Robert Graves Seven Days in New Crete (1949)
Robert Graves was the renowned author of I, Claudius and a noted scholar of Greek myth, and by association mythology in general. I had no idea that he'd ever tried his hand at science-fiction, and I stumbled across this whilst seeking the aforementioned I, Claudius, and it makes absolute sense that his science-fiction should take such a distinctively mythological orientation. I say science-fiction mainly on the grounds of it belonging to the genre of Utopian writings which we may as well call science-fiction because why the fuck not, but it's a long way from even Olaf Stapledon's version of future humanity. The narrator of Seven Days in Crete wakes to find himself magically summoned by witches from the future, and so ensues three-hundred pages of typically Utopian form in which our man explores his futuristic surroundings and asks questions.
The future here follows on from some point at which the human race decided to retrace its footsteps, returning to the pre-technological idyll of Crete, or thereabouts. Magic is real. Society is divided into five basic classes or estates. What writing remains is preserved on communally held plates of silver and gold with even the complete works of Shakespeare having been reduced to a few pithy paragraphs; and the written word is the preserve of a small elite. War is conducted by means of a game resembling football, and the price paid for this Utopia is ultimately revealed to be ritual human sacrifice. I realise Graves' model for New Crete was old Crete, but I was surprised at the parallels with Ancient Mexican society - everything but the pyramids, more or less.
The problem with Utopian fiction is, by my reckoning, that it tends to be quite dull, as Thomas More is my witness. Commentary upon Utopian fiction therefore tends to work towards exposing the bodies upon which purportedly perfect societies are invariably built, which in itself can be a little predictable. Graves evades the pitfalls of the form simply through being such a good writer, one to whom the dull or merely functional sentence is apparently a stranger. He finds the wonder in the weird world of New Crete, spicing his observations with a faint tang of cynicism, but never so much as to spoil the tone; and this is significant because all of the magic and witchery and general rustic folksiness are of such a kind which commonly lends itself to somewhat more turgid narratives in my experience, the sort of thing which usually suggests the author has spent the last six or seven hours skipping amongst the toadstools in a chiffon robe saying oh wow, that's like really amaaaaazing... cough cough George MacDonald...
Being better than that, Graves steers us towards a conclusion which feels absolutely right and necessary for the purpose of the tale, even if it doesn't come as a huge surprise - excepting possibly some of the grislier details. I'm still not absolutely sure what the main theme could be as there seem to be a number of possibilities. Seven Days in New Crete may simply be a criticism of the Utopian ideal as expressed in literature, or a warning against the sort of naivety by which one may be swept up in the enthusiasm for progressive but unworkable solutions, particularly in hasty response to - for obvious example - the horror of the second world war in the case of this novel. Certain aspects suggest the story may offer some sort of commentary on the Soviet Union, albeit by oblique means, namely the parallel folksy reductionism which replaced the more progressive elements of Soviet society; or even that the novel may itself serve as an argument for a certain degree of reductionism, a return to a model of civilisation with far less moving parts to go wrong.
Maybe it's all of the above.
In any case, Seven Days in New Crete is nothing if not thought provoking, and makes for one hell of a better read than the great majority of its Utopian kind.