Transcript: What does fiction say about the world we wish we had?

Prof. Matthew Beaumont

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Hello and welcome to The Garden. I'm Sophie. And today I'm going to be your guide as we dive into the fascinating realm of world building and what the environments we create in fiction tell us about the world we wish we had and the fellow who's going to be leading us down this Garden path is Professor Matthew Beaumont. Matthew is professor of English literature at University College London in the UK, where he's also co director of the UCL Urban Laboratory, where he runs the city's imaginary strand of the project.

Matthew's work focuses on representations of the metropolitan city, particularly at nighttime. He also studies 19th century literature, film, crime fiction, utopian and dystopian literature and many other genres of English literature and literary theory. So we couldn't ask for anyone better to go on this journey with us through the world's we create in our fiction. Matthew. It's great to have you here. Welcome to The Garden. Thank you very much, Sophie. It's great to be here now, Matthew, you've written books about cities and utopias and literature.

How did you get into this fascinating corner of the world of English lit? I think it was probably in my late teens. I was really into William Morris, and at the same time I was becoming more and more active politically on the left. And William Morris, as I will no doubt mention in the course of the talk in a moment wrote, are an absolutely wonderful utopia. News from nowhere. And I became very interested in the fact that although Morris called himself a Marxist, he was writing in a genre the utopian genre, which was largely forbidden by Marxist thinkers.

Marx and Engels themselves had stressed how important it was not to fantasise about the future, not to get bogged down in utopian imaginings. Marx famously said that he wasn't in the business of writing recipes for the Cook shops of the future fantastic formulation. So I became interested in in all those who in that period in the late 19th century had gone against the Marxist injunction, and not to write Utopias not to imagine a socialist future and who had, in fact, themselves pictured that future and thought, as Morris did, that far from disenchanted young people far from de motivating them politically, it might actually inspire them to political action in the present.

But this was a time, I should say, the sort of late nineties without wanting to age myself to specifically when there was a certain amount of millenarian ism in the air. Uh, 1999 anxieties about technological crisis at the turn of the turn of the new century, the 21st century. And of course, also there was increasingly a very anxious public discourse about ecological crisis and catastrophe. So I think all of that together combined to make me very interested in the history of imaginings of the future.

Well, that's really what? My appetite to dive in in more detail. And I'm sure you're all as keen as I am to hear more from Matthew. So I'm going to pass straight across so that we can explore what the fictional worlds we create tell us about the world. We wish we had Matthew over to you. Great. Thank you very much, Sophie. Indeed. So I want you to start by picturing a city that is being unfortunately, this is almost in bad taste today, given what is happening in Ukraine. But I want you to picture a city, a generic city.

It might be a city you know that is being bombarded. Its most famous buildings are blowing up. Its river is roiling and boiling, bursting, its banks flooding streets. Pavements are cracking streets and buildings are collapsing. We've seen this scene many, many, many times, all of us, even if we don't aren't the sort of person who goes to sea disaster movies, doesn't go normally to see science fiction films or watch those kind of genres on television. It's an absolutely standard trope in science fiction, in apocalyptic fiction.

In disaster cinema. As I say, one can think of almost any city. New York seems to have been particularly hard hit by the genre. London fairly hard hit to L. A. Also up there, I think amongst the most hard hit cities in disaster movies, places like Paris oddly, rather rather less so. I think so. You might have examples in your head already of this kind of scenario on screen a recent example, and I think there may be an image to help me Here is of a film from 2000 and 16 called London Has Fallen, which depicts precisely that scenario the famous buildings, the great monuments to London's historical past Crash and burn.

ST Paul's Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, etcetera, etcetera They are subject in this film are particularly poor and, frankly, rather nasty. Xenophobic film. It has to be said, uh, they are the victims, these buildings, these monuments of a terrorist attack, a terrorist attack by a rather shadowy, shady Middle Eastern terrorist organisations. That's one of the reasons why I say it's a rather nasty and xenophobic film, frankly, but it's a completely standard example of the genre.

The genre that jar in particular, which imagines the destruction of cities, goes back really quite a long way, and I might pick up on this a little bit later. But in terms of cinema, one might, for example, go back to the 19 fifties and the invasion of the Body Snatchers every decade finds a slightly different way of imagining these apocalyptic scenarios, which often take place in cities. You might have grown up as I did, for example, watching Mad Max or you might have grown up seeing a film like the day After tomorrow.

