By Zachary Kendal
Australia saw a rush of utopian fiction in the late nineteenth century. Speculative accounts of futuristic Australian cities or otherworldly societies were used to explore the social and ethical issues facing the colonies. It was in this hopeful environment that Melbourne phrenologist Joseph Fraser wrote Melbourne and Mars: My Mysterious Life on Two Planets, one of the most creative and fascinating utopian novels to come out of Colonial Victoria. Published in 1889 by E. W. Cole of Cole’s Book Arcade, Fraser’s novel compares life in the colony to a utopian existence on Mars.
These utopias were not necessarily seen as perfect societies, but as marked improvements on the author’s present. Of course, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and few of the utopian cities depicted in nineteenth-century literature would be very appealing to modern readers.
Like the other utopian imaginings of the time, Melbourne and Mars allowed its author to explore his unique vision for a better world. As the novel’s protagonist begins living a dual life on Earth and on Mars, he compares dreary Melbourne to the technologically advanced utopia of the Red Planet. To better understand the historical and literary context of Melbourne and Mars, let’s look at how Fraser handles some of the key issues addressed in Colonial Australian utopias: socialism, women’s rights, science, religion, federation, and homogeneity.
One of the most distinctive features of Fraser’s utopia is its democratic socialism, with extensive discussions of class, capital, and economic models. But as Tod Moore notes, this is not the socialism of The Communist Manifesto, appearing to be “indebted more to [US author] Edward Bellamy than to Karl Marx.” Like the future Boston of Bellamy’s highly influential utopian novel Looking Backward 2000–1887 (1888), Fraser’s Mars achieved its socialism through gradual reform and a shared sense of altruism.
Although it’s unlikely that Fraser read Bellamy’s novel, which was yet to make an impact in Australia in 1889, more direct Australian responses to Looking Backward would emerge in the 1890s. Among these was David A. Andrade’s The Melbourne Riots, and How Harry Holdfast and His Friends Emancipated the Workers, published in Melbourne in 1892. Andrade was a founder of the Melbourne Anarchist Club and promoted anarchist, socialist, and freethought literature in Andrade’s Bookery and Free Library on Russell Street. He envisaged a socialist Melbourne arising out of a bloody revolution, where rioters charged down Collins Street and set upon members of parliament, forming their own revolutionary government.
Another challenge to the peaceful transition to socialism envisaged by Bellamy and Fraser came in S. A. Rosa’s The Coming Terror; or, The Australian Revolution, published in Sydney in 1894. Rosa’s preface declares: “This book is intended as both a warning and a prediction. The writer is no Anarchist. He desires to see the inevitable change from capitalism to collectivism, facilitated by the peaceful action of an enlightened populace voting at the polls.” The novel nonetheless describes how a utopia eventually results from a violent uprising, wherein a “furious mob” attacks banks and luxury businesses while crying “To hell with the financiers!” The story ends with the creation of a society where, we’re told, “the insults of the rich and the whines of the slave were alike unheard; and where just laws, wise government, and an equitable social system were making an earthly Paradise of what had been a veritable Inferno.”
With the women’s suffrage movement in full sway by the late-nineteenth century, many Australian utopians addressed the pressing issue of women’s rights. One feminist utopia was Henrietta Augusta Dugdale’s A Few Hours in a Far-Off Age, published in Melbourne in 1883. When the protagonist briefly finds herself in a utopian future, she learns that “women up to past the nineteenth century were really slaves in all but the name.” Equality in Dugdale’s utopia was achieved through improved education and women’s involvement in politics, which forced men to acknowledge, “that women were also humans, and not of a lower species—made for man’s comfort or amusement—as the strutting, ignorant creatures used to tell each other.” This equality has, of course, led to a happier population, representative politics, greater investment in education, and more stable and loving families. Other influential utopias by progressive women would appear in the years that followed, including Catherine Helen Spence’s A Week in the Future, serialised in The Centennial Magazine from December 1888 to July 1889, and Mary Ann Moore-Bentley’s A Woman of Mars; or, Australia’s Enfranchised Woman, published in Sydney in 1901.
