News from Nowhere

I mentioned this novel in my review of H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia.

Raw Feed (1996): News from Nowhere; Or, an Epoch of Rest: Being Some Chapters from a Utopian Romance, William Morris, 1891.News from Nowhere

This book may very well have been on the Unabomber’s bookshelf. [Probably not given that it’s not on the list of books he wanted back from the FBI.]  This communistic, arts and crafts tyranny would appeal to the anti-technological Unabomber with his hand-crafted bombs. Communism is the explicitly stated philosophy at work here, and Morris was famous for his works on artistic aesthetics.

Morris is resolutely anti-technological and explicitly and frequently evokes his beloved 14th century Europe as a model for living. He even dismisses their more reprehensible laws as at least being sincere unlike Victorian laws which, according to him, are repressive and hypocritically justified. To be fair to Morris, two of 14th Century Europe’s problems – plague and famine – were not yet really being alleviated by contemporary science – not that Morris really mentions them as problems of 14th century life.

This is not really, despite being frequently mentioned in sf histories, a sf novel. Essentially, it’s a dream vision (more echoes of Morris’ medievalism) of Morris’ utopia. As with all utopias, it has to be criticized on two levels: the literary merits and the merits of the ideas.

On the literary level, this is – given the constraints of the Utopian genre which usually precludes interesting conflicts – fairly well written. It’s witty in parts and includes an interesting and detailed explanation on how 19th century British society evolved into Morris’ utopia – “an epoch of rest” as the subtitle goes.

On the political level, this book is totally unconvincing. Morris makes the usual mistake of socialist/communist utopians in presuming that human nature is mutable according to political and social factors. Morris has a character sweep aside the narrator’s – the dreamer’s – question on human nature with

The human nature of pauper, of slaves, of slave-holders, or the human nature of wealthy freemen?

This is a tautology since such a version of human nature has to exist before Morris’ “wealthy freemen” can be created. Not only does Morris make the usual stupid presumptions that man can live in a communist society, indeed an anarchic one here, and simply be persuaded to lead a good, moral life without even being punished when he strays (the culprit will feel bad and mend his ways we’re told), but he compounds the problem by not only seeing man as capable of living in a communist world but also as inherently desiring to work and lead a creative life. [For the record, I do think a communist society is possible under a very special set of circumstances. It has to be small, its members free to leave, religiously based, and it helps if the members are celibate to eliminate the innate human drive to acquire possessions to pass them on to children.]

I think humans (and there is plenty of evidence to back this up) [Do you remember how the Internet was going enable us all to follow our natural drives at self-education and improvement? A few people did and do. But it’s mostly cat videos, porn, and gambling.] are generally lazy and uncreative. We value the combination of energy and creativity in part because of its rarity. To be sure, creativity is fairly widespread but that doesn’t mean everyone wants to be an artisan. (Bookishness is generally discouraged in this world though Morris admits some will still take to it.).

Yet, Morris postulates such a utopia where people amuse themselves with farming practices and artisan work out of the Middle Ages. Morris, in his anti-industrial, anti-technological zeal (he snidely has one character remark that machines of production were the only true products of craftsmanship in the Industrial Age) ignores three things: first, that some people’s creativity is only applicable to things in a technological society; second, that those who dwelled in supposed rural bliss (Morris worships nature) flocked to the cities in the Industrial Revolution to make their lives better; third, that hand craftsmanship simply can not provide enough items for the good life he shows. Handcrafted items may be nice, but most people have chosen to opt – voluntarily – for a slight – but still satisfactory – reduction in quality for quantity of goods (I’m speaking of Morris’ goods: furniture, clothes, housewares).

Morris has created an arts and craft hell where man supposedly would be happy to live at a mediaeval level. No, not even mediaeval since his utopia is communistic. Morris also improbably has his utopians longer lived and more beautiful than us because of their pleasant world and work thus totally ignoring even contemporary medical science and sanitation (Of course, Morris doesn’t address Victorian improvements in life due to sanitation.) Morris also postulates the abolishment of legal marriage contracts.

[There was a disastrous experiment in medieval communism — depending on when you want to draw the Middle Ages-Renaissance line in European history — in the Munster Rebellion of 1534.]

I do have one area of agreement with Morris when he takes contemporary feminists to task for denigrating women who want to be mothers and serve their families. He rightly sees this as a good and natural desire of most women.


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