The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Utopia by Thomas More (1516)

I finally finished my first book in the challenge and unlike many on the list, it’s not one I’ve previously read, which I find surprising, considering my interests. I’ve read it blind. In other words, in my edition, translated by Paul Turner, I didn’t read the introduction or notes, footnotes or appendix. My intention for this, and all the titles in my challenge is to assess each book on its own merits. Is it any good? Is it a significant milestone in the history of the science fiction story? Is it worth a read?

Utopia begins with a some Utopian poetry in the made up alphabet and then there are a couple of letters. The first from More to a Peter Gilles and a second from Gilles to Busleiden. The purpose of these is to set the scene in terms of what More is talking about. Gilles is actually the real person Pieter Gillis who was a real life friend of More (again, I only learned of this on completion of the text). Busleiden was also a friend of More’s. The letters are More’s attempt to cloud issue of people not knowing about Utopia, again implying the reality of the text. The narrative that follows is set out in two books. More’s fiction, taken from this point, is intended to be a real account of a real discussion between people who have been to Utopia.

Book 1 is a discussion between More and a traveller called Raphael in Antwerp. It is a thinly disguised rant on all that is wrong with the world More lived in at the time. Raphael picks holes in European royal households, as More attempts to convince him he would make an excellent court councillor. More then uses clearly allegorically designed names for Raphael to highlight these follies, such as Tallstoria and Happiland. There is a possible hint in the dialogue that he favours communism as a political system although the character More states in the text that he thinks that even communism cannot work with human nature as it is. It is interesting to note that a lot of issues More discusses under the guise of Raphael are still prevalent today, such as the uneven distribution of wealth, the folly of war, the power of the privileged and the problems of the poor.

Book 2, then, is Raphael’s description of Utopian society, which sets out to right the wrongs described in Book 1. For the 63 pages of my edition, over half the text, Raphael describes the various aspects of life and culture on Utopia without pause or interruption. He describes the political system, how people work and play. The family structure, education, town planning, foreign policy, military tactics, religion and superstition and pretty much every aspect of live are described, pointing out how much better life is. For every description where this possible doubt in the philosophy, Raphael points out why the doubters would be wrong. Perhaps, however, because of the time when it was written, some truths remain universal. There is still sexism and slavery, which is, apparently, justified. Wives are still subordinate to Husbands and girls are allowed to marry four years younger than men, while slaves are used for unsavoury tasks. Despite this, the Utopians have no need for money. They are not greedy or selfish. They work hard and share their product of their efforts. There are neither rich nor poor. However, there are politicians and diplomats and therefore the society had laws and procedures in place in case of human frailty, not that any is ever observed. There is no sin as such, even though there is a religion and tolerance. People don’t appear to have much choice in life, however. They are almost bred for a purpose and only have the illusion of certain freedoms (a good example being their diet – you can obtain foodstuffs and eat alone, but that is frowned upon and why would you want to?) Reading some passages, I felt I wouldn’t like to be a Utopian. I think I would probably be bored and feel less of an individual.

So. Is Utopia any good? Is it science fiction? What is it? What it’s not is a story. There is no plot. There are no characters, other than More and Raphael, and they are narrators or describers. There are none of the traditional elements to a tale. There are no relationships, no emotions, there are no pitfalls to overcome. It is an allegory. It is a satire, but it is not a novel. All the hype that surrounds the history and tradition of the text meant that I was left a little cold. I had been expecting more of a traveller’s tale, an adventure in a new land, rather than just a monologue. This brings me to the style. As well as cold, I found it very dry. As mentioned, over half the text is relentless description. Even a dialogue with More would have been more interesting. At the end, More the character suggests that he wanted to cut in and make comment throughout the monologue, but held back. An author’s excuse?

Maybe I’m being too harsh? This was 1516 after all. This is fictional prose, which was more common than a novel. The ideas are clearly transmitted and the messages clear. I just didn’t enjoy it as a book.

So. Science fiction. No. There is no evidence that there are any science fictional elements to the work. There is nothing in the Utopian society that cannot be mirrored here and now, or even when the book was originally conceived. Clearly, there are elements of the society which have been used in other science fiction novels, and hence it’s only legacy. From Le Guinn to Clarke, from Orwell to Moore, there is a clear path from Utopia to modern science fiction. You could even take the view that it is the forerunner of alternative history.

I was massively disappointed with Utopia. It is in no way science fiction. It is not even the sub-genre of fantasy known as imaginary voyage, as no-one goes anywhere. It is not a story. It is a rant, and a bit of a boring one at that.

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