100. News from Nowhere by William Morris

coverA meeting takes place of some unnamed individuals, barely described, and hinted to be a meeting of socialists. After two leave the meeting, one laments to the other that if he could just see a glimpse of the future they are working toward, it would make his life much easier.

He goes home, falls asleep, and wakes up somewhere between a hundred and twenty and a hundred and fifty years later. (The book is vague and occasionally contradictory on timeframe. At any rate, events seem to be post-AD 2000.)

The entirety of the book, absent the opening chapter, is then this character’s Utopian Tour, seeing just how gosh-darn nifty socialist anarchism will be in post-2000 Great Britain, and being reminded over and over (and over and over and over and over) that people in Tha Future! do not use “money”.

In the end, he meets a pretty girl who figures out when he is from, seems to fall in love a bit, then vanishes back into the past.

I started this book blind, because I wanted to jump into the 1898 Top 100 Project, and I didn’t want to prejudice myself against a book I’d never heard of.

Didn’t make a difference. Though reasonably well-written, News from Nowhere is stupid.

The first chapter is written in a difficult style, to no obvious purpose.

Our friend says that from that sleep he awoke once more, and afterwards went through such surprising adventures that he thinks that they should be told to our comrades, and indeed the public in general, and therefore proposes to tell them now. But, says he, I think it would be better if I told them in the first person, as if it were myself who had gone through them; which, indeed, will be the easier and more natural to me, since I understand the feelings and desires of the comrade of whom I am telling better than any one else in the world does.

The viewpoint shenanigans serve no obvious purpose.

Thankfully, the rest of the book is narrated in straight first-person, and the prose is reasonably readable and clear (considering that it’s a Victorian novel, I find it quite remarkable).

However, that is (almost) all that can be kindly said about the book. There are no characters, merely the author’s various mouthpieces explaining why socialist anarchy is the way to go, and sooooo much better than any other system, plus the narrator, who forgets new information so quickly and so frequently that the reader cannot help but wonder if he is meant to be a moron.

The Message is never, ever subtle.

In order to throw off suspicions about his origins, the narrator (briefly making a big deal about adopting the name “William Guest”, then basically dropping the idea for most of the rest of the book) lets his hosts believe that he has been abroad for a long time. They have no trouble believing this, because he is middle aged and wrinkled and gray, and so must have lived in “the unhappy lands”. That is, lands where socialist anarchy is not yet in place.

He spends chapters and chapters and chapters discussing “history” with one character who specializes in it. One chapter is even written in the style of a Socratic dialogue. I couldn’t work out whether this was the author attempting to show off, or simply that he got tired of writing out quotation marks for a chapter.

And the economics of it. Oy. I don’t even know where to start. Factories in the 1800s, you are told repeatedly, made things that nobody wanted, on top of destroying workers’ lives and polluting the nation. How were they able to stay in business, making things that nobody paid for? Don’t bother to ask, it’s never answered.

The ideal life for people, the author holds out, is to live an agrarian life, get transported by horses and carriages or rowboats (trains have been abolished because they were stinky and ugly), and work on whatever you want whenever you want, and otherwise not. Few people read, because that puts ideas into people’s heads and makes them unhappy. And so on and so on.

The entire society isn’t even remotely workable, even in some flight of fantasy way.

(It was unfair of me, because the author could not know what the twentieth century would hold, nor how communism would be put into practice in fact, but I could not read quickly, because I kept imagining all the mass graves the characters must be walking over or past or sitting on top of or near.)

And yet, this was the book that was just five books below Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment on that 1898 top 100 novels list.

This project might be far more painful than I had anticipated.

News from Nowhere by William Morris can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg and many other sites.