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


  1. In the context of Jack Williamson and H.G. Wells, it is useful to remember that Williamson's doctorial thesis was on Wells. Its title was "H.G. Wells, Critic of Progress".

    1. Hi, Carrington,

      I have purchased that book and it's on its way to me. I'll let you know what I find out. Thanks for writing.