really" mean here? Does not the very act of naming a situation
allow it to be brought into consciousness, and the choice of name, of one word rather than
another, allow the author to deal with that situation in a certain way and communicate an
attitude towards it? And is not an attitude an incipient act? While the reader or critic
may object to the terms by which Howells defines his utopia, one can hardly accuse him of
Essays by Jean Pfaelzer on "The Impact of Political Theory on Narrative
Structure," Arthur O. Lewis on "The Utopian Hero," Barbara Quissell on
l9th-century feminist utopians, Donald Burt on "Nature in Utopia," and Robert
Plank on "The Modern Shrunken Utopia," along with Stuart Teitler's bibliography
of utopian works dealing with the ten lost tribes of Israel and Lyman Tower Sargent's of
"Capitalist Utopias in America," make up Part Three of America as Utopia and
provide the reader with a good deal of information from a variety of perspectives. Plank,
whose remarks should be read in conduction with Skinner's and Rimmer's, examines the
phenomenon of the "shrunken utopia," and concludes that "as the individual
matures," he accommodates his strivings to the limits of the attainable. The
shrinking utopia may be analogous" (p. 229). Quissell, Burt, and Sargent undertake
historical surveys that provide a wealth of material for further research on l9th-century
feminist utopian writings, on nature in utopia, and on capitalist utopias in American
respectively. The same holds true for Teitler's introduction and list documenting the
theme of the ten lost tribes of Israel in American utopian writing. Lewis divides utopian
writing in terms of its characterization of the hero, which he contends falls into
"two general classes": agents, those who bring about utopia ['agent heroes'],
and observers ['observer heroes'], those who describe utopia after its creation" (p.
133). He then goes on to relate these two types of heroes to the success or failure (in
terms of popular reception) of utopian novels. He concludes--not surprisingly--that the
novels that stand the best chance of success are those that depict heroes who are
"appealing" and with whom the audience can have "genuine empathy" (p.
146). His arguments are convincing.
Pfaelzer's essay on late-19th-century utopias is the most far-reaching and interesting
of this section. One need not agree with her definition of utopian fiction as
"fantasy literature" (p. 117) to appreciate her analysis of the utopian fiction
produced during this period. Using such terms as apologue, manifesto, fable,
retrogressive and progressive utopia, and pastoral utopia, she
makes several strategic definitions which allow her to deal with a variety of fictional
forms falling under the rubric of utopian narratives. Her ultimate goal is to show how the
utopian fiction of this period is "the cultural extension" of specific
"political articulations" (p. 119). However, her essay can be criticized for
being undialectical and also for failing to connect the structure of utopian fictions with
their social functions and to account for the success of some and the failure of others.
Tending to see literature as a mere reflection of the prevailing ideology of the times,
she does not explore the role of utopian fiction as ideological practice in its own right,
and thus ignores recent contributions of such Marxist scholars as Louis Althusser, Pierre
Macherey, Terry Eagleton, and Raymond Williams, who provide a much more sophisticated
analysis than she does of the relationship between literature and ideology. On a more
mundane level, her essay is undialectical in that it does not take into account the role
of narrative structures in shaping the political ideology, as well as the reverse.
Finally, she could have made valuable use of some of the concepts developed in the area of
reception aesthetics to account for the way in which these utopian novels were received
and how they "may have contributed to the period of political reaction that
followed McKinley's election in 1896" (p. 131).
