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Literature of utopia and dystopia. Technological influences shaping the form and content of utopian visions.

By Brian T. Garvey


We live in an age of rapid change. The advance of science and\ud technology, throughout history, has culminated in periods of transition\ud when social values have had to adapt to a changed environment. Such\ud times have proved fertile ground for the expansion of the imagination.\ud Utopian literature offers a vast archive of information concerning the\ud relationship between scientific and technological progress and social\ud change.\ud Alterations in the most basic machinery of society inspired utopian\ud authors to write of distant and future worlds which had achieved a state\ud of harmony and plenty. The dilemmas which writers faced were particular\ud to their era, but there also emerged certain universal themes and\ud questions: What is the best organisation of society? What tools would\ud be adequate to the task? What does it mean to be human?\ud The dividing line on these issues revolves around two opposed\ud beliefs. Some perceived the power inherent in technology to effect the\ud greatest improvement in the human condition. Others were convinced that\ud the organisation of the social order must come first so as to create an\ud environment sympathetic to perceived human needs. There are,\ud necessarily, contradictions in such a division. They can be seen plainly\ud in More's Utopia itself. More wanted to see new science and technique\ud developed. But he also condemned the social consequences which\ud inevitably flowed from the process of discovery. These consequences led\ud More to create a utopia based on social reorganisation. In the main,\ud the utopias of Francis Bacon, Edward Bellamy and the later H. G. Wells\ud accepted science, while the work of William Morris, Aldous Huxley and\ud Kurt Vonnegut rejected science in preference for a different social order.\ud More's Utopia and Bacon's New Atlantis were written at a time when\ud feudal, agricultural society was being transformed by new discoveries\ud and techniques. In a later age, Bellamy's Looking Backward and Morris's\ud News From Nowhere offer contrary responses to society at the height of\ud the Industrial evolution. These four authors serve as a prelude to the\ud main area of the thesis which centres on the twentieth century. Wells,\ud though his first novel appeared in 1895, produced the vast bulk of his\ud work in the current century. Huxley acts as an appropriate balance to\ud Wells and also exemplifies the shift from utopia to dystopia. The last\ud section of the thesis deals with the work of Kurt Vonnegut and includes\ud an interview with that author.\ud The twentieth century has seen the proliferation of dystopias,\ud portraits of the disastrous consequences of the headlong pursuit of\ud science and technology, unallied to human values. Huxley and Vonnegut\ud crystallised the fears of a modern generation: that we create a\ud soulless, mechanised, urban nightmare. The contemporary fascination\ud with science in literature is merely an extension of a process with a\ud long tradition and underlying theme. The advance of science and\ud technology created the physical and intellectual environment for utopian\ud authors which determined the form and content of their visions

Topics: Utopian literature, Society, Technology, Social order, Vonnegut, Kurt, Dystopia, Utopia, Technological society
Publisher: Postgraduate School of Studies in Science and Society
Year: 1985
OAI identifier:
Provided by: Bradford Scholars

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