Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979

Martin Schäfer

The Rise and Fall of Antiutopia: Utopia, Gothic Romance, Dystopia

Of all the forms of what the Russians call "scientific fantasy," the antiutopia (or, more neutrally, dystopia) is the most problematic in its relation to utopian horizons. As its popular name indicates, the antiutopia has even been claimed by the enemies of all political hope. By tracing the literary and ideological antecedents of the form, I hope to show that the antiutopia was, at least originally, a continuation of utopianism, even though its ambiguity may have rendered it ineffective as such.1

1. Utopian Traveler and Antiutopian Outsider. Every dystopia contains its own implicit utopia (or eutopia, to be precise). This utopia "by contraries" may be in line with explicit utopian aspirations (e.g., Jack London's The Iron Heel), or it may be totally opposed to the entire utopian tradition. The antiutopia as defined in the three "classic" works of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell, however, is curiously ambivalent. Its implicit utopia is both dependent on the utopian tradition and essentially Romantic, individualistic, and anti-rational. Besides its obvious function as a "superweapon of anti-communism,"2 it is this romantic influence which has given the antiutopia its name and its reactionary reputation. Even to a "value-free" sociologist such as Schwonke, Romanticism and political conservatism seemed to be as natural a pairing as science and utopianism at the other end of the spectrum.3

There is no doubt about the extent of the romantic influence. The very atmosphere of the antiutopia is one of Gothic horror, only half-concealed in Brave New World by Huxley's irony, and devouring everything in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The effect of Romanticism can be seen most clearly in the evolution of the utopian traveler into the outsider-hero of the antiutopia. Traditionally, the traveler serves not only as the writer's witness and mouthpiece, but also as the spokesman for an imagined public. But, as C.S. Lewis once said, "To tell how odd things struck odd people is to have an oddity too much."4 The figure's multiple duties explain its typical facelessness and thus the psychological flatness of the utopian tale. Although the antiutopia usually lacks a traveler in the literal sense, this basic structure remains unchanged: the reader meets again a spokesman for his familiar values. Only this time the intellectual and emotional experience he is supposed to re-live runs the other way, not from sober doubt to utopian conviction but from utopian conformity to antiutopian non-conformism.

Simultaneously the narrative changes from static description to dynamic, conflict-ridden novel. The traditional utopian's main conflict lay outside the book, i.e. between the imagined and the real world. Now the novel itself is the arena, for the conflict is between the imagined world and its protagonist. Instead of a traveling Everyman whose individual traits do not matter, we get an individual with a relatively complex inner life, determined not by common sense but by contradictory impulses he does not himself understand. These impulses are what finally makes him an outsider in his own world, as Zamyatin shows in exemplary fashion. George Orwell may have called We's protagonist "a poor conventional creature, a sort of utopian Billy Brown of London Town,"5 but he was comparing the book with the modern "psychological" novel, not the utopia of some hundred years ago.6 If it is true that "utopia has no subconscious,"7 then the antiutopia is a utopia with the subconscious added.

But is it possible to talk of utopia if the hero is not meant to mediate between possibility and reality (or so-called "human nature") but to demonstrate the impossibility of utopia, i.e. the inevitability of conflict, pain, and misery? Does not the transition from an enlightened citizen-traveler to a tragic and isolated individual signify a political regression only clumsily disguised as an expression of a more complex view of "human nature"? The antiutopia at first seems to represent an unconditional acceptance of the very dichotomies which utopianism seeks to overcome: individual vs. society, heart vs. mind, freedom vs. happiness, culture vs. civilization.

