Friday, January 8, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Four

One of the problems with stories of Utopia and Dystopia is that their authors often spend so much time describing their imaginary societies that they forget to tell a story. When I was in high school, I read Edward Bellamy's utopian novel Looking Backward: 2000-1887. I don't remember very much about it except that I didn't think it was very interesting--a lot of description and no action. Nearly six years ago, I read the yin to Bellamy's yang in the form of The Republic of the Future by Anna Bowman Dodd. I found her book more interesting but only in an intellectual or political-historical way. Like Looking Backward, it doesn't really tell a story. Even George Orwell's 1984, which is a more conventional kind of novel, includes long passages describing the nightmarish society of the future, long quotes from a fictitious book by the equally fictitious Emmanuel Goldstein, and even a closing essay by Orwell on Newspeak, the language of the future (which unfortunately approaches our present). It's almost like the very dark flip side of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, a kind of anthropological or ethnological examination of a carefully constructed society, complete with a discussion of linguistics.

For readers of genre fiction, part of the problem with stories of Utopia and Dystopia is that they often serve as vehicles for satire or philosophical speculation rather than for purposes of storytelling. That's one argument against classifying utopian and dystopian stories as science fiction and fantasy. I don't know about you, but I don't think 1984 or Brave New World or Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, sits very easily in either of these categories. Even We, with its rocketship and its glassed-in towers and its curative surgical operation, is more satirical than it is science-fictional. In other words, it's not meant merely to entertain. On the other hand, if a writer of science fiction or fantasy can fit Utopia/Dystopia into a larger bit of storytelling, it can work and genre readers might not really object. For example, screenwriter and producer Dave Filoni recently set an episode of The Mandalorian on a brilliantly imagined dystopian planet. Outside the city walls on Corvus is a burned-out hellscape, like a smoking battlefield from the Great War. Inside is a dim, gray, concrete nightmare, the place where the proles and the peasants live and are oppressed and tortured by their overlords. At the core of the city, behind yet more walls, is the pleasant, green garden of its tyrant, who is eventually, thankfully, brought down. This is one of my favorite episodes of the series, not only for its visuals and overall aesthetic but also because it resonates in the real world in which we today find ourselves, one in which our rulers live in comfort and splendor while we are punished simply for wanting to live our lives in peace and freedom. I don't think Mr. Filoni intended it, but "The Jedi," otherwise a bit of entertainment, also acts as a kind of commentary on our current situation--as a bitter satire and well within the dystopian tradition.

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It seems to me that Utopia and Dystopia each has its own related and more popular subgenre. It probably had to be that way if Utopia and Dystopia, which are at their hearts philosophical and high-literary forms, were going to make their way into popular fiction. For Utopia, the chief subgenre is the Lost Worlds story. I'll let The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, edited by John Clute and Peter Nicholls (update, 1995) , describe it:

This rubric covers lost races, lost cities, lost lands: all the enclaves of mystery in a rapidly shrinking world that featured so largely in the sf of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This subgenre was obviously a successor to the fantastic voyages [q.v.] of the 18th century and earlier, but there are important distinctions to be drawn. The earlier tales had belonged to a world which was geographically "open" [. . . .]. The lost-world story, however, belonged to a cartographically "closed" world [. . .]. (pp. 734-735)

(The Internet Speculative Fiction Database uses the tag "lost race.")

