So, when I read this title, I Am Legend, I automatically think of Tim Curry in magnificent raunchy curled horns and stomping devil hooves, terrifyingly, hugely red, from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film Legend. Or John Legend. Or perhaps the film with Will Smith in it. In descending order of recognition, that title barely scrapes a thought for Richard Matheson’s 1954 vampire novel. Pity. Matheson certainly didn’t invent the vampire, but he put it into 1950s pulp fiction, and imagined vampires in American high streets and grocery stores.
Matheson’s I Am Legend is the basis for the 2007 Will Smith film, which (from looking at the online descriptions) moved the action from an anonymous, Everyman small town to (yawn) New York, and upped the leading character Robert Neville to a ‘brilliant scientist’. Matheson’s Neville is a regular American guy who has to repair his house every morning after the nightly attacks from his vampire neighbours, and also force himself through a basic biochemistry course from library books. You get desperate when you’re working out how your immunity to vampire attack can help you kill them before they kill you.
Matheson’s novel is a pulp classic. It’s a straightforward survival story, generously laced with gore and relentless sexual suggestion. The female vampires flaunt themselves at Neville, trying to lure him outside (of course they do; female vampires only exist to supplement male sex fantasies). The female survivor who Neville rescues is unaccountably unable to keep her bathrobe tied properly. There’s even a scene where something secret is brought out from its hiding-place inside a brassiere. Whatever happened to pockets?
I Am Legend has been repackaged as a science fiction classic, despite its horror lineage, because it uses a serious scientific approach to the problem of the biochemistry of vampirism. Is it in the blood, or in a bacillus? How does the bacillus allow vampires to survive gunshot wounds? Why does wood work when lead won’t, and exactly which part of the garlic bulb is the repellent? I definitely enjoyed the science more than the tedious pulpy parts, because as Neville thrashes through his flashbacks of what happened to work out why the vampire plague happened, we see glimpses of a far more interesting story. I was bored quite quickly by Neville refusing to escape from being trapped in his house by night and scavenging by day. I wanted to read the whole thing, not his deranged memories and circular ramblings. The oblique storytelling becomes really murky towards the end, so much so that I am still none the wiser about why Neville has become a legend to the new society that is taking over the earth. They don’t sound like nice people. I was happy to close the book.
This podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like This Book is on the first of Gene Wolfe’s epic science-fiction & fantasy tetralogy The Book of the New Sun,The Shadow of the Torturer (1981), the only one of the four I have been able to finish. It is EPIC, a tremendous, sprawling feast of fantastical invention slathered over a strong sf foundation. To reassure those not wishing to read celebrations of violence, it contains only two torture incidents, both very brief, and described in such a way that we are more interested in the how and why than the what.
Here’s the story: Severian is an apprentice torturer, and hopes to rise one day to become not just a journeyman but a master torturer. The torturers are the executioners and punishment inflictors for the Autarch, who is the supreme ruler of this part of Urth. That’s our Earth in the very far future. Severian becomes emotionally too close to a ‘client’, as torture victims are called in this world, closer than he should be, with the result that he is sent on a journey. The journey introduces him, and us, to his world, which is convenient since he and we are equally ignorant about its fascinating details, while the things that Severian knows about that we don’t are not explained because they are the mysteries of his trade, and we the readers are not privy to these. It’s a familiar way to tell a story – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle came to mind quite a few times while reading this.
Severian narrates the story from many years later, with more than enough remarks about his later career, so we don’t have to worry about whether he’ll survive (an awkward pitfall of first-person narration: if they’re still alive to write/dictate the narrative, obviously they’re not going to fall down a cliff or onto a spear halfway through). As I say, we are given so much reassurance that Severian will survive, in a narrative where death is simply everywhere, we can concentrate with greater avidity on his story, and try to work out why his society makes a guild of torturers necessary. The McGuffins that keep the plot moving are (1) that Severian has to get to his destination, and (2) by the end of this first novel in the tetralogy he finds a certain extraordinarily valuable something and he has to decide what to do with it. There are other, smaller mysteries as well: why does Dorcas have no memory? Will Vodalus the rebel ever come back to challenge the Autarch? How will Severian reach the destiny we are told about almost at the beginning of the book?