Since the outsider as hero is a creature of Romanticism, we should ask about his original role within the Gothic romance, where he found his most striking representation. The literary connections between Gothic and antiutopia have been analyzed in detail; still, the conservative interpretation of Romanticism has usually gone unquestioned.8 Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel offers a different perspective. He sees the Gothic romance as a reaction to the sentimental bourgeois novel of the Clarissa kind. Both have a virtuous hero(ine) of bourgeois descent persecuted by a villainous nobleman (Don Juan!). But now the pursuit takes place in a fantastic, pseudo-medieval dreamscape instead of a realistic setting, while Don Juan assumes the even more threatening traits of a criminal, an inquisitor, or a Doctor Faustus. The writer's aim is supposedly the same as the realistic novelist's: to denounce the shadows of the past, to expose superstition and oppression to the light of the day. But when there is a happy ending, it seems routine after such indulgence in inquisitorial cruelties and supernatural horror. The villain rather than the innocent victim is the center of interest. The victim (not necessarily a girl any more, perhaps not even bourgeois but the descendant of an accursed noble family) begins to resemble the torturer and becomes tainted by some obscure guilt. Having lost total innocence, the victim becomes one of the Damned. The villain, on the other hand, is allowed some human features and may often be the victim of sinister forces beyond his control. Hero and villain are different versions of the same figure: the outsider in a hostile and incomprehensible world, the self-portrait of the Romantic artist.

This covertly implied identity of victim and villain can be traced from such examples as Dr. Frankenstein's inescapable entanglement with his creation, through Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor, whose own rebellion against the Church qualifies him for his office, to Huxley's Mustapha Mond, the World Controller who once searched for forbidden knowledge (including the reading of Shakespeare) or Orwell's O'Brien, the inquisitor who likes to play the revolutionary.9

One might reasonably ask whether the outsider in his very ambiguity is more than a self-glorification of the isolated bourgeois individual: whether such a retrospective literature full of pre-bourgeois specters does not portend the bourgeois intelligentsia's weakening and giving way, its hidden disavowal of the principles of the Enlightenment, its retreat from reality into a dream-world. That may be true; yet this interpretation does not do justice to the full symbolic import of the Gothic genre, especially after the bourgeoisie had come to power.

2. The Romantic Outsider: An Enlightener in Disguise? What makes the Gothic hero an outsider? According to Fiedler, the unspeakable deed which brought on his doom is incest, the crime against the father, i.e. the authorities of the past.

... the guilt which underlies the gothic and motivates its plots is the guilt of the revolutionary haunted by the (paternal) past which he has been striving to destroy; and the fear that possesses the gothic and motivates its tone is the fear that by destroying the old ego- ideals of church and state, the West has opened a way for the irruption of darkness: for insanity and the disintegration of the self. Through the pages of the gothic romance, the soul of Europe flees its own darker impulses. 10

But why should the revolutionary feel guilty? Why should he fear his own subconscious? In relation to the feudal past, there seems to be no escaping the diagnosis of psychological and political regression. The Marquis de Sade, however, an outsider if there ever was one, had quite contemporary reasons for proclaiming the Gothic romance to be simply the "modern novel."

Ce genre ... devenait le fruit indispensable des secousses révolutionnaires dont l'Europe entière se ressentait ... il n'y avait point d'individu qui n'eût plus éprouvé d'infortunes en quatre ou cinq ans que n'en pouvait peindre en un siècle le plus fameux romancier de la littérature: il fallait donc appeler l'enfer à son secours ... et trouver dans le pays des chimères, ce qu'on savait couramment en ne fouillant que l'histoire de l'homme en cet âge de fer. (This genre ... became the indispensable fruit of the revolutionary tremors which were felt by the whole of Europe ... there was not a single person who had not experienced more misfortunes in four or five years than could be painted in a century by the most famous novelist of literature: one had therefore to call upon hell as an expedient ... and find in the country of chimeras what was currently known simply from the history of mankind in this age of iron.)11

The fantastic scenes of the Gothic romance symbolize the writer's contemporary reality and its revolutionary origins. In this light the protagonists come to represent even more: the Inquisitor stands for contemporary political powers, the victim is the outcast of present society. They may wear the garb of the past, but the writer is not looking back: rather he is polemically equating his "enlightened" new age with the so-called Dark Ages.

