Note: In the summer of 2016 my computer (through my agency) suffered a massive collapse and most of my files were lost. This has necessitated a reworking of these pages, which is now in progress.
Table of Contents
of probable sources
Still to come:
Sources on utopian
Online Essays and
Please send comments
This work is
licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial- Share Alike 3.0
United States License.
and Morris backgrounds ("Marigold" and "Acanthus")
William Morris Designs, Dover, 2006
font and "Arts & Crafts Extras" from P22
Perhaps to know so familiar a place better it must become strange
—Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise
began as an attempt to study the development of William Morris's philosophy
of technology, his debt to Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, and his influence
on American thinkers like Henry Adams and Lewis Mumford. But reading Morris's
utopian ideas in News From Nowhere, as well as his prose romances,
and poems like A Dream of John Ball and The Earthly Paradise,
made me realize that Morris's views on technology and art pervade all
of his work, and that together these works provide a well-developed view
of how the world could be: how we might live, as opposed to how
we do live.
From Nowhere (first published serially in 1890) envisions England
in a future far removed temporally, philosophically, and economically
from nineteenth-century London: after the "revolution" of 1952,
in the year 2006. The proximity of 2006 to the present (that is, when
the project began) led me to wonder, as Morris had, what might happen
given some kind of revolution or change on the order of what he imagined.
although Morris's Nowhere emerged from the ashes of a violent
revolution, he could not have conceived of the means of total destruction
that human beings had developed by 1952: the atomic and hydrogen bombs
and the other "weapons of mass destruction" that would come
to preoccupy those in power and terrify the world's population as a whole.
So I began to wonder what a different "nowhere" would look like,
in light of what we now know about how things really turned out, and how
very far Morris's vision was from present-day reality.
Long after I had begun to re-imagine Morris's ou-topia, and after having
convinced myself that what I was trying to envision was essentially unimaginable
in the context of this world, I came upon David Orr's thoughtful collection
of essays, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention.
Reading this book made me realize that those of us who construct utopias
do not do so in a vacuum. The urge for change that prompts thought experiments
like News From Nowhere emerges from conversation and speculation
within an intellectual community. Although I had thought of my own work
as occurring in isolation, I began to realize that not only my reading
over the past few years, but also discussions with my husband, my son,
my students, and with colleagues had contributed to the economy of the
valley in which my own utopia develops. And so Orr's book reassured me
that others have been participating in similar conversations; even better,
it indicated that others were far more sanguine about the possibilities
for change than I had been—even though the process Orr and others
envision may turn out, in the end, to require more human will than we
can muster. More recently, I have come upon another collection of essays
called Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies,
edited by Kenny Ausubel, which has raised my level of optimism about the
possibility of an alternative future considerably.
The particular conversations that led to my desire to revisit Morris's
Nowhere began in 1994 when I taught a course at UTD called "Utopia
and Technology," and continued in two subsequent courses, "Philosophy
and/of Technology" and "The Arts and Crafts Movement."
In all three, from different perspectives, my students and I discussed
the utopian impulse, ways to imagine appropriate technologies, and various
attempts made throughout history to forge solutions to technological dilemmas.
Since then, research into the sources of Morris's utopian ideas, and efforts
to examine his influence on twentieth-century thinkers such as Mumford
have led to further conversations and considerable thought about how best
to make use of what I have learned over the intervening years. During
this period, my then ninety eight year-old grandmother revealed an interesting
coincidence that impressed on me the power inherent in utopian visions.
grandmother, Esther Tate, was known for starting schools wherever she
went. After helping her husband Tom run a stagecoach station near Manhattan,
Nevada, the couple moved to Big Pine, California, where she immediately
helped to set up an elementary school. The importance of education had
been impressed on her in part by exposure to Edward Bellamy's Looking
Backward, which she must have read soon after its publication in
In Bellamy's utopia, children were compulsorily educated until the age
of twenty one, after which citizens served in an "industrial army"
for twenty four more years, before being allowed to pursue their own inclinations.
This program certainly must have appealed to a large number of Americans,
since groups of "Bellamyites" began to spring up all over the
country—including the remote little town of Big Pine. However, although
Bellamy was a fellow socialist, William Morris found his utopian vision
repellant, and News From Nowhere represents his alternative view.
