Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)


Elana Gomel

Department of English and American Studies, Tel-Aviv University.

What is the relation between political ideology and narrative structure?

Posed in such broad terms, the question is likely to be answered by equally broad generalizations. But there is one genre in which the connection is overt and indubitable. It is utopia.

The very term “utopia” is ambiguous, applying equally to an ideological vision and to a literary genre. On the one hand, there is Ernst Bloch’s (1964) grandiose vision “of the external, cosmic function of utopia, maintained against misery, death, the husk-realm of mere physical nature” (3). On the other hand, there is a long tradition of fictions of perfect society: Sir Thomas More’s original Utopia (1516), Tomasso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1603), William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890), H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and so on. The failure of such twentieth-century radical attempts to reinvent social order as Communism and Nazism has cast a pall over political utopias but there has recently been an upsurge of scholarly interest in literary utopias.

All too often, however, even scholars of utopia regard its narrative form as being of little importance. It is often assumed that literary utopia is essentially a passive vehicle for ideological utopia, with the narrative features of the former being a sort of arbitrary and detachable “wrapping” of the latter. Tony Burns, for example, sees the narrative and ideological poles of the utopian text as essentially separate: the critic may either analyze "abstract ideas and theoretical speculations" or focus "on such things as characterization, plot, formal literary style, use of dialogue and so on" (2008; 2).  In his wide-ranging survey Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times (1987), Krishan Kumar dismisses the narrative aspects of the genre as being of little interest: "the literary form of utopia is not an important concern of this study; nor perhaps should it be in any serious treatment of utopia" (25).

In this essay I will argue the opposite: that the literary form is, in fact, the important concern of the study of utopia because it constitutes the locus of the genre’s ideological meaning. The real politics of utopia resides less in the text’s didactic message than it does in such formal elements as the configuration of narrative space and time. If political utopias fail, perhaps a clue to the reasons for this failure can be found in the artistic tensions of literary utopias.

The utopian space and time, I will argue, are perpetually at odds and their tension results in the fragmentation of the fictional world of the text. This fragmentation generates spatial “flaws” or heterogeneous inclusions within the uniform narrative continuum of literary utopia. This essay focuses on the meaning of these flaws: chunks of indigestible darkness within the utopian light; seeds of change and instability within stasis of putative perfection.

My discussion will reference several utopian texts written roughly within the last hundred years. But it will largely focus on one particular novel: Ivan Efremov’s Andromeda Nebula (1957). Besides being of paramount importance in the development of Soviet science fiction (SF), the novel both reflects the Western utopian tradition and influences the subsequent development of post-Soviet utopia and dystopia in Russia and elsewhere. [1] In addition, the interaction between political ideology and literary form is particularly striking in the case of an author who wrote in a society shaped by a utopian ideology and was himself a sincere supporter of the Soviet version of Communism. If the novel’s formal structure eventually betrays fatal flaws within its utopian project, the fault does not lie with the writer’s lack of commitment.

Lost in space

Utopias are not merely expressions of a generalized "dream of a superior society" (Jacoby 2005; xv). Rather, they are ideologically specific visions of social perfection embodied in narratively specific fictional worlds. Like any other literary genre, utopia has its own chronotope, to use Mikhail Bakhtin’s term for “the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature” (2002; 15). The chronotope is the fictional equivalent of physical spacetime: it fuses narrative time and space to structure the fictional world of the text.

In the utopian chronotope, the balance between space and time is skewed. Space, rather than time, dominates the genre whose very name is that of an imaginary place. [2] Utopia is concerned with reorganization of social spaces, with "the spatial play that is involved in trying to create…perfect worlds in the spaces that make up the modern world" (Hetherington 1997; viii).  Narratively speaking, this means that utopia emphasizes description rather than action. Plot, the temporal aspect of the chronotope, is minimized in favor of setting. The utopian society is displayed to the reader, often through a series of didactic lectures addressed to a visitor to the utopian island/country/world. This visitor functions as a textual double of the reader and his gradual conversion to the utopian point of view is supposed to adumbrate a similar conversion of the audience: the visitor "serves to represent in the text the compelling advantages which the alternative society has over the visitor's own, usually coterminous with the one in which the author and contemporary readers live" (Moylan 1986; 37).

