& Director, Center for Center of the Study of Complex Systems

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Eric S. Rabkin, Department of English Language and Literature, &

Carl P. Simon, Departments of Mathematics, Economics, Public Policy,

& Director, Center for Center of the Study of Complex Systems

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109


Fantasy and Utopia
Utopias are public fantasies: The Republic, Christianopolis, Shangri-La, these are the far-off or not-yet neighborhoods of intimate, shared desire. J. B. Post’s Atlas of Fantasy collects maps of places like Utopia (Thomas More’s genre-naming pun on the English homophony of the Greek ou-topos, no-place, and eu-topos, good-place), to put in our hands realms that never were. Why do we care about them? The endpapers of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth map in punning detail the salient locations in the wish-fulfilling “Lands Beyond.” Beyond what? We learn from the title of Chapter 2: “Beyond Expectations” (15). We never expect utopia to happen. It is always an ideal, be it a glorious ideal, a Shining City on a Hill, eutopia, or a fearsome ideal, a horrid Brave New World, dystopia. And sometimes it is both, and, in two senses, terrific. Still, because we never truly expect it, in our level-headed moods we chide utopians.

One of the main definitions of “utopia” in The Oxford English Dictionary is “An impossibly ideal scheme, especially for social improvement.” The realms of the impossible, of course, are the realms of fantasy: “a supposition resting on no solid grounds; a whimsical or visionary notion or speculation. Now more emphatically contemptuous than fancy” (OED). As we hold fantasy in contempt, we hold utopia, and all “utopian schemes,” in contempt. The relentlessly level-headed, like Thomas Babington Macaulay, trivialize utopia, as in his essay “On Lord Bacon” (1837): “An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia.” And yet, for most of us, at one time or another, utopia matters. As Maurice Sendak, the creator himself of such wondrous realms as Where the Wild Things Are (1963), wrote of Juster’s work, “Another part of the marvel: even though Tollbooth is extraordinary fantasy, it is tightly hinged in the here and now, and conveys an urgent and vivid sense of reality” (Sendak 7). “Even though”? To be surprised by the connection between fantasies, including utopias, and reality reveals a slip into common—or woefully common-sensical—misunderstandings of both fantasy and utopia.

We need to understand fantasy in at least two ways, the literary and the psychological. As discussed elsewhere, in literary terms “The fantastic is a quality of astonishment that we feel when the ground rules of a narrative world are suddenly made to turn about 180°” (Rabkin 41). The fantastic does not arise simply out of the inclusion in a text of something not of our world. Stephen Daedalus, despite James Joyce’s memorable “portrait of the artist as a young man,” seems never to have existed. Yet that does not make Joyce’s book a fantasy. Consider a fairy tale that began, “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful golden haired princess, and she fell in love with an accountant named Fred Smith” That would be more fantastic than the beginning of “The Frog Prince” because while we are primed for talking frogs in the narrative world announced by “once upon a time,” accountants named Fred Smith—although they may well exist in our city—are impossible—and impossibly common-sensical—in the world of Grimm.

The impossibilities of the fantastic may be tied to shared extra-literary reality—we do, after all, think that words have references—but the fundamental basis for fantasy is an affect generated through the time of reading by the structure of our engagement with the text. Fantastic impossibility is defined microcontextually as we read, one set of ground rules potentially supplanting another. Works that do this frequently and in many ways, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), works that repeatedly reverse the ground rules of the characters (Alice suddenly changes size), the plot (her tears make a pool in which she can swim), theme (is this about logic, language, or literature itself?), and style (“curiouser and curiouser”) are true fantasies. But so may be works with minimal reference to the possibilities of “the real world.” Consider great works of nonsense, or sentences like these: “Damn those neighbors! Each one is noisier than the other.” The impossibility here is not in the world but in the language. The literary fantastic arises from our engagement with a structure of sudden and fundamental reversal.

Psychological fantasy, however, if we may borrow Freud’s analysis, is in no sense “impossible” and in fact is tied to our very personal, private realities.

