Saturday, 8 June 2019

News From Nowhere - William Morris

During my adult life I have tended to read fewer fictional works than I would have preferred, and generally those novels which I have enjoyed have been of the more "philosophical" variety, including some utopian and dystopian science fiction. William Morris' 1890 novel News From Nowhere pretty much corresponds to these tendencies of mine.

In this novel, a man falls asleep in Victorian London, and apparently wakes up in a future society which styles itself as a socialist utopia, and which is agrarian in character.  He is given a tour of this "new world" by the people who he meets, and this takes in boat journeys along the River Thames.

Even allowing for the times when the work was composed, I found the writing style to be an acquired taste. Although not quite archaic in its flavour, in places it may be difficult for some to follow and even understand. Of the novel itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and absorbing I found it.

The fact that the new society outlined in this book is agrarian in nature means that it probably made more sense back in the late nineteenth century than it does to a twenty-first century audience raised in an age of globalization and rapid technological progress. Despite this, some aspects of the utopia envisaged here are very much relevant to our own modern concerns and problems. Perhaps Morris was prescient and astute in observing that technology does not necessarily emancipate the people, or rather is not allowed to emancipate the people.

Whilst the agrarian society portrayed in News From Nowhere seems impractical and implausible to us in our hi-tech world, and the old arguments concerning incentives and competition remain very valid, facets of this utopian vision are worthy of consideration and scrutiny, as part of piecemeal social and economic reform to improve our world and make it more humane, stimulating and equitable.

One feature of the novel which I found slightly disconcerting was the revelation, or insinuation, that all the people were happy, and that they evince a certain kind of serenity.  This seems unlikely and even undesirable.  A place where there is a uniformity of expressions and moods sounds to my antennae like more of a dystopia!

Some of the language used, and the arguments advanced, are quite persuasive, certainly of the evils of 19th century society and its contemporary industrialism, but whether this means that the agrarian route was a practical and workable solution is another matter entirely.  Perhaps there is a gap in the market for someone to write a novel where a person falls asleep in a 21st century environment and wakes up in a future libertarian socialist set-up?  Maybe we are currently at a similar stage, "spiritually" if not materially speaking, as the Victorians were?

I was heartened that some form of "explanation" was offered as to how the old society of "commercial slavery" gave way to the brave new world, but I found myself wanting more.  For example, what was the full human cost of the transition?  In fairness, we are left wondering whether our hero's "experiences" were from a dream, and some minutiae may not have been imparted in such a dream....

Moving on, I was intrigued by one of the central tenets of this utopia; the notion that work can be pleasurable, and vice-versa, and of the idea that the barriers between work and art can be eroded. Weren't we once told that technological advances would allow people more time and space to indulge in stimulating and rewarding artistic, intellectual and leisurely pursuits?

My interpretation of the utopia proclaimed in this work was that it was too uniformly "nice", with little time for dissenting voices, which appeared to be treated with disdain. The tone of the characters seemed to me unduly smug and complacent, with scant allowance for the co-existence of philosophies or the possibility of syncretism. People in that situation may be too comfortable and serene to notice anything sinister or insidious in their midst. In addition, I think there was too easy an assumption that the old habits and vices would simply disappear or fade away.

Much play is made of the populace of this future community being at one with nature, and loving life as opposed to fearing death. Surely we can incorporate some of the more desirable elements of Morris' vision in our future, by way of gradual, rational reform, and the application of reason, if we put our minds to it, without dispensing with some of the dynamic forces which propel human progress?

Overall, I liked this novel much more than I had anticipated beforehand.  It is more "literary" than I thought it might be, and it is well worth a read.

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