A Study of the Hollow Earth

Exploring forgotten realms of literature

Archive for the tag “Science Fiction”

Echoes: Literary and Historical Mars in the New Narrative

“We could cast our imaginations wider, to those who have tried to speak for all of Mars. To the astronomers looking at it with their telescopes, measuring all the qualities of light reflected from its surface, seeing seasons and imagining civilizations. Or to the writers inspired by those astronomical visions: H.G. Wells and Stanley Weinbaum, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Alexander Bogdanov and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Their imaginations took a point of light and turned it into a world of experience.” Oliver Morton, Mapping Mars, p. 3.

Despite the possibility of alien civilisations on Mars ground underfoot in the relentless stream of new information about the planet, the literary and exploratory history of Mars still influences contemporary authors writing under the new paradigm. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury are the most prominently featured old literature about Mars, and the tropes of Martian life and survival in a hostile environment are still influencing plotlines. Life is the ultimate litmus test of planetary exploration in the minds of both scientists and authors. Not one of these novels (or most others published in the last two decades) skips the discovery of some form of life or fossilised evidence of its past presence. These older literary ideas are tied into historical retrospectives about Percival Lowell’s observations and NASA’s Mariner, Viking, and (later on) Pathfinder missions. In other words, there is ‘Nostalgia for an imagined Martian past and speculation about an imagined future,’ as a ‘dialectal responses to the ambiguities that Mars represents after 1972.’[1] This Martian mega-text (to borrow from Damien Broderick’s view of science fiction’s ‘interlocking web of fictive worlds’[2]) is built upon years of speculative fiction and science constantly being reinterpreted and updated, old tropes being assimilated by newer ones. Gregory Benford has noted that hard SF writers ‘hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists.’[3] This helps to understand the prevalent use not just of classical works, but the commonly shared sources of information, as these proposed soon-to-be-histories are written with a common historical/ literary background. Zubrin’s historian cum astronaut character is blatant in articulating the conflict between past, present, and envisioned future:

Edgar Rice Burroughs already told us about this place. Once there were canals here, and cities, capitals of mighty empires that had names like Helium, Ptarth, and Manator. […]

Ah, Barsoom, you were destroyed by the Mariner probes, which banished you into mere fiction. But now we are here to make amends. Once again, there are people on Mars[4]

It is a rather ridiculous statement to makes; Burroughs knew next to nothing about Mars (only what was gleaned from Lowell’s fuzzy observations), he merely gave it the foundations of a fictive state to exist in. But the sentiment is meant to appeal to those who are familiar with Barsoom’s influence on literary Mars. In adapting to changing perceptions of the planet, these authors are attempting to make Mars interesting again, not with fantasy, but with the facts as they are known by presenting the visage of an adventurous, dangerous new world to explore. The past literary and scientific elements are called upon to invoke a popular nostalgia, and be reconciled with the new Mars, ‘to make amends’ for the years between Viking and the mid-1980s when authors finally began to write about the Red Planet again. They also revel in the early scientific speculation and unmanned expeditions to Mars, reiterating the great efforts leading up to this point in history and the significance Mars has held in the human imagination. These novels are about modifying the mega-text of Martian literature, turning what had become fantasy into the viable, realistic mode of prediction science fiction is often perceived to be, ignoring the extent to which it comments on the present.[5] In order to reshape Martian iconography, these narratives must be woven into the scientific and literary past. Just as latter revelations in both religion and science must take prevalence over those edicts and theories which preceded them, the more recent novels of Mars establish their authority over Burroughs and Bradbury by reminding readers of the fallacious bygone, while presenting the latest NASA findings. This also requires authors to take a planet redefined in less terrestrial terms, and humanise it again with more subtle metaphors; a vision of the Grand Canyon National Park rather than a medieval palace. It is acceptable to be inspired by past literature and scientific deeds, but the ‘new’ must be embraced, or as Gwyneth Jones put it, ‘In the hierarchy of sf plausibility, technophile extrapolation from the here-and-now takes precedence.’[6] This creates a cyclical relationship between the scientists making discoveries, the SF authors incorporating these discoveries into the plots, adding their own speculation, and providing stories of inspiration for a new generation.

Many authors and scientists were influenced by these tales of Mars, and ‘No matter how whimsical the Mars of Bradbury, or Lowell, or Burroughs, the scientists who now study the planet grew up under the influence of these visionaries. Some modern scientists, like Carl Sagan, have freely admitted their debt; others function in a culture conditioned by them.’[7] They were provided with the wonderland of a living Mars. In acknowledging the influences of these works, authors are demonstrating a hope that their own stories will inspire the future. Discovering life on Mars is fictionalised wish fulfilment, whether to merely alleviate the feeling of being alone in the universe, or to prove Mars a worthwhile destination deserving of further development. The dream of colonising Mars with shining domed-cities is not (completely) dead, but has been replaced with the more realistic near-future structures of buried brick vaults and domes of rip-stop Kevlar and Plexiglas.[8] Now there is simply more science to influence the settlement plan and those writing the narratives. ‘Good science fiction works […] Largely by retaining some contact with the real world,’[9] thus, by the authors maintaining parity with the known past while incorporating newer work, it helps to maintain the verisimilitude, allowing readers to relate more fully to the idea that this is the very near future.

The historical science references, from Lowell to Pathfinder, are meant to keep the reader in the present and aware that this is not intended to be an alternative universe with an alternate history (excluding Stephen Baxter’s Voyage in 1997 which deals with an alternate history and a Mars expedition in the 1980s). Bova makes reference to the first geologist on the moon since Apollo 17 and the use of Mir 5 space station,[10] establishing a continuation of known space programmes. However, as can happen when writing in the near future, the latter element is now a dated assumption considering the destruction of the original Mir and its substitution with the International Space Station (which Landis makes use of in his novel for training the astronauts, along with the fictional Mirusha, ‘“little Mir’- a tribute to the earlier Mir space station’[11]). But it is the Viking missions of 1976 which are more frequently brought up, the first American craft to touch down on the planet and conduct basic experiments, which revealed ‘that there was unusual chemical activity in the Martian soil’ raising the question ‘Could life exist in that soil, if there was liquid water available?’[12] The scientific history raises possibilities for the authors to explore and answer, and it offers a chance for the authors to pay homage to old scientists and explores who helped to shape the new Mars. In the novel, an excursion is made out to the Viking 1 Lander (renamed the Mutch Memorial station after the death of Thomas A. Mutch in 1980) to place a plaque in honour of the geologist who headed up the team which examined the Viking photographs.

DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF TIM MUTCH, WHOSE IMAGINATION, VERVE, AND RESOLVE CONTRIBUTED GREATLY TO THE EXPLORATION OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM.[13]

The plaque was unveiled by NASA in 1981, and is still waiting for a team of explorers to go to Mars and place it with the Mutch Memorial Station.[14] Bova is fulfilling the desire of many NASA scientists, if only in fiction, and adding another thread of reality to the inter-textual web.

A significant source of history that contributes to the plot later on in Return to Mars was the historic Pathfinder mission of 1997, when NASA finally succeeded in returning to Mars after Viking. Bova’s questionably enterprising character Dexter Thumball is determined to scavenge the Sojourner rover from the Sagan site in Ares Vallis to auction off on Earth. Upon retrieval ‘they photographed the area for comparison with the catalogue imagery from the Pathfinder itself three decades earlier.’[15] Instead of a simulacrum stand-in as SF so often must do for their plots, Bova is free to utilise these real artefacts of history as part of the action. Thumball the elder later decided to trek to Mars to check on his investments, citing that ‘older men than I have gone into space, starting with Senator Glenn nearly forty years ago’[16] in reference to Senator John Glenn of Ohio setting the record for oldest astronaut in space.[17] Statements such as this are superfluous to the plot action, but contribute to the verisimilitude of a potential near-future expedition.  NASA is a civilian branch of the US government, and in a (theoretically) transparent democracy, their activities are therefore part of the public domain, and free to be assimilated into the iconography of Mars. An invented NASA mission (for that matter, a fictitious space agency) would be a distraction for readers versed in space travel history, and so it is easier for Bova, and others, to appease the informed and inform the uninitiated.

Gregory Benford utilises more scientific history than perhaps any other author during this decade, planting his work firmly in the realm of near-future. The Martian Race brings up the 1989 proposal by NASA for a $450 billion budget to reach Mars[18] and the subsequent development of the Mars Direct scenario as a more economic proposal. The history of self-contained environments, from Mir to Skylab to the International Space Station and the Biosphere II experiment (including why it failed) are all brought up, and how self-contained environments still have not been perfected.[19] One of the Viking experiments is recreated, and the scientist confirms that ‘Viking and all the other probes had fund only chemistry after all, no evidence of life.’[20] The 1997 Sojourner rover is reflected upon by one of the astronauts as ‘its plucky nosing around had got Julia started on her Mars fixation’[21] – a statement that may prove true for future scientists. Benford is keeping his narrative firmly rooted in this world, as it were, allowing space exploration history to provide a large part of the context. Besides utilising the inspirations of The Case for Mars, Zubrin himself became a background figure assisting the private enterprise as the ‘Mars guru’, and is joined at a wedding by several more real life individuals[22] (all the scientists who assisted Benford in his research, many of them former member of the Mars Underground) and the base that the astronauts establish on Gusev crater is also named after him. This is a fascinating surreality of art imitating life, as Benford attempts to make his novel as realistic as possible. Zubrin’s work and personality have become part of the new Mars mega-text.