We must not suppose that the products of this imaginative activity—the various phantasies, castles in the air and day-dreams—are stereotyped or unalterable. On the contrary, they fit themselves in to the subject’s shifting impressions of life, change with every change in his situation, and receive from every fresh active impression what might be called a ‘date-mark’. The relation of a phantasy to time is in general very important. We may say that it hovers, as it were, between three times—is linked to some current impression, some provoking occasion in the present which has been able to arouse one of the subject’s major wishes. From there it harks back to a memory of an earlier experience … in which this wish was fulfilled; and it now creates a situation relating to the future which represents a fulfillment of the wish. What it thus creates is a day-dream or phantasy, which carries about it traces of its origin from the occasion which provoked it and from the memory. Thus past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them. (Freud, “Creative” 439)

On dispassionate reading, Freud’s comments seem unexceptionable. We are all aware that when we are hungry we fantasize about food; when we are poor, we fantasize about money; when we are lonely, we fantasize about companionship. Most of us indeed at least unconsciously accept the Freudian notion that fantasies are in some sense not only “date-marked” but compensatory: they represent the reversal of our world. Yet, despite this undiscussed agreement, many people reject Freud’s analysis for two reasons. First, his whole enterprise has come into question. For example, who today believes, as Freud asserted, that the “primal crime” really happened?

Cannibal savages as they [the band of originary brothers] were, it goes without saying that they devoured their victim as well as killing him [“the violent primal father” who prevented sexual access to the mother]. … The totem meal, which is perhaps mankind’s earliest festival, would thus be a repetition and a commemoration of this memorable and criminal deed, which was the beginning of so many things—of social organization, of moral restrictions and of religion. (Freud, Totem 142)

Second, our “common sense” makes us resist Freud’s own solution to the challenge posed by his article of Oedipal faith:

…the mere existence of a wishful phantasy of killing and devouring [the father], would have been enough to produce the moral reaction that created totemism and taboo. In this way we should avoid the necessity for deriving the origin of our cultural legacy, of which we justly feel so proud, from a hideous crime, revolting to all our feelings. No damage would thus be done to the causal chain stretching from the beginning to the present day, for psychical reality would be strong enough to bear the weight of these consequences. (Freud, Totem 160)

We simply do not want to grant fantasy that much power. After all, by definition it is impossible, isn’t it? The conflation of the literary and the psychological in the field of fantasy yields enormous richness.

Both literary fantasy and psychological fantasy are in significant ways private. Literary fantasy exists in our momentary reactions; psychological fantasy exists in our persistent minds. Yet we do understand that we are unlikely to be the only individual to find Alice fantastic or, in some sense, to fear our own potential for violence. When we move into the realm of public desire, we open the way for utopia.

Darko Suvin offers this definition:

Utopia is the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical and individual relationships are organized according to a more perfect principle than in the author’s community, this construction being based on estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis. (49)

The centrality of hypothetical alternatives, of course, suggests that these “verbal constructions” are fantasies. Accepting such a conclusion as given, The Oxford English Dictionary had already defined utopia as “An impossibly ideal scheme….” Suvin, though, goes much further by specifying that “Strictly and precisely speaking, utopia is not a genre but the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction (61; Suvin’s emphasis). Whether or not one accepts the notion that one can retrospectively identify Plato’s Republic as part of a genre that was first named in the twentieth century, it does seem reasonable to understand the notion of science fiction broadly enough to include political science fiction and social science fiction just as we do physical science fiction and biological science fiction. By Rabkin’s definition, “science fiction [is the variety of fantastic literature for which its difference from our own world] is apparent against the background of an organized body of knowledge” (119). Such a notion of science fiction indeed makes a place within that genre for the rigorous thinking of utopians like Plato and the deterministic extrapolations of utopians like Aldous Huxley.

Utopian works, be they acknowledged science fiction or not, notoriously elude consensus. Was More’s Utopia in fact a good place, an eutopia, known to be so by its healthy, well supported citizens, or was it a dystopia, known to be so by its clearly satiric use of precious metals for chamber pots and (most illogically) penal shackles (43ff.)? One person’s hell, Don’s Juan’s, for example, in the third act of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903), is another’s heaven, and vice versa. But the problem of interpreting utopian works is not merely a matter of liking or disliking the social scheme exposed by the work. The literary, rather than political, question is, how shall we take that scheme?