This society is medievalised, which is a peculiar convention in fantasy literature. It is oddly common for a fictional future society to have reverted to pre-industrial technology. This produces useful hand-to-hand, one-to-one combat scenes between characters the reader has learned to care about, rather than big impersonal explosions between anonymous armies (though fantasy still deploys these: looking at you, Michael Moorcock), but why the reversion? What events cause a society to forget all it once knew and regress, other than a lack of industrial quantities of resources? As a former economic history student (one term only, till I failed the course utterly), these motivations for world-building bother me.
Wolfe complicates the medievality by allowing glimpses of, for instance, the fliers owned by the rich, which zip through the air like silver tears. The lighting in the Citadel is clearly from something as long-lasting as nuclear power; some of the torture techniques are based on psychotropic drugs; and the Tower of the Torturers is clearly part of a long-defunct and partially overgrown and overbuilt spaceship. In this respect Wolfe has done what Anne McCaffrey did with her dragons of Pern novels, but he’s stayed on Earth. Extra-terrestrials are mentioned briefly; they are cacogens, pale and thin, but a few more clearly alien creatures and people appear in the last crowd scenes of the novel, with the effect of letting us know that Wolfe has hardly got started: this is just the first act.
On rereading The Shadow of the Torturer, I found that I had not remembered anything much except a sense of wonder and a world that I wanted to return to. Sometimes you get a sf novel where the society is more interesting than the plot, and I think Wolfe may have tipped the balance with this one. I don’t care very much about Severian and his agonies of conscience, but I adore his world. There is a fascinating use of hierarchies in his society. Severian knows his place and refuses to be elevated from it, because his role is more important than the man. He dissuades the chiliarch from giving him his executioner’s fee with his own hand because this would have demeaned the chiliarch’s own office, and was not traditional: his fee had to be flung at him on the ground.
Chiliarch. Yes: what’s a chiliarch? For this purportedly post-historic frame narrative Wolfe adds a note at the end explaining his ‘editor’s need to invent words for ancient concepts that had not come into existence’. Instead of leaving us to accept that sf is just invention like any other kind of storytelling, Wolfe adds extra meaning to the very idea of sf, like so many other sf novelists, by inviting the reader to think about these stories as being the narratives and records of history that have not happened yet. So we don’t just read ‘story’, we also think about these stories as histories, reports, assessments, commentaries: all of which let us consider how future reality might yet be.
With this in mind, we might read The Shadow of the Torturer in this way with some relief, because its most striking aspect is its vocabulary. Opening the book at two, unrelated, pages at random, here is a representative sample: cataphract (some kind of guard), sateen (a fabric, but not the Victorian cheap furnishing fabric with the same name), optimate (middle-class, burgher), armigette (woman of the trading classes), anagnost (official from the justice courts), jade (low-grade mistress, much the same as its early English meaning), bravo (thug, ditto from Renaissance English), sabretache (satchel, also a British nineteenth-century military accoutrement), fuligin (a colour darker than black). Their meaning is fairly obvious in the context, and there are very few words whose meaning is totally obscure, because otherwise how would we understand what’s going on? Wolfe doesn’t want to scare his readers off, he wants us to work through the story with the experience of not everything being familiar or clear.
The associations carried by the similarity of these strange words to existing words add layers of sound and meaning to the prose. His new vocabulary (mainly nouns) sounds as if it was altered by changing a vowel or suffix to make new words from a familiar root. He also changes the meaning of real words, like destrier, which in his world isn’t a horse, but another animal that is however ridden and used like a horse for the upper classes, which is what a destrier was. Wolfe warns that even some words that are familiar may not mean what we understand them to mean, like ‘metal’ and ‘hylacine’.
