SF or Not? : A Debate


“News from Nowhere” by William Morris firmly fits into the genre of Victorian Science Fiction. Paul Brians, an English Professor and writer, defines SF as “a subdivision of fantastic literature which employs science or rationalism to create an appearance of plausibility” (Brians). “News from Nowhere” is fantastical since it takes place in a non-existent society set in the England of the future. This society starkly contrasts Victorian society in a plethora of ways, with fantastical elements that include an almost complete lack of violence, a love and respect for all modes of work, and an extreme diminishment or even non-existence of illness. Rationalism is extensively employed in attempts to bring validity to the world of Nowhere. In fact, a third of the novel is devoted to an extensive examination of how and why the society of this hypothetical world functions the way it does. Therefore “News from Nowhere” is by Paul Brians’ standards certainly a work of science fiction.

John W. Campbell, a SF writer, provides insight on the nature of science fiction by discussing how SF distinguishes itself from fantasy:“the major distinction between fantasy and science fiction is, simply, that science fiction uses one, or a very, very few new postulates, and develops their rigidly consistent logical consequences of these limited postulates. Fantasy makes its rules as it goes along… The basic nature of fantasy is ‘The only rule is make up a new rule any time you need one!’ The basic rule of science fiction is ‘Set up a basic proposition then develop its consistent, logical consequences’” (Campbell). The new postulates in the world of “Nowhere” are that communism has replaced capitalism, and that everyone loves to work. From these societal truths all the other aspects of the novel logically fall into place. Since everyone loves to work an abundance of goods are created, and economic incentive is superfluous. Since all goods are available if an inhabitant desires them, people do not covet property, which along with other factors creates an almost complete lack of violence. Logical consistency and a lack of random rule makes the novel SF and not Fantasy.

Gregory Benford defines SF as:“ a controlled way to think and dream about the future. An integration of the mood and attitude of science (the objective universe) with the fears and hopes that spring from the unconscious. Anything that turns you and your social context, the social you, inside out. Nightmares and visions, always outlined by the barely possible” (Benford). This definition speaks directly to the novel. Morris writes about a future addressing the social and political context of the time by reimagining them with the aid of political revolution. This future outlines his hopes for England in a methodical scientific manner.

The primary argument against reading the novel as SF is that it does not definitively present a new tangible world to the reader. The events of the novel can be read either as a dream or as a real and physical place Guest travels to. Both of these readings of the novel are equally plausible. If “Nowhere” is read as a creation of Guest’s imagination it should still be considered SF. In this case the reader is still taken on a journey to a fantastical society in the future, and the reader still suspends their disbelief while grappling with the possibility of “Nowhere”. An additional argument that aims to place the novel outside of the realm of SF is the lack of a scientific novum. This aspect of the SF definition is disputed and is left out of many scholars’ understanding of SF. Instead of employing science, Willliam Morris employs rationalism, which Paul Brines believes should be included in the discussion of SF. “News from Nowhere” is thematically relevant to many of the other SF novels of the time. Like H.G Wells’s “The Time Machine” it explores capitalism’s exploitive nature, as well as what makes up a Utopia.

The definitions of Brians, Campell, and Crispin require an SF novel to be fantastical, based on rational thought, and to explore a future that comes about from scientific advance or rationalism. “News from Nowhere” meets all of these demands as well as being stylistically and thematically relevant to the other SF novels of the time.


According to Kinsgsley Amis, a novelist, poet and critic, “News from Nowhere” should not be considered science fiction, primarily because it does not deal with science. He defines science fiction as “that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized on the basis of some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-technology whether human or extra-terrestrial” (Amis). The world of “Nowhere” comes about via political reform and social upheaval. Technology or scientific discovery does not serve as the impetus for change. Additionally, ideas of science and its role in this new world are barely touched on. Amis believes “News from Nowhere” is a utopian novel and a piece of speculative political fiction, but it is not SF.

Paul Brines defines SF as “a subdivision of fantastic literature which employs science or rationalism to create an appearance of plausibility” (Brines). Morris casts doubt upon the fantastical elements he has created and explored throughout his work by denigrating “Nowhere” to possibly just a dream or a vision. If it is to be read as a dream, then there is nothing unrealistic or fantastic about his “News from Nowhere.” The telling of a story that is purely plausible in the time that it is written is not SF.
Gordon R. Dickinson posits that SF is manufactured realism, and that it therefore “must be entirely convincing to the reader in its own right” (Dickinson). The “Time Machine” by H.G Wells is a brilliant example of a novel that is both fantastic and entirely believable. Wells provides a scientific explanation for time travel, as well as a vividly detailed future world. He also describes the convincing and wild manner in which the time traveler tells his story at a dinner party. Although the dinner party goers struggle to believe that time travel is possible, they look on with awe and confusion as the time traveler talks. A feeling of the uncanny is present in the gathering. On the other hand the realism of “Nowhere” is immediately questioned by the lacking development regarding how Guest comes to be in “Nowhere”. He simply falls asleep in Victorian England and wakes up in a changed world set in the same location in the year 2003. The reader also questions “Nowhere’s” plausibility due to how unfathomably idealistic Morris’s vision of the future is.

The novel reads less as a story and more as propaganda. Thus, the reader doesn’t believe Morris because his writing seems to be pleading for communism, which he was vocally in favor of. Instead of presenting a possible future, Morris presents what he wants the world to look like, and he does so in a preachy manner.

A lack of science, and a lack plausibility to “Nowhere”, places William Morris’s “News from Nowhere” outside of the genre of SF. Instead, Morris creates a Utopian novel of a world that he desires

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