These kinds of films are made all the time. They make lots and lots of money. There's one I'm told, called Moon Fall, which is about to come out. Although the previews the advance ah, notices sound make it sound as if it isn't particularly good, I have to say, anyway, you will all have images in your head. I suspect of cities in a state of cataclysmic destruction. The question I want to pose at the beginning of this talk is why we take such pleasure in the destruction of cities in the destruction of civilisations and societies.

Why does dystopia give us pleasure? Surely it shouldn't whence this perverse pleasure in seeing destruction in seeing the worst of all possible worlds. Well, the answer I'm going to concentrate on in this talk is that there's a utopian component to the dystopia. And I suppose this is what I'm interested in exploring the way in which dystopian utopia, far from being simple opposite to one another, are in fact very intimately and closely related to one another. Utopias often contain a dystopian element.

Dystopian dystopias contain a utopian element. I think we have to see them as complex amalgams these imaginings of the future of both elements at the same time. So the utopian component of dystopia is, I think, that the catastrophe that is imagined, as in all those disaster movies, some of which I've cited, the catastrophe clears the ground. It creates a kind of raising or destruction of everything that is cluttered up the past and impeded our ability to think of a future that might be simpler and happier than the one we've inherited from decades from centuries from millennia ago.

The whole weight of civilisation. So these are dreams. In other words, I'm suggesting of the complete destruction of civilisations because that enables us that destruction enables us to think of an alternative to think of a different future to start again. If you like, we long to start again. So it opens up dystopia, I think what a great French historian, now dead Louis Mara calls a neutral place. The catastrophe opens up a neutral place, and on that neutral place in that neutral space, we can start to build a utopia.

As I say, utopias also often have dystopian elements to them. And what might touch on that to some extent to I've mentioned the complicated nous of the civilisation that we inherit. I think that is really important when we think about catastrophes clearing the ground, creating this neutral space everyday life in our societies is immensely complicated. It is constantly obstructed by bureaucratic difficulties. It is shaped particularly in cities, of course, by huge populations and huge population flows.

And the whole infrastructure, which underpins society as well as its superstructure, its institutions, its bureaucracies, et cetera, are immensely complicated. So one of the things I think that both dystopia and utopia historically have done is imagine a simpler life, the simple life as it was called in the late 19th century, which was one of the high points of the utopian imagination. Again, I will return to that. So I want to before I get onto giving a very brief history, First of Utopia and then of dystopia before making some concluding remarks.

I want to read a few lines from a Martin ikan poet Mm Caesar surrealist poet, really the progenitor of the movement negritude. I happened today to be reading from one of his poems, and it seemed to me absolutely apropo of this topic that we're addressing today. So I'm going to read it just a few lines. If that's alright, it speaks to precisely what I'm saying. This is a May Caesar in the late 19 thirties, we sing says L says of poisonous flowers bursting in meadows of fury. Skies of love struck by clots of blood.

Epileptic mornings, the white burning of abyssal sands, the thinking of wrecked ships in the middle of nights, rent by the smell of wild beasts. What can I do? I must begin Begin what? The only thing in the world that's worth beginning the end of the world, no less. So I must begin, he says. How does one begin? What does one begin? One begins the only thing that's worth beginning the end of the world. Why does Caesar want to begin the end of the world? Because he wants to get beyond the end of the world.

He wants to destroy the world that we inhabit so that we can build a world that might be better. That might be better suited to our humanity. That might not be riddled, structured by inequalities, inequities, discrimination, racial, gender, etcetera, etcetera. So that's what I want you to bear in mind. That might come back to it at the very end. That wonderful injunction of scissors to begin the end of the world so implicitly that we can then begin another world. Okay, So, as I said, what I want briefly to do is to introduce Utopia and then dystopia before coming on to some concluding reflections.

Now, in order to think about Utopia and its history in literature, in fiction, we need to go back many, many millennia. I suppose the real origin of the genre is the early 16th century and Thomas More's utopia. But before that, there are many, many examples in every culture across the globe at all times in all ancient societies, certainly of people and writers imagining perfect societies. One thinks, for example, of Plato's Republic. One thinks of Virgil's Arcadia. One thinks of the great peasant utopia, particularly prominent in the Middle Ages.

