The Alternate Islands: A Chapter in the History of SF, with a Select Bibliography on the SF of Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance
By Darko Suvin
Science Fiction Studies, Vol.10:3 (1976)
Excerpt: Cockayne is a universal folk legend of a land of peace, plenty, and sloth, well known already in Antiquity, and refurbished—probably by vagrant student-poets—in the Middle Ages. In that Nowhere, rivers flow with cream or wine, roasted fowls fly into your mouth, and sausages run around crying “Eat me, eat me!” It is already an inverted world which relates to human needs, and like utopia proposes a strictly materialistic solution. It can therefore be transformed into utopia by relying on human intervention instead of on a magical parallel world, and all utopias, beginning with More, will retain its abhorrence of human degradation by war, toil, and hunger. Next in the family of wondrous lands are the Blessed Islands at the limits of the Ocean. Found already in tribal tales, Chinese and Mesopotamian legends, and Homer, such an Elysium was originally a place of magical fertility and contentment to which the blessed heroes were admitted in the flesh. In the Middle Ages, such locations in far-off seas, including the Celtic legendary island, came to be considered as the EARTHLY PARADISE, which was situated in this world and whose inhabitants (before religious rewritings) were not disembodied but simply more perfect, endowed with happiness, youth, and immortality.
Echoes of such folk legends are heard in Dante’s account of Ulysses’ final heroic voyage toward the Earthly Paradise, during which he is sunk by a jealous God intent on preserving his monopoly over the right of passage. In fact, Dante’s Comedy incorporates in its astrophysical and metaphysical universe almost all SF elements transmitted to More through the Middle Ages, when —after Augustine of Hippo’s Civitas Dei — “the utopia is transplanted to the sky, and called the Kingdom of Heaven”:the Comedy subsumes discussions of several ideal political states, traditions of the damned and blessed places, the search for the perfect kingdom, and Dante’s own superb vision of the perfectly just City of God.
More was well aware of such subgenres as the Earthly Paradise, but he rejected their place outside history, in a magically arrested time (often entailing the hero’s instant aging upon return). Bidding also “a curt farewell” to the mythical conservatism of a Golden Age of happy forefathers, he resolutely located Utopia in an alternative human attainable present, momentous just because non-existent among Europeans. As in Plato’s Republic, which looms large in the background, human destiny consists of men and their institutions; but diametrically opposed to Plato, the just place can result from a heroic deed such as King Utopus’s cutting off the “new island” from the tainted continent. Men’s norms and institutions are not the province of religion and magic but of sociopolitics, and time is measured in terms of creative work. That is why Utopia differs radically from Plato’s curious combination of caste society and ruling-caste communism.