Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

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Utopias have engaged a wide range of interests over many years, and so it is not surprising to find that attempts to make generic sense of the term have generated a considerable discord of usages. Richard Gerber's classic bibliographical study of the form may be entitled Utopian Fantasy (1955; exp 1973 US), but more recent scholars – like Brian Attebery in "Fantasy as an Anti-Utopian Mode" (in Reflections on the Fantastic anth 1986 ed Michael R Collings) – argue persuasively that, although fantasy and utopias are related, neither can plausibly be treated as a version of the other.

Set down as a fictional narrative or presentation, a utopia can be defined as a rendering in bodily form of an argument about society; but that argument, however extreme the results may be, must have some rational connection with the normal world. Even the location of a utopia, in space or time, constitutes an argument of connection or continuity. The utopias of previous centuries tended to be spatially displaced from normal societies but contemporaneous with them; those of the past century or so have tended to be set in the future, in an argument that this may possibly lead to that. These ideal societies tend to be profoundly understandable in terms of the rules that govern their creation, rules which are meant to present ideal solutions to the problems of how to organize human society (or, in the case of dystopias [sometimes called cacotopias], warnings against mistaken ideal solutions). Successful utopias have, therefore, little or no room for Story.

The only fantasies that even superficially resemble the argued compact of a utopia are the rule-bound Topsy-Turvy fantasies common to 19th-century writers like W S Gilbert and Lewis Carroll. Certainly utopian societies exist in fantasy novels, especially those that feature one or more significant Cities; but to say that utopias can be found within the overall structure of a fantasy tale does not mean that the fantasy is a utopian tale. The essential movement of the utopia is forwards, toward organized betterment of the world to come, or backwards to the present world, in order to illustrate arguable claims about the nature of this world; but the essential movement of fantasy is – as Attebery suggests – inwards, towards the Healing of the land. Moreover, fantasy is impossible by nature; utopias are impossible only if they don't work.

Fantasies which incorporate (but ultimately dissolve) utopian worlds include L Frank Baum's Oz sequence (1900-1920), Herbert Read's The Green Child: A Romance (1935), L Sprague de Camp's "The Undesired Princess" (1942 Unknown; in The Undesired Princess coll 1951) and Robert Graves's Watch the North Wind Rise (1949 US; vt Seven Days in New Crete 1949 UK). Utopias – or, more frequently, dystopias – told in Fable form through animal viewpoints are best understood as Beast Fables or Aesopian Fantasies; George Orwell's Animal Farm: A Fairy Tale (1945 chap) and Richard Adams's Watership Down (1972) exemplify. [JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.