But decidedly negative visions also emerged, including the deeply conservative utopia The Great Statesman: A Few Leaves From the History of Antipodea, Anno Domini 3000 by “Can C,” published in Sydney in 1885. As well as being dictatorial and fascist, the anonymous author’s utopia has put to rest the question of women’s suffrage, with women being denied the vote and encouraged to simply pursue their “mission” and “bear babies.” Millie Finkelstein’s satirical anti-utopia The Newest Woman: The Destined Monarch of the World, published inMelbourne in 1895, likewise protests that women becoming more involved in politics and public life is an affront to nature, since “woman’s sphere … lies in the home circle.” Indeed, Finkelstein’s story ends with a strong reaffirmation of women’s traditional domestic roles as mothers and housewives—we need not the “New Woman,” she concludes, but the “True Woman.”
Fraser seems to have sympathised with the women’s rights movement, and perhaps drew inspiration from Dugdale and Spence. On Mars, thanks to education and shared moral values, women and men enjoy social and political equality. The novel contains many significant female characters, and Fraser represents women in highly esteemed political, medical, and academic positions. Most of the doctors we meet in the novel are women, and the Central Executive that runs the federated world government is comprised of women and men. “‘Women and men are free and equal,” we’re told, “a woman does not resign her name or any social right.”
SCIENCE AND RELIGION
Melbourne and Mars also reflects a growing fascination with science and scientific progress. Much is made of the technological sophistication of Mars, where free and abundant electricity has led to technological progress in every corner of society. Flying cars (dubbed “flying fish”) abound. The very location of Fraser’s utopia reflects a contemporary fascination with astronomy and the Red Planet, which featured in many works of early science fiction including H. G. Wells’s 1897 novel The War of the Worlds.
Although Fraser seems to avoid the topic of evolution, he apparently perceived no conflict between science and religion, which remains central to life on Mars. Citizens of the utopia practise a “pure theism,” attending regular church services, and often breaking into spontaneous worship. Mars’s socialism is also described as an “altruistic socialism” based on shared religious and moral values.
Yet the late-nineteenth century was also associated with the “Victorian Crisis of Faith,” where people worked through the implications of recent scientific discoveries for traditional religious beliefs. Although this is sometimes still cast as a simple science-versus-religion dichotomy, historians today tend to acknowledge a more nuanced situation, where many contemporary viewpoints do not fit neatly into the supposed binary.
One short utopian text to reinforce the apparent conflict was Misopseudes: or, the Year 2075; a Marvellous Vision, published anonymously in Melbourne with two editions appearing in the 1870s. Misopseudes mocks the Bible relentlessly, ridicules Christian beliefs in heaven and hell, and attacks traditional Catholic rituals and dogmas. In the author’s ideal future, the “Gospel of Science” has abolished the “Gospel of Christ,” and extended quotes from Darwin are used to discredit religion. It should be noted, however, that Misopseudes is not merely anti-religious—it is also anti-communist, sexist, and deeply racist.
The white supremacist rhetoric of Misopseudes is also present in texts on the other extreme of the science-versus-religion debate, including The Great Statesman. As well as quashing women’s rights, the dictator of The Great Statesman unifies a single (distinctly Protestant) Christian church, which subsequently becomes the world religion. We’re gleefully informed that in the year 3000, Australia is populated only by white, English-speaking Christians, with the narrator telling us that “the Anglo Saxon Race not only held their own, but made rapid advancements in the fulfilment of the divine command, ‘to subdue and occupy the earth.’”
Yet many other Colonial Australian utopian novels, like Melbourne and Mars, refused to pick a side in this apparent conflict between science and religion. Take A Visit to Topos, and How the Science of Heredity is Practised There, published in Ballarat in 1897 and written by William Little, a former mayor of Ballarat. Little deploys both Darwin’s writings and biblical exegesis to explain his utopian vision of a society governed by eugenics. Topos, we’re told, follows the “laws of heredity” to eradicate disease and build a stronger humanity, with all procreation the result of careful consideration, not what the narrator calls “degrading wedlock customs.”
