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  • Helldorado
  • Erik Martiny (bio)
The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature edited by Gregory Claeys. Cambridge University Press. 2010. £16. ISBN 9 7805 2171 4143

Although the concept of Utopia is historically contextualised by Thomas More's coining of the term in the Renaissance, the Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature discusses all manner of texts from antiquity [End Page 384] to the present, ranging from euchronia ('an ideal time', rather than merely 'a perfect place') to dystopia, briefly mentioning, though insufficiently dwelling on, such intriguing subgenres as somatopias and micro-utopias. The book is, by contrast, generously expansive when it comes to feminotopias, ecotopias, and counter-utopian fiction. It also includes some compelling vistas of non-Western utopian traditions and colonial and postcolonial utopias, as well as science fiction.

As always in this type of companion, the historical backbone is powerfully buttressed, offering a very readable chronological account of the genre from its inception, that for the most part avoids the tedious, list-accumulating tendencies of some criticism devoted to the concept of utopia. The only loophole in the construction of this companion is perhaps the somewhat misleading emphasis it places on utopian and dystopian fiction. Although utopianism is a highly politicised genre that has no doubt been quantitatively tipped in favour of the novel form, the category of utopian poetry is in fact considerable. The book does briefly mention Coleridge and Southey's Pantisocratic fantasies, but these are considered exclusively in sociological terms without any reference to the impact on their poetic work. There is some mention of utopia's poetic origins in Tao Yuanming's recording of the Chinese myth of The Peach Blossom Spring and Micheál Coimín's poem Laoi Oisín i dTír na nÓg, Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Jacopo Sannazaro's Arcadia, but these are given short shrift in a small handful of words.

The case is even worse when it comes to utopian theatre, which is treated as if the concept of the alternative world had never placed a foot on the stage: even Marivaux's L'Ile des Esclaves fails to get a mention despite its crucial position in European literature as a daring carnivalesque utopia in which masters and slaves temporarily exchange roles. These omissions are no doubt due to the diminished status afforded to non-novelistic literary genres in contemporary literature studies, and the Utopian Society's activities offer no exception to this rule. 'Literature' has by now clearly become a synonym for 'fiction'.

Although the overall generic approach of the volume is descriptive rather than prescriptive, contributors occasionally make distinctions that can seem a little arbitrary. One author claims, for instance, that 'when satire is not confined to real society, and is aimed at the imagined society, when the satirical tone becomes dominant and supersedes pedagogy, satire ceases to be a means and becomes an end - and we are then pushed out of the realm of utopian literature' (p. 8). According to this definition, works like Gulliver's Travels are somehow beyond the pale of utopia. Another contributor makes a similar point later on, arguing that 'we should briefly consider demarcating the boundaries of the "dystopian" [End Page 385] concept' (p. 109). While it makes critical sense to attempt to delineate the blurry boundaries between various kinds of dystopia, it seems overpersonal to want to twist the etymological basis of certain words. We are told that 'the term is used here in the broad sense of portraying feasible negative visions of social and political development . . . Eugenic dystopias remain within the bounds of possibility. Conquest by alien beings, or robots, or the final calling of time by God at Judgment Day, may portray dystopic elements (as well as utopic, or both simultaneously). But texts portraying such events are not "dystopias" as such' (p. 109). Similar critical etymological twisting occurs elsewhere when we are given a temporally restrictive definition of a term that doesn't include it: 'euchronia, the good place in the future' (p. 9; my emphasis).

These caveats aside, the book offers an engrossing historical and theoretical panorama of the satellite concepts that gravitate around the notion of utopia. The companion holds up many captivating...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1471-6836
Print ISSN
0008-199X
Pages
pp. 384-388
Launched on MUSE
2011-12-16
Open Access
No
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