My own effort, More News From Nowhere, draws upon an academic
background that spans over forty years, during which I studied archaeology,
ancient history and languages, anthropology, geology, literature, ecology,
astronomy, the history and philosophy of science and technology, and the
history of art and design. My education was further augmented by having
spent a significant portion of my childhood in Asia, and especially in
Taiwan, where visits to aboriginal villages provided first-hand experience
of a subsistence economy and a small-scale, technologically simple culture.
In the rural
outskirts of Taipei, I roamed freely on Yan Ming Shan, exploring the mountain
and its terraced, centuries-old rice paddies, and acquiring an appreciation
both for wilderness and minimally developed ways of life. As a family,
we also frequently "made the mission rounds," visiting a priest
whose flock consisted of aboriginal Taiwanese mountain people (and where
I learned to appreciate the delights of home-grown vegetables, home-made
salami and home-distilled brandy). The contrast between life on the mountain
and life in Taipei thus significantly shaped my philosophical views on
human environments. But my sense of history and place, my regard for nature,
and my recognition of nature's fragility, stem primarily from my family's
long association with the Owens River Valley in California.
most of the water from the Owens River was diverted through an aqueduct
system to feed the growing needs of Los Angeles, the valley could be described
as somewhat idyllic: abundant water and resources; mild, almost Mediterranean
climate; magnificent scenery. A subsistence economy could have fared well
in such a place, and had done so long before the coming of the Europeans.
Ranching became the valley's primary way of life, but the Depression hit
hard, and the city of Los Angeles promised much-needed jobs and economic
development. A few ranchers held out, but eventually the city won, the
Owens River dwindled to a small stream, and Owens Lake, once deep enough
to accommodate steamboats, dried up.
The towns in the valley never did see much in the way of development,
and now the land is too dry for anything but heavy irrigation farming—with
water bought from the city. Tourism, the major source of valley income,
consists largely of people simply passing through from Los Angeles to
visit Death Valley or on ski trips to resorts in the north, or gambling
trips to Reno. The film and advertising industries make frequent use of
a variety of local landscapes (primarily for westerns, space operas, and
SUV commercials), but every time I visit, one of the old businesses has
shut down, one of the old motels has closed, and these have been replaced
by fast-food franchises and gas station mini-marts. Occasionally a new
tourist-related enterprise will pop up, but it's gone by the next time
I visit. Only Bishop, at the northern end of the valley, seems to be truly
flourishing, but it serves as a gateway to ski resorts, gambling facilities,
and a national park; it's also a logical stopping place after a long drive
from Los Angeles.
Toward the southern end of the valley, near Lone Pine (my home town; population
somewhere around 1200), lies the nearly-dry bed of Owens Lake. As the
largest and last major segment of a long drainage system left over from
the Pleistocene, the lake abounds in minerals and heavy metals. After
the aqueduct system was built, and most of the water from the Owens River
diverted from its natural drainage, the lake began to evaporate. Several
companies subsequently mined its resources for a variety of purposes.
Gradually, however, these companies also closed their operations, and
little industrial activity endures. The railway stopped shipping through
the valley, and the only visible industry along the lake today is a plant
that extracts spring water from the Sierras to help fill the bottled water
needs of the West's health-conscious minions (and insure the survival
of the plastics industry).
When the inevitable winds blow down from the north, the dry remains of
the minerals and metals that had once been diluted in several feet of
water get stirred up, lifted into the air, and suspended, leading scientists
to call this end of the valley one of the most polluted places in the
United States. Because of the threat to already heavily-polluted Los Angeles,
however, measures are finally being developed to allow more water into
the river, and to re-establish a wetlands in the area to mitigate the
dust problem. On a recent visit to the valley, I witnessed the successful
beginnings of a
program to allow just enough water into the Owens River to keep the
pollution down and to facilitate the propagation of several native bird
often wondered what would have happened if Los Angeles had not succeeded
in buying the valley's water rights, or if early efforts to build a dam
in Long Valley (thus supplying water to both the Owens Valley and to Los
Angeles) had been realized. In some ways, the water issue may have been
a blessing, because the valley's resources might have attracted a much
larger population, and what I knew as a child—as hot and dry as
it was—might never have existed. One of the places I associate most
with my childhood, in fact, is a small group of houses nestled around
one of the power plants operated by the City of Los Angeles next to the
aqueduct, and which my grandfather once managed. For most of my early
life, "Cottonwood" was "home." After my grandfather
died, my grandmother moved to town, where she lived until shortly before
her death at 104. I considered her little house in Lone Pine, with its
views of Mt. Whitney to the west, and the Inyos to the east, to be "home"
long after I had grown up, married, moved to Texas, and had children and
a house of my own.
