17 November 2016

Review: The Spectre of Utopia by Matthew Beaumont

Borrowed from the library
Read August 2013
The Spectre of Utopia: Utopian and Science Fictions at the Fin de Siècle
by Matthew Beaumont

Beaumont's thesis is that utopias aren't really imagined as real places, either in time or space, but they're just ghosts of the present. In fact, utopias can only be good if they are are imagined-- otherwise they become malignant. He sees both an inability to enact real change (12) and a collective conviction of imminent change (29) that gives birth to these narratives of the future where everything has already changed. It's impossible for us to imagine what comes between 1887 and 2000 in the subtitle of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, for example, but that's where the real action of the novel is. Much of his book is about Bellamy's novel, which makes sense given how influential it was, but it's almost too much; sometimes I wanted him to broaden his outward a bit more. But he does touch on 1890s feminist utopianism, Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (he says Wilde has just dressed up capitalist progressive platitudes in wittier language), and H. G. Wells (specifically The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and When the Sleeper Wakes), and presents provocative readings of them.

Some of the book reminded me about Peter Paik's excellent From Utopia to Apocalypse: we find it impossible to really imagine ourselves doing what needs to be done to change things. Either we skip over the intervening time, or we imagine a vague "progress" will handle it for us, or we let a natural disaster do the work for us. A book to come back to, and a strong development of strands begun in Beaumont's Utopia Ltd., even though I read them the wrong way round!

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