Robert Zubrin’s First Landing is a form of self- contained mega-text as it is self-referential of the author’s professional work; its a story centred on Zubrin’s own previously published theoretical approach to Mars, and Zubrin’s characters cite The Case for Mars and the Mars Society within the narrative. As discussed in the previous chapter, Zubrin is writing with specific agenda of proselytising and recruitment. NASA is the organisation behind the expedition, and the Viking missions’ experiments mentioned (pages 33 and 43). Even Michael Carr’s book The Surface of Mars is quoted (page 184) on a trip to Valles Marineris, as is Percival Lowell’s view on the Martian need to find water (page 111). Nearly a century apart in publication, yet both considered relevant to Mars today. It appears that the Mars Society, The Surface of Mars and The Case for Mars have joined with their predecessors to become part of the mega-text about Martian exploration, as ‘most science-fiction novelists in the 1990s have jumped on the Mars Direct Bandwagon […] and a detailed secondary literature has begun to be developed’,[23] such as Expedition Mars (2004) and Marswalk One: First Step on a New Planet (2005) both of which detail the science and engineering of landing on Mars. This is significant because it means an expanding range of resources for SF writers to draw from, a growth of the secondary mega-text to Mars literature. It means, though, that writers referencing these works will continue to structure their narratives under a set of pre-determined scientific parameters. Science must invariably dictate at least a portion of the plot, which could be argued as true for all so-called hard SF.

Two novels that do not spend many words on the scientific history of Mars are Beachhead and Mars Crossing. The former merited only mentioning the Viking Landers (p. 71) and Mariner 9 probe (p. 113) one time each. While it is indeed the author’s prerogative to ignore a literary and scientific history when writing SF, Williamson (and/or his editor) misdate Asaph Hall’s discovery of the moons of Mars, marking it as 1977[24] instead of 1877. This contributes to the sense of Beachhead as being rather disconnected from the present world. NASA is not even mentioned, but instead an imagined multi-national ‘Mars Authority’ coordinates the mission. Landis at least acknowledges NASA as a force behind Mars exploration (in addition to setting some of the training on the International Space Station) and dedicates three pages of part six to looking around the Pathfinder’s landing site of Ares Vallis, one astronaut recalling that ‘As a kid, he’d spent whole days downloading the pictures of this place from the internet; it was when he’d first become interested in Mars.’[25] However, that is the extent of Landis’s reflections up actual history. He references Lowell only once, when an instructor on Earth claims to be ‘a heretic, an old-fashioned Percival Lowell who just refuses to see the evidence’[26] when he claims there has to have been life on Mars once. It is difficult to decide whether Lowell should even be categorised with the scientific or literary history of Mars, simply because his ideas were a fiction based upon blurry observations, and his greatest contribution was perhaps to the inspiration of science fiction writers for the next half century. Old literary Mars is difficult for these authors to detach themselves from, and continues to influence modern narratives.

Bova’s characters may not reflect so much upon the literary history in Mars, but the author himself acknowledges his thanks to Burroughs, Weinbaum and Bradbury; ‘The different versions of Mars that they wrote about exist only in the imagination – but that is more than enough.’[27] Bova dwells the least upon literary Mars when compared to his contemporaries, as if trying to distance himself and his more serious work from whimsical Barsoom. Lowell, though, is given a little more credit in Return to Mars when the astronauts are discussing microbes living within water-bearing boulders, which are slowly drying out: ‘It’s just like Lowell said – this planet is dying.’ Lowell having been largely discredited for his canal theory, the character qualifies this hypothesis a few sentences later: ‘Lowell’s canals were mostly eyestrain and optical illusion. But his basic idea was that Mars was losing its air and water, the whole planet was dying’.[28] To say that a planet is dying is indicative of the belief that Mars was once alive, an assumption still unverified at this point in history. Lowell’s pseudo-scientific theories have remained fixed within the Mars mega-text because his ideas were so prevalent in the founding texts, and he has not been proved entirely wrong in his ideas thus far.

Williamson utilised very little in the way of literary references. His main character comments that when he was young he read ‘Heinlein[…]. A story about the red planet. I wanted to go there’[29] which provides a realistic motivator, and upon finally reaching the planet, he greets it ‘Hello Barsoom!’[30] (With no explanation for this comment, this indicates an assumption by Williamson that his readers would already be familiar with the works of Burroughs.) But there is no further reflection upon the literary Mars, and John Clute comments that although Beachhead ‘describes an expedition to a Mars according to contemporary knowledge, […] the plot itself is redolent of a much earlier era.’[31] This is an interesting observation, because it indicates an assumption that new tales of Mars must have a narrative updated from more classical tropes, and yet the older fictions continue to shape some of the narrative despite the new scientific data. Beachhead fits less securely into the mega-text of new Mars exploration than any of the other novels from this period, because it is entirely too mired in the Barsoom-ish vision of a great Mars with ‘crystal city domes shining in the dark.’[32] Writer who followed Williamson employed less poetically imperial visages in an attempt to maintain the scientific verisimilitude, but the literature still plays an influential intertextual role.

Ray Bradbury’s work is not commonly mentioned among these texts, but in The Martian Race the astronauts ‘talked about Ray Bradbury’s sand ships, tried to imagine skimming over the undulating landscape.’[33] They even watch the film version of The Martian Chronicles, along with several other Hollywood productions such as Mars Attacks! And Mission to Mars, described as ‘good for laughs’,[34] which keeps readers aware of the more sordid film history of Mars. Later there is a fear of Martian microbes reaching Earth, spurring a less-than logical response; ‘They cited Ray Bradbury, whose fictional Martians died from earthly diseases. That it was fiction was a fine point they didn’t appreciate.’[35] (This is followed by references to ‘The Andromeda strain, the Triffids, various evolved Martians, and lots of squishy aliens’.[36]) Reflecting an interesting dichotomy, they reference inspirational science fiction, to reinforce the ambitions of newer science fiction to push for an expedition to Mars, while at the same time using a derisive tone when SF is employed to argue against the expansion of scientific exploration. To borrow from another science fiction author, as there is no more succinct term, this is an interesting case of ‘double-think.’

Burroughs is quoted most often in First Landing, as if Zubrin is single-handedly trying to resurrect the Barsoom series, and credits Lowell with spawning the field of Mars literature and exploration. Copies of the Barsoom books are brought along, and two of the characters address each other as ‘My princess’ and ‘My chieftain’[37] in direct reference to Burroughs’s novels. The historian cum astronaut (rather banally) testifies

A century ago one dreamer who led us to Mars was Percival Lowell, a scientist who thought he saw canals spanning this planet, brining water from its poles to a thirsty civilization.
[…]
Perhaps in the future some John Carter from Earth will come here to find love in the eyes of a Dejah Thoris, his beautiful Martian princess. […]
Thank you Lowell, and Burroughs, for bringing us here; thanks to all the dreamers. Humanity owes its new world to you.[38]

It is not a soliloquy that will go down in the annals of literary memory, but it drives home the belief that current (and future) Mars narratives and exploration are derivative of the contributions from Lowell and Burroughs. This novel, and the others, is not intended as a pastiche of Burroughs’s work, but the constant referencing creates an obvious simulacrum of characters and situations, attempting to balance the fiction with the overwhelming science. Instead of gradually moving away from the unscientific portrayals of Mars, from Bova to Zubrin there is a marked increase of invocation of historical texts.

The echo of Lowell and Burroughs which resonates most profoundly in all of these novels is the ‘discovery’ of life on Mars. Every novel uncovers life from the microbial to the arboreal, and evidence from fossils to abandoned ancient cities. The perception is a consensus that life simply has to have evolved on Mars at some point in the last four billion years; even historically ‘As the canal builders retreated into science fiction, the idea of “primitive” life on Mars persisted’.[39] In the simple terms of Zubrin’s biologist upon discovering coccoid bacteria fossils, ‘There was life here once! […] That’s all that counts.’[40] This sentiment is echoed by the other authors/ narratives; in Mars, when the comment is made that the scientists who discover a simple lichen will win the Nobel prize, one responds ‘But what does that matter? Nothing matters now. We have found what we came for! Whatever happens from now on, it does not matter.’[41] The authors cannot conceive of a mission to Mars that does not include the discovery of some evidence of life, as if a Mars devoid of life cannot be interesting or worthwhile in itself. Life is the ultimate justification for reaching out to another planet, and as these authors are pursing an agenda not just to entertain, but to inform and perhaps even influence, they must pass this litmus test in their own fiction.

Though the appearance of Mars in fiction over the last century may have changed from crystal palaces to arid volcano peaks, from egg-laying princesses to coccoid bacteria, the sentiment remains; Mars is the closest planet to Earth that may harbour life. In concocting new narratives of this place, there is a common web of scientific history and information that invariably shapes the environmental setting and even the plot itself is not free from textual history. Authors will read the work of both their forbearers and their contemporaries, and though they reference their common literary past, they do not reference each other’s work, as if it would tarnish their own literary/scientific/political goals. They are all writing alternative (supposedly viable) futures of Mars exploration for the opening decades of the Twenty-first century, crafted by the mega-text of previous scientific and literary aspirations. Time will determine their successful integration into and influence upon the Mars mega-text.

________________________________________________________________

[1] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 270.

[2] Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight, p. 48.

[3] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[4] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 24.

[5] For evidence of this, just look at such titles as Robert Bly’s The Science in Science Fiction: 83 SF Predictions That Became Scientific Reality; this notes the speculation that formaldehyde detected in Mars’s atmosphere is evidence of methane producing bacteria, thus, proof of life on Mars.

[6] Gwyneth Jones, ‘The icons of science fiction’, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 169.

[7] Bergreen, The Quest for Mars, pp. 185-6.

[8] Zubrin, The Case for Mars, pp.175-8.

[9] Lambourne, et. al., Close Encounters, p. 113.

[10] Bova, Mars, p.47

[11] Landis, Mars Crossing, p.144.

[12] Bova, Mars, p. 125.

[13] Bova, Mars, p. 287.

[14] Malin Space Science System website. Mars Global Surveyor – Mutch Crater. <http://www.msss.com/mars_images/moc/2006/08/27/&gt;. Accessed 29 June 2008.

[15] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 355.

[16] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 504.

[17] Senator Glenn was 77 years old, aboard the space shuttle Discovery, mission STS-95 (October 29 – November 7, 1998).

[18] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 20.

[19] Benford, The Martian Race, pp. 181-2.

[20] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 259-60.

[21] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 17.

[22] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 54.

[23] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 349.

[24] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 121.

[25] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 287.

[26] Landis, Mars Crossing, p. 77.

[27] Bova, Mars, p. i.

[28] Bova, Return to Mars, p. 159.

[29] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 24.

[30] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 134.

[31] Clute and Nicholls, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, p. 1330.

[32] Williamson, Beachhead, p. 181.