Not all Lost Worlds stories are utopian. I would guess that most aren't. King Solomon's Mines by H. Ride Haggard (1885), another novel I read--and loved--as a teenager, is a perfect example of that. (Unlike Looking Backward, a novel of about the same vintage, it actually tells a story, and an exciting one at that.) But if the Garden of Eden is Utopia, then it is surely lost. Like the tyrant's garden in "The Jedi," it is closed to us, secreted forever behind unbreachable walls (but only because we wanted it that way). Plato's ideal city-state is also lost, and his opposing Atlantis has disappeared forever under the waves. Subsequently unreachable, both have proved fertile ground in which to set stories of Utopia and Lost Worlds. (What else is Looking Backward but a description of an ideal republic?) Thomas More's Utopia, which could exist as a real place only in a "geographically 'open'" world, disappeared in a puff of smoke once the whole surface of the earth was mapped. It was only as the geographic world--and possibility--was closing that the Lost Worlds story reached its heyday. Maybe we realized what was really being lost and wanted to snatch some of the romance and adventure and pleasure from it before it was gone forever. In any case, the world closed. Yes, there were twentieth-century stories of this kind set in Africa (Thun'da by Gardner Fox and Frank Frazetta), the Amazon (The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle), Antarctica (Dian of the Lost Land by Edison Marshall), the South Seas (King Kong), the North Polar region (Island at the Top of the World by Ian Cameron), and even inside of a Hollow Earth (The Warlord by Mike Grell). But as the nineteenth century slid into the twentieth, stories of Utopia and Lost Worlds--if they were to be more plausible--would have to be set either in Time, as in Looking Backward (published at about the same time that the American frontier closed), or in Space . . .

And that's where Edgar Rice Burroughs came in.

To be continued . . . 

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1828) by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), an American artist of the Hudson River School. In his painting, Cole emphasized landscape; the figures here are diminished, dwarfed by Creation, disgraced and humiliated by their actions. On the right is Paradise--the only Utopia possible on Earth, possible precisely because it was created by God. Note that it is surrounded by a high wall of seemingly impassable mountains: the lost valley ringed by impassable mountains became a theme in the Lost Worlds subgenre of fantasy and science fiction. Two quick examples: the comic-book version of Cave Girl by Gardner F. Fox and Bob Powell, and The Last Valley, a not-quite-fantasy film from 1971. And on the left? What we might call a dystopian landscape for a still rural or agrarian America. Mass living--urban, industrialized living--which makes Dystopia plausible, had not yet set in when Cole executed his painting. But replace the dead trees and craggy cliffs with a gray and decrepit cityscape and the smoke and fire of the erupting volcano with the spew and furnace of some great manufactory--like the orc-plant in the Lord of the Rings--and you would have a scene surely familiar to readers of twenty-first century dystopian fiction.*

*And the image of the erupting volcano should be familiar to some because of its use by one of the more totalitarian and dystopian of the religions of science fiction.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Utopia & Dystopia in Weird Tales-Part Three

Dystopia Before Utopia

Today, Year 2021 said to 2020, "Anything you can do, I can do better." I'm a forester and like being in the woods, but I'll be as glad as anybody finally to be out of the wilderness we're in right now. I'm not sure we're going to make it anytime soon.

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I left off on December 17 with part two of this series on Utopia and Dystopia in Weird Tales. I began part one by writing that Utopia came before Dystopia. Then I finished reading Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow (1974), edited by Reginald Bretnor, and found another view of things. It's an uneven book. Some of its essays are not especially interesting. Others are excellent. Jack Williamson's entry, entitled "Science Fiction, Teaching, and Criticism," comes last. I read it during the week of Christmas. Here is a long and pertinent quote, with emphasis added:

Taking an even longer perspective, we might suggest that the culture of science is simply a current phase of the utopian tradition that begins, perhaps, with Plato's Republic--the idea that reasonable men can create an ideal society here on earth. The tradition is Greek: it reflects the self-confidence of Homer's Odysseus. The anti-utopia tradition appears even older. Its roots are Egyptian and Hebraic, I think; its mythic anti-hero is Adam. Homer's symbol for reason is the glorious Athena, the comrade and helper of epic man. The Hebrew symbol is the snake, the betrayer. In the pattern of the culture that built the stone pyramids, the Hebrew tradition makes society dominant, visiting divine wrath on any impious individual who tries to disturb it. The Greek tradition allows more individual freedom, a more hopeful view of change. H.G. Wells, I think, was torn between those two traditions, with the Hebraic dominant in his great early fiction and the Greek in his later campaign for a modern utopia. (pp. 326-327) (1)