I wonder whether James Fox might touch on this in his talk because there's a terrific Brueghel painting of it, the peasant utopia in the Middle Ages of cocaine, the land of cocaine that land in which, as Breuder's painting suggests, the peasants will, overworked as they are in our world, will, in this future world simply lie about while roasted pigs with carving knives in them scurry around, uh, at their behest, where roasted fouls fly through the air and land directly on their plates, where everything that they want all the plenty that they miss in their lives, working the land under appalling feudal conditions will suddenly be completely available to them, a land of plenty that's one of the most potent.

I think of the utopian dreams that precede the beginning the initiation of the literary genre of Utopia in the early 16th century, partly because, in fact, it isn't simply one intellectual or writer or philosophers idea. It seems to come from below, it seems, to express the will, the desires of ordinary, exploited people. So one has to think of all those different kinds of golden age. Some of them top down, some of them bottom up from all different parts of the globe before one comes on to Thomas More's Utopia.

Thomas More's Utopia, as I Say, Emerges, is published in the early 16th century in 15 16, and it's that text. I call it a text rather than a novel, because this is before the novel proper, and it's such a peculiar generic amalgam, it's hard to say exactly what it is. It's hard to classify it, but it's this text that coins the word utopia. Now that word utopia tells us an awful lot about the history of the genre, so it's important to remember what it means. It's a pun. In effect. Thomas Moore is very playful, and it's a pun.

It's a pun on two Greek words you to pose, oh, you to pose, meaning no place and you to pose EU to pose meaning good place. So, in other words, utopia with a you missing that? Oh, and that e means a place that doesn't exist. But that is good and no place. That's a good place, an imaginary society that is the best of all possible worlds. Utopia. So that's Moore's opening gambit, if you like, and he sets his utopia on an island. That's really important, I think, because this is a period in a far distant place.

This is a period the early 16th century, when imperialism in its early modern phase, is just emerging. So there's new conceptions of space, a play in the world. The new world, so called, is being opened up to the European imagination and It's no accident that more set his utopia on an island that's divided by a trench from some mainland in a far distant place at a time of great maritime discovery at a time of imperialism. So he creates a kind of empire of imagination if you like. I've said that more is, uh, his text is an amalgam of different kinds of text.

It's very hard to classify it on its own Utopia throughout its subsequent history is I think like that it's quite hard to pin down, and it's why it gets difficult to discriminate from, say, science fiction or apocalyptic fiction in its original form, with more satire is an absolutely crucial component of the text. It's a satire of contemporary early 16th century England. It's politics, it's structures of governance, of legal jurisdiction, all that kind of thing, as well as a fantasy about what the best of all possible worlds might be.

And that satirical element is always absolutely instrumental to the utopian imagination. Utopia always involves some kind of a reflection on the author's own society. It uses the future if you like, or a far distant place like utopia. In Moore's example to as a kind of foothold as a point advantage from which to look back at the present to look back at the Authors Society. It's a way of projecting out of oneself in order to then reflect back on oneself. If that makes sense, so I think you have to think of Utopia is a very unstable amalgam of different, different genres.

Now Thomas More's Utopia really does open up a whole new seam of literature that runs right up to the late 19th century. And some of the most famous examples might include Francis Bacon's new Atlantis, uh, Thomas Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun. A bit later on in England, you might think of very highly satirical utopias or dystopias uh, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, for example. Further on. Still, there are apocalyptic fictions like Mary Shelley's The Last Man, which in fact at the moment seems particularly relevant, seems particularly prophetic because it's about a world that is destroyed by a plague by an infection and which ends up with just a single person surviving and perhaps perhaps starting a new society.

I remind you of what I started out by saying, which is that dystopian utopia about clearing the ground there about destroying something in order to rebuild something new. There's a wonderful quotation from Oscar Wilde, which speaks to the utopian tradition and implicitly, I think, looks back at more at the origins of this genre. And I just want to quote very briefly from that, if that's okay, he says. It's a very famous quotation, a map of the world that does not include utopia. It's not worth even glancing at for it leaves out, he says, the one country at which humanity is always landing, and when humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country set sail Progress, he says, is the realisation of utopias.

