The 1000-page bulk of Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia had sat intimidatingly on the shelf since I acquired it. Only in the period of forced leisure after an operation did I get round to reading it. Long hours in bed gave me the chance to experience this leisurely utopian novel in one unbroken sweep. For a week, I inhabited the imaginary country of Islandia and, like the narrator, John Lang, I came to love it. I wanted to stay in this place where a life more authentic than seems feasible in my own society is imagined in persuasive detail. I surfaced from the novel desiring with all my heart to find in the real world a way of living more like that which is possible in Islandia.
But there’s a worm in the apple. Turn the frontispiece map of Islandia upside down and it looks rather like South Africa. Across the mountain frontier to the north dwell ‘blacks’, who are the bronzed Islandians’ implacable foes. Any blacks who cross the frontier will be hunted down remorselessly. Wright seems unaware how morally compromised is his utopia by the hints that, in centuries past, the Islandians exterminated the native people of the land they’ve made their own. White-supremacist South Africa extrapolated to a Final Solution. Lang, the US consul, falls in with Islandia’s conservative faction, who resist opening the country to modernising, mercantile influences from overseas. Exposed here is the linkage that can arise between authentic inhabitation of a land you love as your home and xenophobia towards others who may wish to share it.
Islandia’s utopia is not totalitarian, like some, but the means by which it has come into being and is defended are uncondonable. A more benign process of change is captured, in microcosm, in Holly Phillips’s ‘Summer Ice’ – for me the stand-out story in Jetse de Vries’s Shine anthology, and also published in her collection In the Palace of Repose. There are glimpses of dirty-hands transformation of the physical environment as it’s happening: ‘Pneumatic drills chatter the cement of Manon’s street … The art school is already surrounded by a knot-work of grassy rides and bicycle paths … buildings are crowned with gardens … She skirts piles of broken pavement, walks on oily dirt that will have to be cleaned and layered with compost before being reseeded.’ You’re aware of pressures on people in this future – from social norms, from regulation, subsidy, and scarcity – to serve society’s needs, but the engines of change are neither totalitarian nor fascist. The young artist Manon feels a tension between the impulses to be useful and to follow her calling; and achieves a synthesis.
I’d have been glad to tarry in this imagined world as well, but the story sent me back into my own world after only 30 pages instead of 1000. Unlike Islandia’s, its vision lies conceivably in the near future. Its challenge to me is to live the dream.
This piece was first published in Vector, No. 266, 2011