Monday, May 30, 2011

The Twenty-One Balloons

I love the book Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois. I read it when I was a little kid, and I still get pleasure out of reading it now. The narrator goes on a long trip by air-balloon, lands on an island populated by a wealthy utopian society, and lives with them for a while until the island (oops, it's Krakatoa!) blows up. The pseudo-scientific technology is fascinating, the description of the island's inhabitants and their customs hilarious, and the narrator's escape from the island is delightful.

But I didn't realize until I read Utopia by Thomas More how much du Bois owed this Renaissance thinker. More has also created a story, told from the viewpoint of Raphael Hytholoday (talker of nonsense), of a far-off land with undisclosed coordinates, upon which a society lives in ways that blend the hilarious and the truly utopian. And in some ways, More is ahead of his time. Euthanasia, marriage of priests, divorce on grounds of mutual dissatisfaction, communal and (sort-of) egalitarian lifestyle . . . it's great, huh?

Of course there are downsides. The island runs partly off of slave labor, women must confess their sins monthly to their husbands, and both free travel and free speech are severely curtailed.

And there are really funny parts, like how the Utopians chain their slaves with gold and silver chains, and even use gold and silver toilets, so that nobody in the society has an unhealthy reverence for (sometimes literally!) filthy lucre.

I'm not sure this piece is going to have a lot of direct relevance to my further studies, unless I refer back to it in my future work on speculative fiction, which often has utopic/dystopic settings. The Tempest makes use of utopian settings and rhetoric; any work I do on history or politics might benefit from Book 1 of Utopia, which is an extended discussion of what makes good government and the role of philosophy in ruling. But . . . I'm not so interested in those things. So, thanks, Thomas More!

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