It's a wonderful affirmation of the utopian tradition, and the utopian imagination is what drives progress in society now. Wilde was writing that in the late 18 eighties, early 18 nineties, before his great scandal before his imprisonment, in an essay called The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he had a rather peculiar and idiosyncratic brand of socialism, to which he affiliated himself, which he devised. But he was engaging with socialism in the late 19th century, and I just briefly want to say something about socialism in the late 19th century because, as I've hinted already, the greatest explosion of the utopian imagination, at least in quantitative numerical terms, is the late 19th century.

Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of utopias all over the world, but particularly in Europe and the US were published in the period of the roughly the 18 eighties and 18 nineties. So Wells Wells is that is the end point of that, and it's a kind of tipping point, and I'll come on to him in just a moment. Wild, not Wells. Wild is very much speaking. Two other utopians of that time he's speaking a language that would have been very familiar at the time. Everyone thought, in terms of the future in the late 19th century, from whatever political background you came now, the rise of the socialist movement at that time and the rise of an organised working class in the form of emerging trades unions, for example, the rise of anarchism too, had a particularly acute impact on the utopian imagination.

For those who were of a reformist bent who were not happy with the capitalist system in the later 19th century, it was a way of thinking and debating what the future a post capitalist future might look like. For those on the right, it was often away in more dystopian terms of picturing the horrors that working class emancipation, working class enfranchisement that the influence of the socialist movement might bring about in a supposedly stable and progressive society. So Utopia becomes, in a way, that it's never been before, I think a general sort of lingua franca in public political discourse at that time.

The key publishing event of that epoch is the publication of a book called Looking Backward Looking Backward 18 2087 to give it its full title by an American journalist called Edward Bellamy, and it was published in 18 88. And although its first edition didn't do terribly well when it was published in its second edition, it sold a huge number of copies. In fact, ultimately, it was only the second, uh, novel of the 19th century in America to sell more than a million copies after Uncle Tom's cabin.

So it found hundreds of thousands of readers in the late 19th century, not just in the U. S. But in Britain and elsewhere in Europe and even further, a field where it was translated, and it spawned a great fashion for thinking and talking about the future. Hundreds of books, as I say, were published in its wake. Many of them ripped off its title, absolutely shamelessly looking forward, looking further forward, looking backward again. They were all pretty unimaginative. William Morris's own utopia was a direct response itself to looking backward.

Edward Bellamy's book It was published news from Nowhere as its name. As I might have said, it was published in 18 1918 91 by Morris as a deliberate riposte to Edward Bellamy's socialist utopia. What Morris didn't like about Bellamy's utopia was that although it purported to be socialist and although it had a huge impact, as I've said on the socialist imagination, on socialist political discourse at the time, for Morris it was mechanical. It was bureaucratic. It had all the features that, in retrospect, we might say link it to the Stalinist strain of socialism.

It looked a bit like the Soviet Union in the Bellamy, for example, insisted that in this future an industrial army, as he called it, would organise production. I'm just going to very briefly quote from from Bellamy's book, in fact, because although it is a mechanical, it's a machine age utopia. As Morris insisted, in lots of ways, it's also not so much productive ist as consumerist. And this was the period, of course, in which consumer capitalism first emerged. This is the era in which the department store first starts appearing in cities, and some of the energy of Bellamy's utopia comes from its excitement at a socialism, as he calls it.

But we might think of it as a kind of consumer capitalism that is evident in the department stores of the time, in the fashion for shopping and at the very centre of Bellamy's novel. There is, in fact, a shopping trip. His protagonist, who has time travelled to the year to 30,000 and fallen in love with an inhabitant of the year 2000. It's set in Boston. They go together to the 21st century equivalent, if you like of a department store, and this is the description, I mention it now because I'm going to come back to it briefly in relation to Blade Runner.

Oddly, towards the end of the talk, So this is Bellamy. On that shopping trip, I was in a vast hall full of light, the narrator and time traveller says, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was 100 ft above beneath it. In the centre of the hall, a magnificent fountain played, cooling the atmosphere to a delicious freshness with its spray. The walls and ceiling were frescoed in Melo tints calculated to soften the atmosphere, cooling it without absorbing the light, which flooded the interior.

