American Utopia: Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings Peter Swirski

Christina Lake,

Post-Apocalyptic Waste. Edited by Steve Asselin, Matthew Crofts, and Janine Hatter. Pages 279 – 281 Download as PDF

American Utopia: Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings

Peter Swirski

New York, Routledge, 2019.

ISBN: 978-0367144272, 256pp. £120.


Fictional utopias tend to focus on rational planning and material well-being, rather than the supernatural, but Peter Swirski’s American Utopia: Literature, Society, and the Human Use of Human Beings looks at the dark side of these utopian dreams, dissecting the irrationality of human nature that will turn paradise into ghettos, altruism into selfishness and genetic engineering into genocide. Swirski’s approach to the subject though is determinedly based on the natural sciences, using evolutionary arguments, as well as literary scholarship, to demonstrate how human nature, unaltered, will always fail at utopianism. For this reason, he is interested in extreme if not grotesque utopian experiments to support his arguments and takes his investigation beyond literary analysis to areas such as games theory, biotechnology and his own primary research into folklore and deaggression.

American Utopia is divided into five parts with the first part providing overviews and definitions of utopia and the following four parts analysing fictional dystopian work by Thomas Disch, Bernard Malamud, Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood as a jumping off point for discussions on human nature and the potential to achieve a version of utopia in the real world.

In his introduction, Swirski draws on the utopias of Plato and Moore, as well as American experimental utopian communities to demonstrate that the desire for utopia is as deep-rooted as our inability to make utopia work in real life. He shows that the pro-social ideas of the more popular utopian writers have been tried time and again to no avail (brushing aside some exceptions in a rather brief paragraph), but the interest in engineering a better society persists, even though the co-operative tenets of utopia run counter to the American capitalist dream. He argues that there are deep-rooted evolutionary reasons for the failure of utopian communities, which social engineering alone will never overcome, proposing instead that bioengineering, despite its bad reputation, could be a more effective and less coercive solution.

The second section of the book moves on to the dysfunctional utopian world of Thomas Disch’s 334, a series of short stories, published in 1972, but set in the New York of the 2020s. Swirski who corresponded with Disch before his death in 2008 shares his understanding of this ‘literary chameleon,’ to position 334 not, as often described, as nihilistic dystopian SF, but as an imperfect utopia, constructed on the basis of a deliberately experimental narrative grid. Swirski’s story-by-story reading of 334 is effective in underlining the stylistic merit of the work, while drawing parallels with the present day to show that ‘Dischtopia’ is not very different from twenty-first-century America. The final section moves away from Disch as literary writer, to Disch as social scientist, drawing out the utopian principles behind 334 in a series of interesting but rather brief case studies on Universal Basic Income, happiness indices and direct democracy.

In the next part, Swirski explores the origins of morality through Malamud’s God’s Grace (1982), where a nuclear holocaust survivor attempts to set up civilisation from scratch with primates, raising questions about whether nature or culture determine our rules of conduct. This section takes Swirski into some very interesting primary research on proverbs. After arguing that the co-evolutionary path of genes and culture have led to evolutionary benefits for altruism, he goes in search of pre-historic evidence for this pro-sociality, turning to folklore, and especially proverbs as pithy time capsules of popular wisdom. Swirski’s database of proverbs from all around the world shows the tension between what is good for the individual and what is good for society, as well as the consistency of what he calls ‘prosocial policing’ across a range of cultures and times. He concludes that the universality of so many proverbial sayings suggest that these axioms are rooted in biology not culture.

The fourth part, possibly the least coherent, takes on Kurt Vonnegut, quantum physics and games theory. Vonnegut’s Galapagos (1985) and Timequake (1997) are referenced in a discussion of evolution and time travel, but it is the section on games theory that really moves the argument along, showing that co-operation is the best strategy for successful social cohesion, providing there are consequences for those who do not co-operate. This idea links directly to a key area of Swirski’s interest – the principle of nonviolence, which is explored in the final part. Enlisting the support of Margaret Atwood who saw deaggression as ‘the perfect linchpin’ of Oryx and Crake (2003), Swirski considers the possibility of genetically engineering aggression out of humans, but without using the destructive methods of Atwood’s dystopia. He seems oddly surprised to discover that the majority of people surveyed would prefer not to have their aggressive tendencies bioengineered out of them, not even in the cause of universal peace.

Reading American Utopia is an alternatively fascinating and frustrating experience. The book covers a lot of ground, but not always in enough detail to be satisfying, and has a playful and resolutely readable style, which while engaging and provocative, occasionally comes across as facile. The decision to go beyond the heartland of literature, close reading and critical studies into areas such as digital humanities, game theory and genetic science does make it more interesting, though in terms of the summary of recent advances in genetic science liable to becoming outdated fast. At times literary commentary takes second place to the connected research, resulting in slightly superficial coverage of some of the texts. Also with a book like this, the Covid pandemic inevitably influences the reading, tending to reinforce Swirski’s negative points about human nature, but also suggesting that more sweeping changes than genetically modifying humans to edit out aggression are required. More societal changes, for example. I also found it difficult to accept the claim that it would be possible to genetically modify human beings to be less aggressive without fundamentally changing other aspects of our nature. But despite these caveats, American Utopia is an exciting and insightful book. It offers a fruitful approach to linking literature and science, one that could well be applied to supernatural fiction, and shows how literary texts can contribute to studying some of the most pressing problems of the day.

About the author

Christina Lake,

Christina Lake completed a PhD on Eugenics in Utopian Literature with the University of Exeter in 2017, and currently works in the Research & Innovation department at Falmouth University. Her research spans a period from the late-nineteenth century to the present day and her interests include utopian fiction, SF, evolution, eugenics and genetics. Her latest publication is a paper in Academia Lunare’s Ties that Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction (2020).