With its notion of spirit transference, Melbourne and Mars also holds some similarities with nineteenth-century Spiritualist utopias. The most fascinating of these is surely A New Pilgrim’s Progress; Purported to be Given by John Bunyan, Through an Impressional Medium, which appeared in Melbourne in 1877. The novel follows a man named Restless as he sets forth from the city of Worldly Content in search of truth and spiritual fulfilment, eventually finding this in the City of Reason, where Spiritualism is practised. The anonymously published novel was in fact written by Sir Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second Prime Minister, who was, as Shane Maloney notes, an ardent spiritualist.
FEDERATION AND INDEPENDENCE
Fraser’s utopian Mars, we’re told, has achieved peace and prosperity through world-wide federation. This was a vision Fraser shared with Cole, his publisher, who wrote a booklet titled “The Federation of the World Inevitable Before the Year 2000” and promoted the idea of world-wide federation through collectable metal tokens at his Book Arcade.
Writing in the decades before Federation in 1901, many Australian authors explored questions of independence and governance through utopian and dystopian writing. John Dunmore Lang set the tone for much of the utopian writing that followed in his 1852 non-fiction volume Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia, which saw several editions and set out his vision for Australia becoming a republic.
A fictional case for the federation of Australia was made in the short 1883 volume The Battle of Yarra by “An Old Colonist,” where failure to declare independence from Britain led to Australia being dragged into war with Russia, and the subsequent invasion of Melbourne. Edward Maitland’s 1888 novella, The Battle of Mordialloc; or, How We Lost Australia, responded by reasserting the importance of maintaining ties to Britain—in his dystopian story, Victoria is invaded (again by Russia) after declaring independence and leaving itself defenceless.
HOMOGENEITY OR DIVERSITY
The concern with invasion (usually by Russia or China) preoccupied Colonial Australian speculative fiction. In addition to the novels mentioned above, it was the premise of Kenneth Mackay’s influential 1895 futuristic dystopian novel The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia. This fear of invasion reflects a consistent theme in the otherwise diverse body of Colonial Australian utopian fiction: almost all of these utopias are based on the homogeneity of an essentially Anglo-Saxon Australia, either explicitly or by omission of any mention of Indigenous Australians or other people of colour. As in The Great Statesman, Cole’s utopianism was premised on the expansion of English language and culture across Earth. Even Fraser’s Mars is remarkably white and English, with characters and places all having distinctly British names. The opening chapters of the novel do, however, acknowledge and empathise over abuse suffered by Indigenous Australians in the brutal colonies.
What Lyman Tower Sargentwrote of the Americas holds true for Australia: “colonies produce utopias for the colonists and dystopias for the colonized.” The invasion of 1788 may have created opportunities for British colonists, but it initiated a process of dispossession and devastation on Australia’s Indigenous populations—the realisation of a very dystopian new reality. Recently, Indigenous authors have responded to the legacy of invasion and dispossession by writing innovative dystopian narratives, from Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013), to Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius (2017), and the hit ABC television series Cleverman (2016-2017).
Although descriptions of Australia’s convict settlements in early chapters of Melbourne and Mars do show concern for Indigenous Australians, Fraser had a blind spot in his utopian vision when it came to race. However, his novel was remarkably progressive for its time, envisaging a society of economic equality, shared prosperity, gender equality, and political harmony. It is no surprise that Russell Blackford, Van Ikin and Sean McMullen point to Melbourne and Mars as “one of the most important Australian utopian novels.”
Zachary Kendal is a librarian at Deakin University. His PhD research at Monash University examined ethics and literary representation in science fiction. He is also an editor of Ethical Futures and Global Science Fiction with Aisling Smith, Giulia Champion and Andrew Milner (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).