Monday, February 4, 2008

News from Nowhere by William Morris

We watched the Superbowl with friends on Sunday, and I have to say that betting on games certainly makes them more exciting! (my husband I wagered a hot chocolate from Starbucks, not exactly high stakes, but enough to keep me interested). I won our little bet (which sort of made me sad--the Patriots have such nice uniforms), but that's life.

This week promises to be quite busy. I am trying to get as much work done on my thesis, but blogging is so much more fun! I'm also trying to make time to read News from Nowhere, William Morris' Utopian novel. So far it's very intersting. It's the first futuristic fantasy I've ever read where the future is neither an apocalyptic nightmare, nor a science fiction inspired workers paradise where machines do everything for us. I guess it's somewhat predictable that Morris envisions a future that looks a lot like the 15th century! All work is creative and pleasurable and people work for the pure joy they take in their labour, rather than for pay. It's a beautiful idea, though I'm not quite sure how it would translate into real life.

The story, set in our time (approximately--they have bridges that were built in 2002 that are supposed to be new) offers a totally different vision of the future than I've ever found in other science fiction, or even in Utopian fantasies. For Morris, the ideal society is pretty much like it was in the Middle Ages, except without a government to spoil everything. People continue to work hard, but they do labour that they enjoy and try to keep the land in as pristine a state as possible (everyone lives in cottages with little gardens. Morris certainly envisioned sustainable architecture as part of his vision of the future--as little land as possible is used and the city of London has basically been allowed to return to the wild, with trees growing where the largest suburban areas of Morris' day were located). Everyone is also well fed and there doesn't seem to be much competition (except over who can produce the most beautiful handicrafts).

Morris wrote News from Nowherein response to Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887set in roughly the same time period in the future. Bellamy's book took a totally opposite view of the future that is more familiar to today's science fiction readers. In Bellamy's socialist utopian future, technology has led to drastically reduced working hours for and developments like community kitchens for busy housewives help lighten the work load. Everyone retires with full benefits at age 45 (see Wikipedia).

William Morris couldn't stand Edward Bellamy's concept of the future (which is still, I would argue, the prevailing view of where technology is leading us--even though most inventions just leave us with more work to do and less time to do it in). He felt that work was an important part of life and that what mankind really needed to do was to slow down and appreciate living. This reminds me of another great book I took a look at this weekend:In Praise of Slow:How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Carl Honoré. The author basically argues that Western society's (and it's not just the West!) obsession with speed has caused us to lose out on a lot of the basic pleasures of life--food, love, leisure, etc. I think he would probably agree with Morris that work is not man's curse, it's the lack of pleasure that we so often take in what we do.

Hmm. Well, that's all for now! I will try to remember to write a bit more about News from Nowhere when I get closer to finishing it!


Fete et Fleur said...

My brother just finished his doctoral thesis in church history. It was quite a bear to complete! So I can understand why you might want a little diversion. This book sounds very interesting!

Hugs! Nancy

Grace said...


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I hope you don't mind I linked to your blog here.

Kari & Kijsa said...

Funny- Our brother is currently working on his doctorate in Church history at St. Andrews! Book sounds fabulous!

kari & kijsa

{this is glamorous} said...

Hello Margaret, thanks for stopping by my site--loved your comment about Carla Bruni and the "Russian mafia super-creep"--hopefully this marriage lasts--they do make quite a formidable couple.

Brad Ferguson said...

You know, I wasn't going to leave this comment when I first read this post, but then after reading your post on Victorian fantasy and how modern fantasy writers idealize the Victorian age I felt that you would understand. While I have read a lot of Morris's writings especially his social commentary and speeches, I feel in reading his prose that he may idealize the middle ages too much. I'm sure that a very small minority enjoyed the ideal that he espouses, as enjoyable as the fantasy is, someone must do the dirty work. Perhaps the realities of this world is what kept the utopian communities from surviving. We can't all be painters, someone has to till the field. Keep up the good work.