The Coming Races: Eugenics in Utopian Literature

The idea of genetic engineering may conjure visions of futuristic horror, such as mutant human beings with peculiar powers. But some novels and stories, particularly within utopian literature, imagine more positive trends in human development, whether driven by science or natural evolution over time. Sarah Lohmann considers the complexity of approaches to evolution and eugenics in utopian fiction, and suggests that the genre itself has evolved in its depiction of these issues over time.

Utopian literature has historically presented itself as at the service of the community, showcasing a better life for all. However, in several utopian texts from the genre’s ‘golden age’, around the turn of the last century, an interesting tendency can be found that is somewhat at odds with this stated aim.

In novels such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, William Henry Hudson’s A Crystal Age, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward and William Morris’s News from Nowhere, there seems to be a curious reliance on some sort of ‘natural eugenics’ that has produced humans evolved to a much higher standard. Though not always made clear, the physical and social effects speak for themselves – whether in the frightening efficiency of Looking Backwards’ ‘industrial army’, the sphinx-like elegance of The Coming Race’s Vril-ya, or the innocent beauty of Hudson and Morris’s pastoral utopians.

In this podcast, Sarah Lohmann argues that this unsettling eugenicism can in fact be seen as undermining the very thing that could possibly make a literary utopia successful – the collective evolution that its societal transformation offers, rather than that of individuals. In fact, this fact can be partially tied to the most common criticism of literary utopias: that they are mere static blueprints, inflexible and illusory. Moreover,this paradoxical individualism contrasts with the collective-based focus of later feminist utopian novels from the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and Sally Miller Gearhart’s The Wanderground – all of which present self-organising systems whose egalitarianism makes collective evolution not only possible, but highly sustainable. Finally, Sarah examines what these findings mean for the overall purpose of the literary utopia, as well as for its role in our current political climate.

This podcast was recorded during the series Late Summer Lectures in 2017. Listen to other lectures from the series here:

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