Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Happy Birthday, Ursula Le Guin!

Today is Ursula Le Guin’s 80th birthday – happy birthday, Ursula! She is, as far as I am aware, still hale and hearty, and new books in her distinctive veins of science-fiction and fantasy continue to emerge from the press – Lavinia, a retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid, being the latest (2008). Why, then, should Morrisians concern themselves with this festive occasion?

First, because Le Guin is the author of the most important utopia of our times, The Dispossessed (1974), which tells the tale of the physicist Shevek’s return journey from the troubled utopia of the moon Anarres to the decidedly dystopian capitalist home planet Urras. This rich book is surely the wisest and deepest of the 1970s generation of ‘critical utopias’ which Tom Moylan has rightly insisted have powerfully remade the genre for the late 20th and early 21st century.

We don’t yet have an adequate account of Le Guin’s relationship as utopian writer to William Morris and News from Nowhere, though there are some glances in this direction in Laurence Davis’s admirable collection, The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ (2005). Nor do we yet have a fully developed ‘Le Guinian’ reading of News from Nowhere itself, though my own hunch is that Shevek and his Syndicate of Initiative in The Dispossessed would tell us a great deal about where Ellen might politically end up in Morris’s utopia.

But there is another strong connection between Morris and Ursula Le Guin, for both are authors of remarkable fantasy fictions as well as utopias. In a very general sense, of course, all twentieth-century fantasy is indebted to that extraordinary series of late writings which Morris inaugurated with The Wood beyond the World in 1894. But the connections may be more specific and illuminating than that; for as John Purkis noted in 1994, ‘the Earthsea tetralogy of Ursula Le Guin … is far more worth reading [than Tolkien or C.S.Lewis] as an example of a distillation of Morrisian romance at its best’ (Morris Society Journal, 11.1, Autumn 1994, p.17).

Morrisians thus have good cause to celebrate the 80th birthday of Ms Le Guin and to wish her many more years of productive living and writing.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Letter to Marina Warner

Dear Marina Warner,

I’m teaching H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine on an undergraduate literature course on ‘Decadence to Modernism: 1890-1939’ and, my old Pan Classics copy of the book having finally disintegrated (to my great sadness, it having such a wonderful image of the time machine on its front cover), I have finally had recourse to the Penguin Classics edition of 2005, which contains your 14-page Introduction to the text. Overall, you've given us a very fine piece of writing, highly illuminating about Wells’s book and its literary and scientific context; and I shall be glad to direct students to this. But when you deal with the relation of The Time Machine to Morris’s News from Nowhere (p.xviii) my reservations begin.

First, matters of accuracy. Morris was not a ‘founder of the Pre-Raphaelites’, as you claim. That honour belongs to Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais; Morris and Burne-Jones come along later and constitute a second-generation of the movement. And to call Morris a ‘much softer optimist and dreamer’ (than Samuel Butler) puzzles me too. I certainly wouldn’t use the adjective ‘soft’ to describe a man who threw himself so militantly into the early socialist movement as Morris did, risking violence and arrest many times over, or whose utopia contains an impassioned and detailed account of the bloody civil war of 1952-54 which brings its socialist society into being.

Second, questions of literary interpretation. Has the world of Nowhere ‘regressed’ behind modernity quite as thoroughly as you suggest? Isn’t it in fact a brand-new energy source (admittedly not much specified in the text) which powers both the ‘banded workshops’ and the ‘force-vehicles’ which William Guest happens upon?

And to talk, as you do, of the ‘Morris-like Eloi’ of Wells’s book is certainly to stretch a point – most implausibly, in my view. The Eloi are the descendants of capitalists who have brutally driven the working-class underground; Morris’s Nowherians are the descendants of socialist revolutionaries who defeated those masters. The Eloi don’t work at all; the Nowherians are devoted to the vigorous practice of the crafts, not to mention the heavyduty road-mending we come across at one point. The Eloi are feeble and effete; the Nowherians contain spectacular physical specimens like Dick Hammond, the musclebound Arnold Schwarzenegger of this text. The Elois’ love-making is lightweight and transitory; the Nowherians have intense encounters which lead, at worst, to extreme sexual jealousy and crimes of passion. The most memorable Eloi is Weena, who is more of a pet than girlfriend to the Time Traveller; the most memorable Nowherian is Ellen, an extraordinary ‘second-generation’ utopian who proves just how much more dynamism this society is capable of generating.

So: many thanks indeed for your helpful thoughts on The Time Machine itself, but may I recommend another, and more careful, reading of Morris’s utopia to you?