This is where the figure of Doctor Faustus or Prometheus comes in. He was the lonely pioneer of the Enlightenment, the man who strives after forbidden knowledge. And knowledge is what binds together the Inquisitor and his victim, even more than that common guilt which they carry vicariously for an entire class: a knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes, of the historicity of a status quo that seems magically stable and closed to all change (just like the dystopias of our time). Fiedler thinks that one function of the Gothic romance was "to shock the bourgeoisie into an awareness of what a chamber of horrors its own smugly regarded world really was."12 The new horrors of bourgeois society were those of industrialization, of the unfolding class conflicts within the ex-Third Estate. Why did the victorious bourgeoisie have to regard its own revolutionary beginnings with distaste, why did it have to repress the memory of these beginnings? Because it did not want to be reminded of the principles it had once upheld, now that those principles could be turned against bourgeois domination. This explains the Janus character of the outsider; he is the son of the new age, and at the same time he is the personification of all that the new age would like to banish from its memory: the struggle against feudalism, the revolutionary principles, and the new class created by the application of the enlightened sciences — i.e., the industrial proletariat.

Fiedler does not make this final identification, at least not in connection with the European Gothic romance. But writing about the American Gothic, he identifies the dark anti-hero with the Black slave, for whom social ostracism and economic exploitation coincide so obviously, and who must be regarded as America's quintessential proletarian. Given these assumptions, it becomes clear what the fear of one's own inner impulses is about. Just as inner repression reflects repression in society, so the fear of rebellious impulses from the soul (an all-important theme for the antiutopians as well) reflects a bad conscience about the "social question." The fantastic-cum-medieval frame of the Gothic is, unfortunately, no adequate symbol for this true object of fear. The Gothic writer has to fill the gap with more or less fitting approximations: the paradoxical blending of vagabond and disinherited nobleman, artist and good-for-nothing, victim and henchman is really meant to evoke the proletarian as the ultimate outsider, seen as yet without clarity.

The greatest success in this direction was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, possibly the first Gothic romance to escape, in a certain measure, medieval imagery in favor of a modern, "scientific" kind of fantasy. Frankenstein, the "modern Prometheus" (as the subtitle calls him), is a scientist, a child of the Enlightenment, who loses control over his creation just like Doctor Faustus of old. This fable has usually been read as just another warning against the "machine-age"; but the anti-technological tendency, undoubtedly present, is undermined by the subtle characterization of Frankenstein's artificial man. This creature is originally good-natured and kind in the Rousseauist sense. Only when society refuses to regard it as human according to the enlightened principles which led to its creation, only then does it turn into a spiteful and violent monster. It has often been remarked that Mary Shelley uses the "alien" perspective of the creature for social criticism (a utopian method of the purest water); even more importantly, the original benevolence of the purported monster means that science cannot be bad in itself. It is only the scientist refusing to follow his principles who unleashes the disaster. These inferences, however, are not explored. Instead, the author leaves the cause of the tragic sequence of events open: was it Frankenstein's "blasphemous" spirit of inquiry (as would be the case in a traditional horror story), or was it his refusal to let his creature participate in the human life to which he had awakened it? The latter view is encouraged by the internal logic of the story, at least. But even in this ambiguous form the real warning is unmistakable. In the Gothic imagery of the Communist Manifesto: "A specter is haunting Europe."

The explicit political views of Gothic writers do not contradict this. Sade's radicalism is well-known; and Mary Shelley, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Woolstonecraft, was acquainted with the most progressive ideas of her time and cannot be dismissed simply as a "defender of traditional ideologies."13 Frankenstein is, among other things, a discussion of political ideas, not least those of Mary's husband and their common friend Byron. To quote Fiedler again:

Most gothicists were not only avant-garde in their literary aspirations but radical in their politics; they were, that is to say, anti-aristocratic, anti-Catholic, and anti-nostalgic... Beneath the spectacular events of the tale of terror ... rings the cry: 'Ecrasez l'infâme!'14

Though the authors' fascination with horror might have run deeper than their political commitment, there is behind this fascination a presentment of another, as yet undefined, horror. The lack of clarity leads to confusion with, and misuse by, later conservative, anti-scientific ideologies; this goes especially for the demonization of technology. Why, indeed, did these Romantics express themselves so misleadingly?