The structure of the utopian chronotope is laid bare in H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905), which is both a utopian text and a meta-fictional meditation on the genre. The book’s first-person narrator literally creates his fictional world before our very eyes and then projects himself and a companion, a disgruntled British botanist, into his perfect society. There is hardly any plot; instead, the willing suspension of disbelief is deliberately broken as the narrator actively engages the reader in his ideological project: "Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world" (Wells 1967; 6).  There are whole chapters, in which the narrator steps back from this world in order to justify his choice of a specific utopian institution or to argue with scientists, scholars, and ideologues about this or that aspect of his perfect society. Such institutions as private property (allowed within certain limits); marriage (compulsory for childbearing and sponsored by the State); and eugenicist regulation (necessary but non-violent) are not merely presented but theoretically grounded and weighed against alternatives. Wells' novel is a meta-utopia, displaying its own narrative machinery.

But there is a peculiar contradiction between the narrative and ideological aspects of A Modern Utopia, which illuminates a problem with the genre as a whole. In Wells’ narrator’s many disquisitions on the nature of utopia, he emphasizes that in modern times it is animated by a dynamic and historically-grounded world-view:  “THE UTOPIA of a modern dreamer must needs differ in one fundamental aspect from the Nowheres and Utopias men planned before Darwin quickened the thought of the world. Those were all perfect and static States, a balance of happiness won for ever against the forces of unrest and disorder that inhere in things…But the Modern Utopia must be not static but kinetic, must shape not as a permanent state but as a hopeful stage, leading to a long ascent of stages” (9). And yet, despite this declaration, the narrative structure becomes more, not less, static as the book develops. While initially presented as a what-if game, the narrative eventually settles into a more assertive modality. Instead of a supposition, the utopian space becomes an actual place, an entire planet located somewhere "beyond Sirius". This planet is an alternative Earth, with roughly the same population but a different history (eventually the narrator meets his utopian double). If at the beginning the narrator debates with the reader the pros and cons of various forms of social organization, in the middle of the book his tone shifts to a hectoring glorification of the utopian State.

It is not only that the utopian State, from our point of view, is dictatorial, sexist and racist, practicing a form of compulsory eugenics and exercising a totalitarian control over its citizens. Seen in the historical perspective, Wells' racial and sexual politics are not particularly illiberal by the standards of 1905. What is more troubling is the foreclosing of the intellectual debate of the first chapters by the actualization of the utopian space, which substitutes the inescapability of what is for the open-endedness of what might be. And in parallel to this prescriptive hardening of the lineaments of utopia goes the weakening of the narrator’s creative role. If at the beginning he is a playful demiurge, by the end of the book he is a passive visitor, sternly lectured to by his utopian alter ego on the evils of individualism. The flux of suppositions hardens into the rigid framework of certainty, while narrative time grinds down to a halt.

The book eventually disavows its own commitment to temporal contingency and historical flux. A relatively better society is not enough; it has to be perfect. And social perfection can only be achieved when the physical and moral weaknesses of humanity are ruthlessly eradicated. This eradication requires a "more powerful and efficient method of control than electoral methods can give" (Wells 1967; 258). The utopia is ruled by the "samurai", the first of Wells’ many technocratic dictatorships that become more and more ruthless as the political challenges to democracy mount through the 1920s and 30s.[3] The samurai are benevolent supermen, presiding over the lives and deaths of the lesser inhabitants of the utopian state. But even more revealing than their dictatorial function is the samurai's role as the bulwark against contingency. Among the many restrictions of their Great Rule is the injunction that a samurai must not have "any dealings with chance" (290).

But the utopian social space that emerges in the second part of the novel is not homogenous. It is worm-holed by inclusions of heterogeneous sub-spaces that resist the book's drive toward ideological closure. The State, unwilling to execute all of its "imperfect" citizens, has to set aside special spaces for them to live, though not to breed: isolated islands, where the dull, the base, the improvident, and the unfit will be segregated to pursue their own hopeless ends. These are fossils of the past within the utopia’s bright futurity; “bubbles” of dystopia embedded in its social space. And yet, the paradoxically recall Thomas More’s original island utopia as a possibility of an alternative social imaginary.

