Utopian Literature and Science
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Utopian Literature and Science

From the Scientific Revolution to Brave New World and Beyond

Patrick Parrinder

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Utopian Literature and Science

From the Scientific Revolution to Brave New World and Beyond

Patrick Parrinder

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Scientific progress is usually seen as a precondition of modern utopias, but science and utopia are frequently at odds. Ranging from Galileo's observations with the telescope to current ideas of the post-human and the human-animal boundary, this study brings a fresh perspective to the paradoxes of utopian thinking since Plato.

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The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.
Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis (1627)1
Utopia, the search for the good society, or at least a much improved one; and science, the pursuit of knowledge, both as an end in itself and for the betterment of human life. Surely the two should go together? And so they have done, according to many utopian scholars, from the seventeenth-century scientific revolution onwards. For Gregory Claeys, utopia ‘has come increasingly to rely on science, to the extent that the two are inextricably intertwined and scientific progress has emerged as the quintessential ideology of modernity’.2 M.I. Finley observes that ancient and early modern utopias took scarcity for granted and therefore had to stress ‘simplicity, the curbing of wants, asceticism, and a static society’; but then came ‘the release of new sources of energy and with it a flood of technological Utopian imagination’.3
And for Krishan Kumar, ‘democracy and science [have been] the implicit premises of the modern utopia’ ever since the time of Bacon. For theorists of progress, Kumar adds, ‘the motor of progress was science. Science … would be the source of the material abundance that would be the basis of the free and equal society of the future’. But Kumar also observes that the marriage of utopia and science is problematic, since ‘Pure science knows no end. It has no point of rest or stability. It constantly undermines existing beliefs and practices’.4 Scientific progress is necessary to human improvement, yet its place remains questionable within any imagined utopia.
For Kumar, the classic mismatch of science and utopia occurs in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), with its satire on the social effects of various advanced technologies, including, crucially, the use of genetic engineering to produce a disciplined, efficient and largely docile workforce. Huxley’s twenty-sixth-century World Controller, Mustapha Mond, admits that further scientific experimentation has to be strictly controlled since ‘Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive; even science must sometimes be treated as a possible enemy.’5 It should be noted that Mond puts science in the same category as other, more obvious threats to utopia, and that he is addressing two future citizens on whom he is about to pronounce sentences of banishment: Helmholtz Watson, a poet, and Bernard Marx, an educational psychologist. The expulsion of the poets from utopia goes back to Plato’s Republic, but, according to Kumar, Huxley’s ‘perception of the threat of science’ is an essentially modern phenomenon.6 Nevertheless, a close reading of The New Atlantis shows that Francis Bacon – the acknowledged pioneer of the scientific utopia – was already aware of science as a potentially destabilising force.
The scientific priesthood in The New Atlantis are congregated in Salomon’s House, a college that is significantly set apart from the main city of Bacon’s utopia.7 However, their isolation and autonomy carry with them a heavy responsibility. Salomon’s House is dedicated to the pursuit of free intellectual inquiry, but this does not mean that the results are to be freely published. Instead, the scientists hold secret meetings to decide which of their new discoveries should be made widely known, which must be suppressed, and which may be disclosed to the state authorities but not to the people. Nor was The New Atlantis by any means the first utopia to insist on the necessity of keeping certain kinds of knowledge secret, even though the transparency of the earlier utopias – their repression of individual privacy – has often been remarked on.8 As will be seen in Chapter 5, state secrecy with regard to eugenic practices (a domain of knowledge that invariably belongs to ‘science’ broadly defined) can be traced back to Plato’s Republic.9
Why is it problematic that, in both classical and modern utopias, some kinds of knowledge must remain secret? Post-Baconian utopias, according to Kumar, tend to embody the principles of democracy as well as science; and state secrecy limits the extent of democracy. Yet the classical utopian thinkers from Plato to More and Campanella had no interest in democracy, nor is it necessarily the overriding feature of any modern utopia. Some, such as H.G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905), consist of a caste society with a non-hereditary governing elite, while others, like William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), rely on a form of direct or participatory democracy based on the wholesale abolition of government and democratic institutions.10 A deeper objection to the idea of state secrecy in utopia is that the enforcement of secrecy at any social level entails moral compromise and the calculation of political expediency. In a perfect world, purists would argue, we would not need to keep anything secret. If this is admitted, we need to ask whether our imaginary utopias are, or are meant to be, ‘perfect’ societies.
Although it may strike some readers as tautological, current utopian scholars debate this question anxiously. For Kumar, on the one hand, the fact that scientific inquiry ‘has no point of rest or stability’ brings it into necessary conflict with utopia, which, ‘however open ended it aspires to be, must in principle be bounded. It is the perfect society and its organization is an embodiment of perfection’.11 For this reason, the classical utopias of More and Campanella depend, according to Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor, on the ‘prior removal … of all sources of social disruption and all temptations to disobedience’.12 However, others have argued that this is a misreading even of the classical utopias, whose social ideal is not necessarily one of perfection. For Lyman Tower Sargent, ‘Very few actual utopias make any pretence to perfection’, while for Claeys, perfection is ‘essentially a theological concept, which, while historically linked to utopianism, defines a state that is impossible for mortals to attain in this life’.13 If Claeys and Sargent are right, the idea of utopia as the perfect society is a popular misconception that, unfortunately, is still widely shared. Much more prevalent, however, is the distinction (which Elisabeth Hansot defends in detail in her 1974 study Perfection and Progess) between the classical utopia of static perfection and the ‘modern’ utopia characterised by a continuous process of political and social improvement. This is the idea of the evolving utopia, famously expressed at the beginning of Wells’s A Modern Utopia: ‘the modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage leading to a long ascent of stages’.14

