Emelyne Godfrey (ed) Utopias and Dystopias in the Fiction of H G Wells and William Morris: Landscape and Space (London: Palgrave 2016) £52.99 EPUB, PDF, £66.99 Hb. ISBN 978-1-137-52340-2
While the literary works of both William Morris and H G Wells are situated within a utopian tradition spanning from Thomas More and Plato’s Republic to contemporary writers of utopian fiction and SF, the respective worldviews of Morris and Wells were undeniably different. The backward longing of William Morris’s pastoral romances is in stark contrast to the scientific romance of Wells’s kinetic utopias. However, both men were not just writers, but political figures, socialists, and multi-disciplinary intellectuals. This collection of essays highlights and interrogates the differences between Wells’s and Morris’s respective worldviews, but it also approaches their own interdisciplinary visions through a variety of methodologies. Considering both the different and shared environments of Morris and Wells, Godfrey’s collection places an emphasis on space and landscape, questioning how the works of both writers 'raise questions about the impact of surroundings on social conscience, psychology, belief and morality' (5). Godfrey’s introduction acknowledges the influence of Wells and Morris on a wide range of media and discourses, from utopian studies scholarship to utopian and SF literature of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As a result, the collection is similarly wide-ranging, featuring essays with perspectives on space, time, and landscape through mathematical and scientific approaches to literature, architectural approaches, theological and moralistic arguments, and historiological lenses. The collection is both historicist, looking backward at the worlds of Wells and Morris in the nineteenth century, and forward-looking, engaging with questions posed by Wells of how utopia must be revisable and kinetic. As Patrick Parrinder reminds readers in his foreword to the collection, 'utopia in the modern world necessarily forms part of a dialogue, a dialogue that (as many contributors to this book emphasise) always includes dystopia' (viii). Thus, the best way to approach Godfrey’s collection is with attention to the richness of variety while also noting the overarching centrality of spatiality, environment, and utopian praxis.
The collection is divided into five parts, each with a thematic concentration. After the book’s second chapter, which provides readers with historical background on William Morris’s Kelmscott House as a vital location for Wells’s and Morris’s ideological similarities and departures, the first major book section is influenced by Wells’s The Time Machine and considers time as a kind of space. Helen Kingstone’s opening chapter argues for the imaginary hindsight of Wells’s and Morris’s futuristic narratives as a heuristic for commenting on the history of the nineteenth century. In the book’s fourth chapter, Genie Babb reads Wells alongside the work of John Theodore Merz and the emerging field of statistics in the nineteenth century. Babb argues that, following Darwinian science and statistics, Wells makes a distinction between free will and life at the level of individual experience, and life at both molecular and very large scales. Also within this section, Ben Carver’s chapter argues for ironic similarities in vision between Wells and Morris. Carver notes that, though the two men are frequently contrasted in literary criticism, familiar or unchanging landscapes underscore utopian fiction in the work of both. In this way, landscape and space act as constants whereas ideologies shift and are thus foregrounded.
The collection’s second thematic section examines the 'invigorating role of disorder both within the utopia and also as a manifestation of utopian desire' (28). Tony Pinkney opens this section with a chapter questioning the necessity of failure and revision in the utopian project. Pinkney uses Wells’s idea of a kinetic utopia to argue for the mutability and adaptability of utopian desire. His chapter looks at the form and content edits of News from Nowhere and examines Morris’s text alongside Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, both noted as critical ecotopias which require change along a gradient of good and bad states. Rhys Williams’s chapter uses Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau to argue that the utopian impulse can be 'radically impure and horrifying' (119). This chapter’s refreshing reading of Moreau examines the beast people and Moreau, himself, as compromises with the Victorian bourgeois status quo, whereas the only truly utopian element of the text is Moreau’s horrifying and unfinished project of the 'Thing.' Catherine Redford contributes the book’s eighth chapter, which first details the explosion of subterranean development in Victorian England. She then uses the texts of Wells and Edward Bulwer Lytton to read subterranean innovation as a paradoxical space of both agency and stasis for the Victorian working classes.
The third major section of the book is an exploration of distortion and trauma in utopia over two chapters. Vera Benczik introduces what she calls the 'spatial echo' to analyze time and perspective distortion in syntopic spaces. Károly Pintér then reads The Time Machine as an unreliable narrative due to the epistemological uncertainties of Wells’s Victorian scientist narrator. After these two chapters, the collection shifts to its fourth section, which is an examination of island spaces, isolation, and theology. Both Sarah Faulkner’s chapter and Gianluca Guerriero’s chapter focus on questions of labor and morality, primarily in Wells’s work. Faulkner argues that the practice of vivisection in Moreau is a decadent art, a counter to the productive artistic labor espoused by William Morris and John Ruskin. In the last chapter of this section, John Hammond reads Wells’s Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island as a fable influenced by the works of Swift, Voltaire, Poe, and Defoe. This chapter thinks through some of Wells’s lesser-known works, as well as some of his experiments with fiction and form in the early twentieth century.
The collection’s last section looks to twentieth-century responses to the visions of Wells and Morris. Maxim Shadurski looks at Huxley’s Brave New World as an anti-utopian response to Wells’s fictional mobilization of a one-world government against global capitalism, but also as a novel that aligns somewhat with William Morris’s views on landscape. The book’s final chapter engages with Modernist architecture; Care Holdstock’s approach to Morris and architecture provides a refreshing look at Modernist social housing as connected to Morris’s utopian ideal.
Although the essays in this collection engage Wells and Morris principally through a literary approach, the breadth and variety of approaches in Godfrey’s collection are commendable. Because methodological scope is so broad, each major section is curated thoughtfully and manageably. Holistically, the book interrogates the differences and similarities between the worlds (fictional and historical) of Morris and Wells, tying its ambitious variety together along questions of space, time, and landscape. The essays in this collection seem most heavily centered on the work of Wells; nevertheless, the collection surveys with depth and interest the influence of both writers on each other, on their environments, and on scholarship and post-nineteenth-century fiction.
Kameron Sanzo, University of California, Riverside