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

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