Over the years, my frequent visits have never failed to reveal changes
in the valley. The cottonwoods in front of my grandmother's house died,
and were eventually cut down. The Lombardy poplars that had been planted
by early settlers in the valley as windbreaks also died, except along
creeks where there was still enough water to sustain them. Diminished
snow melt in the Sierras may still kill them, as the creeks themselves
dry up. Driving north on highway 395 from Los Angeles, one can see the
desert-loving Joshua trees gradually taking advantage of an expanding
habitat. During one visit, I noticed that they had entered the valley
and were marching further north, a slow-moving but inexorable army of
change. The film Bagdad
Café, which depicts life in a relict byway of a town (actually
located further south, along old Route 66 in Southern California; it no
longer exists), could have been filmed along this route, or any of a hundred
others along similar roads in eastern California or western Nevada, where
travelers speed past on their way to somewhere else. But I always thought
of the Owens Valley as being fundamentally different, because its lack
of water was caused by human greed and error, and its decline was therefore
not really inevitable.
William Morris set News From Nowhere in a place he loved, along
a seriously polluted Thames, in a London that would soon be unrecognizable.
He wanted to imagine what life would be like in that place, if the Revolution
should come. In 2006, London after the Change is pastoral, peaceful, and
clean, supported by an egalitarian, sustainable economy. As I read and
reread Morris's vision, my own began to take shape: a similar account
of an equally significant change, set in a place that held as much of
a claim to my affections as London had to his. And since the question,
"What would happen if . . . ?" lies at the heart of any thought
experiment, I knew that I needed to take into account the changes that
had occurred in the century since News From Nowhere was written
if anything like Morris's economy were to make sense in our modern world.
Morris felt strongly that violent revolution was not only inevitable,
but necessary in order to bring about the Change. But violent revolution
in the modern world, after the invention of nuclear weapons and mechanized
biological and chemical warfare, might well be terminal rather than simply
cleansing. The post-apocalyptic novels I read growing up, such as Pat
Frank's Alas Babylon, Walter Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz,
and Kate Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, suggested
that modern weaponry and biotechnology unleashed might well mean not only
the reduction of human populations and devastation of landscapes, but
the very real possibility that the survivors might not represent the best
of all possible human worlds.
Stephen Baxter's prophetic 1997 novel Titan (which imagines the
breakup of the space shuttle Columbia on re-entry in 2004 and the election
by 2008 of a theocratic president of the United States) employs a manipulated
asteroid as the mechanism for the destruction of life on earth. In fact,
at the turn of the twenty first century, so many ways of doing ourselves
in have presented themselves, that I decided to leave the mechanism of
change open, and to suggest the altogether too promising likelihood that
not one but many factors—most of our own manufacture—may doom
Morris appropriates a device similar to Edward Bellamy's hypnotic trance
in Looking Backward (despite the fact that his antipathy toward
Bellamy's imagined future is what inspired him to write News From
Nowhere in the first place) to propel his protagonist forward in
time. “Guest,” Morris's stand-in, simply falls asleep and
awakens in 2006. But utopian science fiction today demands at least a
nod toward hard science. Enter the technological escape tool and staple
of twentieth-century science fiction: the wormhole. In this case, a "trigger"
(some sort of insertion device) placed by some unknown somebody from some
undetermined time (a mystery I plan to explore later) opens a localized
wormhole that allows a group of people to escape the present day in order
to develop an alternative economy in a pristine, probably post-apocalyptic,
post-neo-glacial Owens River Valley. No bloody revolution occurs, but
a carefully self-selected group escapes, in order to avoid one or more
of the increasingly possible ends to life as we now know it, into a very
The temporal distance (at least 100,000 years, possibly more) was chosen
for two reasons. In teaching about archaeology in my humanities classes,
I have often posed questions about what kinds of objects would survive
over long periods of time (1).
Human "civilizations" are fairly recent phenomena, and evidence
of all but the most ambitious buildings and tombs from the neolithic era
(when human beings began building monumental structures) has disappeared.
The oldest extant artifacts of any kind—bone and stone tools and
time-keeping devices—number few and are difficult to interpret.
