Nebula Novelettes: Andy Duncan – An Agent of Utopia

Sir Thomas More sits in an unusual spot in English literature. His most famous work Utopia (after which the term was coined) was written in Latin and is not widely read although its influence is often noted. The society he imagines mixes a monastic ideal with oddities such as slaves dressed in golden chains. Not unlike its antecedents in Plato’s writing, the depicted society can be seen as both profoundly radical and profoundly conservative. More’s posthumously published biography of Richard III on the other hand became the source document for one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Like Utopia it is an ambiguous work, both as a testament to the dangers of tyranny and also a piece of revisionist history intended to make the Tudors look good and the king Henry Tudor (father of More’s King Henry VIII) look legitimate.

More as a character in literature is himself ambiguous. A man of unimpeachable integrity in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons and as misguided bigot in Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Nor is he a newcomer to the Nebula Awards, appearing as a character in RA Lafferty’s Past Master (which I must confess to not having read).

Andy Duncan takes a different approach with a dark comedy featuring a reversal of the utopian form: an emissary from More’s Utopia comes to London in a bid to rescue More from the Tower of London and his execution for treason.

“I call myself Aliquo,” I replied, “and I bring greetings to you, Thomas More, from your old friend Raphael Hythlodaye, and from my homeland of Utopia.”
I bowed low before him.
“Please give my Utopian friends my best regards,” More said, “and tell them my answer is no.”

Aliquo has traveled at the bequest of notable citizens of Utopia to bring More to their homeland. More, obedient in his defiance of his King, naturally will not escape his lawful execution. Which is as neat a way of summing up More as anybody could think of.

Aliquo is left with a dilemma and seeks out More’s daughter Margaret Roper. Which leads us into an area of history that is more rumour than documented fact. According to tradition, Margaret Roper acquirred her father’s head after it had been placed on display on a stake on London Bridge. The head is reputedly buried with her (see ) Into these events steps Aliquo.

A pertinent fact of Utopia is that it reflects the strict sexual morality of More’s Catholicism:

“They punish severely those that defile the marriage bed; if both parties are married they are divorced, and the injured persons may marry one another, or whom they please, but the adulterer and the adulteress are condemned to slavery, yet if either of the injured persons cannot shake off the love of the married person they may live with them still in that state, but they must follow them to that labour to which the slaves are condemned, and sometimes the repentance of the condemned, together with the unshaken kindness of the innocent and injured person, has prevailed so far with the Prince that he has taken off the sentence; but those that relapse after they are once pardoned are punished with death.”

he Project Gutenberg eBook, Utopia, by Thomas More, Edited by Henry Morley

And while those slaves are adorned in riches it is for the purpose of creating a stigma among the rest of the population about the ostentatious display of wealth (to the extent that foreign ambassadors to Utopia often make a faux-pas of appearing richly adorned causing disgust to the citizens of Utopia).

There is at least a novella’s worth of ideas here and I feel Aliquo is under-served as a character in the short space of this story. We only get a glimpse of their own motives and their own relationship with Utopia at the close of the story. The freedoms and risks of London compared to the more monastic Utopia are not really explored. The poverty of the city is clear but perhaps not so much the contrast that Aliquo would experience (aside from a side remark about ‘street debris’ from home referring to a bribe of gems).

I’d happily read further of Aliquo in conversation with More (and there are spoliery reasons why that conversation might well be extensive). As such this novelette feels more like a promise of something longer and better.


10 responses to “Nebula Novelettes: Andy Duncan – An Agent of Utopia”

  1. As somebody who hasn’t read Utopia I felt like I missed the full impact of this novelette–it definitely read as part of a conversation that I wasn’t fully in on. (Especially the ending.) It’s somewhat striking to compare More’s society to, say, those imagined by Bellamy or Banks.

    (I also didn’t realize that the head-acquisition plot was based on anything real so thanks for that information!)


  2. As soon as I figured out who the novelette was about, I sought out the basic information on More on Wikipedia to supplement my admittedly sketchy knowledge of who he was. This is what I wrote for a review.

    This is a story of the great thinker Sir Thomas More’s last days, in an alternate history where the land described in his work Utopia actually exists, and they send an emissary – an “agent of Utopia” – to approach him in the Tower of London with an offer to break him out of prison and spirit him to safety.

    While I can admire the choice of melding a bit of known history with a fictional protagonist and supernatural elements, and the skill of its execution, I did not really find this story engaging. There’s not quite enough here to make a real story for me. I suspect that people who have extensive knowledge of English history, or who have had courses in Renaissance or Enlightenment literature, would appreciate it a great deal more.


  3. Well well. This brings back memories of my youth. The Roper vault, where Sir Thomas More’s head is buried, is in St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury, the city of my childhood, and commemorations of him are still held there. On the way there you pass the Roper Gate, the entrance to their historic residence, looking rather lost in the middle of a row of modern houses.

    I’m fairly sure that the head is indeed in Canterbury; that’s documented. What is ‘according to tradition’, as per the link, is that it was before that taken to Lynsted, the Ropers’ country estate.

    Liked by 1 person

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