By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Utopian literature has a long history, so in the following top ten selection we’ve tried to pick a representative sample of what the genre has to offer. Here are ten of the best utopian novels, romances, and philosophical treatise (utopian fiction loves to blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, essay and story).
1. Plato, Republic.
In a sense, the utopian genre might be said to begin with Plato’s Republic, in which he sets out his ideal society (famously, no poets were allowed). The Republic sees Socrates debating with a number of other people about the nature of justice and the ideal city-state. The book also discusses various possible forms of government, discussing the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Recommended edition: Republic (Oxford World’s Classics)
2. Sir Thomas More, Utopia.
This 1516 work is the book that gave us the word ‘utopia’ – from the Greek meaning ‘no-place’, though with a pun on eu-topos, ‘good place’, implying that such an ideal society is too good to be true. More’s island utopia has variously been interpreted as a sincere description of the perfect world and as a satirical work poking fun at the world’s excessive idealists.
Mind you, given that in Utopia adulterers are taken into slavery, and repeat offenders are executed, it makes you wonder whether More’s Utopia isn’t more dystopian than anything …
Recommended edition: Utopia (Penguin Classics)
3. Sir Francis Bacon, New Atlantis.
Although he never completed it, this utopian novel by one of the great philosophers of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras is well worth reading. It was published posthumously in 1627 and outlines a perfect society, Bensalem (its name suggesting Jerusalem) founded on peace, enlightenment, and public spirit.
Available in an anthology (see below) along with More’s Utopia and another early utopian novel, Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines.
4. Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World.
Cavendish’s work is frequently interested in the idea of utopia, such as the all-female university she imagines in The Female Academy and The Convent of Pleasure, in which a group of women remove themselves from society in order to devote themselves to a life of pleasure.
But The Blazing World, published in 1666 when London was quite literally ablaze with the Great Fire, is her most representative utopian work, a fictional account of a young woman’s fantastic voyage to an alternative world, which she accesses via the North Pole. Cavendish’s looking-glass utopia anticipates the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in a number of startling ways.
Recommended edition: The Blazing World and Other Writings (Penguin Classics)
5. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels.
In this work of 1726, which was an immediate bestseller, Lemuel Gulliver actually visits four different fantasy worlds, but the one that’s especially interesting here is the world of the Houyhnhnms, horses endowed with reason and speech, and a world in which humans are yobbish Yahoos flinging their muck around.
Gulliver interprets the Houyhnhnms’ society as a utopian world, though whether Swift is inviting us to agree, or to distance ourselves from Gulliver, remains a contentious point.
Recommended edition: Gulliver’s Travels n/e (Oxford World’s Classics)
6. Samuel Butler, Erewhon.
This hugely inventive 1872 satire by the author of the anti-Victorian novel The Way of All Flesh is perhaps more accurately described as ‘anti-utopian’, though it follows the utopian narrative structure. The fictional land of Erewhon – almost ‘nowhere’ backwards – is the setting for this novel.
Among the things satirised by Butler in this book is the rise of the machines, which Butler argues will evolve at an ever-faster rate – along the lines of Darwinian evolution – until the machines eventually overtake humans.
Recommended edition: Erewhon (English Library)
7. Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887.
Published in 1888, Bellamy’s novel imagining a perfect future society spawned a nationwide movement in America. (It also predicted electronic broadcasting and credit cards.) Bellamy’s plan for a ‘cloud palace for an ideal humanity’ also helped to inspire the garden city movement in the US and the UK.
Recommended edition: Looking Backward 2000-1887 (Oxford World’s Classics).
8. William Morris, News from Nowhere.
Morris was a socialist whose 1890 utopian novel, set in the London of 2035, envisions a future world in which common ownership of the means of production has been achieved and Morris’s socialist dream has come true. Morris wrote News from Nowhere partly in response to Bellamy’s novel above.
Recommended edition: News from Nowhere and Other Writings (Penguin Classics)
9. H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia.
Wells was repeatedly drawn to utopias and dystopias, as is evident right from the beginning of his career and his first novel, The Time Machine (1895). The 1905 novel A Modern Utopia posits the existence of an alternate Earth, very much like our own world and populated with doubles of every human being on our own planet. The rule of law is maintained by the Samurai, a voluntary noble order.
Recommended edition: A Modern Utopia (Penguin Classics)
10. Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed.
Published in 1974 when the Cold War had become established as a leading theme of much speculative and science fiction, The Dispossessed is a utopian novel about two worlds: one essentially a 1970s United States replete with capitalism and greed, and the other an anarchist society where the concept of personal property is alien to the people. One of the finest examples of the utopian novel produced in the last fifty years.
Recommended edition: The Dispossessed
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.