Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities

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Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities. By Howard P. Segal. John Wiley & Sons. 304pp, Pounds 55.00 and Pounds 19.99. ISBN 9781405183291 and 183284. Published 19 April 2012

Utopianism is in a bad way. Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany and Pol Pot's Kampuchea are regularly disinterred as terrifying examples of humanity's attempts to actualise ideal societies, with North Korea an absurdist reminder of inglorious pasts. John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007) unrelentingly, if hyperbolically, branded utopian thinking with the mark of religious fanaticism, and even utopianists get defensive. Editors of the recent Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought, for example, ask whether there is any conceptual or practical space for utopian thinking "in a world marked by a chronic utopian outlook". Not surprisingly, they find reason to prosecute the case for utopianism.

So, too, does the historian Howard Segal in Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Virtual Communities. Segal brings considerable scholarship and experience to bear, particularly on the historical intersections between technology and utopia. His capacious knowledge is integrated further in this book's illuminating footnotes. He is particularly strong on utopian thinking and action as attempts to find and implement practical solutions to actual problems. This, he argues, constitutes the principal value of utopias, suggesting that "they should be played back upon the real world rather than be held up as crystal balls". And he makes a telling criticism of utopian scholars who privilege the Western tradition of utopian thinking over that of other cultures. Brief accounts of utopianism in places such as Latin America, Japan and India hint at alternative traditions that scholars could explore profitably.

Given the immense amount of material that might be covered, selection and emphasis are critical factors in such a book. Segal covers several continents and many centuries, addressing key texts and thinkers, and while others might deal differently with the major figures or works, the book supplies impressive coverage and thoughtful interpretations. …