Jumpstart: The Literary Utopia in the Aftermath of the Future
At first glance, the association between utopia and the future is obvious. The rise of the modern time regime in the eighteenth century positioned the future as the realm of the new and the better. This triggered a temporalisation of the utopian form. While utopias published in the early modern period were set elsewhere in the world, beginning with Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An 2440 (1771), utopias start to be set in the future. However, despite this strong association between utopia and the future, it is unclear whether it is still viable today. The future is not what it used to be. In light of the social catastrophes of modernity and awareness of the failure of past attempts to effect a utopian break, the idea that the future will bring liberation appears naïve. All of this poses a challenge to utopia. If visions of new worlds have traditionally found their home in the future, then how does utopia ground itself in temporal terms in the current crisis of the future? How do utopians respond to the supporting condition of the modern time regime being pulled out from under their feet?
To address these questions, Jumpstart begins, in Part I, by tracing the relationship between utopia and futurity from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century via readings of Mercier’s L’An 2440, William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet (1906), and W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Comet” (1920). While these texts appear to confidently embrace the modern time regime, doubts and uncertainties about the future are already evident. Mercier, Morris, Wells, and Du Bois anticipate, albeit in subtle ways, the concerns about the future that have now become commonplace. On this basis, Part II addresses the post-futural utopias that have emerged in the wake of the fall of modern time consciousness. Through readings of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), Buchi Emecheta’s The Rape of Shavi (1983), Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1991), Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (2007), Carl Neville’s Eminent Domain (2020), and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020), I suggest that the utopian genre is a hangover from modern temporality. It looks backwards to a time when everything appeared bent on novelty and otherness as a means of sneaking social hope into a stalled world.