If we were to speculate about what might survive after a large-scale disaster,
and what might survive over an almost unimaginable period of time, we
would have to consider not only cultural but geological conditions as
well. Having studied Pleistocene geology, I'm well aware of the recurring
nature of "ice ages" and the "cleansing" potential
of glacial processes, and have frequently wondered what of our own culture(s)
would survive after another glacial period. In addition, the likelihood
of global warming's having something significant to do with our future
contributes another factor, and the location of my story on a significant
fault line adds the probability of seismic change.
the two questions—what would be left after a major catastrophe,
and what of that would remain after the next glaciation—led me to
place my reconsideration of Morris's utopia after a geological, rather
than political, "revolution." When I began to wonder, after
reading a number of books on the Owens Valley water controversy, what
the valley would be like if the water were to return, the final ingredient
entered the mix. More News From Nowhere would take place in a
valley I knew as well as Morris knew the Thames Valley, under the only
circumstances that seem likely to produce radical change in my "nowhere":
geological time and process.
thought experiments offer the writer a clean palette: a surface on which
to mix a variety of colors and media. If we could start over, what would
we change? How would we live? This book attempts to answer both of these
questions, filtered through Morris's own philosophy and colored by twenty-first
century issues: economics, education, gender, race, technology, religion.
Of course, truly being able to "start over" in a pristine space,
unencumbered by present-day social and economic concerns, will never be
possible. What we do to ourselves in the next few decades could well make
it impossible for anyone ever to begin again, because major extinctions
take millions of years to recover—not merely thousands.
But thought experiments are by nature conceived of out of time and place,
like Plato's Atlantis, nine thousand years ago, beyond the gates of Herakles,
or "once upon a time," or even "long ago, in a galaxy far,
far away." This story, therefore, takes place far in the future,
in a valley cleansed by geological processes into an environment both
strange and familiar at the same time. Among the utopians, its protagonist
experiences an odyssey both physical and philosophical, along a river
different from Morris's, but through a landscape as well loved by the
author as rural London was by Morris.
The More News From Nowhere project originally consisted of four
parts: this preamble, the story, and an annotated bibliography of those
works that led directly to its construction, followed by an additional
bibliography of sources on utopian studies, Morris, and other aspects
of the project. I have recently added a fifth component, a blog begun
in the summer of 2007, called "Owl's
Farm, or Reflections on Nowhere," in which I have been musing
about related topics as they occur in the "real" world, here
by nature, does not lend itself particularly well to acknowledgment, and
the sheer length of time involved in the development of this story (about
fifteen years) makes traditional documentation difficult; but it is
possible to discuss the seminal sources and their connections, and the
range of works consulted can at least be acknowledged.
I take some
comfort in reminding myself of Clifford Geertz's introduction to Islam
Observed, in which he notes (in agreement with T. S. Eliot) that
"Bad poets borrow . . . good poets steal," and admits that he
tries in his book to be a good poet—"to take what I have needed
from certain others and make it shamelessly my own." He goes on to
qualify the nature of his "thievery" as "an almost unconscious
process of selection, absorption, and reworking, so that after awhile
one no longer quite knows where one's argument comes from, how much of
it is his and how much is others'" (2).
I hope, therefore, that the inclusion of those influences of which I am
aware will compensate for the lack of direct attribution. Beyond this,
I should also note that the project was not conceived of as a dissertation,
but rather as an exploration of ideas that I have been considering during
my entire adult life.
My academic odyssey, which began in 1966, has, like Odysseus's wanderings,
meandered widely, from California, to Pennsylvania, to New York, to Texas.
It is probably fortunate that I never set foot on the island of the Lotus
Eaters, because most of what I have encountered along the way has lodged
in memory to serve as a repository of ideas for this story. I never cease
to marvel at the serendipity of knowledge: the chance events that foster
intellectual development and curiosity. In my case, my early reading of
potboiler novels about young adventurous women in Greece led to a desire
to study Greek. I withdrew my initial application to the University of
California at Santa Cruz (which opened the year I graduated from high
school; and where I would inevitably have studied with Gregory Bateson,
whose work later influenced my studies at UTD) because Greek was not offered,
and I enrolled at the Riverside campus instead, where after one quarter
I became the school's only Greek major. An early marriage led me to the
University of Pennsylvania, with too many credits to transfer into traditional
programs, and ultimately to an independent, interdisciplinary major that
included graduate courses in anthropology and geology in addition to classical
archaeology and ancient history. A brief stint at the State University
of New York at Stony Brook introduced me to environmental and planetary
sciences and deepened my interest in Pleistocene geology.
to Dallas in 1979, where I had planned to enter SMU's graduate program
in archaeology, I spontaneously enrolled in what sounded like a fascinating
course at UTD: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Humanities (at last,
permission to do what I had been doing all along). This introductory graduate
seminar was taught that semester by Prof. Rainer Schulte, who immersed
me in the theory and practice of translation. At about that time, I encountered—again
by chance—Mary Catherine Bateson's account of a conference sponsored
by her father, Gregory Bateson, on "the effects of conscious purpose
on human adaptation" in a book called Our Own Metaphor.
