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Fractional Prefigurations : Science Fiction, Utopia, and Narrative Form



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The literary utopia is often accused of being an outmoded genre, a graveyard for failed social movements. However, utopian literature is a surprisingly resilient genre, evolving from the static, descriptive anatomies of the Renaissance utopias to the novelized utopian romances of the late nineteenth century and the self-reflexive critical utopias of the 1970s. The literary utopia adapts to the needs of the moment: what form(s) best represent the fears and desires of our current historical period? In this dissertation I perform a close reading of three exemplary texts: John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985), and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004). While I address topics specific to each text, my main focus is on the texts’ depictions of utopia and their spatialized narrative forms. In Stand on Zanzibar Brunner locates the utopian impulse in three registers—the political/bureaucratic, the technical/scientific, and the human(e)—and explores how their interplay constitutes the utopian space. In Always Coming Home Le Guin renovates the classical literary utopia, problematizing its uncritical advocacy of the “Judaeo-Christian-Rationalist-West” but preserving much of the older utopia’s form. In Cloud Atlas the networked narrative structure reflects and enables the heterogeneous, non-hierarchical, and processual utopian communities depicted in the novel. In these science fictional works the spatialized techniques of juxtaposition, discontinuity, and collage —commonly associated with a loss of historical depth and difference—are used to create utopian spaces founded on contingency and human choice. I contend that science fiction is a historical genre, one that is invested in representing societies as contingent historical totalities. Science fiction’s generic tendencies modify the context that a spatialized narrative form functions in, and in changing the context changes its effects. By utilizing a spatialized narrative form to embody a contingent practice, Brunner, Le Guin, and Mitchell cast the future—and the present—as historical, as something that can be acted upon and changed: they have provided us with strategies for envisioning better futures and, potentially, for mobilizing our visions of the future for positive change in the present.



John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar, Ursula K. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas, science fiction, utopia, narrative form



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






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