Around the fountain was a space occupied with share chairs and sofas on which many persons were seated, conversing, legends on the walls all about the hall indicated to what classes of commodities the counters below were devoted. So it's a description that ironically, looks a little bit like not just the department stores of the late 19th century, but rather more prophetically some of the great shopping centres or the mouths of the later 20th and early 21st century. And it's very intoxicating for the character at the centre of Bellamy's novel.

That was the kind of thing that appalled William Morris anyway. It's at this point perhaps that I should move on and talk about briefly about the history of dystopia because it's at the very end of the 19th century and going into the 20th century, that dystopia starts to take over from Utopia as that political lingua franca, if I can use that phrase again. So this is the period after the very high point, the utopian imagination with Bellamy and Morris et cetera. In the late 18 eighties and early 18 nineties, these attempts to address what future socialist society might be like what the consequences of a capitalist crisis might be their written at a time not just of the rise of trade union movements and working class, but of a generalised economic depression.

Just after that period in the later 18 nineties, of course, H. G. Wells begins to get off the ground, he writes. His first novel publishes it in 18 95. That's the Time machine, and he writes several novels, which he calls scientific romances that really established the template for the dystopian form the last five years of the 19th century, not just a time machine but the invisible man. When the sleeper awakes the war, the world's Crucially and the Island of Dr Moreau all in very different ways.

Imagine being horrific futures of one kind or another. Now, the reason why the dystopian imagination begins to get off the ground at that very point, I think, is precisely because the hopes of the utopian generation that had immediately preceded Wells begin to falter begin to crash and burn as the century nears its end. As it peters out, this is a time of intense inter imperial rivalry. Various different empires. The British, the German Americans are competing for territories across the globe. There's a good deal of economic stability.

But far from continuing to give the impression that that might result in the emergence of a completely new, post capitalist society, it begins to give people the impression that no, we're just going to be left with the same old thing. But in a state of heightened into imperial struggle, international struggle and, of course, there's a fear of technology and that plays very much into the dystopian imagination at the end of the 19th century, those fears of war, those fears of empires that are out of control, the fear of technology are what shape the dystopian imagination not just at its origins in the late 19th century, but as it proceeds throughout the 20th century.

Think about Huxley's brave New World. Think about all wells 1984 perhaps most famously of all. And during the mid 20th century, of course, all these fears are peculiarly intensified and sharpened by further economic crisis by the rise of Nazism, the war itself a Second World War, of course, and by the Cold War in the later 19 forties and 19 fifties. Modern science fiction emerges out of, I think, to put it slightly crudely, that dystopian imagination in the post war period. Post Second World War.

To give a very brief sketch the 19 fifties, we've got the hard SF highly technologist IQ shaped by the great Manukyan. In other words, the polarised political imagination of the Cold War, its outer space imaginary, its visions of aliens very much allegorical, if you like, of the conflict between the Soviet Union and and the West and America highly technologist IQ. As I say, lots of those science fiction from the 19 fifties invasion of the Body Snatchers would be a good example of it in the cinema are imagining technological solutions to social and planetary crisis, and all sorts of interesting inventions emerge.

Of course, in those times, science fiction writers are competing with one another to come up with the kind of innovations, the extrapolations from contemporary technology. This is the great era in the States, of course, of the rise of the moment that the automobile, the rise of television extrapolation from those kinds of technologies into a future. So just to give one very brief example, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury in the early 19 fifties. Most famous, of course, because it has at its centre the vision of a book burning society.

It's riffing clearly off the memories. Very recent memories of Nazi book burning, of course. But it also is a critique, a satirical, dystopian critique, Bradbury's famous science fiction novel of a society of consumerism that is shaped by mediated by the image. So it's domestic spaces, for example, are completely dominated by vast televisions that are stretched across four walls and by a kind of interactive form of TV where plays are enacted on these screens and the domestic viewer sitting at home interacts according to a script.

Those kinds of things look uncannily prescient. And at its best, of course, although I don't think it is what drives science fiction and makes it of lasting interest to us, those best science fictions are often uncannily good at predicting the future. So that's the fifties, the sixties. To skip through this history very, very quickly is the period in which we move from outer space to inner space, if you like. And the greatest representatives of that shift, our Philip K. Dick and JG. Ballard, both of whom highly experimental writing what is an avant garde fiction in many ways, but couched in the form of a mass popular fiction that's very interesting amalgam, not just of different genres, but of high and low culture.

