Olaf Stapledon, writing regularly to his beloved Agnes now that he is home on leave (and thoroughly fed up with bourgeois complacency), recommends a book, today, and reveals an influence that we might well have suspected, a link which connects one of the most earnest young writers of what will soon be called science fiction with the author of several important late 19th century works of fantasy and speculation. Who would have thought that a Quaker-allied sentimentalist determined to work toward the enlightenment of working men would enjoy a classic of19th century utopian socialism?
14 December 1917
… I have told the bookseller to send you a wee book when he can get a copy of it. It is William Morris’s “News from Nowhere.” You will like it, am sure. It is a sort of tale, and also a picture of a Happy England that might be. Read it thinking of the things we want to help to bring to pass when we are married. It is only a little book, and a very readable one. Of course it is open to much criticism, but that matters not. It gives a charming though rather limited picture. . . .
News From Nowhere features a Morris-surrogate protagonist who goes to sleep in the 19th century and wakes up in a post-industrial social utopia some hundred-plus years in the future. He wanders among the kind and forthright citizens, traveling up the Thames from London and learning about all that is wonderful now that was once cruel or sordid. There are a lot of hale and happy men, thoroughly pretty and contented women, and satisfied artisans of both sexes. (Actually, he more or less anticipates the early 21st century artisanal/contentment-driven/self-help/pseudo-anti-capitalist style. Which is a shame, because he was writing from a time when the destructiveness of unchecked capitalism was so much more apparent even in the places where the rich were benefiting, and before such a complete victory of corporate industry was anything like a forgone conclusion. Morris was trying to be a revolutionary, and he will end up as the beardy great-grandfather whose pretty things are fetishized–and they are very pretty–while his passions and fond, foolish hopes are more or less forgotten.)
But anyway: in Morris’s tale the time traveler soon comes to learn from local antiquarians how this beatific state had been born out of the collapse of industrial capitalism at the end of the 19th century. It is, like much of Morris’s graphic and textile productions, both lovingly crafter and willfully impractical. He simply does away with competition, profit-seeking, and social stratification without really explaining how such things came to pass, putting his faith in human nature. Even the specifics of how beauty, plenty, and freedom all now peacefully coexist are a little wonky: surely a repeating polemic against iron bridges is not a necessary element of Utopia? Perhaps some aspects of mechanical development might have qualified as babies worthy of cherishing, of careful indoctrination in the new world order instead of being thrown out with the rest of the sooty, coal-fired bath water?
In any event, Stapledon is right about two things: it is a charming little book, and, if it pictures far more than it can properly propose, at least it begs the question “and why couldn’t England be happier than it is?”
I don’t think that Stapledon has only just read the book–he is thinking of it again, now, and sending it to Agnes, perhaps in part because it shows an eminently successful man and an honorable socialist writing dreamy, future-gazing prose. But his thoughts of the book follow, I think, from his recent musings about the difference between participatory pacifism and a true anti-war stance, and from his new distaste for bourgeois complacency.
What if it is not enough to try to aid the wounded, and hope that the war ends? What if England really needs to step towards Utopia, and soon? The dark satanic mills of Morris’s time have brightened slightly (even if they have turned all the young women yellow), and the lot of the working man has been gradually improving as political participation broadened. But Stapledon sees, now, in place of the frank classist exploitation of mid-Victorian times or the Social Darwinian justification for the subjugation of the masses, a new hypocrisy that ties industry, war, and the moral plight of young men all too tightly together.
The letter continues:
Miss Graveson sent her love to you… Miss G told us of Kenneth Robinson an old school fellow of mine who is a C[onscientious] O[bjector]. He stayed long to help his father in business, and at last was called to a tribunal. His position was much like mine—ready to do anything but military service, and very anxious to join the F. A. U. He trained for that, but the Tribunal would not grant him exemption for it because, if you please, his father & brothers were not COs. He was left at large for some time, but was finally arrested and given eighteen months hard at Wormwood Scrubs, you know what that means— solitary confinement with possibility of going mad. He’s a nice chap, so gay and unassuming and simple. Oh England, for shame! And here am I sitting in mufti before a nice fire with my feet on a thick fur rug and a meal preparing for me. Yet he and I are of the same persuasion, mind you. The only difference is that he was tied down by the need of helping his old father while I went off before the conscription act came in. It is a queer justice that lets me do the job I wanted and refuses it to him. . . 
References and Footnotes
- Talking Across the World, 260. ↩