This is the problem with all politically progressive Romantics. Hoping, as they did, for freedom, democracy, and social justice, why did they not use the language of reason? We have to consider the spiritual and political climate in those countries where the bourgeoisie had actually come to power. This victory unleashed a very real "Dialectic of Enlightenment," to use Adorno's and Horkheimer's celebrated phrase. A total fulfillment of the promises of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" must needs have endangered the new masters. Thus these ideals were converted into an ideology for Sunday use, and the Enlightenment's belief in reason degenerated into simplistic rationalism.

To the rebellious children of the new masters, the artists and writers of the early 19th century, it seemed as though opposition against this rationalism were possible only in the name of unreason, as though the analytic method of the bourgeois novel (and also of traditional utopia) were a tool of domination to be replaced by a language of fantasy and the obscure.15 The "Gothic" Romantics' influence on the antiutopians therefore cannot be dismissed as a conservative one — on the contrary, it carries a truly utopian spirit.

3. Romanticism in Wells and the Antiutopians. The hidden, upside-down utopianism of the Gothicists, which was lost in the later-day horror fantasies, comes into full force in the early "scientific romances" of H. G. Wells, the real cornerstones of all post-Wellsian SF. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, Wells consciously takes up Frankenstein's theme of artificial intelligence (although, this time, in animals). Interestingly enough, he combines the traditional utopian motifs of the island and the traveler (Prendick) with a romantic outsider figure (Montgomery) and a Gothic villain (Dr. Moreau). Earlier, in The Time Machine, Wells has pursued what Brian Aldiss has called "the British obsession"16 with subterranean races, an obvious Gothic allegory of Disraeli's "two nations." Wells' contribution to SF was not so much the introduction of science into utopia, as has been claimed, but the use of Gothic imagery for openly utopian ends.

This is not at all the undermining of utopia by reactionary Romanticism (Nagl to the contrary);17 for what Wells had in mind was progressive social criticism. As Kagarlitski notes, "Wells, with all the ardour of youth, contended that a materialistic civilization, developing within the framework of an unjust society, would lead to the destruction of mankind." And it is precisely the controversial imagery that gives his criticism its cutting edge. What Sade had said about the Gothic romance is recalled by Kagarlitski's argument at this point: "In a period of transition — and the world was experiencing precisely such a period — a situation frequently does not lend itself to description so much as to images which do not coincide with the real, images containing in themselves something greater than reality."18 The gloom and catastrophism of the young Wells are meant to disrupt Victorian cosiness, to unmask a society that can no longer be grasped merely by an enlightened rationalism (such as Verne continued to propound) because that society had made it into its ideology.

However, Wells never confused shallow Victorian optimism with the truly rational spirit of the enlightenment, or the rationalized exploitation of capitalism with the dream of a reasonable world — as the antiutopians after him were in danger of doing. His criticism always remained criticism of the here-and-now and its possible prolongations; he never perversely attacked utopian hope as a scapegoat. Ironically, it was in trying to establish a rational utopianism complementary to (and on the level of) his earlier criticism that Wells fell back into mechanistic ideas about progress. In his later utopias he often ignored the very contradictions he had raised in the early "scientific romances." Without attaining the persuasive force of the earlier utopians (who were not yet confronted with these contradictions), he fell short of his own initial standards, not just as a writer but as a social critic. He thus became to the following generation the personification of what he had set out to fight: naive, technocratic scientism.