Consider Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In this novel, it seems that Consuelo, or Connie, a poor, abused Chicana in New York, is contacted by a woman of Mattapoisett, a utopian village of a future New England, a collectivist society in which, through technology, men and women are equally likely to breast feed babies and all children are gestated in mechanical wombs. That last detail might allude to the decanted denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), clearly a dystopia, but Piercy’s protagonist comes to believe, as she shuttles between New York in the 1970s and Mattapoisett, that these futurians have defeated male chauvinism by this radical equalizing, a clearly eutopian result. There is another complicating factor. In the famous Chapter 15, instead of shuttling to Mattapoisett, Connie shuttles to a different future, a horrible future in which women are used for their bodies alone, raped, “reamed,” and ultimately rejected. This world is clearly dystopic. By contrast, even the fact that the people of Mattapoisett obviate jails by the expedient of executing all multiple offenders, seems a clear improvement. When Connie learns that the world of Chapter 15 will arise from the conditions in the mental hospital in which she comes to be held outside New York, she takes revolutionary action, fatally poisoning some of the staff. She sees this as trading her personal freedom for the freedom of society. She justifies violence. But maybe Connie is crazy. Maybe she is projecting her desires in fantasies of Mattapoisett and Chapter 15, coming to rationalize the violence that she naturally enough would want to inflict. Shall we take this novel as a dystopia or an eutopia? Tom Moylan and Anna Bounds put the alternatives clearly:

If one refuses the SF aesthetic and accepts dominant ideologies, and thus regards Connie as mentally disconnected from everyday life (so that Mattapoisett is her fantasy), the work becomes an anti-utopia (a negation of the utopian impulse). Yet, if one accepts the SF premise of temporal solidarity with Mattapoisett, then one collaborates with the text as a critical utopia that affirms not only the revolutionary community but also validity of Connie’s praxis, harsh as it may be, as she attacks the medical staff in the name of the utopian horizon. (707)

Put another way, read as science fiction, the work is probably eutopian; read as psychological drama (focused on a delusional viewpoint character), the work is either dystopian in its critique of the social conditions of contemporary New York or not utopian at all.

Utopian works, as Freud suggested about fantasies, are date-marked. In broad terms, one can divide the history of utopianism in the West into four movements, each reflecting a different way of grappling with the fundamental economic necessity in utopia of providing sufficient material goods to sustain the population. In the Ancient world, utopias, like The Republic, rest comfortably on slavery. In the Medieval and Renaissance periods, chastened by the initial growth of Christianity among slaves, material goods are made ample by the proper organization of labor. Come the Industrial Revolution, the task of production shifts to machines. And in the Modern period, in which we fear the dehumanizing influence of our own technology, the very possibility of utopia is questioned, as in Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (1920), with the result that we are often, as in B. F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948), sent back to the farm. It seems that utopia is a moving target. Perhaps this is so, as with fantasies of food, because their very indulgence destroys the impulse that created them. A perfect society, paradoxically, requires some imperfections. That, at least, is what Arthur C. Clarke suggests in Childhood’s End:

The end of strife and conflict of all kinds had also meant the virtual end of creative art. There were myriads of performers, amateur and professional, yet there had been no really outstanding new works of literature, music, painting, or sculpture for a generation. The world was still living on the glories of a past that could never return.

No one worried except a few philosophers. The race was too intent upon savoring its new-found freedom to look beyond the pleasures of the present. Utopia was here at last: its novelty had not yet been assailed by the supreme enemy of all Utopias—boredom. (75)

If utopias are date-marked, we ought to be able to track them not only in the broad terms suggested by studying the problem of production across centuries but in more detailed ways. The Genre Evolution Project (http://www.umich.edu/%7Egenreevo), a continuing research effort led by the authors, has developed a database that, as of this writing, contains about 2,000 coded science fiction stories published in American science fiction magazines (1926-1999) and, counting their reprints, about 4,000 story publications overall. One of the coding categories is “Genre Content,” roughly those elements within a text that makes it feel like science fiction. These include the alien, the striving scientist, the extraordinary invention, and so on. Three of these contents are eutopia, dystopia, and utopia, the last being used for cases in which the coding teams felt, as might be the case with More’s Utopia, that the work as a whole intentionally had significant aspects that were both eutopic and dystopic. If we aggregate those three contents and call the collection “topian” and then track by decade the proportion of topian versus non-topian publication in the study period, we see that there are more original (unique stories, not reprints) topian works than statistically expected in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s and fewer in the 1930s and 1940s (Fig. 1).

