- By Gregory Claeys - Thames & Hudson
- Searching for Utopia: The History of An Idea
When I saw this book displayed at Northtown Books, it reminded me that while the once promising field of future studies has waned, there's a curious new interest in utopia studies. In this era of dire predictions and popular fictions of apocalyptic futures it seems counterintuitive, but it is precisely in dark times that utopian visions flourish.
This volume is one in a series of illustrated histories, but the pictures are less impressive than the prose. Claeys debunks several persistent mischaracterizations about the literature of utopia, first and foremost, that "utopia" necessarily means a perfect world. Most utopian stories are about a "radically improved" society. Like the story that gave the idea its name -- Thomas More's "Utopia" -- they often respond to what we might call the tyranny of the 1 percent, and depict a more egalitarian society.
But utopian stories vastly predate More's 16th century work, and appear around the world, from indigenous cultures to Chinese, Hindu and Muslim civilizations. Many have religious roots and hark back to a mythical Golden Age. That changes with H.G. Wells and other modern writers who begin locating utopia in the future, now the dominant notion.
Utopia was often located on an island or a hidden place, like Shangri-la. In Thomas More's time, America was the hoped for place where utopia could happen, and utopian ideals drove many actual political and social experiments, from the founding documents of the United States to hundreds of communities organized on utopian lines in the 19th century.
Some utopias turned very dark, especially when linked with scientific pseudo-theories (eugenics for example) and technology. When attempted by murderous dictatorships, the catastrophic results poisoned the very idea of utopia. And so psychology as well as politics enters the utopian story. External change is not enough; self-knowledge becomes a utopian endeavor.
Claeys' survey of science fiction -- the chief generator of utopian fictions in modern times -- is cursory and not particularly insightful. It doesn't even mention the world's most widely known utopian saga of the past half century: Star Trek. This is a glaring omission, even for a Brit.
The eloquent final chapter examines the present, when the response to onrushing ecological disaster caused by our civilization is to shop harder. He concludes: "The old ideal worlds can lend us hope, inspiration, a sense of what to aspire for as well as what to avoid. But our ideal world must be very much our own creation, and a serious reckoning with the fate we face if we fail to create it."
Utopia, like hope, is a process of the present. It is a process of imagination and effort, motivated by basic human impulses, including love for future generations and our planet.