Imagining Alternatives: Utopia, Community and the Novel, 1880-2015
This project explores how the novel has been used since the late nineteenth century to imagine better forms of community, and the problems and opportunities revealed by such attempts. Insights from this research are employed with local communities, as the utopian imagination is harnessed to help achieve positive, sustainability-related change in the present.
While issues such as environmental crisis, the relation of narrative to cognition, and the idea of utopia are established topics in scholarship, they are still often handled in isolation. Critics have also tended to stick to established boundaries of period and genre, such as those which divide the nineteenth-century romance from the early twentieth-century modernist novel, or from late twentieth-century science-fiction. However, this project finds fundamental continuities through the work of four writers who span these categories: R. L. Stevenson, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, and Kim Stanley Robinson. These continuities demand that we look beyond established disciplinary boundaries to analyse how a shared history of atomised communities and environmental destruction led all four writers to use the novel to try and work out alternative ways of living together. The shared problems and possible solutions they encountered not only shed new light on the history of the modern novel, but bring into clearer focus issues which will be central to any future attempts to conceive of better forms of community.
Recent ecocriticism has begun to focus on the difficulties in representing a global environmental crisis that spans the individual and communal, local and global. Similar problems of scale have been a longstanding concern for utopian studies, though detached from this environmental context. Meanwhile, researchers investigating the nature of narrative representation have drawn on cognitive science to advance our understanding of the potential and limits of literature. This project fuses together insights from all these fields to trace how issues of scale, cognition and representation are repeatedly encountered by the four writers as they try to imagine more harmonious communities. It argues that this utopian impulse - however qualified or frustrated - overrides established categories of literary study, drawing together varied modes of non-realist fiction such as the romance, the modernist novel, and science-fiction, and demanding that we reconsider the relationship between how we go about trying to change the status quo, and how such changes are imagined and represented.