The connections between translation and metaphor (aside from the linguistic—they
both come from roots meaning "to carry over or beyond") became
foundational to my studies from then on, and I was at last introduced
to the work of Gregory Bateson, especially on what he called an "ecology
on my background in anthropology, geology, and ecology, I then began to
explore the connections—rather than the divisions—between
the humanities and the sciences. I mulled over the works of interedisciplinary
writers (like Yi-Fu Tuan and Stephen Jay Gould) who attempt to reintegrate
ways of knowing otherwise been seen as disparate (and to be codified as
such in C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures). The annotated bibliography
connected to this project thus represents an attempt to acknowledge the
debt I owe to the Batesons and others encountered during the intellectual
peregrinations that led to this book, and to offer some rationale for
its long and glacial progress.
The various, and probably all too obvious, nods to Homer exist as a small
tribute to my ongoing study of Bronze Age and Archaic Greek history and
literature. I still translate The Odyssey in my spare time, and
am particularly fond of the episodes with the Phaeacians—Homer's
own essay into utopian literature. Translations of passages included in
this book, therefore, are my own. Morris also translated Homer (The
Odyssey in particular), and both News From Nowhere and some
of his prose romances describe the journeys of their heroes not only on
mythical quests, but also on voyages of discovery or explorations of ideas.
Morris was clearly aware of myth, having translated the Icelandic Eddas
and written versions of Arthurian and Greek tales, his romances were always
grounded in the practical: in the recovery of something lost, or the attainment
of a token of achievement. His earliest stories, The House of the
Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, are based on the
history of European tribes on the cusp of conquest. Like Carlyle and Ruskin,
Morris often imagined the Middle Ages as a prelapsarian utopia where men
could be manly and women could be beautiful—but could also wield
a sword or a bow. One of the most engaging and prophetic aspects of News
From Nowhere, in fact, is the liberty afforded Morris's heroines
to escape many of the strictures of Victorian womanhood.
and compelling nature of these romances can be seen both in the work of
J. R. R. Tolkien, who drew on Morris's prose romances in his creation
of the utopian landscape of Middle Earth (especially the Shire and the
realms of the Elves), and in the continuing popularity of Tolkien's stories
(and their many poor imitations). I was lately amused by the similarity
between the New Zealand locations used by Peter Jackson in his film version
of The Lord Of The Rings and my re-imagined Owens Valley: high,
snow-capped peaks (in my case, the aptly named Sierra Nevada), surrounding
a long, sparsely-populated, river-watered plain. It is difficult for Americans,
who sing paeans to "purple mountains' majesty," to imagine that
Europeans once thought mountain landscapes forbidding, although this was
the case for many, even during Morris's own day. And despite Morris's
travels to Iceland and his experience with its volcanic terrain, his own
utopian vision is tied to the River Thames and the possibility he saw
for its rehabilitation. For him, mountains were the denizens of the dead
or representations of primal power, while well-managed forests and carefully-tended
fields were the proper habitation for human beings.
I should also acknowledge what I owe the writers and artists who, over
the years, have helped to deepen my appreciation for my own native landscape.
Foremost among these is Mary Austin, whose Land of Little Rain
amounts to a prose poem dedicated to the valley in which she lived for
many years, and whose novels (such as The Flock) provide insight
into the lives of early settlers in the valley—among whom were my
ancestors. John McPhee's series of books about western geology, particularly
Basin and Range and Assembling California, provided
me both with good models for how to write about natural spaces, as well
as many entertaining hours on automobile trips when one or more passengers
would read aloud from his descriptions of the land through which we were
passing. John Muir's descriptions of the Sierras in The Mountains
of California, coupled with Ansel Adams's photographs of the Owens
Valley and its surroundings have sustained me during the many years I
have spent in distant, alien landscapes.
the late Ellen Meloy's melodic prose descriptions of familiar mountains
and deserts in An Anthropology of Turquoise and Eating Stone
moved me more than once to go on writing—and I am especially grateful
to her evocative accounts in light of the almost inevitable loss of these
beloved landscapes, and because her death in 2004 means that the desert
has lost one of its most eloquent advocates.
in my education at UTD I discovered Joseph Wood Krutch, whose work almost
inspired me to write my master's thesis on early modern nature writers;
instead, I chose American literary naturalism—the dystopian side
of writing about human beings and human nature. But I never forgot Krutch,
or his impact. Along with Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry, Krutch gave
me some hope that our species could learn to respect the natural world—to
behave as a part of it, rather than apart from it.
