The Garden of Eden. The first Utopia. Throughout time people have gotten impatient about waiting for the rapture; dabbled in nihilism to prod the redemption; in general, a complete dissatisfaction with the world as it is leading to fervent imaginings of a world as it might become. We have continually tried to recreate Utopia, but no degree of legislation, moral suasion and outright arm twisting has produced the conditions for repairing this damaged world and making it whole again. In fact, as time goes on, our utopian visions have darkened, and optimism about our collective destiny, a golden age have faded under the weight of a certain hubris and fear. ….
An escapism from the reality of the scientific age. In 1890, William Morris in his News from Nowhere dreamed of a new London that had become a cluster of villages amid idyllic woodlands, the only remnants from the past being the Houses of Parliament, now used to store dung. In 1887 W.H. Hudson gazed into the distant future to find A Crystal Age, in which society resolved itself into great country estates, each a little world with its own history and traditions, presided over by a housemother who is part goddess, part queen bee, and part Mom. Although these communities were theoretically set in the future, they were really dreams of the past.
The other, the forward marching utopias were changing with the contemporary world that produced them. One of the earliest of these Utopias of Steel was, appropriately enough, Steel City, and it made its appearance in an 1879 book called The Begum’s Fortune by Jules Verne. Built in Oregon by a wicked German planner named Dr. Schultz, Steel City is one vast munitions plant whose workers are attached to the factory as medieval serfs were attached to the land. Verne was deliberately creating a negative utopia, but he also put a positive one in the same story. Problem is, the “good” utopia is hardly more attractive. it is a kind of germless garden city with identical brick houses on identical lots where wallpaper and carpeting are forbidden, to guard against bacteria, and for the same reason the city’s hospitals are burned down every year.
Something similar happened a few years later in Looking Backward, when Edward Bellamy constructed his own Steel City, or rather Steel State. It was conceived and intended as a positive utopia , but it seems the opposite. The entire population works for the state in a vast labor army, and in good utopian tradition all receive credit in return for their work and thus may draw what they need from the great storehouses. No money of course; no banks, no want, no crime, for Bellamy argued that crime was caused by an inequality of possessions. If supreme trust in a wise elite is the first great utopian fantasy, here is the second: the notion that people need only to be drafted, as it were, and issued with decent rations to make them perfect.
Yet for all his simple-mindedness, Bellamy was a chillingly accurate prophet, even if he did not understand the meaning of his prophecy. He foretold a lot that has become reality, from Muzak ( generic entertainment) and piped-in-religion to the labor army. In this sense Looking Backward is one of the most significant of all utopias, because it makes us see the all-important point: we used to deride utopia because it was unreal; now we dread it because it is real.