[33] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 30-1.

[34] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 325.

[35] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 109.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 222.

[38] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 38.

[39] Markley, Dying Planet, p. 150.

[40] Zubrin, First Landing, p. 64.

[41] Bova, Mars, p. 429.

Losing Shakespeare: Memories of Lost Culture in Apocalyptic Fictions

The fact is, Shakespeare was not sectarian; he pleaded nobody’s mission, he stated nobody’s cause. He has written with a view to be a mirror of things as they are; and shows the office of the true poet and literary man, which is to re-create the soul of man as God has created it, and human society as man has made it.
George Dawson (1821-1876), Shakespeare and Other Lectures

(Updated from previous post, “A Bard for the End of the World“)

In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?”[1] After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.

This paper is not about Shakespeare’s plays or sonnets or life; this is about SHAKESPEARE, the name said and written without any need for introduction or explanation; the noun that invokes a sense of Western civilisation more than all Greek philosophers combined. This is Shakespeare not as subject, but object. To invoke a mental image of the Bard of Avon is to create metaphorical parallels between high art, culture and erudition; one never says ‘Shakespeare is like-‘, but rather ‘Such-and-such is like Shakespeare.’ It is this immovable position as cultural touchstone that makes Shakespeare a reference point for the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic story, allowing us to measure what has remained and what has been lost. If one were to ask a library search engine to find articles linking the terms ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Apocalypse’, the results would be a hundred different views interpreting the apocalypse through Shakespeare. I aim to invert the question: how do we interpret Shakespeare through the spectre of an apocalypse?

Ben Jonson called Shakespeare the “soul of the age”, and then amended “not of an age, but for all time”.[2] It is in this spirit that I examine Shakespeare as one of the theoretical ‘survivors’ of an end-of-civilisation scenario. Curious about the real life implications of preserving Shakespeare in the event of catastrophe, I reached out to other sources to uncover the lengths to which some have gone to preserve – or pervert – Shakespeare as a cultural icon. Dawson’s quote refers to Shakespeare’s recreation of ‘human society as man has made it’, and in the centuries after Shakespeare, the Bard has become an inseparable part of that society he created.

Authors and filmmakers have devised multiple scenarios in which human existence is pushed to the brink of extinction, but they take their culture – and their Shakespeare – with them. I have narrowed these scenarios down to three categories: The Destroyed World, The Departed World, and the Destroyed Word (indicating not a collapse of life, but of letters). And in each of these I have discovered real-world evidence of similar endeavours to preserve Shakespeare in uncertain and desperate times, which adds credence to the authors’ motivations for mentioning Shakespeare (whether they were conscious of them or not) in their works. Shakespeare and the apocalypse have been linked before, as in R. D. Christofides’s study Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedy to Popular Culture: “We are still obsessed with apocalypses today. Current cultural and political debates often return to the future of the planet… Humans will destroy Earth. Humans will leave Earth. Humans will be annihilated.”[3] Shakespeare’s tragedies often referenced biblical destruction and salvation; now Shakespeare is an object of human destruction and salvation.

Derrida helped to define this sense of historic preservation in his paper “Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression” (Diacritics, 1995), which Veronica Hollinger brilliantly incorporated into her article “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”: “What suggests this conjunction of fiction and theory is the striking symmetry between the logic of the Derridean archive and science fiction’s… own temporal logic as a future-oriented genre. Each requires an imaginative commitment to a future that recasts the present as the past.”[4] Humans fret about the end of their existence – personally and culturally – and the cultivation of archives, like the squirrel’s cache of nuts, is meant to hold back the creeping winter of extinction. Popular culture and science fiction have conditioned us to believe that one of these seeds to be stored in our cultural archive is Shakespeare.

Destroying the World

“Can we conceive of ourselves without Shakespeare?”
Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human

Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse.  The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.”[5] He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).

In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society.  Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage  – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.

Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play.[6] But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.

I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.”[7] In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.

Departing the World

There is another kind of apocalypse, one that does not necessarily present its full horror to readers because the protagonists have been removed from it; it is the refugee’s tale, those that have left earth behind, and Shakespeare is among their last connection to the planet.

Jill Patton Walsh’s 1982 novella for young adults, The Green Book, follows a small group of colonists fleeing earth before an unidentified disaster destroys it, and they go on to settle on an alien world. Besides their various trials and tribulations, literature is a key subplot, or specifically, the lack thereof, as each person was only permitted to bring one book, and the adults find themselves rapidly losing the memory of their cultural heritage, unable to retell to their children the stories on which they grew up. The Guide laments, “Not one Shakespeare… Among us all, not one”, and they spend the evening trying to recall Hamlet. The Green Book is written for children, readers who probably only know of Shakespeare as a name, but not the works themselves. Walsh, as an adult, knows better, though, and through her story is subtly conditioning children to understand that Shakespeare is important to their lives and is not something to be left behind forever.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy transports the Bard to our neighbouring planet as it is colonised by humans from all over the earth, yet Shakespeare is a cultural constant for all of them. The Odessa troupe travels the planet, putting on plays, including Titus Andronicus and King Lear, and Maya, one of the first settlers on Mars, criticises a young man for preferring the Restoration version of Lear: “Stupid child! We have told the truth tonight, that is what is important!” Keeping alive Shakespeare in his original form is important to Maya and the older settlers, the Shakespeare – unhappy endings and all – from their unhappy Earth. A young, happy Mars may want a happier Shakespeare, but it is a dishonest form of the Bard. For Nirgal, who was born on Mars, Shakespeare is one of his connections to his forbearers’ history. He grows up watching productions of Shakespeare, understanding the language, and yet when he finally visits earth in Blue Mars, an earth drowned by global warming, he find himself in Britain among people very difficult to understand: “Shakespeare’s plays had not prepared him for it.” For Nirgal, coming from another world, he believes the words of Shakespeare, having originated on earth, in England, should be universal. Time and language have moved on, and for the people of a foundering world, there is no time for Shakespeare; he is preserved on Mars now, not just in books but actively on stage.

The colonial ark ship Godspeed in Beth Revis’s Across the Universe trilogy also carries Shakespeare with them: “The Bard wrote about star-crossed love, but I doubt he ever realized his works would one day be soaring through the stars” one of the characters notes. Looking over Romeo and Juliet, then looking at a ship-bound populace that reproduces only during an artificially induced ‘season’, the narrator wonders “How can I argue that Romeo and Juliet doesn’t really show love to a group of people who have no concept of what  love really is?”[8] To take Shakespeare from one planet to another, to ensure his survival along with humanity’s, is to serve as a reminder of what it means to be human. A copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets becomes a vital clue to the mystery surrounding the ship. Why use Shakespeare? Because what other work would one be certain was to survive removal from earth across three light years?

This is not without parallel in history; Alexis de Tocqueville noted the popularity of Shakespeare across America in the 1830s: “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” Shakespeare was brought to the US by colonists a century before, a reminder of their English roots and literary heritage. Similarly, Shakespeare found his way in the hands of British colonials to nearly every continent, shared around, translated, becoming a nearly universal symbol of humanity and the human condition. In the same way, science fiction sends its colonists into space, escaping a dying earth, with copies of the Bard.

Destroying the Word

A third type of apocalypse is not the destruction of the world, but culture as we know it, an apocalypse of art, literature, and history (what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. called “Cultural Literacy”). Dystopias are often examples of this fear, that the past we know might be erased, intentionally or inadvertently, and those treasures we hold up as the prizes of civilisation will fade away. Hollinger brings this to mind in her analysis of The Time Machine, when future humanity has no knowledge or point of reference for the archives contained in the Palace of Green Porcelain: “Only the Time Traveller, a stand-in for the implied late nineteenth-century reader, is present to acknowledge what has been lost of human history and culture.”[9] The reader of these science fiction dystopias in which the words of Shakespeare have lost their meaning.

Perhaps one of the most influential works on twentieth century dystopia is Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, a story of a highly technological and rigidly controlled society whose inhabitants have no names, only numbers. D-503, the mathematician and engineer, states “Thank goodness…the antediluvian times of all those Shakespeares and Dostoevskys, or whatever you call them, are over.”[10] There is no direct knowledge of Shakespeare beyond his historical, poetic existence; he exists in this world only as an object of contempt. R-13, a ‘poet’ for the OneState who writes death sentences in verse, responds enthusiastically: “Yes, my dear mathematician… We are the happiest of arithmetical means… As you people put it: integrated from zero to infinity, from the cretic to Shakespeare. Right!” (p. 43). There can be no Shakespeare in the OneState because he would fall beyond standard deviation of averaged accomplishment; neither the moron nor the genius can be permitted to live, and so all great literature must be stripped from society to maintain the mean.

In Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) it is intended to be the supreme irony that John the Savage, raised in the uncivilised zone of the Reservation, is the only character familiar with Shakespeare’s work. A world without Shakespeare is crushing for him, and no so-called civilisation in which he can tolerate living. Mustapha Mond, the Controller of the World State, has read Shakespeare – only as his rank permits, since the Bard is forbidden. Why: “Because it’s old… we haven’t any use for old things here.”[11] Like the colonists aboard Revis’s Godspeed, procreation is controlled by the state, and John’s attempt to share Romeo and Juliet with Helmholtz is a disaster, the latter laughing as he deems the play a “grotesque obscenity” (p. 187) with a “ridiculous, mad” premise (p. 188). When John and Helmholtz question Mond about writing something ‘new’ like Othello, the Controller states that such a production would be impossible to understand in the World State: “you can’t make tragedies without social instability” (226). Shakespeare is laid upon the sacrificial altar of progress, and with him, all those positive human values and emotions he expressed: love, romance, loyalty, bravery, etc.

The most recognisable imitation of Zamyatin’s We is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Not as far removed from the present as Zamyatin, Shakespeare plays a more recognisable part. Syme, the Newspeak philologist, tells Winston in a (disturbingly) gleeful moment that “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.”[12] Orwell is to be bastardised by Big Brother’s regime, turned against himself; not merely lost, but corrupted beyond recognition. Appendix C states that “when the task [of translation] had been completed, their original writings, with all else that survived of the literature of the past, would be destroyed” (p. 256). Which is the more desperate scenario: the Shakespeare lost to catastrophe, or the Shakespeare deliberately perverted? Orwell’s novel carries many messages about resisting the totalitarian state, the state that would morph your very language and thought process, and the use of Shakespeare as an example of this process – writing that should be more well-known than perhaps any other – is a deliberate metaphor for how deep the corruption of language and history goes.