Ideological utopia can be seen as victory of space over time, of structure over history. This is the main contention of the critics of utopianism, both on the right and on the left. E.M. Cioran, for example, describes it as enforced timelessness, an imaginary end to history which denies the flux and contingency of being-in-time. Utopia generates “a kind of stationary duration, an immobilized Possible, a counterfeit of eternal present” (Cioran 1987; 104). Isaiah Berlin’s famous denunciation of utopian thought emphasizes the stasis implicit in the very idea of perfect society: “The main characteristic of most, perhaps all, Utopias is the fact that they are static. Nothing in them alters, for they have reached perfection: there is no need for novelty or change; no one can wish to alter a condition in which all natural human wishes are fulfilled” (1991; 20).  Berlin’s critique is not of any particular utopian ideology but rather of the universalism implicit in the notion of utopia: since by definition social perfection is absolute rather than relative, any change in a utopian society would be for the worse and therefore in a literary utopia “all is still and immutable and eternal” (1991; 22).

This view, however, has been hotly contested by recent scholars of utopia who decry "a liberal anti-utopian consensus" of the post-Communist period (Jacoby 2005; 50). Wells, in particular, is seen as an exemplar of a “kinetic” or dynamic utopia, despite the fact that both A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come culminate in visions of the universal State, in which, as Berlin puts it, humanity’s “fixed, unaltering nature…is wholly fulfilled” (1991; 20). Nevertheless, precisely because this State is portrayed as the end-result of dynamic historical processes (which in the case of The Shape of Things to Come include genocide and suppression of all alternative world-views), the two novels are sometimes adduced as a counter-examples to anti-utopian critique.  Darko Suvin argues that since Wells, “we have had no further excuse for insisting on absolute perfection, but only on a state radically better or based on a more perfect principle than that prevailing in the author’s community, as a hallmark of the utopian genre” (2010; 26).

Regardless of the fact that “more perfect” still requires a benchmark of universal social goodness, which is precisely the focus of Berlin’s critique, Suvin’s argument conflates the ideological and narrative aspects of utopia: what it says and what it does. Wells’ ideology is his own version of Social Darwinism, which is indeed dynamic and historical. It is expressed through the meta-fictional address to the reader in A Modern Utopia and through the SF plot of apocalyptic “future history” in The Shape of Things to Come. It is revealing that such generic impurity is necessary to represent the historical process that is supposed to bring the utopia into being. It is as if the utopian narrative form so resisted temporality that it needed generic mediation through the political essay or SF to cope with the notion of change. And indeed, when both novels settle into describing their mature utopian societies, they discard elements of other genres. And then the plot withers and panoramic description becomes the text’s main narrative strategy.  The incongruity between the author’s explicitly stated “kinetic” ideology and the static nature of the resulting text is precisely what needs explaining.

Fredric Jameson’s brilliant analysis of the paradoxical structure of the utopian narrative suggests that this incongruity is structural and not accidental. Jameson argues that the function of utopia is to chart the limits of social imagination. Utopias are at their best when they attempt the impossible “and therefore the best Utopias are those that fail most comprehensibly” (2005; xiii). If modern utopias situate themselves in time and yet fail to represent temporality it is not a result of individual artistic incapacity or ideological inconsistency but rather of the foundational paradox of the utopian project itself.

For Jameson, the “ideology of the form” is what reveals the limitations of the “ideology of the content” (1981). Since utopian texts “are so often taken to be the expressions of a political opinion or ideology, there is something to be said for redressing the balance in a resolutely formalist way…in narrative analysis what is most revealing is not what is said, but what cannot be said, what does not register on the narrative apparatus”  (2005; xiv).

Yet “what cannot be said” does register on the narrative apparatus albeit in a disguised and displaced way. In A Modern Utopia, it is those “bubbles” of incarceration and exclusion contained within the homogenous space of social perfection that betray the forces utopia has to keep at bay in order to exist.

Of other histories

In his essay "Of Other Spaces" (1967) Michel Foucault describes what he calls heterotopias: flaws and imperfections within social space, zones of otherness, subversion and dissent:

There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places - places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society - which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias.

Despite the explicit contrasting of utopia and heterotopia, the latter has been occasionally glossed as "the postmodern vision of utopia, where community is based on the inclusion of differences…and where heterogeneity does not inspire conflict" (Siebers 1997; 20). But Foucault clearly argues that heterotopias derive their power from the difference between them and their spatial matrix rather than from any politically correct notion of inclusiveness or diversity. His examples of heterotopias include such far-from-ideal locations as boarding schools, psychiatric hospitals and even cemeteries. In his take on Foucault, Kevin Hetherington emphasizes their function as embedded spaces of alterity: “Heterotopias are spaces in which an alternative social ordering is performed” (1997; 40). In Wells, the islands of exile are heterotopias within the utopia.   