The "Bibliographic and Historical Surveys" of Part Four provide a number of
directions for research. Joel Nydahl's two essays, "From Millennium to Utopia
Americana" and "Early Fictional Futures," not only demonstrate that the
concept of American as utopia preceded the European colonization of America but also that
many more writers in the 19th century than had been previously suspected attempted to
write utopian fiction and SF. (He also discusses the one, almost forgotten, dystopian work
of the period, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker's The Partisan Leader .) Charles
Rooney's "Post-Civil War, Pre-Looking Backward Utopia:
1865-87," Roemer's "Utopia and Victorian Culture: 1888-99," Howard Segal's
"Utopia Diversified," Sargent's "Utopias and Dystopias in Science Fiction:
1950-75," and Roemer's "A Selected Checklist of Secondary Sources" should
be used in conjunction with Sargent's previously published British and American
Utopias, 1516-1975 and Glenn Negley's Utopian literature: A Bibliography. Roomer
states that the "713 titles listed in the five short-title bibliographies represent
the most complex checklists of their kind ever published" (p. 231). My spot checks
reveal no missing titles or inaccuracies. This is a very impressive achievement indeed and
one that will prove valuable to scholars, critics, students, and general readers
interested in American utopian fiction.
With few exceptions, one can say the same thing about the entire work.
Towards a New Awareness of Genre
Patrick Parrinder. Science
Fiction: Its Criticism and Teaching. London & NY: Methuen, 1980.
xix+166p. $8.60 paper.
----------------------, ed. Science
Fiction: A Critical Guide. London & NY: Longman, 1979. 238p.
$22.00 hardbound, $10.95 paper.
The maturation of SF in recent years--its evolutionary leap from the pulps to
"high culture," along with its subsequent respectabilization as an object of
academic study--have been accompanied by a whole series of new introductory studies,
syntheses or attempts at synthesis, histories of the genre, and anthologies, many of very
high quality indeed. No disservice to the best of these is meant by affirming the
extraordinary usefulness, elegance, and intelligence of Parrinder's study in the Methuen
"New Accents" series (and also, as if that were not enough, of his collection of
first-rate studies of important aspects of SF that make up the Critical Guide).
The most appropriate review of such a volume will naturally enough be an indication of
its limits and its omissions-- something all the more embarrassing to do in the present
instance, since the critical anthology systematically corrects a good many of these last
in advance: thus Parrinder's deliberate avoidance of any official "history" of
the genre can be partially remedied by excellent historical chapters in the Longman's
book, as well as by now classical works by Aldiss, Suvin, and others.
The alternative to historical reviews of the development of SF has most often been
genre study, driven--as in much other literary criticism and theory as well--by the secret
longing to unveil, surprise, and possess the ultimate "secret" of the thing
itself (a passion with a long history of its own within SF!).1
Most recently, however, it has come to be felt--and Claudio Guillen's Literature as
System (Princeton UP, 1971) was perhaps the first powerful expression of this newer
generic awareness--that pure textual exemplifications of a single genre do not
exist; and this, not merely because pure manifestations of anything are rare, but well
beyond that, because texts always come into being at the intersection of several genres
and emerge from the tensions in the latter's multiple force fields.2
This discovery does not, however, mean the collapse of genre criticism but rather its
renewal: we need the specification of the individual "genres" today more than
ever, not in order to drop specimens into the box bearing those labels, but rather to map
our coordinates on the basis of those fixed stars and to triangulate this specific given
This is one of the great strengths of Parrinder's study, to abandon the temptations of
the single-shot description (is SF after all any more a single genre or generic discourse
than "the novel"?), and to stage his discussion under the sign of three distinct
generic centers: romance, the fable, and the epic. To these is added, rather awkwardly, a
chapter on language and style, which reflects, I think, something in the historical
evolution of modern literature in general, and of SF in particular: namely the
disintegration of the older working generic categories (now understood as practical
recipes rather than as categories of literary analysis). Romance and fable are clearly
pre-capitalist generic categories; epic as Parrinder means it (following Hegel and Lukács) marks something like a representational moment, a moment of "realism"
or, better still, of the primacy of ideological values such as representation; while in
"high culture" all these moments have been long since superseded by
"modernism" and perhaps even "post-modernism"--something which has
been taken to mean, among other things, a displacement of interest and attention from the
skill of the representation to the very materiality of the medium itself and of style and
language. It seems fair, therefore, to rewrite Parrinder's linguistic appendix (in fact it
is a kind of grab-bag in which we finally meet the kinds of SF really contemporary with
us, most notably Philip K. Dick) in terms of a fourth generic specification,3 of a modernizing or textualizing kind.
