Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy (New Atlantis Books)

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A story with dystopian elements, in so far as it is a damning critique of the direction that humanity along with science and technology have taken under capitalism,1 Le Guin's tale is also Utopian in its portrayal of the human imperative to imagine an alternative world to the present, in this case a world embodied by the strange, but beautiful creatures of the deep who inhabit the ancient, submerged city of Atlantis, and who are seen by her as humanity's salvation. The date is sometime in the near future at a time when capitalism has so exhausted workers and resources that everything has ground to a halt, and daily life is characterised by chronic stoppages and shortages.

At the same time, people fear that America is headed for physical catastrophe because the coastline is sinking under the combined effects of global warming, acid rain, continental shift, and the giant bursts of earthquake and volcanic activity occurring in the Atlantic and on the Pacific Ocean floor. To manage people's fears and frustrations and to veil their own inability to cope, the government has resorted to authoritarian rule.

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People are arrested, imprisoned and tortured without trial, and their apartments bugged in the effort to seek out and destroy critics and dissenters. A further characteristic of this repressive society is that marriage has been outlawed, because it generates children and hence more consumers of scarce resources such as electricity and food.

The Utopian Impulse in Ursula le Guin's the New Atlantis

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Ursula K. Rochelle Liverpool University Press, A Conversation with Ursula K. Longinus fl. Hazlitt, William The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. The lost continent also inspired works by authors as diverse as Francis Bacon and Arthur Conan Doyle, and Hollywood has weighed in with any number of forgettable movies. Richard Ellis, author of ''Imagining Atlantis,'' thinks the legend is fantasy. The sole source of the Atlantis story is by no means obscure.

In two dialogues, the ''Critias'' and the ''Timaeus,'' Plato in the fourth century B.

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View all New York Times newsletters. Even after disbelief in ancient gods undercut literal acceptance of the legend, medieval maps were sprinkled with imaginary islands in the Atlantic, including Antillia. Some experts suspect this preserves in garbled form the name of Atlantis and a lingering belief that its remnants may still exist. The maps encouraged navigators in their quests, among them Columbus. The 20th century was hard on Atlantis dreams.

Detailed mapping of the sea floor and the new theory of plate tectonics made it clear, geophysicists say, that land masses resembling Atlantis never existed in the Atlantic. Undeterred, ardent believers went looking elsewhere: in Scandinavia, the Bahamas and the Aegean Sea. Huge blocks of stone submerged off Cuba were recently proclaimed possible ruins of the lost empire. A more plausible hypothesis, some scholars think, places Atlantis at Crete.

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The accomplished Minoan civilization there collapsed in the middle of the second millennium B. Was this in Plato's mind? Or he might have been inspired by an event in his own time, the earthquake in B. The unknown fires the imagination. Whether the starry night or extraterrestrial beings, the mystery of life itself or life after death or any of the uncertain boundaries between reality and resolute yearning, it is unknowns that populate history with gods and heroes, monsters of the deep and chimeric islands, lost paradises and the elusive El Dorado at the end of greed's rainbow, not to mention Martians.

Some mysteries will be solved, but never all of them. As for Atlantis, another Greek philosopher delivered the verdict that has yet to be contradicted. As noted by the British classicist J. Luce, Aristotle considered Atlantis a poetic fiction invented by Plato as a warning of the fate that befalls the arrogant and decadent.


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Plato placed Atlantis beyond the then known world and sank it to the ocean floor to preserve the power of the mystery. Please upgrade your browser. See next articles.

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