These islands are more than just blemishes on the utopian social order. They fulfill an important narrative function as reservoirs of time within the predominantly spatial chronotope. By housing the “throwbacks” to the past they keep alive the notion of historical change within utopian timelessness. These utopian heterotopias are quarantine zones of history. And sometimes they grow into alternative narrative spaces, generically distinct mini-chronotopes within the dominant utopian structure.  

David Harvey argues that in utopia “spatial form controls temporality, as imagined geography controls the possibility of social change and history”; in other words, the stability and homogeneity of space are necessary for social stability because spatial organization delimits “the temporality of the social process, the dialectics of social change” (2000; 160). The closed topography of utopian spaces – More’s island, Campanella’s City of the Sun, Bacon’s New Atlantis, Robert Owen’s New Harmony, Fourier’s phalanstere and so on – forecloses the possibility of mutation, growth and development. And when change happens it is perceived as degeneration. Temporality itself becomes a disease threatening utopia, as symbolized by the leprous White Sphinx in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895).

As an alternative to spatial utopia, Harvey suggests a “spatiotemporal utopia”, which recognizes the fact that “societies and spatialities are shaped by continuous processes of struggle” (2000; 189). He links this ideological shift with a shift in narrative form. His examples of recent “spatiotemporal utopias” include The Dispossessed (1974) by Ursula Le Guin and the Mars series by Kim Stanley Robinson. Both, he points out, are generically mixed texts, incorporating “the full-blown drama of (the sometimes epic) novel” and the future-history dynamism of SF (Harvey 2000; 189).

The Dispossessed is a particularly interesting example as it is less a utopia than "a novel about utopianism" (Burns 2008; 273). Its fictional world contains twin planets, Anarres and Urras, the first – a would-be anarchist utopia; the second – a capitalist dystopia. The plot revolves around physicist named Shevek from Anarres who escapes his world in order to develop his invention of FTL communication on Urras. Apart from the fact that Annarres is not an ideal society, the very structure of Le Guin’s fictional world belies the uniformity of the classic utopia. The coexistence of the two planets represents a multiplicity of historical choices. The novel’s dynamic plot of psychological development and physical nomadism emphasizes time rather than space. The opposition between the two is the underlying conflict of the novel: "Outside the locked room is the landscape of time, in which the spirit may, with luck and courage, construct the fragile, makeshift, improbable roads and cities of fidelity: a landscape inhabitable by human beings. It is not until an act occurs within the landscape of the past and the future that it is a human act" (Le Guin 1975; 277).

For each of the two planets in The Dispossessed, the other one is a heterotopia, the space of alterity, feared and hated and yet indispensable because it defines the boundaries of the social order: “There was a wall…Like all walls, it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on...Looked at from one side, the wall…enclosed the universe, leaving Anarres outside, free…Looked at from the other side, the wall enclosed Anarres: the whole planet was inside it, a great prison camp, cut off from other worlds and other men, in quarantine (Le Guin 975; 1-2).

The fact that both planets are equal in size is part of Le Guin’s probing and critical view of utopia. But in the generically pure utopia, subversive heterotopias have to be minimized, enclosed, and reduced to a “fossil” of otherness. And yet, these miniature spaces of alterity can become seeds of history within utopia, articulating "the paradoxes of human temporality", historicity and change (Jameson 2005; 89).

The ring and the arrow

Ivan Efremov's Andromeda Nebula (1957) is an extraordinarily important text for understanding Soviet culture. The death of Stalin in 1953 and the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 opened up the interval of renewed utopian hope, liberated from the crushing fear of the Terror and the devastation of the war but not yet confronted with the economic failure of state socialism. Efremov's novels epitomize this period.

Ivan Antonovich Efremov (1908-1972) was a paleontologist and an SF writer whose influence in the field was challenged only by the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a quasi-liberal alternative to Efremov’s uncompromising Communism.[4] He is the author of novels and short stories that defined the Soviet SF tradition, such as “Cor Serpentis” (1963; written as an explicit polemic with Murray Leinster’s Cold War story “First Contact”); Razor’s Edge (1963), The Hour of the Bull (1968), and of course Andromeda Nebula. Efremov’s (and the Strugatskys’) importance was immense; it was regarded “almost as a law of nature” by their Soviet-era fans (Howell 1994; vii). The publication of Andromeda Nebula had "the effect of an explosion" in terms of its popularity and influence (Revich 1998; 198).

