The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890)

News from NowhereThe full title of artist and designer William Morris’ socialist opus is News from Nowhere: An Epoch of Rest being some chapters from a Utopian Romance. Quite a mouthful. Before coming across this work, I had no idea Morris wrote fiction and only a vague notion that he had something to do with the socialist movement. The full title alone gives this book away to its place in science fiction and even literary history. However, the question is, as always, is this science fiction and if not, what is it?

My edition is a free copy of the 1908 tenth impression from Longmans, Green and Co, and although there are very few, I did ignore the notes, reading it as intended. It was first published in serial form in the Commonweal journal beginning on 11 January 1890.

The opening passages pretty much answer the question of whether or not this is science fiction. The narrator, who turns out to be called William Guest – Morris in another guide? – falls asleep after returning from a meeting of the socialist league. He ‘awakes’ in a future (2003) where he learns about the society of the future and the people who live in it. So, it is clear from the outset that although it is a clear, linear and realist narrative, that Guest is dreaming.

But what of the story. Well, there isn’t one, really. Guest wanders around London and then the home counties up to Oxford, usually by canal, where he meets various characters. Essentially, he is looking to understand the society while looking for friendship and maybe even love. So with each new character he meets, he asks a series of questions, or the journey takes him to a part of the country where something just happens to be occurring, so that his guides can explain things further to him. So for example, he meets Dick and Clara, who are is main guides and ideal ‘comrades’. Old Hammond is the main communist educator. Ellen, the object of his desire, is the unreachable goal. Finally, just as Guest reaches what he thinks is his destiny and happiness with Ellen, he wakes.

So, not a narrative or a story in the traditional sense, although it has clear beginning, middle and end, and a range of characters. However, there is no character development, no conflict as such (certainly none for the protagonist to deal with), no discernable plot and once finished reading, no sense of a journey been accomplished (which is odd, as this is akin to early fantastic voyages such as Utopia and Gulliver’s Travels). Instead, what we have is a fictionalised question and answer text where Morris poses a number of scenarios and questions to do with socialism and communism and invites the reader to assess whether they work or not. There is a short section about the history of the country, or how the civil war and revolution came and went (1952), and what is now left.

What, then, are Morris’ ideas and ideals? News from Nowhere was apparently written as a Libertarian socialist response to an earlier book called Looking Backward, a book that epitomised a kind of state socialism that Morris loathed. So. `In this future, there are no poor people. There is common ownership and everyone works hard because that is a good thing to do (‘the reward of labour is life, is that not enough’). There are no factories but banded-workshops where people join together out of choice. When Guest asks about poor people, Dick thinks he means sick people as he doesn’t understand the concept of poor. There is no formal education. Skills are learned as they are needed. There is a small amount of ‘book learning’ but only in such places as Oxford. There is no commercialism or capitalism. There is no right to property. Wealth has been destroyed. There are no criminals (as everyone has all they need), and therefore no law enforcement (Morris calls the police of history – his time – the ‘civic bourgeois guard). Everything that Morris dislikes is gone (big cities, authority, divorce, courts, class).

Victorian values on women wasn’t great. Morris address this directly. The folk in the future laugh when Guest enquires and state that they know of the Emancipation of Women. Old Hammond explains that women do what they do best and what they like best without the tyranny of men. Yet women still tend to follow stereotypes of the time, such as Ellen, the object of desire. While explaining horticulture, Hammond (a communist, remember and who has just been embarrasses to explain the roles of women in society) refers to ‘our sons and sons’ sons’, but no mention of daughters. Later, the women can’t cross the water as there is ‘nobody of the male kind to go with them’. So the inherent sexism still comes through, even from Morris.

There is a little heavy handed satire. There is no government, and Guest is told that decisions are made by consensus. The Houses of Parliament still exist, but they are now a storage place for manure. Some might say that they are just that in the 21st Century. Morris obviously thought so in the late 1800s. There are also digs and Oxbridge (‘the breeding places of a peculiar class of parasites’) which still might hold true. Nice to know some things never change.

What this is, compared with all of the earlier works of utopian fiction, is a proper utopia. There seems to be no downside to the world Morris creates. Indeed, there is a chapter called The Obstinate Refusers. I was expecting this to the ‘hang-on, it’s not all great’ section, but no. These were just a few radicals who wanted to build a house instead of haymaking as they were expected to do. I quite like this idea of a real utopia in fiction, without any negatives.

There is an odd passage towards the end when one of Dick’s friends is waiting for them, but the journey isn’t described as timed or telegraphed. So how does this friend know to be waiting. Communication is carried out, but never described.

William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1887 CC-PD-Mark
William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1887 CC-PD-Mark

While not science fiction in any sense (there is no scientific or technological progress, even before the revolution in 1952, and even in this future, the entertainment is pure Victorian – dinner and singing from a woman called Annie), this is an important work in the future worlds idea. There is a detailed chapter which explains why capitalism fails and communism works. This could be the first example of fiction where are future utopia is created not as a result of disease or disaster or isolation, but through a choice made by humanity (albeit after a civil war). It might also be the first work of speculative fiction to use the word communist. Although I’m not sure. There are hints of meta in the work, as if Morris knew this book wouldn’t be viewed as fiction but as treatise. In Chapter XIX, a character suggests that Guest will go back to the people he came from and report on all he has heard, ‘and take a message from us which may bear fruit for them, and consequently for us’.

So Morris invents a believable socialist utopia, with answers to most questions. Everyone seems happy. Yet there is still rare violence and negative human emotion. Some things can’t be changed. News from Nowhere is a very frustrating read. Of course it is all exposition and no story. It is an enjoyable read for a lecture but it is no work of narrative fiction. Not science fiction in the truest sense, but an important work within the canon of speculative fiction.

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