The First Scientific Utopia Still Matters 400 Years Later
‘New Atlantis’, Francis Bacon’s pioneering work of proto-science fiction, has just been reissued. Here’s why it still matters.
Utopias are one of the earliest, most straightforward forms of speculative fiction. Beginning with Thomas More’s 1516 faux travelogue about the strange, egalitarian land of Utopia that gave the concept its name, telling stories whose chief aim is to describe what an ideal world might look like became an enduring art form. Yet critics don’t usually place the genesis of science fiction until the Industrial Revolution — Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often cited as the starting pistol of the genre.
Which, fair enough — utopias usually took the form of a travelogue; a visitor to a new fantastic and ostensibly perfected place would record and relay his adventures to readers back home. But Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, published in 1626, was different. It featured plenty of what we’d recognize as major elements of modern science fiction; detailed technological speculation, a wide embrace of science as the key ingredient to a better future, and so on. In fact, it’s regarded as the first scientific utopia — the first major articulation of the idea that technology and science might eventually perfect our lives if only innovation were allowed to flourish and to take center stage.
This has proved time and again to be a deeply problematic notion, of course — but it’s an unquestionably influential one. It might just be one of the most influential ideas of the last few centuries. Given that, and the fact that New Atlantis was recently reissued in a handsome edition, along with selections from Bacon’s also-interesting Sylva Sylvarum by Repeater Press, it’s an ideal time to take stock of this curious work’s impact. So, I reached out to Robert Barry, the writer who offers a lengthy introduction and contextualization for the new volume, to dig into this forgotten but influential utopia.
OneZero: New Atlantis can lay a claim to being the first “scientific” utopia — a detailing of a society where the promise of technology and science will be unlocked to usher in more perfect lives for all of its citizens. Why is the book still resonant now?