Our history is rife with the banning of Shakespeare, from the Puritans to modern schools and libraries. These dystopias forbidding the reading the reading of his works are hyperboles with more than a grain – perhaps a bushel – of truth. Banning Shakespeare inherently gives Shakespeare cultural (and political) power, because there is no need to forbid something that is not a threat. Hitler knew that banning Shakespeare outright would not be effective, and instead appropriated and Nazi-ised the plays for political ends. Rodney Symington has written an entire book on the subject, The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (2005). After Hitler’s ascension to power, a pamphlet called “Shakespeare – A German Writer” appeared, appropriating Shakespeare as a more German writer than English writer, and Hitler himself lifted the ban on performances of Shakespeare during the war.[13]

Conclusion

Modern literature is rife with images of Shakespeare, turning the Bard and his works into pop-culture products, and it is this status of global, popular culture, that inspires these various tales of apocalypse to integrate Shakespeare into their texts as a metaphor for better days. Shakespeare himself grew up in an age of cultural destruction as the reformation swept England. Christofides notes that “Not only did many… Catholic images survive the seal of sixteenth-century Protestant iconoclasts, they also held a firm place in the collective memory of local communities… Most of this iconography was destroyed as part of Reformation decrees to obliterate idolatrous imagery.”[14] Attempted destruction of centuries of cultural icons failed in Shakespeare’s time, and science fiction writers today envision a Shakespeare not so easily erased after all his centuries among us. No one ever suggests saving Jennifer Lee Carrol’s Interred with Their Bones from the ravages of radiation, nor do they invoke Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare Stealer as a symbol for lost greatness; but the source must be persevered to ensure that new cultural products inspired by Shakespeare might reknit society. In all of these examples, we never question why Shakespeare is present; to us it seems an obvious artefact. If the authors had elected instead to add, say, the canon of Tom Clancy or Stephanie Meyer, we would have instantly been flung out of the pretense of fiction and asked ourselves ‘Why in the world would someone take Twilight to another planet, and not The Tempest?’ There is an expectation that in the face of disaster and displacement we will save our most popular cultural icons, an expectation that seems reinforced by the real world examples cited.

Works Cited

Brin, David. The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985).
Christofides, R.M. Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum, 2012).
Heschel, Susanna.  “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.
Hollinger, Veronica. “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013).
Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932).
Orwell, George. 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949).
Pinciss, Gerald M. Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005).
Revis, Beth. A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012).
Shelley, Mary. The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text).
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

 

[1] Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.

[2] Gerald M. Pinciss, Why Shakespeare: An Introduction to the Playwright’s Art (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005), p. 158.

[3] R.M. Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse: Visions of Doom from Early Modern Tragedies to Popular Culture (London: Continuum , 2012), pp. xii-xiii.

[4] Veronica Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, Parabolas of Science Fiction, eds. Brian Attebery and Veronica Hollinger (Middletown, CT: 2013), p. 242.

[5] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.

[6] David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.

[7] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.

[8] Beth Revis, A Million Suns (New York: Razorbill, 2012), p. 37.

[9] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 244.

[10] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Clarence Brown (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 43.

[11] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (New York: HarperPerennial, 1932), p. 225. All other citations in-text.

[12] George Orwell, 1984 (New York: Signet Classic, 1949), p. 47.

[13] Susanna Heschel, “The Nazi Appropriation of Shakespeare: Cultural Politics in the Third Reich (review), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2 (Autumn, 2007), pp. 290-291.

[14] Christofides, Shakespeare and the Apocalypse, p. xiii.

A Bard for the End of the World

The Hollywood blockbuster The Monuments Men brought to light a little known piece of WWII history, the establishment of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archive (MFAA) program to save Europe’s cultural heritage from Hitler and Russian treasure hunters. In the midst of a technological war, the salvage of paintings and statuary became a cause worthy of men’s lives. Why? Because art has influence and meaning in human life, even if we’re not consciously aware of it.

In one of the more memorable scenes of Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series, Edmund Blackadder, using a time machine, finds himself face to face with Shakespeare, and asks for his autograph. Then he proceeds to assault the Bard of Avon, shouting “That is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next 400 years! Have you any idea how much suffering you’re going to cause?”[1] After this – and various other historical follies – Blackadder returns to the present to find the world worse off, and must travel into the past once more to put things right. Shakespeare cannot be remembered simply as the inventor of the ballpoint pen. Despite the suffering of countless school children, the world needs William Shakespeare to show us human society.

Humans have imagined the destruction of the earth for as long as there is writing to record it. But after thousands of years of deific causes for the big-‘A’ apocalypse, science revealed a myriad of other methods by which humanity might meet their end, from microscopic bacterium to the earth-shattering bomb.

The cultural significance of Shakespeare –and the need to preserve it – can be seen as far back as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), one of the first science fiction tales to portray a non-biblical apocalypse.  The world is ravaged by a plague in the late twenty-first century, and Lionel Varney records the fall of England and Europe amidst an ever-diminishing sphere of friends and family. Shelley liberally sprinkles Shakespeare and other poetic references throughout the novel, and even as the world is dying, Lionel notes that “Shakespeare… had not lost his influence even at this dread period.”[2] He reflects upon Shakespeare as the ‘“Ut magus,” the wizard to rule our hearts and govern our imaginations’ and removes the audience from their wretched surroundings in favour of ‘scenic delusions’ (p. 317). When he finds himself utterly alone, Lionel sets sail to look for other lands that may hold survivors, he takes with him ‘a few books… Homer and Shakespeare” (p. 354). In Shakespeare is the comfort of imaginative transportation to other pastures, and other tragedies not his own, and the reminder of better times, before the world bid ‘farewell to the arts’ (p. 246).

In the effort to begin the rebuilding of America in the wake of a limited nuclear war in Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s War Day, Shakespeare becomes one of the first points of restoration for a small town in Pennsylvania. The arrival of Britain’s Prince Andrew to tour the recovery efforts spurs a conversation about the formation of a Shakespearian society.  Amidst radiation, pandemics, and famine, the establishment of a Shakespearian society becomes a priority for the return to a sense of normality; this is what Shakespeare means: his presence in daily life is the attempt to reassert a pre-war status quo. Consider the World War II Shakespearian thespian Maurice Evans, who brought Macbeth and The G.I. Hamlet to troops in the Pacific theatre during the war. It was not that the soldiers were familiar with Shakespeare – in fact, nearly none at all had ever seen Shakespeare performed on stage  – but it was what Shakespeare meant, as a familiar, a piece of home, a touchstone with civilisation in an uncivilised location.

Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare’s survival in the aftermath of global collapse is David Brin’s novel the Postman, turned into the Kevin Costner-directed (and starring) film of the same name in 1997, with a heavily adapted screenplay by Eric Roth and Brian Helgeland. In the original text, Gordon (the eponymous Postman) is indeed an itinerant performer of Shakespeare, delivering Hamlet from the memory of ‘a half-burned fragment’ of the play.[3] But no one in the audience can gainsay Gordon’s performance because they have no point of reference; ‘Shakespeare’ to the survivors is a historical artefact, a symbol of the before frozen in time by memory, but not a living, vibrant subject. To Gordon, the emotions evoked by his performances make him “feel like a charlatan”, a snake oil salesman offering to cure the apocalypse: “his shows brought out grand, submerged hopes in a few of the decent, older people who remembered better days…hope that, to his knowledge, had always fallen through before a weeks or months had passed” (p. 36). It is hard to hold on to Shakespeare when one does not know where the next meal is coming from, but the spark, the need for Shakespeare to remain relevant continues: “[T]he seeds of civilization needed more than goodwill and dreams…to water them” (p. 36). In the film version General Bethlehem (played by Will Patton) orders the Postman’s copy of Shakespeare burned, without the filmmaker’s ever clarifying why: General Bethlehem knows the value of such a rare book in those desperate times, a memento of the past, and destroying it will help to prevent those ‘seeds of civilization’ from sprouting further, disrupting his power.

Lest we consider this purely fictional imagining, I contacted the Folger Shakespeare Library and spoke with Dr. Georgianna Ziegler, the Head Reference Librarian, to ask about the Library’s contingencies to save its most precious documents. She stated that all of the First Folios and other important pieces are kept in a vault three stories underground – originally only two until after 9-11 – and that during World War II a significant portion of the Library’s rare materials were removed from Washington DC and sent for safe keeping to Amherst. Natural disasters and nuclear wars are no longer the only cause for concern; terrorism may also reach out to destroy not just human life, but cultural life as well. Hollinger’s premise for examining the idea of the archive through science fiction is about folding time in on itself: “science fiction [the future] historicizes the present.”[4] In our own present we see attempts by the past to preserve itself, and so emulate their efforts, preserving them and ourselves against an ever-changing world of threat. Our fictions, in turn, follow the same logical trajectory.

____________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Blackadder Back & Forth. Dir. Paul Weiland. First aired 6 December 1999.

[2] Mary Shelley, The Last Man (London: Flame Tree 541, 2013, based on the 1826 text), pp. 216-7. All other citations in text.

[3] David Brin, The Postman (New York: Bantam, 1985), p. 35.

[4] Hollinger, “Science Fiction as Archive Fever”, p. 243.

Science Fiction’s Political Mars

“A paradigm, and a million dreams, died with a single, grainy snapshot. Space insiders believe that the disappointment of Mariner 4 killed off the post-Apollo space programme: if Mars had turned out to be a worthwhile destination, we’d have gone there by now.”

Stephen Baxter[1]

Mars Books

When Science Fiction Took the Government to Mars

The use of new scientific information about Mars may have been intended to establish a sense of speculative realism, but it is the political speculation of these narratives that is most revealing of the authors’ sentiments, and perhaps even more so than science, politics adds fuel to the plot. The language utilised, though, is reminiscent of the inspirational rhetoric employed during Europe’s Age of Exploration, and America’s own expansion across the continent. Where missionaries once sought to bring civilisation to the uncivilised, scientists seek to bring life to a lifeless world and science fiction authors are composing the long tracts of how to make this possible. In a democracy, the people must be convinced along with the representative government. From their fervent intrepid characters to the authors’ own addresses beyond the fourth wall, there is a belief that ‘there is a fork in the road leading to the future: either civilization will collapse, or humans will reach Mars!’[2] To this end, the narratives are an extension of the hope of changing opinions about Mars, producing an art imitating life with the desire for life to imitate art. First, it is necessary to understand the various motivations the authors have contrived for going to Mars, ones that are striking similar to those which pushed European explorers out into the world. Next, the methods the authors use to convince their audience are again strikingly similar to those used by early explorers in their travel narratives. The unique updated aspect of these novels is that the politicians and exploitative industrialists must be identified, vilified and cowed into standing aside so that the scientists and explorers may reign triumphantly vindicated.

These writers and proponents of exploring Mars have crafted narratives of man-versus-man-versus-society, which are filled out with as much, or more, politicking than science. To note that ‘Novels do not merely reflect the regime; they contain significant reflections on it’[3] is indicative of the authors’ frustrations with the present (presumably American) political system’s stance on Mars exploration; a continuing reliance upon unmanned missions, and unfulfilled promises of manned expeditions serving as political distraction from more dire situations. Mars is a significant step in the opinion of American space enthusiasts because the nation has always been at the forefront of space exploration; there is the fear of losing ground, of giving up the fight to reach beyond Earth’s orbit. The ability to reach the moon has already been lost. But an adept student of history can verify that politics and profit is the driving force behind human exploration, from Prince Henry the Navigator to the Apollo missions, as ‘politics is inextricably bound up with the personal needs, yearnings, and fantasies of its participants.’[4] Pragmatic politicians only concerned with the bottom line, taxes, and re-election (something the old monarchies never faced when sponsoring a voyage) therefore must be convinced of why such an endeavour is necessary. Failing the politicians’ ability to act, within the stories it is private enterprise which takes up the charge to Mars, looking to turn a profit. These motivations stand in juxtaposition of the authors’ perspective of the dreamer. They are putting forth their own political ideals and perceived political enemies in none-too-subtle narratives and addresses to readers. In Robert Zubrin’s mind, the reasoning for this push to Mars is clear, and he spells it out succinctly in The Case for Mars, which served at the framework for his fictionalised Mars travel:

“The creation of a new frontier thus presents itself as America’s and humanity’s greatest social need. Nothing is more important: Apply what palliatives you will, without a frontier to grow in, not only American society, but the entire global civilization based upon values of humanism, science, and progress will ultimately die.
I believe that humanity’s new frontier can only be on Mars.”[5]

This is the American philosophy of ‘Manifest Destiny’ reconstituted. These are distinctly American novels with a distinct interpretation of the word ‘frontier’; were in the US it is indicative of a region awaiting settlement, in Europe it is identified only as a border between countries, not a region for exploration. The authors, then, are all employing the American ideal of the frontier (all being Americans themselves). To accompany this perceived need for a new frontier to keep the human spirit alive is the undying hope of finding life, the new ‘gold’ to be sought in the new world, though undoubtedly, finding gold on Mars would certainly raise a few more voices calling for a manned expedition. The debates between the characters of idealistic explorer and seemingly callous politician appear to be a sort of catharsis for the authors – the idealistic explorers always win the argument, and hopefully the reader will be convinced as well.

Historically, the travel narrative has been about adventures into terra incognita for purposes of mapping and scientific inquest. Mars has been mapped in detail, and yet there is still a sense of mars incognita because no one has actually been there. It is not enough to simply have the map, as history tells; ‘Cartographers and other map makers, including adventure story writers, charted areas of geographical knowledge and terra incognita, and through their maps they possessed real geography. In cartographic and literary maps, Europeans charted the world then colonised it’.[6] NASA has mapped the Red Planet; the next move then, in the opinion of these SF writers and in keeping with historical trends, is to explore and colonise. By undertaking the immense task of Mars cartography, there is perhaps a sense of proprietary entitlement among scientists and Mars supporters, laying the groundwork of pre-colonial appropriation with the defence ‘We mapped it, therefore it is ours.’ During the nineteenth century, the US federal government would subdue and/or remove local native inhabitants (something that in all likelihood would not be repeated on Mars) then send out the cartographers, naturalists and the US Geological Survey (which has assisted in the mapping of Mars today) to study and map the land in preparation for the arrival of settlers. Mars has been surveyed and is currently awaiting the arrival of a few naturalists to pave the way for colonists. In Zubrin and the Mars Society’s philosophy, the survival of the species depends upon reaching out to a new frontier, creating a human empire. Other science fiction writers of this particular type of narrative may not be as conscious of this impetus, but they are still encouraging their readers to go forth.

Politicians must respond to their fickle constituency, and the dream of going to Mars has become extremely political. The Mars Society and the authors of these books are attempting to placate public doubts with their rhetoric: The ethos of the authors presenting their scientific credentials and sources; the logos of the long debates between scientists and their detractors (the former always carrying the argument); and pure pathos, such as the spectacle-filled return of Zurbin’s astronauts accidently splashing down in New York harbour, which quickly wipes away the quarantine concern, and the ecstasy in each book as life, in one form or another, is found on Mars. The logic of science may be a useful tool for framing a new world in an SF novel, but the modern consumer is driven by their pathos, and Mars must be sold to the public and politicians. Utilising the work of researchers and the Mars Society to present a facade of scientific justification is merely political fodder to feed the dream of going to Mars, and these novels are an attempt to pull in the uninitiated who would rather read science fiction than Scientific American.  Zubrin’s own character is part of this political fodder, as in Benford’s The Martian Race: ‘They had a joyous visit from Bob Zubrin, the Tom Paine of Mars who had pushed the earliest ideas about going on the cheap.’[7] This particular analogy is in all likelihood a reference to Thomas O. Paine, a NASA administrator during the Apollo years who once stated, ‘Well, if you want to go to Mars, go to Mars!’[8] But there is also (a perhaps unintended) reference to Thomas Paine, revolutionary and writer of Common Sense, and alludes to a perception of Zubrin as the man who will inspire a scientific revolution, that The Case for Mars is the new Common Sense.

While the push for a Martian revolution here on Earth is a new idea, the motivations for a manned expedition so far out into space are the same in every narrative, as Bova sums up most concisely:

“The scientists wanted to go to Mars for curiosity’s sake. To them, exploration of the universe was a goal in itself.
The visionaries wanted to go to Mars because it is there. They viewed the human race’s expansion into space with religious fervor.
The military said there was no point in going to Mars; the planet was so far away that it served no conceivable military function.
The industrialist realized that sending humans to Mars would serve as a stimulus to develop new technology – on risk-free money provided by the government.”[9]

The only group excluded from this list is the politician themselves, and for them, Mars is only political capital, to be encouraged or derided as it suits the mob’s opinion du jour. The first two groups of ‘scientists’ and ‘visionaries’ may certainly encompass these authors’ perceptions of Mars and humanity’s future, as demonstrated by the previously discussed pre- and post-text notes included in the novels. None of these narratives are meant to serve as pure camp science fantasy; the authors have their own visionary political goals, ‘Mars in our time’ as Gregory Benford (a Mars Society board member) states in his dedication to The Martian Race. Industrialists have not yet gotten in on the push for Mars, but Benford and Bova’s latter book both make use of private funds for reaching the Red Planet. Historically, both governments and entrepreneurs have been involved in the push to open new frontiers.


[1] Stephen Baxter, ‘Martian Chronicles: Narratives of Mars in Science and Sf’, in Foundation: the international review of science fiction, Vol. 68, p. 12.

[2] Hartmann, A Traveler’s Guide to Mars, p. 434.

[3] Catherine H. Zuckert, ‘The Novel as a Form of American Political Thought’ in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p. 136.

[4] George Von der Muhll, ‘The Political Element in Literature’, in Reading Political Stories: Representations of Politics in Novels and Pictures (Lantham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1992), p.42.

[5] Robert Zubrin, The Case for Mars, p. 297.

[6] Richard Phillips, Mapping Men and Empire: A geography of adventure (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 6.

[7] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 25.

[8] Zubrin and Wagner, The Case for Mars, p. 137.

[9] Bova, Mars, pp. 16-17.

The Wise Man of the Desert

land-of-the-headless

Adam Roberts, the award-winning British science fiction author, sure loved his desert settings early in his writing career. He even admits it:

“This is what I’ve been thinking. My last three novels, SnowGradisil and [Land of the] Headless, are all–I can see, now–desert novels. A desert of water ice; a desert of orbital vacuum; a desert of the soul; and in all three cases the concomitant mental and emotional sensibilities, and aesthetics. In a way these three novels represent a sort-of trilogy, a thematic trilogy; and they are accordingly and necessarily rather barren. I can hardly complain if people find this offputting.”[1]

Roberts has indeed struggled with some reviewers and readers finding his novels “offputting”, perhaps because the readers and reviewers do not know how to approach his works. Roberts does not write space opera or thrillers, the kind of SF that seems to predominate; he writes what others have identified as Menippean satire.[2] For those unfamiliar with the concept, we will use Northrop Frye’s definition of the genre:

“The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylised rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.”[3]

This means that when Roberts is called “The king of high-concept SF” (that was Jon Courtenay-Grimwood of The Guardian, a piece of praise now used on most of the covers of Roberts’s novels) it is his ideas being lauded and not necessarily his plots. Roberts employs characters that are not often likeable and have a tendency to perhaps stretch the truth, lying to us as well as themselves. The situations in which the characters find themselves can be extreme to the point of the absurd. But that is the point of satire, to call out the ideas and philosophies of our everyday lives in order to highlight their possibly ridiculous nature. So what does this have to do with deserts?

A quick review of the various deserts Roberts used in his novels:

1) Salt (2000) is a novel about warring religious fundamentalists on a new colony world called – obviously – Salt, because the planet is a desert of salt.

2) The Snow (2004) is a novel about the icy apocalypse of Earth, buried under three miles of snow, and the handful of survivors who find themselves  under the control of a totalitarian US military government in a desert of snow that may not be snow at all.

3) Gradisil (2006) is a novel about the settlement of Earth’s orbit by the wealthy that have escaped a decaying planet, living in a desert of vacuum.

4) Land of the Headless (2007) is the story of a decapitated (yet still living thanks to technological intervention) poet/criminal who passes through not just a “desert of the soul” as Roberts says, but a literal desert of sand and the desert of the battlefield.

So again, why deserts?

Because it is the barrenness of these landscapes that allow the ideas being espoused to stand in sharp relief. World-building is an extensive part of the SF novum, but it is much easier to build a world of ideas when you do not have to carry on about the biologic and geologic formations of your world. Roberts’s characters are allowed to inhabit their philosophies in the emptiness of a desert rather than being inhabited by the lushness of a jungle. Satire – and especially Menippean satire – cannot afford to be dragged down by descriptions of a physical world when there is a mental world to be explored; chess is played on a plane of only two alternating colours (well, unless you have one of those 3-D Star Trek chess sets) so that you can move swiftly across the board. For Roberts, writing in a desert provides the same advantage, decluttering the environmentally abstract in favour of the philosophically certain. Not that Roberts was necessarily aware of this repetition in setting for his first several novels:

“It might seem a little belated on my part, only now to be seeing larger patterns in the way my books are coming out. But then again, writing is a balance between what the writer plans and what emerges… Perhaps there’s some tectonic shifting happening under my very own feet, and I’m only slowly becoming aware of it. Maybe, and without directly informing me, my creative imagination has had enough of deserts for the time being.”[4]

Roberts has moved on from his desert novels into far more verdant worlds, his satire becoming more subtle in its send-up of our strange human ways. But there is still a wise man lurking in the deserts or the fields of England or the streets of Moscow trying to tell us a truth about what it is to be human, warning us against the fanatical, the dictatorial, and the fallacious. 


[2] Paul Kincaid, “Learning to Read Adam Roberts”, http://bigother.com/2011/03/05/learning-to-read-adam-roberts/

[3] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (London: penguin Books, 1957), p. 309.

“The Planetary Center”,or, The Funniest Letter Ever Written

The following has nothing to do with the hollow earth. However, in my defense, I am presently at the University of California Riverside’s Eaton Archives, looking for dissertation materials. one of the Eaton Archivists’ great resources is its SF fanzine collection. Now, not knowing were to look, I simply did a keyword search for things like “hollow”, “earth”, “underground”, “underworld”, “center”, etc. One of the titles I uncovered was “The Planetary Center”, and as there are no descriptions given, all I can do is take out the material and look it over.

What I found was the most unintentionally hilarious thing ever. Not a fanzine, but a letter from 1959. Enjoy

_______________________

PLANETARY CENTER

24720 Carlysle St.,

U.S.A. – Earth!

God’s Universe…

Est. 1954

Dear Enquirer:

The Planetary Center is a public information bureau concerned with the appearance of interplanetary craft from other planets in our atmosphere at this time..called flying saucers by the public, UFO by the military, Unidentified Flying Objects. Its purpose is to gather books, pamphlets, photographs, concerning the physical facts pertaining to such visitors, to make them available to those who are interested..for each individual to evaluate for himself. Having sent our material to the heads of governmental and policing departments, local and national, we feel we are operating, with the government’s knowledge. Having contacted the US Air Force at Wright Patterson Airfield, Dayton, Ohio, as well, in 1954, as to our activities and being told they also had a serious program investigating flying saucers and to please cooperate reporting to them anything of importance that we might come upon in our research, we consider we are NOT violating any security risk. The local Detroit papers and many libraries have come to refer enquiries of them concerning flying saucers to us. We are registered with Wayne County, Michigan, as a non-profit organization.

While not discounting intuitive processes, for themselves (hunches, mental telepathy, etc.), we do NOT go into literature pertaining to existing psychic saucer research in connection with “messages” purportedly received from such Visitors. We have our own proof that these are physical, more advanced, friendly human beings, coming in space-craft and there is enough evidence to support our conclusions to consider, without going into the unknown and, as yet, undependable areas of the mind, or the theories concerned with mental or spirit beings. Our Open Letter, a monthly newsletter, is concerned with saucer sightings, face-to-face contact and the activities of saucer groups in many countries, including this one. It also contains information concerning changes to come to this planet given out by the Visitors directly to individuals, as well as articles concerned with the developing consciousness or abilities to understand of man, better enabling him today to understand the advanced physical-spiritual stage of growth of the Visitors than ancient Earthman was able to do, when the Visitors came openly to them, speaking to them, face-to-face. Knowin our stage of intuitive growth better than we do, we feel the Visitors would come to us on OUR level of growth, not theirs, or they would only encourage our obviously still distorted human-mind thinking.

The Planetary Center does NOT have a membership and we do NOT hold regular meetings. A nucleus group answers phone and mail enquiries from all over, presently without remuneration, although some have been giving full-time to the work for some time; spending their personal savings to keep the Center going (known also as a saucer study group in the past). They also prepare the Open Letter to the point where a voluntary working committee can be called in, once a month, at least, to help get it into the mail. When the occasion warrants it, we present lectures concerned only with the objective saucer research and face-to-face contacts. You would be notified concerning such a program is you request to be put on our Open Letter mailing list by writing the the above address. It is on a free-will basis, which you might consider after reading it, if you wish, as little or as much as you wish, as often as you wish (or not at all if you cannot afford to do so, or do not care to do so), towards helping to defray expenses. We feel it will all balance up, somewhere. We hope, eventually, also, to give those giving full-time a commensurate wage..for how else can one exist in this economical system, even though the work one is engaged in may mean the salvation of the planet? And whether they wanted to support themselves, elsewise, or not.

The Planetary Center is not concerned with any religious or political organization, each co-worker being a free individual. We feel the Visitors’ coming at such a crucial time in our history, however, and at a time when WE are trying to get into outer space, ourselves, is more than co-incidental; knowing, as we have discovered in our research, that the sacred scriptures of all people of the past contain information concerned advanced human beings coming in craft to help humanity to help itself, at times of need, setting an example of their on higher way of life on their planets, as well, apparently leaving us to work out our own problems, otherwise. This came to be forgotten, in time..or considered to be only “angels”, or “spirit phenomena”. The possibility that other people, like ourselves, however, only more advanced, because they have LIVED God’s Laws..not just professing to believe in them, as we have done, are living on other planets, without war deprivation, starvation, and without a money system like ours that limits the distribution of the good things of life that keep a planet growing and united to those able to acquire money, even though GOD has made them available to ALL, for nothing, is worth considering. AND MUST NOT BECOME CONFUSED WITH PSYCHIC PHENOMENA.

This could be the inspiration for our leaders and people to keep in mind, in trying to solve our own planetary problems; a goal to work towards. As perilous as times are, it is nothing to ridicule or toss out without a second thought. And thus, some of us at the Planetary Center have felt it worthwhile to minimize our personal lives, for the time being, despite such ridicule, and financial hardships, to devote all the time we can to getting this information to the people of this planet, in a way they will consider as to its possibilities, whether they believe it right away or not. In order that the Visitors may come further into our skies and visit openly, teaching us how to live as they do, with open more advanced guidance coming to them, also. They can come in none too soon.. as war looms more possible and planetary changes (the shifting of its poles, accelerating, effecting the climate, the weather, the tides, man’s tensions, etc.), also, nears, through which the Visitors will help us. Even is this shift should not occur for many years to come, one can readily see wherein lies the responsibility of those of us with understanding.

Towards that end, the Planetary Center has a speaking team, concerned with the saucer research that has been done through civilian channels, both scientific and philosophical (not only concerned with the Visitors’ space-craft, that is..but why they are so much more advanced than us in all ways, including spiritual), that goes out only upon invitation to speak, asking nothing for its individual members in payment for its services; accepting a lecture fee for only  a contribution directly to the Planetary Center, in order for its activities to continue. But, lecturing whether a group can contribute or not. The writings of its co-workers are also donated to the Center, which puts them also on a free-will offering basis.

The following is a list of some of the objective flying saucer books which we recommend for you to start investigating the situation for yourself, as we all have had to do, since there is no official body to turn to that will even consider the possibilities of flying causers from other planets, as yet. There are many books now available in public libraries as well as book stores; donating such books to the public and school libraries, and church libraries, as well, is a project which you might consider, yourself, as the Planetary Center continues to do, as it can, also. We also include a list of saucer magazines concerned with objective saucer research that are available only by subscription as a means of keeping up with the sightings that continue all over the world, even behind the Iron Curtain. This will, as well, put you in touch with many other of the countless civilian groups organizing in many countries, and in the country, to investigate the situation.

SAUCER BOOKS: Flying Saucers Are Real, Flying Saucers from Outer Space, The Flying Saucer Conspiracy, by Major Donald Keyhoe (retired).

The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects by Captain Edward Ruppelt, former Investigator of UFO for the US Air Force.

Flying Saucers Have Landed; Geo. Adamsk & Desmond Leslie.

Inside The Space Ships; Geo. Adamski.

The Case for the UFO, the UFO and the Bible; M.K. Jessup, Astronomer.

Space, Gravity & the Flying Saucer; Leonard Cramp, British Mathematician.

The Truth About Flying Saucers, Aime Michel, French scientist.

SAUCER PAMPHLETS: BY Laura Mundo (Marxer), co-founder Planetary Center, on a free-will offering basis, after reading, to the Center;

The ABD of Saucers, mimeographed.

Let’s Keep Psychism Out of Saucers, mimeographed.

A Summation of Civilian Flying Saucer Research, mimeographed.

“Time of the End”, printed.

SAUCER TAPES: (lectures). Rob’ Johnson, 30702 MacKenzie Bl, Garden City, Mich.

SAUCER MAGAZINES: (Only a few of them may be available).

The Open Letter, monthly, The Planetary Center, free-will offering.

The Flying Saucer Review, quarterly, 1 Doughty St., London WC 1, Eng. $3.75.

Saucers, Max Miller, editor, PO Box 35034, LA 35, Calif. $3.00. Quarterly.

The Saucerian, Gray Barker, Box 2228 Clarksburg, W. Va. $2.00

[And more, but my neck really hurts form typing this up for the last hour, so I’m not going to list them.]

Sincerely yours in the vital project that must become the concern of each individual on this planet, bringing permanent peace and plenty to all..and thusly returning us to the universal family of planets from which we have so long unconsciously isolated ourselves, quarantined as we have been, as well, unbeknownst to ourselves, until we learn to get along with each other, although allowed to think in terms of getting into outerspace. Let’s hope that day is fast approaching when we will be welcomed! For further information contact Connie Grzych, co-founder.

August 1959,                                                                      The Planetary Center

“Make Room! Make Room!” and a The Politics of Contraception

Make Room_book coverOne of the great social anxieties of the 1960s was the population explosion rampant in the post-WWII years and its environmental impact, a social tremor that still exists. The cultural meme of “Soylent Green is people!” is treated as a joke today, but had far more relevant implications in decades past. This phrase from the 1973 Richard Fleischer film Soylent Green, does not actually appear in its original source material, Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! Relying on shocking cannibalism, Fleischer ignores Harrison’s interest in the political movement for contraception to be made legal and widely available.

The fears of overpopulation had been extent since the publication of Robert Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) and its incredibly depressing, pre-Darwinian assessment on the nature and condition of population growth based on three principles:

That the increase of population is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence,

That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase, and,

That the superior power of population is repressed, and the actual population kept equal to the means of subsistence, by misery and vice.

Harrison certainly takes ‘misery and vice’ into consideration in his novel. By the mid-twentieth century the issue had attracted the likes of John D. Rockefeller III, who established the Population Council in 1952 (Stableford, 398-9). (An interesting point of consideration is that someone as wealthy as Rockefeller was probably more interested in preventing the growth of a restless, impoverished underclass prone to rebellion rather than the prevention of mass misery.) In an interview with Locus Magazine in 2006 Harrison revealed his inspiration for the novel:

It was really the first book, fiction or non-fiction, about overpopulation. The idea came from an Indian I met after the war, in 1946. He told me, ‘Overpopulation is the big problem coming up in the world’ (nobody had ever heard of it in those days) and he said ‘Want to make a lot of money, Harry? You have to import rubber contraceptives to India.” I didn’t mind making money, but I didn’t want to be the rubber king of India! But I started reading a bit about overpopulation, and got the idea for the book. It stayed in my head as I watched the population trend going the wrong way. The thing took about eight years to write because I had to do a lot of research which was worth it. (Harrison, 2006)

Harrison realised that the issue of overpopulation would not be limited to India, and that there was a global groundswell of changing attitudes towards population and birth control. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction lists the three major themes explored in novels of overpopulation published since the 1960s: “the exhaustion of resources; the destruction of the environment by pollution; and the social problems of living in crowded conditions” (Clute, 901). Harrison, from his research, is able to divine all of these aspects, but focuses more firmly on depleted resources and the soul-destroying conditions of living cheek to jowl. Despite the “heroic adventure” often found in “post-apocalyptic narrative” (Booker, 61), there are no heroes in Make Room! Make Room!, no redemptive outcomes, no change to the status quo. Brian Aldiss called this a “masterly stroke” as it “defies a long-established SF convention that Everything Falls Apart in the Final Chapter.” (Aldiss, 299) Had the world been saved, it would have lessened the message Harrison was alluding to: change must happen in the present, so that this is not the future. As part of this narrative theme, the novel is not so much a post-apocalyptic tale as it is a slow-apocalypse in motion. The post-apocalypse is yet to come, but there is no doubt in the mind of Harrison’s characters that is it coming.

From the outset, in Harrison’s dedication, the severity of the issue is apparent: “To Todd and Moira. For your sakes, children, I hope this proves to be a work of fiction.” (Harrison, v) His novel is not meant only to entertain, but to inform, to sway opinion, and possibly to change the world. The point of his prognostications is not to be proven right, but to force the world to prove him wrong.  Harrison also provides a prologue for readers that outlines his reasons for this parable:

In December 1959 The President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, said: ‘This government…will not… as long as I am here, have a positive political doctrine in its program that has to do with this problem of birth control. That is not our business.’ It has not been the business of any American government since that time.

In 1950 the United States – with just 9 per cent of the world’s populations – was consuming 50 per cent of the world’s raw materials. This percentage keeps getting bigger and within fifteen years, at the present rate of growth, the United States will be consuming over 83 per cent of the annual output of the earth’s materials. By the end of the century, should our population continue to increase at the same rate, this country will need more than 100 per cent of the planet’s resources to maintain our current living standards. This is a mathematical impossibility – aside from the fact that there will be about seven billion people on this earth at that time and – perhaps – they would like to have some raw materials too.

In which case, what will the world be like? (Harrison, vi)

Harrison has given readers a genuine social problem, its political origins, and the statistics regarding the overall problem faced by a future world with seven billion people. We are meant to acknowledge that while this is nominally a work of fiction there are very real consequences should the present course of society – as defined by quantifiable figures – remain unchanged. What is missing from this 2008 Penguin Classic edition of the novel is the original introduction from Paul Ehrlich (founder of Zero Population Growth, a movement designed to maintain, or even reduce, the world’s current population) and a bibliography on overpopulation (Barron, 211). These paratextual materials would have acted as additional elements for contemporary readers to weigh the seriousness and veracity of Harrison’s thesis by following up his sources and proving it so themselves.

The message of the novel – that without changes to human reproductive practices the future will find itself with millions crammed into slums on top of each other, fighting for food and resources – is couched in a murder mystery. Police detective Andy Rusch is our literary Virgil to the New York City of 1999, with 35 million people barely kept in food and water under an oppressive government and even more oppressive class system, all teetering on the brink of collapse. With this narrative style, it is not immediately obvious that the entire novel’s purpose is to convey the need for birth control until Andy’s roommate Sol takes the pulpit:

‘They’ve been over this ground a thousand times before. But does anyone mention out loud the sole and only reason for the Emergency Bill? They do not. After all these years they’re too chicken to come right out and tell the truth, so they got it hidden away in one of the little riders tacked onto the bottom.’

‘What are you talking about?’ Andy asked, only half listening.

‘Birth control, that’s what. They are finally getting around to legalizing clinics that will be open to anyone – married or not – and making it a law that all mothers must be supplied with birth-control information…’ (Harrison, 172-3)

The novel is mostly over before we finally get to the core of the issue; Harrison has let the reader absorb the horrors of this grossly over-populated New York City before laying before them his singular case for free information about birth control for women. In a conversation with Shirl, Andy’s girlfriend, Harrison uses Sol to expose the foil to this idea, and why opponents to birth control are wrong:

‘You heard about the Emergency Bill? It’s been schmeared all over the TV for the last week.’

‘Is that the one they call the Baby-killer Bill?’

‘They?’ Sol shouted…’Who are they? A bunch of bums, that’s what. People with their minds in the Middle Ages…’

‘But, Sol – you can’t force people to practice something they don’t believe in. A lot of them still think that it has something to do with killing babies.’

‘So they are wrong…You know well enough that birth control has nothing to do with killing babies. In fact it saves them. Which is the bigger crime – letting kids die of disease and starvation or seeing that the unwanted ones don’t get born in the first place?’

‘Putting it that way sounds different. But aren’t you forgetting about natural law? Isn’t birth control a violation of that?’

‘Darling, the history of medicine is the history of the violation of natural law… Everything was against natural law once, and now birth control has got to join the rest. Because all of our troubles today come from the fact that there are too many people in the world.’ (Harrison, 177-8)

It has taken over 170 pages to get to the root of the message that Harrison wants us, as readers, to understand: human thinking about controlling reproduction must change, because if it doesn’t, a world of starvation, disease and deprivation awaits us.

In 2008, Harrison wrote an afterwards to accompany the issuing of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Make Room! Make Room! in which he analysed the predictions he made, and the resultant society:

How has this novel stood the test of time?

It has been over half a century since I first began working on this book, digging out information on overpopulation, pollution and oil consumption. These were the facts that underlay my story of the future…

But how right were my predictions?

Pretty bad in most of the general details. I have never believed that science fiction predicts the future. It does not. There are predictions made in the literature; but they are hunches, guess, hopes. Authors shotgun the future with ideas. And, like shotgun pellets hitting a stretch of wall, some will hit the target…

Unhappily for mankind the population details, food shortages and oil consumption I wrote about have proven to be too horribly correct…

I am not happy about being correct; I wish it had been the other way around. I wish we had controlled population growth and developed green energy sources.

Perhaps we still can. Dare I be optimistic? I shall try.

While you, dear reader, will hopefully read this book and agree with me. (Harrison, 232-233)

Harrison, in this final statement, is confirming what the original intent of the novel was in 1966: to try and change the course of society, to force readers to recognise the need for population controls. What is more, he views his contemporary world to still be on a path to collapse and despite being wrong in some of the novel’s details, the outcome was mostly on target and there is still reason to be concerned.

In their history on science fiction, Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint frame Make Room! Make Room! in terms of human despair: “A tale of the impossibility of human community and love in overcrowded and impoverished circumstances” (Bould, 142). These themes certainly emerge, but they do not do the novel justice in ignoring Harrison’s message about the necessity for widespread, effective birth control. This message was also displaced in the making of Soylent Green (1973), as ‘much of its substance was lost in translation’ in John Clute’s judgement (Clute, 546). Harrison himself was said to be gravely disappointed with the film; the kindest thing he said of it was that Soylent Green “at times bore a faint resemblance to the book.” (BBC, 2012).

In the years after Harrison’s seminal novel, several more authors followed suit on the topic of overpopulation, including A Torrent of Faces (1967), Logan’s Run (1967), and Stand on Zanzibar (1968). Paul Ehrlich also continued what he started with his introduction for Harrison in the publication of his ground-breaking work The Population Bomb (1968). Stableford points out that the ‘anxieties regarding population peaked in the early 1970s, but did not die away’, they were merely co-opted into other environmental catastrophe literature (Stableford, 399). The relaxation of restrictions on birth control, however, certainly emerged from this tumultuous era, but there is no answer as to whether Harrison’s work directly influenced this, or if he was riding a wave of public sentiment already setting change in motion. David Seeds reports on the rejection of Paul Ehrlich’s work as “neo-Malthusianism” by those opposed to the rising environmentalism movement (Seed, 139), indicating a disbelief in the argument that the earth is limited in its ability to provide for the human population.