The early scenes of the novel are set in the apprentices’ world in the Tower of the Torturers, which inevitably recalls Earthsea, or Hogwarts, and then we think, no, this is much darker. The Shadow of the Torturer is about medical training with a particularly non-Hippocratic use of the Oath to ‘do no harm’. These medievalised characters are also not saving the world through magic. There isn’t any magic in these novels: it’s all physics and invented alien biology. This is a magical world only in the sense that it is conjured up by invented and archaic words.
Wondering what the words mean, and knowing that there are going to be gaps in our knowledge throughout the story, keeps us nicely off balance. Nothing can be taken for granted. Wolfe is an expert distracter of attention, of casting casual asides down in our path just as we expect to be focusing on something else, with the clever result of dividing our attention. At the same time that we are focusing on the present we are also looking at the past. Being told things in such an oblique way also changes the focus. Because we aren’t told anything about screams, bleeding flesh, details of pain, or anything else that we might expect from a torture scene (and believe me I do not read that kind of fiction, so I’m just guessing here), we don’t feel immediate horrified empathy. Instead, we’re told about the event from a very clinical viewpoint, and also an artist’s perspective. We are first invited to admire the skill, we applaud the careful work, and only then do we think about the poor suffering ‘client’, and wonder, with increasing horror, what the clinical details actually mean to the nerve endings concerned. It’s very effective, because the displacement of our attention from natural, emotional empathy for the victim to rational admiration for the technical expertise is done solely by the narrative voice, by the torturer himself.
After the distancing, comes the interest in the details of the technique, the rituals, the taught practice, the means of doing the job properly. The torturer is concerned to maintain dignity for all, there is no degradation, but there is also no exceeding or mitigating the sentence handed down. The final, most important effect of the distancing technique is that we never forget that the role of the torturer is to be an officer of the law, a means to enable justice as decided to be enacted. And this leads us to ask, who sets these punishments? What IS this society that maintains torturers to separate verdict and punishment? You will only find out by reading the next three novels. (Caveat: I have tried the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, but it lost my interest.)
Recently I posted a collection of short hatchet jobs on books that I felt so strongly about I had to be bitter about them in public. This was one of the most popular reviews I’ve posted in the last 6 months, so you clearly like this stuff. I’ve found a few more. I haven’t included those books which everyone says are Great Novels, but which I didn’t, personally, much like. Nor have I included the books that I only feel ‘meh’ about, rather than ‘arrgh!’ Here I warn you off the ‘arrgh!’ books, because I think they’re bad.
Bram Stoker, The Lair of the White Worm (1911) By the author of Dracula.This is dreadful. At first I wondered if the British place-names had been invented since they have no relation to real geography. The narrative is more like journalism than fiction, but also clumsy; and the characterisation is perfunctory and tedious, like symbols going through the motions. It’s a Victorian male quest romance with medieval adventures in magical woods infested by snakes, and still I gave up out of boredom. So much potential wasted.
Noel Langley, Cage me a Peacock (1935) Arch little number. This was Langley’s first novel (I reviewed his There’s a Porpoise on My Tailhere) and has some spectacular imaginative leaps, related in the style that Richard Garnett invented in 1888 with Twilight of the Gods, in which tales from the classical period are told in modern colloquial conversation. (Naomi Mitchison did it too, cutting out the slang to make the modern historical novel.) It’s a retelling of the Rape of Lucrece from Suetonius as if by Noel Coward, and the result is more tasteless than witty. Tonally, the novel struggles to make the sexual mores of the classical period sound like a glamorous cocktail party, and the casual executions, suicides and rapes are really desperately unfunny. It’s the novel I dislike the least from this selection, because it can’t reconcile its subject and style, not because it’s particularly bad.
Elizabeth Goudge, Gentian Hill (1949) Historical romance and sentimental sludge. Goudge can be a bit gushing, but this is the worst I’ve read. Its manner is affected, and the plot has nothing solid to grasp. She can do so much better: The Dean’s Watch (1960), for instance, has a hard and serious edge that redeems the gloop. This one is uncontrolled, woolly, besotted and tedious. The characters are largely copied from her much more famous The Little White Horse, published three years earlier, and the dragging coincidences and characters’ secrets are signalled so blatantly that Goudge must have expected her readers to need to know where they were going to be able to enjoy the journey. I didn’t.
