Patrick Parrinder, Utopian Literature and Science: From the Scientific Revolution to Brave New World and Beyond

Patrick Parrinder, Utopian Literature and Science: From the Scientific Revolution to Brave New World and Beyond (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) ix, 222 pp. Hb £55.00. ISBN: 978-1-137-45677-9

Several questions provide the framework for Patrick Parrinder’s Utopian Literature and Science, the most compelling of which, perhaps, is whether or not there is a profound and irresolvable incompatibility between science and utopia. Most of the other questions which this study raises stem, as Parrinder makes clear, from this fundamental one. Would a ‘true’ utopia be a static one? Are utopias supposed to be perfect? Are utopia and dystopia two sides of the same coin? Science is the enabling force behind modern utopias, paving the way for changes in technological and biological engineering which could improve and extend human life in a multitude of ways, but at the same time science poses the threat of frightening and unforeseen consequences. The figure of the scientific over-reacher has a long and prestigious literary lineage, encompassing Drs Faust, Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Moreau, all of whom, in Parrinder’s words, pursue ‘once-forbidden knowledge as an end in itself, with results that they, at least, have seldom been able to foresee’ (10). Utopian desire and the scientific imagination (which, Parrinder is anxious to point out, relates to the ‘cultural mythology’ of science as much as much as to its practices) exist, then, in a curiously conflicted relationship, each driving the other forward, yet also threatening to undermine or even destroy their ostensible counterpart. A perfect utopia, after all, might well have no place for the disruptive presence of research driven science, which constantly seeks to expand the limits of knowledge.

Parrinder maintains the distinction, first postulated by H G Wells, between classical and modern utopias in this study - that is between utopias of perfection and utopias of progress. Although boundaries between the two can be hazy, the modern utopia generally serves a political function, encouraging democratic values which benefit the many rather than the few. The modern utopia is also typically set in the future, and thus, Parrinder asserts, forms ‘a branch of prophetic fiction or futuristic fantasy, merging in the later twentieth century with science fiction’ (4). Along with his suggestion that ‘dystopias and anti-utopias form a subdivision of the utopian genre’ (5), Parrinder’s categorizing here seems somewhat swift: beyond a footnote explaining that ‘the exact generic relationship between utopia and science fiction has been much debated’ (189), and a sentence or two recognizing ‘the awkwardness and hybrid nature of the utopian genre’ (6), the tantalizing complexities of these classifications are largely sidelined. It is clear, though, that a substantial (if not total) portion of the book would need to be dedicated to these issues in order for them to be analysed with anything approaching the detail they invite, so that Parrinder has, it seems, decided to risk charges of over-simplification in order to leave space in which to explore topics which might otherwise be overshadowed.

The result of this confident and decisive positioning is a study which is fruitfully narrow in its focus on the relationships between what Parrinder is calling utopian literature and the various branches and aspects of science which have informed it, at the same time as being profitably broad in terms of the texts included in the analysis. What might be termed a purist definition of utopian literature, including only those texts which sketch positive aspects of an imagined nowhere place, would omit such central novels as Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which incorporate notions of utopia for the very purpose of challenging them. Instead, Utopian Literature and Science analyses, along with science fiction and dystopian narratives: the ways in which science has interacted with speculative dialogues since Plato’s Republic, philosophical imaginings and the desire to understand our place in the cosmos, the many permutations of the demonic scientist figure, the scientific romance, the politics of utopian literature, and more recent fictions concerned with posthumanism, genetic engineering, and the human-animal boundary.

The study is separated into three parts, beginning with ‘Sciences of Observation and Intervention’. This section provides a historical overview of those sciences centred on the telescope or the microscope and those reliant on biology and genetic engineering, linking them with religion, politics, philosophy, and literature. Again it is the relationships between all of these branches of knowledge and aspects of culture which is highlighted, with utopian literature, from Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) to Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), slotting in with this broader history. If sciences of observation, which work from the assumption that ‘the whole universe is, in principle, knowable’, lead ‘naturally to utopian speculations’ (34), then the science of human biological improvement is also ‘a manifestly utopian project’ (53). For Parrinder, utopian impulses drive science just as much as science enables (or sometimes undermines) utopias, and philosophy, religion, and politics are influenced by these same processes.

Part II is entitled ‘The Human Animal’, and turns to the question of human nature, particularly the ways in which conceptions regarding our ancestry and our future have interacted with utopian yearnings. Placing both canonical and less well known texts, such as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Francis Galton’s Kantsaywhere (c.1910) alongside a history of eugenicist discourse, the first chapters in this section explore whether or not we can ‘imagine a better society without imagining, and wishing to create, better people’ (67). The story of humanity’s future is bound, as Parrinder makes clear, with that of its past, and the latter part of this section is concerned with the links between prehistoric anthropology and the ‘stone age romance’. Parrinder stresses the ways in which constructions of prehistoric man are politicized and often polemical, with novelists and scientific anthropologists alike presenting self-contradictory versions of the emergence of ‘humanity’ from ‘savagery’ in stone age history. The final section of part II explores concepts of the human-animal boundary through the unlikely pairing of Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1916), two texts which, through the implicit or explicit ‘denial of any utopian horizon’ provide a ‘reflection of and a preparation for the predominance of dystopia over utopia in twentieth-century literature and history’ (125).

In the third and final part of this study, ‘Modern Utopias and Post-Human Worlds’, the modern (or progressive) utopia is analysed in some depth, beginning with Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) and ending with Wells’s film Things to Come (1936). Framing the questions raised in this final section (such as: Is it possible to resolve the conflict between individual freedom and the need for economic prosperity? What happens to the impulse towards war in a utopian state? Will the future of humanity rely on a ‘singularity’, whether extra-terrestrial or technological, to propel it into a post-human era?) is the initial question with which this survey began: will there ever be room in a utopia for the disruptive and restless presence of the scientist? Or, for that matter, the poet? It was, after all, the poets whom Socrates banished from Plato’s Republic because of the challenge they posed to its authority. This question must, Parrinder concludes, in a manner which is fittingly frustrating given the nature of the questions at stake, remain open.

Rachel Holland, Lancaster University p

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