In the seventies, things move on again, shaped by the society of the time. Of course, I'm thinking here of the rise of feminist utopias and dystopias by people like March Piercy, Ursula Le Gwyn and others Echo Utopias by Ursula Le Guin and others Afro Futurist fictions, which emerged even more fully in the 19 nineties but which have their origins in the 19 seventies with figures like Sun Ra and his Arkestra musician artist, where there's an attempt to think about what a future in which Africans and African Americans are able to rebuild society, given how hostile it is to them in its present imperial capitalist form.

So that takes us up to the seventies. I'm going to stop there, not run out of control, because I want to pause on Blade Runner in the eighties. And the reason I want to do that is partly because Blade Runner is, of course, a film adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel. Do Androids dream of electric sheep? Absolutely terrific novel. I want to say two things about that novel, which don't crop up so much in the film, just to give you a sense of how predictions in science fiction are often not just technologically illuminating in the way that I don't know.

For example, the extraordinary three D screens and self updating newspapers in Minority report that Steven Spielberg film from the early two thousands itself an adaptation of a short story, in fact, by Philip K. Dick. The way that that one is clearly there's something exciting and titillating about that kind of that kind of technological prophecy again. It's very uncanny in the case of Minority Report, but it's not just the technological it's it's the social predictions that can be uncanny and unsettling and in some ways inspiring.

So to that, I want to mention from Do Androids dream of electric sheep, which don't fully find themselves their ways into Blade Runner. One is an empathy box. Dick imagines an empathy box. Now that's some kind of a machine that people have in their houses, which they tune into. They dial into, and they programme so that they induce particular moods. Now this hasn't we aren't living with empathy boxes yet, but I suspect we might be. Who knows? After the current pandemic, when levels of depression are extremely high, we might well start to think of forms other than medication, which induce states that allow us to escape our depression.

So that's one that I want to just pick up on and point out to you because of its interests. The other brilliant innovation, I think in Dick's novel is Keppel. What he calls Keppel Cipel is Dick's word for the clutter that we accumulate in our lives. The kinds of clutter I mean our the leaflets and the junk mail that accumulates on our front door mat. Dick imagines a future in which we are overwhelmed by that in which are door mats are front halls are flats are houses are completely drowning in this rubbish, this clutter that is the byproduct of a consumer society.

Now we get glimpses of that, of course, in Blade Runner, the film, uh, in the early eighties in a world It depicts a world which is entropic, which seems to be winding down, and the production of Keppel. Although the film never uses that word more's, the pity is part of that entropic process, that process of ecological and social breakdown. I think now the reason I mentioned Blade Runner it is partly because it's secretly has a relationship with Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, which I mentioned as the very high point of the utopian imagination in the late 19th century.

I quoted from Bellamy's book that description of the light filled department store of Boston in the year 2000 now in LA After that book was published, when it was all the rage, a silver mining millionaire called Lewis Bradbury commissioned an architect called George Wyman to build a five storey office block, and Wyman based his building, the Bradbury Building, as it came to be called directly on Bellamy's description of that light filled shopping centre. If you like, he built it to Bellamy's specs.

He wanted the same kind of effect. Now Blade Runner uses the bribery building as the setting for its narrative climax. By this point, the Bradbury building had been used many, many, many times over as a film location, and every time it was used as a film location, it seemed to get further from its origin In a utopian fantasy. It got darker and darker, that light filled building that Bellamy describes and that women hope to build. For Lewis, Bradbury gets darker and darker. So it appears in several of the key.

No. Our films of the 19 forties and 19 fifties, for example, Double Indemnity Doha, Fritz Lang's remake of em. In each case, it becomes darker and darker. It becomes, if you like, more and more dystopian until finally in the eighties. It's the central scene of climatic scene of Blade Runner. That's where Harrison Ford and Rutgers holla have their great gladiatorial battle there in the darkened, the separating, leaking, declining, corroding precincts of a super noir and neo noir and super noir Bradbury building.