On the subject of utopias there is no better source than Ursula K. LeGuin,
whose fiction I have read and admired for over thirty years. She not only
writes within the utopian genre, but about it, and two of her essays have
made me particularly conscious of how good speculative fiction works.
I assigned the first, "A Non-Euclidian View of California As a Cold
Place to Be" (written in1982) to my students in my utopia class at
UTD in the Spring of 1994.
shortly after the death of her teacher/friend, Robert C. Elliot, author
of an important book on the subject called The Shape of Utopia,
LeGuin muses on Elliott's distinction between the "non-Euclidian,"
mythical idea of utopia, and the "rational or Jovian utopia."
The latter "is made by the reaction of will and reason against, away
from, the here-and-now, and it is, as More said in naming it, nowhere.
It is pure structure without content; pure model; goal" Such a utopia
is, therefore, purely theoretical and uninhabitable (3).
In the second, published more recently and called "A War Without
End," she discusses speculative literature as a path toward attaining
freedom from the status quo. Here LeGuin notes that many of her own stories
can be classed as utopian because they offer "a glimpse of some imagined
alternative to the way we live now.'" She goes on to say that to
her "the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment
but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge
my mind, and so the reader's mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking
that the way we live now is the only way people can live" (4).
I am not
sure how persuasive my own alternative to present-day conditions will
seem. I have thought, in fact, of many potential criticisms—some
of which have already been voiced by people with whom I have discussed
the project. "Nobody could live like that for very long." "Wouldn't
these people get bored?" "We've come too far technologically
to be able to give up what we've developed." "This is just a
Luddite fantasy; no one really wants to give up technology and live some
modern urban dwellers, the kind of life I describe would be considered
"savage." I have tried within the text of the novel to pose
these and similar positions and to allow the inhabitants of my future
valley to answer the questions they raise. I doubt that many will be persuaded
that this way of life would be possible, because in many ways we have
already become too deeply enmeshed in our own worship of technological
progress to pursue radical change. Some will argue that we are by nature
a technological people, that we will always strive to develop more and
more efficient ways of living, and that we are doomed by our own nature
to inhabit a more and more technologically determined world.
But I am
not convinced. The conversations that prepare my utopians for their journey
begin with a central moral question which is also immensely practical.
They ask themselves what they really need—not just what
they merely want. They work within another moral premise: the
identity of ends and means. They are acutely aware that the means by which
they choose to realize their future will be intimately tied to the ends
they desire to achieve, so that using highly-developed technologies to
build a minimally technological world will present problems that could
potentially doom their effort. So they choose their tools carefully, and
compromise only where they absolutely must. Of course, these are imaginary
people, and this is an imaginary possibility. Were I able to choose a
way to live, however, my choice would be very close to theirs; I can,
in fact, imagine living happily in the world I have invented.
Morris is probably right, that those of us who are of this world are too
closely tied to it to break away completely; but, as he posits in the
last line of News From Nowhere, "if others can see it as
I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream"
(5). Utopian thought
experiments are by nature visionary rather than simply fantastical. People
who write them try to understand the impulse toward alternative worlds,
but they do not fill them with lemonade springs and big rock candy mountains.
The experiment, while not conducted with test tubes and sophisticated
machinery, nonetheless takes place in a laboratory, under controlled conditions.
A good utopian vision holds as long as its structure stays consistent,
but it is never complete precisely because we can only control so much.
In real life the experimental monkeys are always getting loose; a piece
of Limburger always ends up in the maze. So we do what we can. We try
to construct the laboratory soundly and to account for as many variables
as possible. And then we throw our ideas into the structure and see how
long it takes them to beat each other up, or for the maze to fall apart.
If we're lucky, we can get the story told before anything irreparable
happens. I hope I've managed to do that here.
Alan Weisman's recent book, The World Without Us, has clarified
this question better than I could have imagined when I began to write
this introduction. [back]
(2) Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco
and Indonesia, University of Chicago Press, 1971, p. v. [back]
In Dancing at the Edge of the World, Harper Perennial, 1989,
p. 81. [back]
(4) In The Wave in the Mind, Shambala,2004,
p. 218. [back]
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