T J Bass, The God Whale (1974) Science fiction. I did like the automated whale built to harvest and process at molecular levels, and I love the Trilobite bot that worships her with such cheerful eagerness. But the stories of the humans escaping dystopian body-harvesting madness through tunnels and chomping machinery are much less interesting. The idea of a future society pouring vast investment into keeping alive a half-man from the past that it has no value or use for, seems wildly improbable. So many good ideas that go nowhere, and shrivel up for want of some thought-through nurturing.
Ngaio Marsh, Last Ditch (1977) Detective. One of the very last Roderick Alleyn novels by Ngaio Marsh, in which she seems to be wandering in time. It’s set in the early 1970s (flares, drugs, T-shirts, jeans) but Ricky Alleyn (in his very early 20s) smokes a pipe, and the alluring family with whom he gets friendly are straight out of the 1930s in behaviour and attitudes. Roderick Alleyn is stuck in his 1950s period, and in any case would be aged about 100 by this time. The slang feels wrong and unexpected. The scenes of excessive violence and torture are quite unlike anything Marsh had written before. It’s a jumble of elements that can’t and don’t work well together, like a really badly-conceived party without gin to oil the wheels.
Robert Holdstock, Mythago Wood (1984) Fantasy. Its 25th-anniversary reprinting and praise from writers I admire persuaded me to buy this, and I am SO DISAPPOINTED. What a noxious, incomplete load of tosh. How can it have won the WFA Best Novel award? Or spawned a series? The central idea of a mythago, archetypes brought into being through the characters’ minds and their proximity to leylines (or something like that) is interesting, but why did it have to be so violent, misogynistic and ultimately sterile? There were some great ideas, but the whole thing is a soggy, pointless, swampish mass of ideas, not a novel. I resented being asked to accept illogical origin stories and endless tedious journeys for no purpose. The RAF photography from the air was the novel’s saving grace: the application of modern technology to a fantasy plot makes a serious contribution to telling stories about impossibilities. But everything else was desperately unsatisfactory, and historically out of whack when it should have been precise.
Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997) Historical sf. This novel was promoted as hilarious, and I believed the hype. It is classically farcical, but not often in a good way. It has a technically challenging time-travel plot from Willis’s Mr Dunworthy series of fictions, that fails because she uses time-travel as a casual means to an end, not as the life-threatening, risk-loaded business that her Doomsday Book, for instance, tackles with proper caution. The plot is crammed with babbling, caricatured characters on a tediously slow progression along the River Thames by rowing-boat with a dog and Oxford eccentrics as drawn by an American in awe of comedy moustaches. I think that’s part of the book’s problem for me: it’s dependent on American readers finding quaint English eccentricity funny. Adding farce to the terrifying implications of being able to travel in time, and trying to squeeze jeopardy out of that, is tonally jarring. It’s a self-indulgent homage to Three Men in a Boat, but I didn’t think that was funny either.
If I’ve dissed your favourite book, I’m sorry. We all have different tastes, and I’ve tried to be fair, or at least rational. That’s the lot for 2016: I’m hoping 2017 will be a better year, all round.
I really like the concept of Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion. In 2013 Hassan Blasim and his collaborator Ra Page, the founder of Comma Press, asked well-known Iraqi writers to write speculative short stories envisioning Iraq in 2113 or thereabouts. The Introduction and Afterword are persuasive about the artistic ambitions of this project, and give a proper sense of political and humanitarian rage at the destruction of Iraq by the British and US-led coalition, in 2003. As time has moved on, new predators have emerged in Iraq, so several of the stories feature deeply-felt responses to the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. This is an anthology about what it’s like to write fiction about the future in a present that no-one wants.
There is nothing hopeful about these visions of a future Iraq. It’s impossible to quantify how science-fictiony these stories are, but their defining characteristic is anger at the present, and a recurring sense that little is going to change in 100 years except the need to look back at this time. In that context, these are not particularly good science fiction stories, but I don’t think that’s important. In how they tackle problems of an unknown future that will somehow relieve the discomfort, injustice or the tyranny of the present, they are very like early Anglophone science fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, especially that written by women. They show strong signs of an emerging artistic tradition.