[. . .] I think it does make some sort of sense to say that Asimov and Clarke and Heinlein and a good many others are spokesmen for the Greek tradition in those optimistic moments when they choose to show men solving problems to make things better. I think it makes sense to call the New Wave writers [then in vogue] the sons of Adam--along with all the earlier anti-utopians who show men tripping over his own intelligence, and even the producers of the science-fiction horror films in which arrogant scientists came to grief for seeking "what man was not meant to know." (p. 327)

So Jack Williamson (1908-2006), who was in a position to know a little more about these things than I, suggested in his essay that the dystopian tradition preceded the utopian. That makes sense in that Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is the story of the fall of man: the mind that imagines Dystopia understands that we are indeed fallen, that we and all of the things that we make are imperfect and, perhaps more importantly, imperfectible. (The spellchecker in Blogger doesn't like that word. Maybe the makers of this platform are strict utopians and brook nothing that might go against their visions of the eschaton.) I don't know much about Ancient Egypt, but it seems to me that the Egyptian-Hebraic tradition of which Williamson wrote would have passed easily enough into Christianity. But then Christian-European civilization had its Ancient Greek components as well.

It's interesting that Jack Williamson classed one tradition as Egyptian-Hebraic and its opposite as classically Greek. That would suggest that the first is older, more Eastern or Asiatic, more conservative in the sense of looking backward--there's that phrase again--as well as in emphasizing the bonds among men and women living together as a society, bonds that stretch forward and backward through time. The emphasis, too, would seem to be on a universe made and governed by G_d (or gods in the case of the Egyptians). (2)

The second tradition, the utopian, is correspondingly younger, more Western or European, more progressive, more individualistic. It is also more humanistic. In the first, there would appear to be humility, in the second, pride or even hubris. If we continue these lines into the modern world, its art, and its literature, the first might lend itself to the more conservative genres of fantasy, romance, weird fiction, and horror--Dystopia, too, of course, which is its own kind of horror story. The second would lead into science fiction and stories of Utopia.

Even if the dystopian tradition preceded the utopian, that's not the same as saying that Dystopia as a type of story came first. It's more accurate to say that an awareness of the fallen nature of man preceded the idea that man and his society are perfectible and that progress is not only possible but inevitable. In actuality, the utopian story seems to have come first, originating in the humanistic Greece of antiquity but not named or formalized until the humanistic England of the Renaissance. We should remember that our word Dystopia is kind of a back-formation of Thomas More's original Utopia.

Anyway, when Weird Tales first went to print in March 1923, utopian stories had already been around for centuries. Dystopia was a much younger genre or sub-genre, but it could not have been unknown, to the well-read at least, and even if there were those unfamiliar with it in formal terms, all would have known of the Hebraic tradition, as Jack Williamson called it, from their reading of the Bible; thereby, all should have understood that the perfect society is not attainable and that even if it were so, such a society could only prove nightmarish. Socialist, statist, totalitarian regimes were just then forming in Italy and the soon-to-be U.S.S.R., but their advent had already been envisioned by authors of Dystopia, including Anna Bowman Dodd in 1887, Jack London in 1908, and Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921. If we are to form a hypothesis from all of this, we might predict that Dystopia is more likely than Utopia to have been in the pages of "The Unique Magazine." But then there's a little something we haven't considered yet.

To be continued . . .


(1) I have noticed the seeming conflict in H.G. Wells. Sometimes, as in The Time Machine (1895), he seems to have been aware of the fallen nature of man and skeptical of the idea of progress. Other times, as in his screenplay for Things to Come (1936), he showed a breathtaking unawareness of human nature and human history and an almost embarrassing--and blind--faith in reason and the idea of progress. But we should remember that Wells was a man just like any other and full of dualities.

(2) Remember, in Zamyatin's novel, We--a conformist and obedient society--is from God, while I--the rebellious individual--is from the devil.

Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, a discursive symposium edited by Reginald Bretnor (1911-1992) and published in 1974. The cover design is the work of James Walters.

Revised on January 7, 2021.

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley