For the reading public and beyond, the French author Michel Houellebecq is arguably most notorious for his public denunciation of Islam as “stupid,” a statement that led to him being tried unsuccessfully in 2002 for religious and racial incitement. Because of this and other controversial views on contemporary society (in particular about commercial sex, which he praises), the author is widely perceived as a nihilist, an ideologically scattergun commentator whose provocations are locatable within a French tradition of “critical insult” reaching from the inflammatory cynicism of 1960s magazines such as Hara Kiri through to the incendiary iconoclasm of Charlie hebdo, on whose cover Houellebecq featured the week when twelve of that magazine's staff were shot to death. Yet the unsurprising obverse to his public pronouncements against religion is the ongoing fascination throughout Houellebecq's oeuvre with belief and the communities that form around it. His novels are renowned for their explorations, albeit extremely critical, of utopian and dystopian traditions, from the philosophical and the sociological through to the New Age. His 1998 Atomised (Les Particules élémentaires), for instance, caused wide outcry with its deflationary assessment of the legacy of 1960s counter-cultural and feminist utopias, while also offering a pessimistic prediction about the displacement of human reproduction by science. 2001's Platform (Plateform) examines not only ecotourism's monetization of ecological idealism, but also the life-denial of Islamist terrorism. In 2006 The Possibility of an Island (La Possibilité d'une île), the title of which alludes to Aldous Huxley's exploration of a utopian society in Island (1962), fuses a depiction of New Age cults with a dystopian forecast of how the scientific promise of human cloning will turn out.
His 2011 novel La Carte et le territoire (here referred to in its English translation The Map and the Territory) continues this preoccupation in a way that brings it into the orbit of medievalism studies. In this novel we encounter discussions of the utopian cooperative societies devised by proto-socialist Charles Fourier (1772–1837), of the futuristic idealism of modernist design and architecture, epitomized in the work of Le Corbusier (1887–1965), but the most attention is paid to the medieval-inspired utopias of William Morris (1834–96). What makes this novel distinctive within Houellebecq's oeuvre is that the evocation of Morris constitutes what is arguably the author's most receptive treatment of any utopian program so far.