Science fiction author China Miéville writes about Thomas More’s (1478-1535) “Utopia,” published in 1516, and the impact it has had over the last 500 years. He quotes other authors on the masterpiece, including our favorite Ursula K. Le Guin. Read Miéville in partial below, in full via the Guardian.
This island, this book, is the paradigm. “More’s Utopia,” in the words of the scholar Roland Greene, “is perhaps the text that establishes insularity as an early modern vantage [and] introduces a way of thinking that is properly called utopian”, defined by “a multifarious phenomenon which I will call island logic”.
But, to repeat, it is not a long voyage to get there. Citizens of More’s Utopia “keep up the art of navigation”, pass back and forth on various tasks, trading surpluses of “corn, honey, wool, flax, wood, wax, tallow, leather, and cattle … to other nations”. Only the thinnest stretch of ocean separates Utopia from the mainland. For somewhere so famously and constitutively nowhere, this no-place Utopia is very close to the shore.
And there’s a more startling surprise with regard to its island-ness, a fact of which not nearly enough is generally made:
This was no island at first, but a part of the continent. Utopus, that conquered it … brought the rude and uncivilised inhabitants into … good government … Having soon subdued them, he designed to separate them from the continent, and to bring the sea quite round them. To accomplish this he ordered a deep channel to be dug … and that the natives might not think he treated them like slaves, he not only forced the inhabitants, but also his own soldiers, to labour in carrying it on. As he set a vast number of men to work, he, beyond all men’s expectations, brought it to a speedy conclusion. And his neighbours, who at first laughed at the folly of the undertaking, no sooner saw it brought to perfection than they were struck with admiration and terror.
This most famous example of the island utopia, the ideal type itself, is not by nature an island at all. The 15 miles of water that keep it apart from the main body politic are not there by God’s will, but by the sweat of native people, among others, digging at an invading conqueror’s command. The splendid – utopian – isolation is part of the violent imperial spoils.
The classic reactionary attack on the utopian impulse is that it is, precisely, no place, impossibly distant. But disavowed and right there in More’s foundation myth of the dream polity is a very different unease: that, wrought by brutality, coerced from above, it is all too close.
In the words of Ursula K Le Guin, “Every utopia since Utopia has also been, clearly or obscurely, actually or possibly, in the author’s or in the readers’ judgment, both a good place and a bad one. Every utopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia contains a utopia.”
These contradictions thrive in single heads as easily as between them, and in the texts those heads produce. The interminable debates about what More “really” meant miss this obvious fact, and are thus of as much use as any other discussion of “actual” artistic or political “intent” that treats it as a given or a secret to be decoded. Which is to say: some, but not much.