Early western male sf writers focused on technological advances and ignored everything else about society, or they railed against feminists and the horrors of sexual equality. Early female sf writers from the west also focused on technology, and how it would alter their lives for the better (rather than for war, which was often the male response), but they also wrote about changing society for the better, creating social equality, and doing away with injustice. That is the common factor with these Iraqi stories, by men and women both. Hassan Blasim remarks in the Introduction that ‘Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing’. In both content and impetus, Iraqi writers have used sf in this collection to express their fears and anxieties about the present, by changing them for the better through speculative fiction, or by digging into their nature to find out what needs to be fixed.
The stories most aligned to modern sf are ‘Kuszib’ by playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, with its really remarkable combination of alien eroticism and humans treated as meat; and ‘Najufa’ by Ibrahim al-Marashi, which envisions a modern and roboticised Islamic society, in and out of the mosque, in a totally climate-altered world. Other stories use a futurised society to retell the story of Scheherazade (‘Baghdad Syndrome’ by Zhraa Alhaboby), and the story of the 2013 invasion through time travel (‘The Corporal’ by Ali Bader’). There is an unsettling recurrent image of eating human bodies, in ‘Kuszib’, in ‘The Worker’ by Diaa Jubaili, also a story of a giant automaton, and in ‘Kahmarama’ by Anoud, which rages against the commodification of women by charlatan imams. For the strongest story of speculative invention glazed with horror I’d give the prize to ‘Operation Daniel’ by Khalid Kaki, in which transgressors are incinerated and archived into a glittering chip, to be attached to the robes of the Venerable Benefactor and tyrant, Gao Dong. This is the only story that reaches beyond the familiar Iraqi-US binary, and envisions a different cultural player in the future.
All these stories are about punishment and transgression. This is not a collection for comfort reading, and the stories are certainly not contemplative visions of a calm and perfect future as seen from a suburban armchair. But they’re vigorous, and exploratory, and represent a new way of writing about present-day problems by authors who really know what suffering and destruction mean. For that reason alone, this impetus should be nurtured.
Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press 2016), ISBN 9 781905 583669, £9.99
When Terry Pratchett wanted to explore how trolls might name themselves, he used mineralogy. Jade was one of the first Pratchett trolls to have a name. It was curiously dignifying as well as amusingly paradoxical (how could a lump of rock have a name, ho ho ho). Pratchett continued to dignify his troll characters rather than just generating cheap laughs, because naming confers identity as well as personality: Bauxite, Beryl, Mica, Flint and the greatest of all, Mr Shine: him Diamond.
In N K Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015) [update: which won the 2016 Hugo Award for Best Novel] there was a similar geological component in the storytelling that produces dignity rather than jokes. On completing their first phase of training orogenes name themselves for precious and ornamental stones: Alabaster, and Syenite. Their job is to sense and work with the movements of the earth, to quell earthquakes, shape landscapes, create islands and bury cities. Because of their phenomenal destructive capabilities they are hated and feared by people without that power. In that excellent novel we also met stone-eaters, creatures who move through earth and rock, and eat stone, even stone that was once human. When the Fifth Season begins – a period of violent climatic change brought about by catastrophic eruptions and earthquakes – Essun, an orogene who is trying to find her lost daughter, meets Hoa. She assumes by his name that he is the lost small boy he looks like, although the reader has seen him emerge from a stone nodule. But Hoa is not a mineral name.
In The Obelisk Gate, as Essun struggles to survive after the apocalypse of The Fifth Season, she encounters other stone-eaters. They attach themselves to orogenes, as disconcerting guardians and bodyguards. They exude danger and power in a way that Pratchett’s trolls could not, though Hoa, for one, does have a sense of humour. Essun’s names for them are not particularly beautiful, or respectful: Ruby Hair, Butter Marble, Ugly Dress, Toothshine, Grey Man. Hoa has different names for them, and Essun does call the sternly imposing Antimony by her name for good reason. But these sloppy nick-names reflect Essun’s state of mind when she meets them: usually exhausted, and enraged at how little she understands of what is going on in her community, and in the world, now that everything is made different.