The antiutopians responded to this later Wells, often without being conscious of their affinity to the young iconoclast he had once been. Once again, utopian hope for a rational society had to take on an irrational form. Since technological and social progress had been confused, since reason had seemingly become the instrument of institutionalized unreason, the antiutopians had to speak up for true reason by way of speaking up for irrational things, above all in their common metaphor of repressed (or falsely liberated) sexuality. In their turn, they risked being applauded by conservatives, so eager to lean on the idea of an unchangeable "human nature." On the other hand, they were particularly successful in their criticism of the psychological consequences of perverted rationalism. Here they meet with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse), which is also primarily concerned with the non-economic aspects of pseudo-rational society.

But the social criticism of the antiutopians had taken a dangerous turn into the purely psychological. They no longer concerned themselves with the prerequisites of social justice but with those of psychic wholeness for the individual — as though all material problems were solved already! The social model of antiutopia is a materially perfect (or at least perfectly stable) but inhuman State of "reason." To an extent, this model contains traits of the here-and-now; but at the same time, it stumbles into the false opposition of freedom vs. happiness. For if instrumentalized reason (or rationalized unreason) is capable of producing a "bad" material perfection, then one's own implicit counter-utopia must logically be focused on the free and sane individual rather than on — and if necessary at the expense of — material happiness and social justice. Well-meant efforts to bring the two together (e.g., Huxley's Island) fail to convince, because they cannot escape the inexorable logic of purely technological progress.

Since the basic assumption of the antiutopia is ideologically tainted, its further extrapolations can never be taken seriously. The seemingly relevant discussion over the contrasting models of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four (whether there can be a "totalitarianism" without terror, repression without violence, as Huxley asserts) is really a sham, for Orwell insists on the inevitability of physical cruelty only because a society of the Brave New World type does not strike him as sufficiently motivated — a thought that stems again from the conviction that material happiness and "human nature" are not compatible, not from any insight into the social origins of violence.19 Still it is instructive to note that Orwell's model, more plausible in Cold War times, has lost much of its appeal now that the concept of "totalitarianism" has been turned against the "Free World" by critics like Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and others.

In this way, the antiutopia can once more be read as that disinterested indictment of all industrial societies, East and West, that it was meant to be. But while Huxley's model seems more realistic than Orwell's when seen in context of Marcuse's concept of "repressive tolerance," the critical effectiveness of every antiutopia must find its limits when Marcuse's "one-dimensional world" is itself perceived as a kind of antiutopia: i.e., not as a comprehensive analysis of the modern world, but as a clearly understood section of it unconsciously made out to be the whole.20 The impression of an inescapable nightmare where all contradictions are smothered and all opponents are bought off by an unending flow of consumer goods could only come out of the affluent countries of Western Europe and North America, and even there such illusions are fading. So it is to be hoped that, as Hillegas predicted,21 the pendulum is swinging back from antiutopia (the fear of "the future as nightmare") towards utopia and the active preparation of the future. Since the flood of ever more imitative antiutopias can only serve the needs of those interested in despair and resignation, we must look to the other streams within scientific fantasy, traditional SF among them, to produce the utopian writings we so desperately need.


1. The following essay is a revised version of chapter five from my 1975 Basel Ph.D. dissertation in political philosophy, Science Fiction als Ideologiekritik?: Uropische Spuren in der amerikanischen Science Fiction-Literatur 1940-1955 (Science-Fiction as a Critique of Ideology? Utopian Traces in American SF 1940-1955), published Stuttgart: Metzler 1977 (Amerikastudien/American Studies, vol. 48). The "respectable" literary antiutopia was there considered as an example of that "scientific fantasy" of which popular SF is the most conspicuous sub-genre. I discussed there at greater length whether such writings could still be called utopian in any legitimate (i.e. political) sense.

2. Isaac Deutscher, "1984 — The Mysticism of Cruelty" (1954), in Irving Howe, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four: Text, Sources, Criticism (New York, 1963), pp. 196-203.

