Wednesday, June 6, 2012
Classic Sci-Fi: News from Nowhere by William Morris
Date: 1890 (2003)
Source: GoodReads Swap
Read: as part of the pre-college TBR cleanout/for A Victorian Celebration
Pages: 200 (excluding introduction and appendixes in Broadview edition, which I did not read)
Reading time: three days
From GoodReads: News from Nowhere (1890) is the best-known prose work of William Morris and the only significant English utopia to be written since Thomas More's. The novel describes the encounter between a visitor from the nineteenth century, William Guest, and a decentralized and humane socialist future. Set over a century after a revolutionary upheaval in 1952, these "Chapters from a Utopian Romance" recount his journey across London and up the Thames to Kelmscott Manor, Morris's own country house in Oxfordshire. Drawing on the work of John Ruskin and Karl Marx, Morris's book is not only an evocative statement of his egalitarian convictions but also a distinctive contribution to the utopian tradition. Morris's rejection of state socialism and his ambition to transform the relationship between humankind and the natural world give News from Nowhere a particular resonance for modern readers.
My review: Like many of its contemporary utopian novels, News from Nowhere is interesting for its ideas but not so much for its plot. Being very dialogue-driven and intended to describe Morris's utopian theories, there's not much of a narrative story. Still, I found that it didn't drag and become boring if I read in only 25-50 page bouts.
Whereas normally I don't note plot holes in utopias, there were some that just bothered me in News from Nowhere. Mostly, they had to do with the time in the future in which the novel was set, which is unspecified but seems to be within our current century. The Socialist revolution occurred as recently as the early 1950s, yet the general population's historical memories of the events and the directly preceding era reminded me of the knowledge gap often found in post-apocalyptic novels. Morris attempted to explain this lack of historical interest/knowledge in a couple of different ways, none of which I found satisfactory. It also seemed like the dramatic changes to society and the environment occurred too quickly to be realistic; London, for example, had already turned from its urban agglomeration into a largely wooded area inhabited by small communities.
Personally, I found Morris's ideas more interesting that those of many other utopianists, as Morris adds several unique facets to the common theories of the Socialists and others. Much of his general satirical reflections upon Victorian society reminded me of the writings of Samuel Butler, but the aesthetic ideals were all William Morris. In reading News from Nowhere, it helped to have a very basic understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement, in which Morris was active, because of how often its artistic ideas popped up. The novel's utopia is Luddite, preferring a return to much of the country lifestyle and handicraft artwork of the medieval period. Morris makes countless references to the Middle Ages, as he sees much of its architecture, artwork, and clothing as much preferable to the "vulgar" consumer culture and the artifices of upper-class society and its products. In a couple brief references to the popularity of folklore in the future, there were also hints of Morris's more prolific writing as a fantasist. These more personal and artistic details in the novel added a deeper aesthetic and historical fascination to reading the book, one not often found in similar works.