This book is part of the research I’ve been doing for a history of British science fiction I am in the process of writing. All the serious books I consulted on early utopian fictions referred back to Utopia and the ideal society: A study of English utopian writing 1516-1700 by J.C. Davis (Cambridge University Press, 1981), and having had a chance to read it at last I can see why. My notebooks are simply bulging information I have scrounged from the book, so if you are interested in the subject this is the book you have to read. Not least because this is the book that seems to have laid down the theoretical framework that every subsequent commentator on utopian literature has followed. All too often it has been the easy option to identify any portrayal of an ideal society as a utopia, but what Davis did was identify five different categories of ideal society dependent upon how they conceived of the role of people, institutions and the environment. Thus a cockayne imagines natural abundance, it is a realm in which all human desires are simply sated; this is what you find in a lot of medieval ideas of a perfect realm, and something that crops up again in the depression-era stories of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, so we can generally accept it as a dream of plenty in a time of shortage. An arcadia imagines that nature will provide a sufficiency, and that man will live in harmony with nature, it is what we associate with dreams of the simple existence, a back-to-nature impulse, and proposes the perfectability of mankind so long as there is sufficiency to meet his most basic needs. The perfect moral commonwealth also believes in the perfectability of man, but through religious revelation, it suggests that so long as we get a sufficiently good man to show the proper Christian way, then an ideal society will follow. The millennium, as might be inferred by the name, looks forward to the second coming of Christ and the thousand years of perfection that will follow; such works do not really have to imagine the society that will ensue, since it will be very heaven on Earth. And then there is the utopia, which does not believe that people are perfectable, but that perfect institutions will constrain the population in such a way that an ideal society will follow; this is a communal, a social model that allows for the wickedness of the individual because the laws will bind him perfectly.

Such a schema must be attractive to the utopian, since it narrows the field significantly. For an historian of science fiction it is not quite so helpful, because all five of these categories have contributed to the complex literary structure that is science fiction.

Davis’s excellent book also illustrates one of the problems with utopian studies. Effectively utopian studies start with Thomas More’s Utopia, a work which was written as philosophy but which can be read as fiction. Most of the utopian writings that followed used their ideal society as a pleasant fiction to illustrate a point, whether the satire of Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem (barely mentioned by Davis), or the promotion of science that is the basis for Bacon’s New Atlantis. But by the time of the Civil War at least, if not before, the fictional aspect was slipping and people were writing utopias as genuine attempts to persuade the government to adopt their particular version of an ideal society in practice. Before the end of the Interregnum the utopia was as much political philosophy as it was fiction, and a number of significant utopias of the period (Winstanley’s The Law of Freedom in a Platform, for instance) had no fictional element. In other words, you can approach utopian writing from the point of view of literary history or political history; the subject is the same, but the approaches are not compatible because they are looking for different things, examining different connections and consequences. Davis is an historian, he approaches the subject in terms of political thinking. Which means that the utopias that do not fit into the development of political ideology are ignored, while those which are significant politically but not in literary terms are given undue emphasis. (Try as I might, I cannot see Gabriel Plattes short and soon forgotten pamphlet of 1641, Macaria, as being central to ‘both the well-known and the esoteric currents of scientific, religious, educational and political thought of the early modern protestant world’.)

And the political emphasis also leads to a certain blindness. For instance, he makes a very good case for the economic and especially agrarian thinking that lay behind what he calls the ‘full employment utopias’ of the mid-17th century, but almost completely overlooks the religious thinking that was instrumental in forming 17th century ideas of useful employment, and that lay behind the abhorence of idleness as a social evil. Let’s put it this way, the creation of the first workhouse, within months of the execution of Charles I in 1649, was not exactly charitable in intent and was certainly not done for what we might consider liberal reasons. Protestant thinking was that God would reward our efforts, so material wealth was actually a sign of religious well being (the origin of the Protestant work ethic), and by extension, being poor was actually a sign of God’s displeasure. So workhouses were established not to provide relief for the needy, but to remind them of their religious duty to work hard.

There were one or two other places where I argued with Davis also, but in general this is a fascinating book, and for anyone interested in utopian thought it is absolutely essential.

First published at Livejournal, 8 January 2006.