Friday, July 29, 2022

Solaris Farm by Milan C. Edson

Eccentric agricultural utopia
Milan C. Edson
Solaris Farm is a utopian novel by Milan C. Edson, about whom little is known. You won’t find him on Wikipedia, and this seems to be his only published book. According to his obituary, Edson was a Civil War veteran. He was born in Illinois, and died in Mesa, Arizona. In between he spent 35 years working for the federal government in Washington, DC.

The novel was published in 1900, but the story ventures into the 1920s. Solaris Farm is a cooperative agricultural community designed to elevate the quality of life of America’s farmers and working class. It is also the start of a movement intended to peacefully overthrow capitalism in the United States. The brains behind the operation is Fillmore Flagg, following in the footsteps of his deceased mentor. That mentor’s daughter, Fern Fenwick, is the project’s benefactress. Flagg manages the operation on the ground, somewhere in rural America, while Ms. Fenwick provides inspiration and funding from Washington, DC. Naturally, the two are also courting, but they refrain from indulging in romance and marriage until their grand project achieves success. Fern’s parents may be dead, but that doesn’t stop them from providing advice on the project, for she is a medium who can communicate with the dead. Like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edson was a firm believer in spiritualism. Based on references within the text, he also draws inspiration from the catastrophism of Ignatius Donnelly (author of a previous utopian novel, Caesar’s Column), the educational psychology of Elmer Gates, and the Enlightenment philosophy of Count Volney.

The tone of Solaris Farm is so relentlessly optimistic it defies belief, but its polyannish positivity is a big part of what makes it fun to read. Edson is also an able writer whose prose flows briskly and effortlessly. As Edson describes the cooperative community of Solaris, every aspect of the project is an absolute success, socially and financially. There are no problems, hardships, or setbacks. None of the settlement’s inhabitants are lazy, stupid, or selfish. There is no debate on the issues. Exposition consists of Fillmore pontificating on various subjects while his listener occasionally interjects a “Right you are, Flagg!” Fillmore and Fern are designed to be the perfect man and woman, a natural-born aristocracy within this community of equality. Their relationship is free of the slightest disagreement, and they often refer to each other as the “ideal lover.” Solaris is successful not only agriculturally but also technologically; every citizen is also an avid scientist. The community is almost entirely self-sufficient: quarrying its own stone, mining its own metals, manufacturing its own bricks. The only thing missing is oil. Edson fails to acknowledge that the success of agriculture rests largely on the land itself—its climate, soil, and natural resources—and not all farmlands are as heavenly endowed as those of Solaris.

Edson does make many good points on economics and politics. He effectively diagnoses the social ills of his day—monopolistic trusts, income disparity, the flight to urban centers and the death of rural communities—and provides practical, well-reasoned solutions. Overall, Solaris Farm passes the “Would you want to live there?” test for literary utopias, but just barely. Life at Solaris would be sweet and idyllic, but it does have its dark side. In addition to agriculture, Edson talks a lot about stirpiculture, a euphemism for eugenics. He acknowledges that peer pressure and coercion might be necessary to convince some reluctant citizens to toe the party line. Fern Fenwick’s image is worshipped in Solaris like that of Chairman Mao in his heyday. Such excesses frequently call to mind a cult or a fascist regime rather than a socialist paradise.

Solaris Farm is an interesting read but far longer than necessary. So long and repetitive, in fact, that occasionally I found myself regretting that I had ever started the book. For those who appreciate the quixotic audacity of utopian literature, however, it’s worth sticking it out to the end.

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