Dream on

The Faber Book of Utopias

John Carey (editor)<em> Faber & Faber, 531pp, £20</em>

ISBN 057119785X

If the true paradises are those we have lost, then the true utopias are those we can never hope to gain. By definition they do not exist; the literal meaning of the Greek is "nowhere". Utopia must always lie beyond the bounds of possibility because, as Thomas More, who coined the word, was to demonstrate at the cost of his head, it is the fate of ideals to run up against brute human nature. Yet that has not prevented generations of utopianists from arguing that even human nature itself might be changed and a heaven or hell established on earth. As John Carey argues in his introduction to this anthology, a collection of utopias is nothing less than "a collection of humanity's desires and fears".

All the more regrettable, then, that his own choices should be so uninspiring. The prototype for Carey's understanding of utopia is the obvious one of Plato's "Republic", a blueprint for an ideal state that deals with the vagaries of human nature by the simple expedient of banning them all. This prescriptive model is echoed to wearying effect as a succession of visionaries, philosophers and eccentrics take their place on the soapbox.

I doubt that The Faber Book of Manifestoes would ever have been commissioned, but that is what Carey has given us. There are programmes for industrial and green utopias, feminist and anti-feminist utopias, fascist and communist utopias, but in the end one lunatic scheme comes to seem much like another. It is noticeable that the most entertaining examples of this genre are invariably dystopian or satirical, or both, but even Swift or Orwell can be made to seem less pertinent by the company they keep.

Yet utopianism is a far more interesting and culturally varied phenomenon than this anthology suggests. When Plato wrote the Republic he was offering not merely a political blueprint, but his vision of how an earthly society could best approximate to a dimension of ideal forms. This conviction that a state could embody the essential harmony of the universe was not unique to Greek philosophy. Both Egypt and China saw themselves as already embodying it; in Zoroastrian and Jewish writings it was identified with a divinely promised future; in the Hindu epics it was placed in a glorified past. An anthologist has an interesting range from which to choose.

Had Carey represented any of the different traditions in detail, then his book would certainly have been more balanced and interesting. But by concentrating so exclusively on secular utopianism, he has failed to do justice even to the broad range of western utopias. It seems perverse, for instance, to include Newman Watts' The Man Who Did Not Sin (1939), his ridiculous novel about the return of Christ to establish a world state, or Rupert Brooke's twee vision of a heaven for fish, and yet to leave out the Book of Revelations itself. Carey might argue that apocalyptic expectations cannot properly be considered utopian, but in that case why does he include Tertullian's gloating over the prospect of the torments of the damned? In fact, this is a passage that should not be considered utopian at all, since it anticipates a state of being outside history, and utopianism, properly speaking, refers to the desire to see a heaven built on earth. Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, both of which promised just such a paradise, were essentially secular parodies of countless earlier attempts to found the City of God. If Marx is included in this anthology, then why no place for Augustine or Joachim of Fiore? If Lenin and Hitler, then why no Calvin or Brigham Young? It is not as though the lure of a religious-inspired utopia has lost its hold even in the scientific brave new world of today. Carey concludes his anthology with a vision of a genetically modified future, but it seems at least as plausible that the well-spring of utopianism in the next century will be drawn from the Middle Ages and that its conduits will be ayatollahs and the Taliban, to say nothing of the heirs of David Koresh.

Most utopias have been founded on the principle of the elect, and most utopianists have had to select those deemed worthy of entry to their state. The task of an anthologist is not so very different. Based on the evidence of this collection, Carey's personal utopia would certainly favour thinkers over doers and displays of intellect over visionary enthusiasms. Donne and Milton, for instance, would be permitted entry, but Shelley would be banned. Rather as in Plato's Republic, however, or indeed at high table in an Oxford college, the overriding qualification would seem to be a distaste for the demotic.

It is hard otherwise to explain the most startling omission of all from this anthology, that of genre-based science fiction and fantasy. It is not that Carey is prejudiced against sci-fi in itself. He will include it if there is no question that an intellectual conceit is the focus of a selected text, rather than anything so vulgar as pure entertainment. So H G Wells can be included, or Aldous Huxley, but never Asimov's Foundation or a Star Trek script. As for The Lord of the Rings - heaven forfend!

There is an unsettling irony here. Carey is also the author of The Intellectuals and the Masses, which lambasted the intelligentsia of the modernist movement for their contempt towards popular culture. Strange, then, that he should be guilty of the same offence; but fitting, perhaps, as well. After all, there has never been a utopia that wasn't shadowed by hypocrisy.

Tom Holland is a novelist