So I suppose what I'm arguing here is that there's a kind of allegory built into the history of that building, one that takes us all the way from the utopian imagination of the late 19th century to the dystopian imagination of the late 20th century. That's very much the pattern of the form of utopian fiction, and it is built into the history of this very interesting building in L. A. So I'm going to leave it there. But I just want to remind you, in so doing of the question that we started out with what do are fictional world tell us about the world we want to we wish to be in we wish to live in.

I suppose the important thing to stress is that utopian fiction, science fiction, speculative fiction of all kinds doesn't really tell us much about the future. If it does tell us much about the future, it tells us about the future almost accidentally, sometimes the sort of technological gambles and guesses of the writer payoff. No, what it tells us about is the present. The present were trying to escape and what it tells us about the past, the past. We want to escape. As I said at the very beginning, Utopia and dystopia intimately connected to one another, and both have a certain catastrophes, Um, at play with them.

Both want to abolish a world in order, either implicitly or explicitly, to build a newer, better world, a simpler world, often a more equal world. I will end by just quoting the final lines of that, Imus says. Air poem that I began with I must begin. Caesar says, Begin what? The only thing in the world, he says, That's worth beginning the end of the world, no less, and I will leave it there. Oh, thank you so much, Matthew. That was such an evocative note to end on. And you made me absolutely desperate to go and just dig into some of those fictional worlds in more detail.

And it's really fascinating that, but the Last Man by Mary Shelley, about a dystopia created by a pandemic that that is particularly one that made me want to pick up. Um, we've had some really lovely messages during that talk from members all over the world from the UK, Wales, Italy, France. It's great to have all of you here, Um, and a special hello to Martin, Lucy, Louise and Rachel, who are all regulars here at The Garden. And it's lovely to have all of you back. We've had lots of questions from our members, so let's kick straight into those because we've got quite a lot to get through.

We've got a fabulous first question here from Robert, and Robert says, I think when I go the end of the world sounds quite nice. It's because it represents a catharsis. But that's a different thing, from giving thought to what comes afterwards. So, um, Matthew is the desire for utopia linked to the desire for catharsis. Yeah, that's a very interesting point. Robert agree with you, in fact, that there's something that it represents the end of the world, a great kind of jolt, like a like a trauma to a body, which allows the body to shut down with a view to finally starting again.

Catharsis involves expulsion, I suppose, and this apocalyptic imagination that I've been referring to also involves the expulsion, expulsion of the bad so that we can begin again with the world with the world. That might be better, great, and And the question here from Emma and was wondering, Do you think that cultivating a greater appreciation for our power to create utopias and dystopias might help people deal with the uncertainty that the climate crisis promises? Um, you know, how might literature go about reminding people that they have the power to create, Or how might we go about that? That's a really interesting question to, and I think, yes, I think we are due a revival of the utopian imagination.

Perhaps to some extent it is already happening around eco activism and novels by, I don't know people like Margaret Atwood, who has written ecologically shaped utopias and dystopias. Yes, I think that daring to think about what the future might look like about how we might rebuild society, about how we might form smaller communities that are self sustaining, about how we might implement an instrumentalist technology in ways that are genuinely egalitarian, as opposed to only serving the few. I think that it's certainly an urgent necessity at the moment.

It's imperative and perhaps, yes, utopian fiction. The utopian imagination is is best equipped to help us do that. Perhaps this is the moment at which a utopian revival, which hasn't seen possible for at least 100 years because of the dominance of dystopian imagination, perhaps now it's time has come again. Fabulous. And And Emma, if you're interested in that particular topic, I'd really suggest you join us for for Heather Alvaro's talk about ECA topia in a few weeks time because you'll be digging into some of these details in more, uh, more fine details so you might love that talk.

Um, next question comes from Audrey, and Audrey is wondering if there are examples where an imagined utopia has become inspiration for a real one. Do you know any communities like that? Good question. Yes, I have. Off the top of my head. I'm struggling to remember any right now, but that is certainly the case. I mean, if you go back to the 19th, mid 19th century, uh, the upsurge of utopian thinking in the mid 19th century, as opposed to the late 19th century, which I mainly talked about, was not so much fictional, but involved a certain amount of fiction.