Modern utopias and dystopias

In this book I shall adopt, as a working hypothesis, Wells’s distinction between classical and modern utopias – between utopias of perfection and utopias of progress. This does not mean that the hypothesis cannot be questioned. The idea of the modern, kinetic utopia has a number of consequences, which I discuss in what follows; and there are manifest advantages to seeing the modern utopia and the classical utopia as clearly distinct literary forms. At the same time, it is always possible (as Sargent seems to imply) that these differences will seem less significant to scholars concerned to look closely and without preconceptions at earlier utopian texts.
The most evident, and seemingly irreducible, difference between classical and modern utopias is that the latter are typically set in the future. They are, strictly speaking, uchronias rather than utopias: fictions not of ‘nowhere’ but of ‘not yet’. The modern literary utopia is therefore a branch of prophetic fiction or futuristic fantasy, merging in the later twentieth century with science fiction.15 In Hansot’s terms: ‘The basic assumption used to distinguish modern from classical utopian thought is man’s recognition of his ability to initiate social change and use it for ends of his own devising’. The initiation of social change begins in the present or near future, providing the historical background to the utopian (or dystopian) society. Hansot adds: ‘Instead of the rather vague references to a founder or a wise monarch … , modern utopias offer a detailed description of how they developed from the author’s own world’.16 Building utopia is a political project, and modern utopian novels serve either as encouragements to join in that project or as warnings against it. Either way, they belong primarily to propaganda fiction rather than to the category of philosophical essays and speculative dialogues such as Plato’s Republic.
It follows that the location of the modern utopia will not normally be in an undiscovered nation or a hitherto overlooked remote island. This is not only because the global reach of western civilisation had extended, by the end of the eighteenth century, across every ocean and to every continent apart from Antarctica. The political logic of the modern utopias is that of a would-be universal community, not an isolated enclave. Since the utopia is kinetic rather than static, it must acknowledge at least a planetary perspective, and must aim to disseminate the good society as widely as possible. The modern utopia is typically a world state or part of one, while the modern dystopia may be a failed world state – a belligerent empire aiming to suppress all resistance both within and beyond its frontiers.
Thirdly, the social organisation of modern utopias is something that only modernity, including technological modernity, has made possible. Their economic basis is one of continuous plenty, not of scarcity and periodic shortages. Economic cycles have given place to stability or constant growth, work times have been reduced, and social welfare is a permanent, universal entitlement. In Hansot’s words, the attainment of utopia marks ‘that stage of society’s development at which man’s environment has ceased to impede or thwart whatever forms of change the author considers desirable’.17 This emphasis on technology overcoming environmental resistance suggests an uncomplicated faith in the beneficence of scientific advance and social engineering, a faith that, arguably, reached its peak (so far as western societies are concerned) and began to recede some time ago. To that extent, the modern utopia may be seen as an intellectual product of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that now looks decidedly jaded. The same is (apparently) true of the varieties of state socialism and communism that modern utopias generally embody. Utopians would reply, however, that people in every age – including the early twenty-first century – are prone to misjudge their own immediate situation as defining the limits of historical possibility and human nature.
A final feature of the modern utopia is that it represents political society as an end in itself, not as a means towards some spiritual or other-worldly goal. The modern utopia is utilitarian not millenarian, and is based on the presupposition that the human pursuit of happiness and order takes place in a material universe. This is true even where, as quite often happens, there is a quasi-religious element to life in utopia; any ‘god’ that is invoked must be, like the ‘Our Ford’ of Brave New World, a human projection. Thus Mustapha Mond dismisses the words of Cardinal Newman – ‘We are God’s property’ – as a remnant of ‘pre-modern times’: ‘God isn’t compatible with machinery and scientific medicine and universal happiness’, he tells his auditors (158–60). More recent dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), where fundamentalist religion is a key element of the future society, have abandoned or no longer rely on the modern utopian paradigm. It would make sense to classify Atwood’s work, at least, as a postmodern dystopia.
In defining the modern utopia I have taken it for granted that – for all their deep and sometimes fanatical hostility to utopia – dystopias and anti-utopias form a subdivision of the utopian genre. The predominance of dystopian over utopian visions of the future in the middle and late twentieth century has often been remarked on, and the two most famous and widely read twentieth-century dystopias – Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – manifestly exemplify the paradigm that I have sketched. Each portrays a future global (or, in Orwell’s novel, semi-global) society embodying a sinister and misguided version of utopian politics. The authors underline this utopian dimension only to expose its bogus coherence and plausible, if twisted, logic. Long passages of didactic prose (which impatient readers have been known to skip) are common to both utopias and dystopias. Mustapha Mond’s prolonged self-defence and Orwell’s extracts from a work of political theory (Emmanuel Goldstein’s The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, during the reading of which the heroine Julia falls asleep) are characteristic of the utopian genre, of its awkwardness and hybrid nature. Wells at the beginning of A Modern Utopia comments on the ‘hardness and thinness [of] Utopian speculations’ (13), and the same quality is also present in dystopian fictions, even though their theme of individual resistance to state power offers a ready-made source of drama and narrative tension that utopias lack.