3. Martin Schwonke, Vom Staatsroman zur Science Fiction (Stuttgart, 1957), pp. 125ff.

4. C. S. Lewis, "On Science Fiction, "Of Other Worlds (London, 1966), p. 65. Cf. also Richard Gerber, Utopian Fantasy (London, 1955), in particular part 4. One would only too gladly agree with Scott Sanders ("Invisible Men and Women," SFS 11: 14-15) that there is an even better excuse for the lack of character in SF, namely that the "disappearance of character" is one of its themes. But for that, alas, the authors would have to be aware of their choice, and capable of doing otherwise, which does not always seem to be the case.

5. "Freedom and Happiness," The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London, 1968), 4:72-75.

6. After all, Isaac Deutscher (see note 2 above) describes Orwell's Winston as just such a "Billy Brown"; nevertheless, the state of Winston's soul plays a much larger part than that of the utopian traveler.

7. Raymond Ruyer, L'Utopie et les utopies (Paris, 1950). There is, of course, a subtle polemical undertone to this statement.

8. Cf., e.g., Hans Ulrich Seeber, Wandlungen in der Form der literarischen Utopie (Göppingen, 1970). Seeber reads the antiutopia simply as satire, not as a hidden utopia; accordingly, he agrees with the conservative view of Romanticism.

9. Cf. T.R. Fyvel, "A Writer's Life," in Howe, ed., pp. 239-48 (see note 2) on the painful personal aspects which stem from Orwell's service in the British colonial police 1922-27, and which must have made him recognize himself both in Winston Smith and in O'Brien.

10. Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York, 1969), p. 115. All quotes from Fiedler refer to this printing of his "new, revised edition" of 1966, which differs in some particulars from the first edition of 1960.

11. Cited in Mario Praz, "Introductory Essay," Three Gothic Novels, ed. Peter Fairclough (Harmondsworth, 1968), p. 14; English trans. mine.

12. Fiedler (see note 10), p. 122.

13. Manfred Nagl, Science Fiction in Deutschland (Tübingen, 1972), p. 45.

14. Fiedler (see note 10), p. 124.

15. Fiedler (see note 10), p. 122, calls the Gothicists a prototype for all "bourgeois-baiting movements" from Dada to Pop Art. In this, as in other things, he follows Gershon Legman (without going half as far in his criticism). Legman's vitriolic piece on Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and SF, can be found in his The Horn Book (London, 1970), pp. 313ff.

16. Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree (London, 1973), p. 116, also pp. 108-109, n.4. An earlier example would be Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race (1871), an important link between Gothic and antiutopia — cf. Seeber (see note 8), pp. 207ff.

17. Nagl (see note 13), p. 99.

18. Julius Kagarlitski, "Realism and Fantasy," in Thomas D. Clareson, ed., SF: The Other Side of Realism (Bowling Green OH, 1971), pp. 32 and 36.

19. Cf. Orwell's "Freedom and Happiness" (see note 5); also his "Wells, Hitler and the World State," Collected Essays, pp. 139-45, and "Prophecies of Fascism," ibid., pp. 30-33; also Deutscher (see note 2).

20. For pertinent criticism of Critical Theory, see Wolfgang Fritz Haug, "Das Ganze und das ganz Andere," in Jürgen Habermas, ed., Antworten auf Herbert Marcuse (Frankfurt, 1968); also, as applied to antiutopia, in Frank Rainer Scheck, "Augenschein und Zukunft: Die antiutopische Reaktion," in Eike Barmeyer, ed., Science Fiction (München, 1972).

21. Mark Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare (New York, 1967), p. 178.



Of all the forms of what the Russians call "scientific fantasy," the antiutopia (or, more neutrally, dystopia) is the most problematic in its relation to utopian horizons. By tracing the literary and ideological antecedents of the form--and by examining, in particular, the strong influence of European Gothic romance on the works of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell--I hope to show that the antiutopia was, at least originally, a continuation of utopianism, even though its intrinsic ambiguity may have rendered it ineffective as such.

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