ig. 1

If we think of utopias as fantasies and think of fantasies as having a compensatory function (dreaming of food when one is hungry), then this is a surprising result. One would have expected that there would have been more eutopian works under the stresses of the Great Depression and World War II, and fewer in the comparatively prosperous 1960s and on. If we further analyze these stories to see what sort of topian works these were, we find (fig. 2) that there was more eutopian production in the very prosperous 1990s than was to be expected and more dystopian in the 1930s. In fact, these data suggest that topian works do not so much reverse our world as reflect it. This result is in keeping with Freud’s notion that a fantasy is c
onnected to its and our own past, present, and future.

Fig. 2

The same analyses done including all works, that is, original stories plus reprinted stories, reveals a similar situation: more topian works than expected in the 1970s, fewer in the 1930s and 1940s. If we break this down by topian types, we find, again, more eutopian works than expected in the 1990s and this time more utopian works in the 1940s and 1950s.

In order to tease out the implications of these data, we compared topian versus non-topian production and topian types both including and excluding reprints (figs. 3 and 4; note that for display purposes the vertical axes begin at 70%). The result is that the reprinting of dystopian stories in the 1970s stands out as deforming the earlier analyses.


ig. 3

Fig. 4

These data suggest that, at least for twentieth century American readers of science fiction, dystopian fiction is much more worth reprinting than other types of topian fiction although throughout the period we see that topian publication of all sorts reflects rather than reverses the world in which the texts are published. In a separate analysis, we have found that of all the sixteen Genre Contents, dystopias are reprinted far more frequently than one would expect and to a stronger degree than any other Genre Content. In a separate analysis, we have found that dystopia, far more than any other of the sixteen Genres Contents of science fiction, is reprinted with extraordinary frequency. Dystopian works, of course, reflecting rather than reversing our world, project the notion that things are bad and getting worse. While few adults would believe that the weather was sunny because we wanted to go on a picnic, many would feel that it rained just to thwart us. In other words, the (usually unacknowledged) fantasy that things are bad and getting worse is, as some would say, more “adult” than the fantasy that we will live happily ever after. Utopian works, because they are inherently susceptible to complex readings, are also, like dystopian works, more “adult.” To put this a different way, these dystopias and complex utopias are more “aesthetic” (to borrow Moylan and Bounds’ term) than loosely-designated utopias or obviously indulgent eutopias, more worthy of book as well as magazine publication, more likely to be of value even outside their context of original publication, more likely to count as “art.” In the realm of public desire, the fantasies that are our utopias do indeed reflect the world we inhabit, but, for the twentieth century at least, no matter how much our initial impulse may be toward amelioration, on serious reflection we are inclined to doubt the future. Although many topian works ignore that doubt, the works that rehearse that doubt are mostly likely to rise to our notions of “art” regardless of our concern with the details of the world that spawned them. That is why in surveying the whole field, it is attractive for the common-sensical among us to treat utopia with contempt, and precisely why those of us who seek a better world must listen to our fantasies.

Works Cited

Clarke, Arthur C. Childhood’s end. New York: Ballantine Books, 1953.

Freud, Sigmund. “Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming” (1907). Peter Gay, ed. The Freud reader. New York: Norton, 1989. Pp. 436-443.

_____. Totem and taboo (1913). James Strachey, transl. New York: Norton, 1950.

More, Thomas. Utopia (1516). H. V. S. Ogden, transl. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949.

Moylan, T. and A. Bounds. “Woman on the Edge of Time.” Vita Fortunati and Raymond Trousson, eds. Dictionary of literary utopias. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2000.

Piercy, Marge. Woman on the edge of time. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1976.

Post, J. B. An atlas of fantasy. New revised ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1979

Rabkin, Eric S. The fantastic in literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Sendak, Maurice. “An Appreciation.” 1996. Norton Juster. The phantom tollbooth: Special 35th anniversary edition. Jules Feiffer, ill. New York: Random House, 1996 (orig. 1961)

Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of science fiction: On the poetics and history of a literary genre. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1979.

Copyright © 2002 Eric S. Rabkin & Carl P. Simon

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