Utopianism and the nature of science

We have seen that modern utopias depend on specific scientific discoveries and their technological application, even when (as I shall argue with respect to medical and eugenic practices in News from Nowhere in Chapter 5) this is largely hidden from the reader. The citizen of utopia generally possesses an improved physical constitution, an improved quality of life, and security from painful and unnecessary forms of death. In utopia, much of the inherent suffering and injustice of present-day human life has been removed, and the advances of medicine and the biosciences are available to everyone. To the extent that the society is based on the utopian ideal of the greatest happiness of the greatest number, human life has been palliated by measures of eugenics, eudemonics (‘the art of pursuing life with happiness as the ultimate goal’) and euthanasia (‘a gentle and easy death’). Life thus takes on a quality of permanent euphoria, whether or not, as in Brave New World, this has to be maintained by artificial stimulants. Utopian science based on the principles of eugenics, eudemonics and euthanasia is necessarily at variance with traditional ethical beliefs and ingrained values in our own world.
The modern utopia also challenges conventional beliefs in that, as we have seen, it presupposes a fundamentally material and therefore knowable universe. This means that it shares the working hypothesis of modern scientific activity (which is something very different from the personal beliefs of individual scientists). Both utopian thought and scientific inquiry are challenging and subversive in this respect, although the fact that they seek to change our contemporary world need not imply a more permanent alliance. If science, as Kumar says, ‘constantly undermines existing beliefs and practices’, it must also undermine the beliefs and practices of utopia. Does this mean that science is the force (or one of the forces) that makes modern utopias kinetic, or is there some deeper incompatibility between science and utopia? The first proviso in answering this question is that we are concerned not with science in the abstract, but with science as a social practice and cultural presence in the modern world. Kumar’s statement, for example, clearly reflects the imprint of literary representations of science (including those authored by scientists themselves) in its assertion that a bold resistance to and questioning of authority – the quality that we associate with the protagonists of dystopias – is characteristic of science in general. Science, that is, is intellectual inquiry wholly divested of the pedantry, solipsism and scholastic myopia in which other forms of the pursuit of knowledge have notoriously become bogged down.
To question the modern scientific ideology underpinning Kumar’s assertion is not easy. Yet we may wonder why the force that ‘undermines existing beliefs and practices’ is so confidently identified with science per se, rather than with individual human initiatives or with historical change in general. Surely ‘science’, seen in these terms, is the hypostatisation of a more general social tendency? But science may equally be understood from a sociological point of view as an elite institution or profession, defined by its procedures and entry requirements and eng...

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Citation styles for Utopian Literature and Science
APA 6 Citation
Parrinder, P. (2015). Utopian Literature and Science ([edition unavailable]). Palgrave Macmillan UK. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/3489992/utopian-literature-and-science-from-the-scientific-revolution-to-brave-new-world-and-beyond-pdf (Original work published 2015)
Chicago Citation
Parrinder, Patrick. (2015) 2015. Utopian Literature and Science. [Edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://www.perlego.com/book/3489992/utopian-literature-and-science-from-the-scientific-revolution-to-brave-new-world-and-beyond-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Parrinder, P. (2015) Utopian Literature and Science. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/3489992/utopian-literature-and-science-from-the-scientific-revolution-to-brave-new-world-and-beyond-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Parrinder, Patrick. Utopian Literature and Science. [edition unavailable]. Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.