Perhaps it’s the gravity of the situation in The Obelisk Gate that makes the stone-eaters so grim, and so watchful, assembling silently in the plot with a sense of simmering excitement. (Is it food? More of their kind?) The earth has moved in several places, and Essun has learned to summon the obelisks, the gigantic hovering mineral rhomboids in the sky that magnify and amplify her mental earth-moving powers. Alabaster is trying to teach her how to work with them, but he is a terrible teacher, impatient and elliptical, and he is weakening because he is turning into stone. The other orogenes in the underground community of Castrima where Essun is living are only concerned with keeping the people safe and fed, and keeping the life support systems running. But on the surface, where ashfall is preventing crops from growing and killing the trees, other people are coming to find Castrima, and they are not interested in sharing.
The Obelisk Gate continues to develop Jemisin’s rich and complicated world. There is so much that the reader doesn’t and can’t know, yet the pace of the events drags us past unanswered questions. It’s like riding a white-water raft through plot points and characters. Essun spends the entire novel in Castrima, keeping her community alive, but what she doesn’t know is that several other characters are struggling to survive elsewhere on the continent, and she needs most desperately to find them before truly terrible things happen. Really terrible things happen throughout the novel, at the human scale, but Essun’s focus is planetary now, and the reader’s empathy is switched rapidly between small children and whole land masses.
Jemisin’s handling of several strands of narration simultaneously is expert, occasionally with deliberate tangles. As she did in The Fifth Season, in The Obelisk Gate she uses a challenging second-person narration to make us not quite sure who ‘you’ is, and who is saying ‘you’. The multiple narratives tease out the major new development in this novel, a new thing that orogenes can do, which brings magic into the plot, and the series. I was unsure how the integration of sf and fantasy would work, but because Jemisin describes the magical elements in grounded scientific terms, it works for me. What the orogenes do is of course totally fantastical, but by clothing its functionality in words from biology and geology, Jemisin cuts off any possibility of elves and unicorns. We only have the stone angels to contend with instead.
N K Jemisin, The Obelisk Gate (2016, Orbit Books) ISBN 978-0-356-50836-8, £8.99
I buy Gollancz’s SF Masterworks editions because I trust their editors to provide me with the best sf from the past century. I don’t expect their reprints to be classics all the time, but I do expect a decent read. Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow was a disappointment, but had a whumph in its tail.
It was published in 1955, in the same year as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, which it fairly closely resembles. It’s a story of life in North America after the Bomb (not again …. I would so like to read a sf novel of life in any other part of the world after the Bomb: all suggestions welcome), in which religious tyranny has overtaken all civilisation within two generations. Oddly, people who were children during the time of the Bomb can remember their pre-Bomb lifestyles, but their children and grandchildren have been so completely indoctrinated as to believe all such memories are sinful and subversively dangerous. The indoctrination has been carried out by religious cults, led by bullying men with loud voices. I do not, cannot, believe this: all magazines, books, posters, art, photographs, visual references, let alone the technology to hear music and see TV and film, completely gone in two generations? Twenty, maybe, but not two. My belief failed to be suspended.
The Long Tomorrow is a futuristic western, in that the protagonists want desperately to escape their present tyranny and travel west to a far-off land of freedom. They have to make their way alone with no help except some mysterious guardian outlaw types, and they move cautiously through frontier towns that actively repress all attempts at community growth or trade. Violence is everywhere. Women are barely even noticeable, being crushed under the restrictions of the religious and civic tyrannies. They are either crushed slaves in bonnets (what is it that attracts religious cults in the USA to Little House on the Prairie fashions?), or pouting strumpets mad keen for sex-and-marriage (because tyrannies always insist on marriage). This is a pioneer variant of Joanna Russ’s concept of intergalactic suburbia, in which advances are made in all areas of human life and technology except where women are concerned, because their place is in the 1950s. There is one female character with agency, seen briefly for plot purposes, but she is mad, starving, dresses in rags and has clearly been exiled for having a mind of her own.