It was this kind of utopianism that was castigated by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto. They castigated utopian socialism and they called it. This was associated with people like shell furrier Sassaman in Britain, Robert Owen and their utopian blueprints and imaginings very much became the basis of communities of communes. In Robert Owns Case, a model factory in Scotland. In the case of fury and sassy more communities in America, above all, where villages were built, communities were constructed which tried as strictly and religiously as possible to follow.

These pioneer utopian thinkers strictures, their demands, their disciplines, their sense of of what if a system that exists outside the capitalist world system as it was increasingly becoming what that might look like. Great. Thanks, Betty. A question here from Alex, Alex is wondering. Do you think it could be said that one person's utopia might be another person's dystopia and he's giving the example Brave New World? Or maybe Black Mirror? That might come to mind as examples that could be taken either way.

These examples that can be taken either way. Yeah, I think that's a good point. Yes, I certainly will have very different competing senses, depending on our politics, our temperaments, our biography, their histories of of what makes a good society. And many utopias have been regarded as dystopian by contemporary readers, let alone readers who've come after I mentioned Edward Bellamy and the way in which his machine life of the future comes to seem pretty unappealing, even if it was appealing at the time.

To many readers, in light of subsequent history, in light of the rise of a technologist IQ form of socialism arise of an authoritarian form of socialism in the Soviet Union, of course. So yes, it's a very, uh, label and fluid form, the meanings of which changes very rapidly, depending on circumstances in the course of its history. I suppose that's one of the reasons why utopias and dystopias to some extent but dystopias in their reliance on an apocalyptic imagination, one that goes all the way back to the Book of Revelations.

There are a little more durable in this sense. Utopias in particular date very quickly. They date very quickly because ultimately, as William Morris, in fact, himself said in his review of Edward Bellamy's looking backward, they are ultimately the expression of the temperament of the author. Fabulous. Um, I like this question from Louise. Louise is asking what your opinion is on dystopian video games, um, and the purpose where the player is actually able to play an active role in that in that you that dystopian universe and that dystopian narrative you obviously talked about about literature and film.

But do you have any views on on the video game genre? I'm woefully. I'm familiar with these, except in the most general way with those video games. Uh, so So really, I think I'd be more interested in your answer than whatever I can come up with, but I think you're absolutely right that that is a crucial part of today's dystopian imagination in many ways perhaps more influential on my kids generation than utopian dystopian cinema than apocalyptic disaster cinema. And, of course, it induces a much more intimate relationship between the reader, stroke player and the world because they inhabited in this in this virtual sense, I'd be very interested to know I don't know what a neuro scientific level, let alone at the level of the imagination, if you like the reader's response the player's response.

What what goes on when people play those dystopian games? I'm sure that aspects of it a rather sinister you know, one is induced to encourage to perform acts of violence, for example. But in other ways, I'm sure that kind of world building that kind of participation is an extremely interesting and productive, an illuminating way of exercising the the utopian organ. If you like that utopian muscle that muscle in our imagination that projects forward and into the future, we've only got time for one more question, unfortunately, but it's a really good one.

It's from Sonny and Sonny is wondering. I've noticed that many dystopian settings like in Blade Runner take inspiration from East Asian cities. So tall, crowded buildings, neon lights, etcetera, the call out Hong Kong and Tokyo, for example. What do you think this tells us about our notions of dystopia and what utopia is not? Yes, it tells us a certain amount about where technology and a capitalist future was being incubated, particularly in the eighties and nineties, I suppose, and Japan is perhaps particularly crucial in that respect, but it also tells us I fear about the Orientalist and either crypto or crypto racist or simply racist imagination of many American and more generally Western utopian and dystopian imaginings, which reach in a kind of hand me down reflex way that's often frankly disreputable in the way in which it leans on cliches, uh, for images of highly populated cities driven by technology and bombarded by images and that kind of thing.

So, yeah, in some ways, I think it becomes a rather lazy, quasi racist reflex in the cinema of that time in particular. That is all we've got time for today. Unfortunately, Matthew, it's been an absolute pleasure to have you in The Garden. Thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you so very much indeed. And thank you for those terrific questions and thank you to You are lovely Garden members for joining us today. We'll see you your next Garden gathering. And in the meantime, stay curious.

Utopia Collection

In difficult times, humans start thinking about what a perfect world - a utopia - might look like. Many have explored the concept, some have even tried to build it. We’re exploring how different thinkers have approached the idea of utopia.

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