But is Andromeda Nebula pure utopia or SF? It is often classified as the latter; and indeed it has some generic markers of space adventure, opening on board the spaceship Tantra stranded on the planet of an “iron star”. Nevertheless, I will argue that it is anti-SF, whose narrative form belies its science-fictional content.

SF is the literature of “cognitive estrangement” (Suvin 1979). It means that the genre uses scientific (or pseudo-scientific) discourse for purposes of defamiliarization:  making the familiar and trite be seen as unfamiliar and new. All narrative strategies of SF are tools of defamiliarization. Damien Broderick, for example, points out how the lexical inventiveness of SF (basically, making up new words) is an important contribution to its creation of unfamiliar fictional worlds: SF “constructs the future” by “offering us new words to name objects and practices that do not yet exists” or it might be added, that cannot exist (1995; 15). The fact that such new words are almost never explained directly is part of the cognitive challenge directed at the reader.

Andromeda Nebula has quite a lot of scientific and pseudo-scientific terminology. But each new term is explained in the appendix, which also specifies whether it is actually scientific or fictional. The author’s goal is not to estrange our world but to make the initially strange world of the far future comfortable and acceptable to the Soviet reader.

In addition to the appendix, the narrative voice fulfills the function of reassuring and guiding the reader through the utopian society. The narrator of Andromeda Nebula is omniscient and third-person, positioned "above" the fictional world of the novel. His exhaustive explanation of every aspect of the future situates the implied reader in the position of the passive utopian visitor rather than the active explorer.  The narrator paints with broad strokes the outlines of the world-wide Communist society, shifting from one group of characters to another and occasionally stepping aside to deliver information or render judgment.

The didactic goal of the text is articulated in the Author’s Foreword which poses the question: “How correctly does the novel depict the historical development of the future?” (Efremov 1957; 6). [5]The recent launch of the Sputnik is adduced as a proof that its predictions are correct. The fictional world of Andromeda Nebula is represented as the linear extrapolation of the author’s present. The novel is situated in the future of our world not as what might be but as what will be.

The society of Andromeda Nebula is a classic Communist utopia, without private property, economic inequality, or nuclear family. But it goes much further than any other Soviet SF in eliminating national, ethnic and racial difference. The names of the characters, such as Erg Noor or Niza Krit, are made-up and ethnically unmarked. They sound rather odd to the Russian ear but this is a deliberate strategy of making the planet-wide utopia ethnically and linguistically homogenous. Its inhabitants are physically flawless, the product of a positive eugenics that creates a New Man of superior beauty, strength and intelligence. While some residual racial difference remains (one of main characters, Mwen Mas, has African features), it is eliminated in the sequel to Andromeda Nebula, The Hour of the Bull, which is set further in the future.[6]

The homogeneity of the utopian society is paralleled by the uniformity of the utopian space. Andromeda Nebula has an extremely wide sweep, encompassing the entire universe. It starts on board a spaceship and its main plot is concerned with the possibilities of faster-than-light travel. Not only is Efremov's utopia space-going but it is also engaged in a grand project of communicating with a number of alien civilizations.  But in this breathtaking expanse there is no genuine difference.

The uniformity starts with the transformation of the Earth itself that has been extensively remade, both ecologically and architecturally. All the cities, for example, are essentially the same: either a pyramidal or a spiral construction, perfectly designed and perfectly executed, with no heterogeneity, variety, or waste.

The civilizations with which the Earth is communicating over intergalactic distances are united into the Great Ring. The Ring includes only the species that are biologically identical to human beings; indeed, it is Efremov's contention that there can be no truly alien intelligence. This peculiarly programmatic anthropomorphism (argued at length in “Cor Serpentis”) is an important part of the utopian construction of space and time in the novel. The immense scope of the novel’s fictional world is ruled by the economy of the Same. The erasure of racial difference, the denial of species difference, and the architectural uniformity generate a homogenous and familiar narrative space. The Great Ring of civilizations is a fitting image of this cosmic claustrophobia, in which the further you go the closer to home you get.