The sf elements are limited to the post-apocalyptic setting, and to the importance of rescuing lost technologies as a metaphor for regaining civilisation. Except: when we reach the end of the novel, and the protagonists finally reach their goal, Brackett drops an idea on us that is truly magnificent in its implications, and finally shows why this novel belongs in the sf canon. Her philosophical paradox that denies and rewrites everything that we’ve read up to now, and for that alone the novel is worth reading. All that has gone before is pretty second-rate stuff. I had been thinking that the novel’s only selling point was a cynical piggyback on the fact that Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. The Long Tomorrow is one of her earliest novels, and is not great, but has a tremendous central concept. For that alone it’s worth reading.
This remarkable compendium of the history of British radical communities is colourful inside and out: the typefaces change depending on the category of the text (commentary, quotation, reportage), and the stories are astonishingly addictive. ‘Just one more’, as, oblivious to the cold room or the early start next morning, you keep reading past midnight yet one more of these stories of the Utopian dreams of the British.
The publisher, Diggers and Dreamers, is a long-running network of British co-housing communities, which publishes directories and histories as well as community living guidance and inspiration. Utopia Brittanica shows the remarkable amount of dissent and independent thinking running through the history of the British people. It includes ample evidence of the dismaying gullibility of the British for religious sects founded on exploring socially-outlawed sexual practices. (The 19th-century Abode of Love in Spaxton made the rape of virgins a devotional, purifying act.) Islands of socialism across time populated by artistic visionaries show that the New Age was reinvented in practically every century since the fourteenth.
I was amazed by how these communities and forgotten movements connected together. Joanna Southcott (she who famously did not give birth to rabbits) would lead onto early socialism; the poet Southey would lead to the poet Coleridge. The Scrooby Separatists turned into, or were sanitised and rebranded as the Mayflower Pilgrims. The 17th-century Ranters and Diggers worked out the structures of British socialism two centuries before the next attempt. Friendly windmills (as in, windmill cooperatives operated by the early Quakers) led to socialist turnips.
British utopian ideas spread overseas as well. The successful anarchist state of Pitcairn Island established female suffrage in 1838, on the initiative of the descendants of the settlers from the Bounty in 1814, and from the good sense of Captain Elliott of the visiting British Navy, whom they asked to draw up the island’s constitution. Radical ideas also spread back to Britain: William Wordsworth was at school with the Bounty’s Fletcher Christian, who may have been the original Ancient Mariner. The inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha were evacuated in 1961 due to volcanic explosion, but returned two years later, unable to bear the rigours of unUtopian English life.
Printing was vital to radical movements, since without this none of the radicals’ ideas could have been spread, nor could the expression of their ideals as art have become widely known. Ruskin’s Guild of St George, the Cotswolds Cooperative Handcrafts, the Artists’ Rifles and the Welsh Academy were all idealistic communities predicated on art. For Augustus John and Eric Gill, copious sexual activity within their particular circles was as important an expression of their vision of the ideal of living as their artistic activities.
The history of communitarian living is strangely littered with the good, the mad and the fraudulent. Theosophy, the Kibbo Kift, the Gore Kinship, Q Camps and the still-influential institution of the Camphill Schools, were all connected by belief systems from the occult to eugenicism, to public health and curative education. The combination of architectural vision and town planning on a human scale related the Garden City movement to the Settlements in the East End: it was all about making life better for everyone, not just the rich and landed.
There was plenty of opposition to attempts by the people to establish independent living. The Chartist estate and land colony of O’Connorville was brought down by political sabotage from those who feared its success in making the working classes independent of capitalism. Community living is easily derided, and often mocked, yet it continues, quietly and purposefully. Utopia Britannica is a marvellously uplifting history of stubborn independent thinking about how the roof over one’s head can be the best roof for everyone.
Chris Coates, Utopia Britannica: British Utopian Experiments, 1325-1945 (2001, Diggers and Dreamers Publications):buy it here.