As Hegel's example teaches, however, structural categories of this type are not at all
incompatible with historical ones, or at least with a certain historical (or
"evolutionary") mode of presentation. I have myself always been attracted to
Asimov's stages theory (of American SF): Stage One (1926-1938), adventure dominant; Stage
Two (1938-1950), technology dominant; Stage Three (1950 ?), sociology dominant.4 Twenty years later we can probably date the end of
Stage Three from the mid-'60s,5 and add a fourth stage
("aesthetics dominant") whose "new wave" preoccupation with myth and
language goes into some kind of crisis in the mid-'70s and leaves the field divided into
feminist SF on the one hand and a regressive resurgence of "fantasy" on the
other (see below).
At any rate Parrinder's three (or four) generic dominants are not so inconsistent with
this as they might at first seem (behind both are one of the oldest aesthetic typologies
in our cultural tradition: to teach, to move, to please), but the more decisive shift is
that from diachronic to synchronic-- that is, to a view willing to consider the
possibility of overlap, co-existence, sedimentation, unequal or
"non-synchronous" development within a single structure. Given the fresh
possibilities of analysis that such a perspective opens up, it is most appropriate indeed
that Parrinder should bring his book to a climax on a beautiful four-voice reading of
Lem's Solaris as the simultaneous embodiment of all four of Parrinder's generic
categories together (including the linguistic moment or moment of "parody").
This fine introduction is also planned as a teaching guide, and provides both teachers
and students alike with tactful and lucid thumbnail accounts of key concepts and
theoretical work in the field of narrative today (Propp, "intertextuality,"
Frye, etc.). I wish the excellent thoughts on the sociology of the genre had not been
quite so ghettoized or at least separated off from the rest; in particular I greatly
appreciated Parrinder's judicious distinction between approaches to the text as
"product," as "message," and as "document" (those obsessed
with such mental habits will no doubt go on to try to work these back into the generic
I have already observed that SF: Its Criticism and Teaching is not the book to
consult for historical information about the development of SF; but such interests will in
any case be more intelligent and productive after the study of a book like this. What is,
however, not unfair to say is that the absence of prehistorical or archeological
information about the genre (thank God we only briefly encounter Lucian, Cyrano, or even
Gernsback in these pages) takes its toll at the other end of the historical spectrum, in
the absence of any real interrogation about the current situation and the future of SF.
Two fateful essays in SF: A Critical Guide remedy this defect as well: Raymond
Williams's powerful account of the revival of the utopian impulse and of utopian
literature gives us a very significant historical marker indeed (particularly when we
grasp the degree to which such contemporary utopian visions of radically different social
relations have been profoundly interrelated with feminism), while Parrinder's study of the
relationship between SF and "science" itself fatefully links the resurgence of
fantasy to the crisis in the scientific world-view.
1. This "quest for the absolute" is however triumphantly
navigated in at least two of the essays in A Critical Guide: John Huntington's
wonderfully illuminating study of the "two-world system" in H.G. Wells and Marc
Angenot's remarkable analysis of "circulation" in Verne.
2. The problem is ultimately one of the ways in which the
relationship of general and particular, or of genus and species, is to be conceptualized.
For older representational thought (from Plato on) the concrete case or instance embodies
and materializes the abstract concept, for non-representational thinking, from pragmatism
to structuralism, abstract thought simply takes place elsewhere and does something other
than classify particulars (Richard Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature is the
most recent American reaffirmation of this anti-representational view; Althusserianism was
another, very different version of it).
3. It is also only fair to add (see below, on Solaris) that
Parrinder himself evidently feels some discomfort with this inconsistency, since he later
baptizes such "foregrounding of the linguistic" as parody.
4. Isaac Asimov, "Introduction," in Soviet Science
Fiction (NY: Collier. 1962), p. 11.
5. Locating this particular "break" should be an
excellent new parlor game Moorcock's assumption of the editorship of New Worlds in
1964 would be an obvious (but not very daring) choice.
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