But while space has been conquered time still resists. The past is unalterable and the relativistic time-dilation makes physical contact with the “brothers and sisters” of the Great Ring impossible. Mwen Mas is a scientist who performs a rash experiment in FTL, leading to the accidental deaths of several people. His explanation of his motives for attempting this experiment is very revealing. Discussing recent archeological finds, he says: “Aren’t the billions of nameless skeletons in nameless graves crying out to us….? They demand we solve the great mystery of time and fight our adversary. Victory over space is also victory over time – this is why I am sure I’m right and my great project is bound to succeed” (Efremov 1957; 126).  His interlocutor Ren Boz also rails against the sheer immensity of spacetime, which prevents "us from finding planets with kin populations and uniting together into one joyful family" (126).

But Mwen Mas’s “great project” fails: the past is still unreachable and irredeemable and his attempt to unify physically the “kin populations” of (non-alien) aliens results in the irreparable alienation of death. The stubborn resistance of temporality to the utopian project is inscribed in the disastrous encounter between the crew of the spaceship Tantra and the monstrous predators on the dark planet of the iron star. These predators are non-sentient, evolutionarily low creatures: giant floating jelly-fish and the black “crosses” that kill by electromagnetic pulses. These “murderous creatures of alien life” are invaders out of time, embodiments of the savagery and ugliness of the past (78).

It was Efremov’s conviction (grounded, according to his view, in Marxist philosophy) that evolution is necessarily convergent: the closer to the “pinnacle” of humanity, the less difference there exists between self and Other; but the further back in time, the stranger and more alien does the “primitive” life appear. Thus, the deep past becomes an object of fear and loathing, the dark kingdom of biological and social monsters. In the chapters set of Earth and describing paleontological and archeological excavations, the difference between the atrocious past and the utopian present is incarnated in the juxtaposition between “a Permian vermin” with its “dull ferocity” and the perfect beauty of a female scientist with her “bright eyes” and “intelligent vivacious face” (105). Evolutionary time is an enemy to be fought and conquered.

In The Hour of the Bull this enemy is given a name: “the arrow of Ahriman.” The arrow of Ahriman is the perverse, devolutionary tendency of history, a sort of combined social and physical entropy. Mwen Mass’ experiment is the opening shot in the battle with time, which develops into a full-scale war in The Hour of the Bull, featuring a confrontation between the utopian Earth and the dystopian hell-planet Tormance. In this latter novel, FTL is real: spacetime has been tamed and so is, eventually, is the archaic savagery of the “retrograde” dystopian society.

The heterotopia of forgetting

The structure of the chronotope differs significantly between Andromeda Nebula and The Hour of the Bull. The latter novel (more interesting and accomplished than its predecessor) sets up a balance of two distinct fictional spaces, rather like Le Guin’s The Dispossessed). While there is no doubt where the author’s sympathies lie in the confrontation between Earth and Tormance, their juxtaposition offers a structural heterotopia whose representation of divergent historical paths is only uneasily contained by the eventual Communist transformation of Tormance in the epilogue (it is perhaps significant that despite Efremov’s sincere Communism, The Hour of the Bull incurred some displeasure of the authorities).

But in Andromeda Nebula, the physical and social space of the utopia is homogenous – and yet, not quite. There is a small island heterotopia whose ambiguous social function is paralleled by its uneasy narrative inclusion in the main chronotope.

As in A Modern Utopia, the social misfits of Andromeda Nebula are isolated on an island, called the Island of Forgetting, which is described at some length. The island is literally a small world, juxtaposed to the “Great World” of the utopian society (222). It is a space of exception, both indispensable to the dominant social space and subversive of it.

Like any heterotopia, the Island of Forgetting is not ideal. While presented as a sort of pastoral refuge, it is at the same time plagued by all the maladies of the past: famine, disease, hard labor and sexual violence. Its self-exiled inhabitants spend their "quiet years" of subsistence farming, struggling against the wild nature that has been adequately tamed elsewhere on Earth (222). The narrator does not hide his contempt for their nasty, brutish and short existence, for the "namelessness of old life" (226).

Mwen Mas, feeling guilty about the disaster of his FTL experiment, goes to the Island of Forgetting as a penance for what he suspects is a fatal flaw in his character. In an interesting passage Efremov describes the human type he calls “the bull”, which we today would identify as the sociopath: “a strong and energetic person, totally indifferent to others’ suffering and concerned only with his own satisfaction. Pain, conflicts and unhappiness of the past were always exacerbated by such people…” (223; emphasis mine). It is not only Efremov’s psychological acumen that is striking here but more importantly, identification of temporality with a particular personality type. As Bakhtin points out, character in literature is a function of chronotope, conditioned by the overall structure of the fictional world. The “bull” personality merges with the dystopian fictional world of Tormance in The Hour of the Bull whose very title emphasizes time rather than space as in Andromeda Nebula.

