The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 19 August 2016

News from Nowhere

or An Epoch of Rest

being some chapters from "A Utopian Romance"

by William Morris

Who cleans the toilets in Utopia? That may seem like an absurd question, but it is pertinent, and encapsulates many of the problems with utopian and communal experiments based in ideals of freedom, equality, and cooperation. Nobody really wants to clean the toilets, pick up the garbage, mine the minerals, manage the sewage, or tend to the thousand necessary tasks of a civilized community, or nation. That's why we pay people to do these jobs. But in a "perfect" communist society, one in which money is eliminated, and in which everyone shares equally in the joy of work and the fruits of communal labor, how do you overcome human nature? How do you instill the joy of all types of work. How do the dishes get washed? Ultimately, out on the commune, you make up some rules, that dreaded chore wheel. Everyone eventually shares in the odious tasks so everyone can enjoy the pleasurable ones. On the grand scale of nations, the chore wheel is made up of laws, responsibilities, systems of payment. But, can we change? Can we overcome the human nature that has so often disrupted Utopian experiments? Can we live in an ideal community in which all share equally in all that is good, bad, beautiful and ugly in making a society work? We'd like to think so, and there is no shortage of stories in which people have tried to describe that ideal, usually far into the future. Weirdly, the perfect happy prediction usually sounds the least plausible.

In this novel, which sounds a lot like many others of the genre, our narrator is magically transported in time, falling asleep in London at the end of the 19th century, and awakening again two centuries later, after a great upheaval that resulted in a society of perfect peace, happiness, free love, greater gender equality and communal effort carried out by beautiful smiling citizens. Crime itself is virtually unknown, and what crime occurs is punished purely out of a kind of voluntary shame, the theory behind which is the elimination of economic crime. It's all a bit of a stretch. Meanwhile, physical relics of the past have been wiped away or transformed. The houses of Parliament have been turned into a dung storage facility. Cast iron architecture (much admired today but symbolic of industrial dominance in 1890) has been replaced by structures of ornate wood and stone. Houses are modest and beautifully crafted. A vision of pastoral medieval scale, a fantasy of a cooperative communal past, has replaced the industrial nightmare as forseen in Dickensian London. Other visionaries have gone down this route, before and since. In this case, William Morris, who was a theorist and craftsman, responds to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward with a vision of a society transformed from the ground up, whereas Bellamy saw more of a command and control Utopia. Indeed, Morris's vision is ideal in the extreme, a fantasy of peace and cooperation. The reader can also easily see in these pages a blueprint for the communal experiments of the 1960s counterculture. Morris's vision is that prescient, or served that much as a model.

At the same time, however, the book presages the Russian communist revolution, still two decades in the future at the time of this writing. Morris, like many of his associates and contempraries, reacted to the Gilded Age Industrial Revolution, one that made many extremely wealthy, and millions subject to grueling working conditions. He forsaw a revolution in England that starts with demands for shorter work weeks and a minumum wage, and ends with a society without government or laws. Along the way, he touches on the growth of a middle class and a critique of consumerism. Some of what he envisioned more than a century ago, at least in a material sense, has come to pass, with increasing wealth, greater worker rights, and a restoration of many of the rural towns and villages that were collapsing in his time. At this late date, the medieval Cotswald-style village is a place to which people aspire to retire. Even the great 20th century urban historian Lewis Mumford idolized the medieval village. But, we still need the toilets cleaned. The minerals still need to be mined.

So, our hero, guide and narrator takes us to the shores of the Thames in this fantastical and nearly perfect future. He shows us around the transformed landscape. He introduces us to an elderly man living in the remnants of the British Museum, who can recount the upheavals that happened in the meantime. We go on a riverboat journey up the Thames, like a Utopian Three Men in a Boat, to engage in the hay-making season. Sheaves of hay are harvested by handsome young men and women dressed in ornately embroidered hand-made clothing, nothing like the decrepit farmworkers our hero recalls from his day and age. Everyone here is smiling and singing in the joy of communal work. It does sound a bit like a chapter from a Soviet workers manual. From a literary point of view, the book fits into a subgenre of Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land narratives, thus making it polemical rather than plot driven. But it is a light read, curious in its details, and notable for the context from which it springs.

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See also: [Utopia by Thomas More] [Designing Utopia by Michael H. Lang] [Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy]