News from Nowhere

March 27, 2010 at 12:15 pm (Review) (, )

William Morris is best known in fantasy circles as one of the first writers to combine supernatural elements with an imaginary world in his fantasy romances The Well at the World’s End, The Glittering Plain and The Wood Beyond the World. Some may also know him as one of the driving forces behind the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement in England and as a brilliant craftsman and textile designer – and even if you don’t, you’re sure to have come across his swirly, organic wall-paper designs at some point. What is less well-known is that Morris was also a political thinker and a revolutionary socialist.

News from Nowhere is a utopian romance which describes Morris’ ideal world based on his political convictions. Unlike many other socialists of his time, Morris did not view state control as the way forward. He was a wild, idealistic dreamer and wanted a world where art and work would be fused together, where everyone would live in tune with nature and each other and where materialism would be almost non-existent. News from Nowhere‘s protagonist, Guest, wakes up one day in exactly such a world and discovers that he has somehow travelled forward in time. There is no currency, no schools or other formal kind of education and no clear distinction between work and spare time, since everyone is free to take up the kind of work they like best. All of this is, of course, wildly unrealistic to the modern reader, but how many of us can say that we haven’t dreamt of a similar world at some point?

Morris succeeds surprisingly well in making his imaginary future seem like a real place with glowing descriptions of its sounds, smells and sights. This is what makes the book work really well as a utopia: You would actually want to live in this place – a bigger achievement than one might think, especially considering that it was written in 1890. As readers who are familiar with old utopian literature will know, the perfect vision of the future doesn’t often age well.

Morris also doesn’t shy away from dealing with the problems that would arise in such a society – to some extent. There are “grumblers”, people who want to return to an industrial, capitalistic society. There are murderers, who are dealt with in a democratic manner (but no thieves, since stealing doesn’t make sense in a society where everything is already free). Human emotions such as jealousy and bitterness still exist. However, all of these are extremely limited because of the overall harmony and freedom of Nowherian society. Morris conveniently skips a number of other issues, such as psychopaths (murderers always come to regret their actions), greed and – in my opinion the most glaring problem with Nowhere – the handicapped and mentally retarded. Morris assumes that bodily perfection would follow once we achieve a perfectly natural and harmonious lifestyle. Everyone is beautiful in Nowhere and everyone is at least smart and capable enough to undertake some kind of work or artistry. The comparisons between the gorgeous women of Nowhere and the drab women of 19th century reality began to grate a bit on my nerves after awhile. Morris was clearly obsessed with beauty and art and while this is part of his charm where world-building is concerned, it really isn’t very likeable when extended to his characters. Ugly people simply do not exist in Nowhere and people stay young-looking for much longer (to the point where the middle-aged Guest is considered a bit gross and ancient-looking). For me this really did not resonate with the idea of natural beauty and it seemed a little too close to our modern obsession with artificial beauty and youth.

Aside from those couple of problems News from Nowhere really is a very enjoyable book. There are plenty of reasons for modern readers to be interested in it, since the issues it deals with (mainly inequality, materialism and alienation from nature) are almost as relevant today as when it was written. Fantasy fans have an additional reason to pick up News as an excellent introduction to one of the major forerunners of the fantasy genre. It is relatively short (especially compared to some of his brick-sized fantasy novels) and lays out Morris’ views in an easily accessible plotline and language. While most of Morris’ fantasy works are written in archaic English, News is written in plain English with considerably simpler syntax than most other 19th century novels I’ve read.

Overall, highly recommended if you like romantic, thoughtful utopian fiction and also want to expand your knowledge of a major literary figure and artist. For a broader perspective I recommend also reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward: 2000-1887. Morris wrote News as a critical response to Looking Backward, which paints a very different picture of socialist utopia, and Nowherian society does seem considerably more attractive if you take Looking Backward as a comparison.


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