Mwen Mas’ suspicion that he might be a “bull” turns out to be unfounded. He acquits himself heroically in the island heterotopia, struggling with wild animals and defending a girl from a rapist. It is the island itself and its back-sliding inhabitants which turn out, collectively, to represent the “bullishness” of the past. Thrust into history, Mwen Mass is forced to engage in physical violence, unthinkable in the Great World, as he fights the erstwhile mathematician Bet Lon who tries to rape a young girl. Shocked by the primitive nature of this fight, Mwen Mass is reassured that his struggle with time, despite the sacrifices it claimed, was indeed justified. The Island of Forgetting becomes an image of the arrow of Ahriman, of the alien time, whose entropic passage threatens to erode humanity:

“Why to count what he doesn’t need – time? So much time, whole oceans of it, and yet how short his individual portion of it is! One short and instantly forgotten moment!

Only now did Mwen Mass realize how exact the name of the island is! The Island of Forgetting…Acts of ancestors forgotten by their descendants because they were enacted only for personal needs, contributing nothing to the betterment of society…” (226).     

 Strengthened in his resolve Mwen Mass leaves the Island of Forgetting and returns to the Great World. He brings back with him the would-be rapist Bet Lon who has rehabilitated himself by helping Mwen to fight a tiger and Bet Lon’s potential victim, the girl Onar whose vulnerability identifies her with the female victims and sacrifices of the past. Symbolically, Mwen Mass’ return signifies the defeat of the past by the present.

And yet, the heterotopia of temporality is not so easily gotten rid of. It reappears in The Hour of the Bull as a full-fledged alternative fictional world whose dynamism, including a murky historical origin, social unrest and impending revolution, acts as a narrative, if not consciously ideological, rebuke to the stasis of utopia. And it also reappears, in a strikingly different way, in the work of Efremov’s great rivals, the Strugatsky brothers.

In the Zone

In 1972, the Strugatsky brothers published what is no doubt a masterpiece of Soviet SF: Roadside Picnic. The novel, extensively discussed by such SF theoreticians as Fredric Jameson, Stanislaw Lem and Darko Suvin, seems on the face of it to be a total opposite to the utopian optimism of Efremov. It depicts the aftermath of an alien visitation in a decidedly imperfect society, plagued by smuggling, poverty and drink. The aliens (of whom nothing whatsoever is known) have left behind six Zones littered with mysterious artifacts, most of them deadly. The Zones are sharply differentiated from their surroundings, as even physical laws in them are warped. They become the target of “stalkers”, reckless smugglers of alien bounty. The novel follows one such stalker, Redrick Schuchart, who pursues the fabled Golden Ball reputed to grant all wishes in order to cure his monstrously mutated daughter.

The Zones are heterotopias with a vengeance, literally “other spaces”. It is perhaps not inconsequential that the Zone was a slang Soviet term for the Gulag universe. And while Roadside Picnic is far more than a dissident allegory, it does contain an element of social critique directed at what, by the 1970s, has become the crushing bureaucratic apparatus of the Soviet state.

And yet, paradoxically, the deadly Zone in the novel becomes a space of transcendence. Redrick is so consumed by the need to save his family that he selfishly sacrifices another man to reach the Golden Ball. And yet when he finally speaks his wish, it is not for personal gain or individual happiness. Unexpectedly, he is begging the omnipotent alien artifact for universal utopia: “HAPPINESS FOR EVERYBODY, FREE, AN NO ONE WILL GO AWAY UNSATISFIED!” (The Strugatskys 1972; 152). As he is running to the Ball crying out for universal happiness, the narrative abruptly ends.

 It is possible to see this striking ending as a parable of utopia itself. The Zone is a heterotopia of pure alterity, resistant to appropriation by any kind of ideological or epistemological system. It is at best, indifferent to human suffering; at worst, actively malevolent. And yet, precisely because it cannot be assimilated to a narrative of social perfectibility, moral improvement or utopian humanism, it functions as a site of resistance both to collective hope and collective despair. Red’s sudden and psychologically unmotivated reversal carves out a space of freedom and change in the static landscape of social and psychological determinism. This is why Fredric Jameson in his reading of the novel’s ending emphasizes “the unexpected emergence, as it were, beyond ‘the nightmare of History’ and from one of the most archaic longings of the human race, of the impossible and inexplicable Utopian impulse here none the less briefly glimpsed” (Jameson 2005; 295).

