In a perfect society, where do babies come from? The dangers of a licentious paradise are no joke: in Henry Neville’s 1668 “pornotopia” The Isle of Pines, a fiesta of lust and begetting by a shipwrecked Englishman and four female companions results, several generations later, in the island’s collapse into “whoredoms, incest and adultery.” On the other hand, rigid controls are tantamount to eugenics—for example, the Brave New World caste system, where babies’ brains are asphyxiated to order, to fill appropriate social stations—or they are, in fact, eugenics, like the straight-up “elimination” of the “lumpish, unteachable and unimaginative people” that HG Wells proposes in A Modern Utopia.
Dr Merlin Coverley’s pithy new book Utopia begs questions like this on every page, but it also presents lots of different models—most of which lean towards either anarchy or fascism—providing most of the ingredients for a roll-your-own social paradise. Coverley makes the distinction between ‘eu-topos’ (a good place) and ‘ou-topos’ (no place) that Thomas More punned on when he published his own Utopia in 1516, but make no mistake, your idea of heaven is bound to be someone else’s idea of hell.
For a start, there’s aesthetic. Most utopianists just design highly organised settlements that are really a bridle for keeping the population in order. More himself has identikit houses that are inhabited on rotation. Efficiency, though, is not all that’s at stake. The Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, written after the October revolution, proposes a panopticon-style city made of glass. “We get to use the blinds only on Sex Day. Otherwise we live in broad daylight… We have nothing to hide from one another”. No-one will break your utopian rules when they’re being watched all the time. Alternatively (and for some, perhaps, no less nightmarishly,) in News from Nowhere William Morris imagined England as a socialist arts and crafts project, a world where gold and jewels are left to the incorrigibly boorish and everything else is lovingly hand-crafted from natural materials.
From an economic point of view, private property is usually a sticking point, though More’s narrator “utterly denies that it can wholly be taken away”. Property-owning societies, on the other hand, tend to be extremely rigid, with no hope for social mobility, and…