“No one will go away unsatisfied”

Is utopia destined to end in failure?  Russell Jacoby dismisses the violence perpetrated in the name of such utopian ideologies as Communism, Nazism and fascism by separating bureaucrats from "dreamers" (2004; 82). But as history shows dreamers eventually become bureaucrats, often eager to spill blood in order to see their utopian longings incarnated in radiant cities, cozy communities, and orderly landscapes. Their violence is directed not just at specific human groups but at social heterogeneity itself, which is inseparable from historical contingency and change. For utopia, there is no enemy but time. Once it culminates in universal happiness, history has to end.

By emphasizing the space of perfection, utopia has to repress its temporal and historical dimension, since temporality is the medium of change, flux and contingency. But by situating itself as the culmination of history, utopia is necessarily connected to time, just as a utopian text is necessarily narrative, no matter how attenuated its plot becomes. The ideological confrontation between history and utopia is textually articulated as the structural opposition of space and time.

But of course, time can no more be excluded from human existence than it can be from narrative. Narrative, in Paul Ricoeur’s classic definition, is the way we apprehend being in time: “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode”(1983; 52, emphasis in the original). Literary utopia, insofar as it is a narrative genre, bears in its very form the irresolvable contradiction that damns ideological utopia: it has to represent static perfection in a form, which is dynamic by definition. Since it is impossible, literary utopias often bring in additional genres (SF, the psychological novel, the thriller), which enable the dynamic construction of the plot. But such generic hybridity undermines the very foundation of utopia, eroding its ideological bedrock by polluting it with their own “content of the form”.

Another strategy that literary utopias deploy is meta-fictionality, resulting in what Tom Moylan calls “critical utopias”. Wells’A Modern Utopia (at least in its first part) is a meta-fictional meditation on its own genre. Both The Dispossessed and Samuel Delany’s Triton (1977) include elements of self-reflexivity that question their own utopian premises.

Still another narrative strategy of critical utopias, evident in both The Dispossessed and The Hour of the Bull, is splitting the chronotope into two evenly balanced utopian and dystopian spaces, which together constitute the spatial equivalent of historical contingency. While in Le Guin this splitting is part of the novel’s overall critique of utopian stasis, in Efremov it is hastily patched up at the end as Tormance undergoes a revolution and joins the Great Ring. Yet this closure does not quite undo the critical construction of the chronotope itself.

But for those texts that resist generic hybridity, meta-fictionality and splitting by insisting that the utopian space they create is indeed perfect and impervious to the ravages of time, their narrative engineering often generates the same embedded spaces of alterity as does actual social engineering. Foucault’s heterotopias, whether military barracks or concentration camps are not consciously created to house the “surplus” of difference, yet they become just that, draining away society’s rejects. These reservoirs of the different and the inassimilable are hidden away and yet indispensable to the society whose paradoxes they help to contain but never to resolve.

Efremov’s Island of Forgetting is the narrative equivalent of social heterotopias, necessary to the utopian chronotope and yet impossible either to integrate fully or to get rid of altogether. It is where narrative time is imprisoned within utopian space.

And yet, as the Strugatskys’ deconstruction of the utopian chronotope shows, the heterotopia is precisely where utopian hope survives. If the desire for universal happiness can emerge from the warped space of the alien invasion, it is because this space protects the seeds of time and change that will eventually undo any utopia, no matter how deadly perfect.


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[1] Henceforth I will use the standard abbreviation SF for science fiction.

[2] Utopia, of course, means no place, though in alternative spelling it may be read as a good place.

[3] In The Shape of Things to Come, the equivalent organization is called The Dictatorship of the Air.

[4] See Elana Gomel’s “Gods Like Men: Soviet Science Fiction and the Utopian Self” (Science Fiction Studies November 2004; Vol.31, Part 3, 358-378) for a more comprehensive discussion.

[5] All quotes from Russian-language sources are in my translation.

[6] Efremov had some rather heterodox views on human physical perfection, considering, for example, women to be more highly evolved than men. But these views were not incompatible with the Soviet ideology which abjured the eugenic excesses of Nazism but was just as intent on a creating a New Man, albeit by different means.