Certainly not enough academic work has been done on the impact of works like Make Room! Make Room! on the socio-political changes of the 1960s and 1970s. Overpopulation and birth-control faded into the background of environmental concerns stemming from overpopulation, the subject now relegated to a secondary issue in science fiction novels. Perhaps this is because birth control, at least for a time, was no longer a social issue that required attention. Almost on schedule with Harrison’s predictions, however, the earth has crossed the seven-billion mark in its population, and it may be time to pay attention once more.

By B. Shapiro-Hafid

______________________________________________________________

Aldiss, Brain and David Wingrove. Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Paladin. 1988.

Barron, Neil, ed. Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction, 2nd Ed. New York: R.R. Bowker Company. 1981.

Booker,  M. kieth and Anne-Marie Thomas. The Science Fiction Handbook. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. 2009.

Bould, Mark and Sherryl Vint. The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction. London: Routledge. 2011.

Clute, John and Peter Nichols. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Orbit. 1999.

Harrison, Harry. Make Room! Make Room!. London: Penguin Books. 1966, 2008.

“Harry Harrison: When the World Was Young”. Locus: The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy. March, 2006. < http://www.locusmag.com/2006/Issues/03Harrison.html&gt;

Mann, George. The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. London: Robinson. 2001.

“Sci-fi Author Harry Harrison Dies”. BBC News. 15 August 2012. Accessed 4 April 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-19270109&gt;

Seed, David, ed. A Companion to Science Fiction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

Stableford, Brian. “Population.” Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge. 2006. 398-400.

Current Research in Speculative Fiction (CRSF) 2013 – The Day After

How does one describe the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference? Zombies and Aliens and Witches, oh my! A day of graduate students introducing their various fields of research into science fiction, fantasy, and horror is like visiting an academic theme park. Have you ever wondered how Martian economics works? How environmental catastrophes lead to a rewriting of history? How the masculine imagery of the technological is turning the human into the feminine? What about the connected history of vampires and zombies over the last 150 years as expressions of our own phobias? Have you ever genuinely considered how we structure the language of sf to build a world in our minds? Science fiction, fantasy and horror is all around us, has always been with us, but we rarely seem to give it a proper academic forum for expression.

And of course there are the plenary speakers to spice the mix. Dr. Peter Wright of Edge Hill University gave a talk on cinematic enunciations of literary cognitive estrangement… i.e. how to we take the written word – or sometimes, what is not written – and translate it into an effective audio/visual medium. Two-time Arthur C. Clarke Award winner Pat Cadigan then regaled us with her thoughts about science fiction and the future (and just so everyone can rest easy, there will neither be an ‘imperial Earth’ ruling over the Solar System anytime soon, nor will there be an apocalypse).

But the best part of this day is the meeting of new academics and the exchange of ideas. ‘Can I facebook stalk you?’ is not sinister, but a desire to know more about your research and what you are publishing. Every year I leave with new ideas and new sources for my research, and every year I am more proud to have worked on the conference. Even when I am no longer a postgrad, I look forward to being able to come back and listen to the papers from up and coming researchers. We love what we do, and we love talking to others who share that passion for investigating what has long been pushed to the margins of academia.

Zombies? Really? Really.: Buying into Horror

Zombie-Survival-Kit[Some incomplete thoughts on the marketing of the zombie apocalypse.]

When I speak of zombie apocalypse economics, I am not being metaphorical: tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but not metaphorical. Preparation for the potential of a zombie-viral outbreak occupy a niche market, where 99 per-cent of the information and products are offered up with a wink and a nod, and 1 per-cent caters to the mentally unstable. Or so it may seem, but I think there is a genuine psychological and economic force at work; that of preparing for horror, to mitigate the effects of disaster. History is rife with examples of preparing to face the apocalypse, but often those involved spiritual preparation, and a sense that fighting the inevitable was pointless: one does not fight God. Technology, though, and science, has brought two new perspectives: 1) new forms of horror, and 2) new ways of combating those horrors.

Think on it this way: how many of us have played the ‘zombie survival game’, the gedankenexperiment of contemplating where you would hole up, with whom, and what supplies? A seemingly pointless mental exercise that we can’t help engaging with once the question is posed. We have an innate need to question the future, anticipate its direction, and prepare for those events which threaten our existence.

There is a history to this need for preparing to fight off the unimaginable, the living dead, that stretches back to the fin de siècle. The BBC last year reported on a Victorian era vampire-slaying kit that sold at auction for £7500. This was a box containing everything Bram Stoker and Professor Van Helsing would have specified in a quest to kill Dracula: “a crucifix, pistol, wooden stakes and mallet, as well as glass bottles containing holy water, holy earth and garlic paste.” Was this intended as a genuine emergency-vampire-slaying First Aid kit, or an intriguing party gift? We’ll probably never know. But its very existence puts into perspective for us today the many kits and accouterments to be found for combating an onslaught of zombies.

In the nineteenth century, zombies were a product of Caribbean voodoo and witchcraft, Gothic tales of turning the living into automatons and slaves. By the mid-twentieth century, a zombie was a corpse inexplicably brought back to life by an incomprehensible horror. By the twenty-first century, the zombie was a scientific phenomenon, induced by disease; viral, bacterial, chemical or prion. To quote Erik David in his study of millennial eschatology,: ‘Though the cosmic sense of an ending can be seen as a particular pathology of the historical religions, the eschatological imagination long ago leaked into the secular myths of history and scientific progress.’ The zombie apocalypse has become a scientifically inspired end-of-days, like the nuclear apocalypse or the Y2K threat. However, where a nuclear war or technological collapse is rather beyond the control of the individual to combat, zombies, like the vampire, come with a scientific method of defense.

The work of Max Brooks is probably the most well known, The Zombie Survival Guide from 2003 intended as a non-fictive instruction manual, which he followed up with his fictional history in 2006, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Of the attempt at verisimilitude, in keeping with the thread of genuine possibility, Brooks himself said, “”Everything in World War Z (as in The Zombie Survival Guide) is based in reality… well, except the zombies. But seriously, everything else in the book is either taken from reality or 100% real. The technology, politics, economics, culture, military tactics… it was a LOT of homework.” We, as readers, are being given information that conforms to reality in all ways but one: there are no zombies…yet. It is that part ‘yet’, which has fueled growth of a zombie survival market for the last decade. Brooks himself puts it into the perspective of human anxiety about the end of the world.

Type ‘zombie’ into an academic database and you will find a peer-reviewed article about zombies in any field imaginable: politics, psychology, sociology, philosophy, literature, history, economics, medicine, etc. Some of these are relatively serious; some of them are using the term ‘zombie’ as a metaphor (especially in philosophy and economics). There are multiple levels of didactism to be found in both the fictions and non-fictions (this latter term being used in the loosest-possible way). Consider the academic studies (academic in the purely theoretical sense) that have been published. A study from an associate professor in Australia: “The nurses’ role in the prevention of Solanum infection: dealing with a zombie epidemic”, published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing last year. Its purpose was “To outline the background and nursing interventions for Solanum infection in the event of a zombie epidemic… Literature and feature film evidence supports the theoretical probability for an outbreak of a Solanum infection which could result in a zombie epidemic. This paper discusses the causative agent, history of zombiism, signs and symptoms, diagnosis and nursing interventions.” What is this important? Because if it does happen, “Nurses are likely to be the front line staff faced with initiating most primary and secondary care interventions, including isolation and infection control, wound care, pain relief, documentation observations, support for activities of daily living, nutrition and fluid support, medication administration and other interventions.” Or consider perhaps the CDC website that uses the idea of a zombie infection outbreak to teach disaster preparedness: “Wonder why Zombies, Zombie Apocalypse, and Zombie Preparedness continue to live or walk dead on a CDC web site? As it turns out what first began as a tongue in cheek campaign to engage new audiences with preparedness messages has proven to be a very effective platform.”[1] In other words, zombies have become an effective marketing and teaching tool. Surely a hurricane or earthquake could not be as terrible as a zombie outbreak? If we prepare for the latter, then the former will seem a breeze to survive. We have the Iowa Law Review explaining to us exactly what the tax consequences of a zombie apocalypse would be. We are more prepared for an event that has not and likely will not happen, than we are for events already happening (such as economic instability due to comedies bubbles). Perhaps it is easier to deal with the hypothetical than it is the real.

In Britain it made national – and then international – news when a letter sent to the Leicester City Council asked: ‘Can you please let us know what provisions you have in place in the event of a zombie invasion? Having watched several films it is clear that preparation for such an event is poor and one that councils throughout the kingdom must prepare for.’[2] As it turned out, the city council was not prepared for a zombie apocalypse, having no reason to believe there was a threat, but nonetheless the question was asked, and an answer had to be given. As it turns out, there is a plan…sort of. The MOD issued the following reply to Bristol City Council upon a request for information: “In the event of an apocalyptic incident (eg zombies), any plans to rebuild and return England to its pre-attack glory would be led by the Cabinet Office, and thus any pre-planning activity would also taken place there. The Ministry of Defence’s role in any such event would be to provide military support to the civil authorities, not take the lead. Consequently, the Ministry of Defence holds no information on this matter.” And Bristol City Council’s addendum to this was to include “procurement implications” regarding the necessary supplies for zombatting (zombie+combat) and “where possible, in line with our buy-local policy. […] A catalogue of standard issue equipment – cuffs, stun guns, protection suits, etc – is available on the staff intranet.”[3] The tongue is so firmly in cheek, it’s a wonder the tongue hadn’t been bitten. And yet, at the same time, there is an economic motive being exploited here.

Besides the professional interest in survival techniques for a theoretically implausible disease, there are also the marketing strategies to sell weapons, toys, gadgets, card games, and even entire houses that cater to the especially zombie-paranoid. Guns, swords, axes, body armour, all designed to meet standards specified by the various zombie survival texts; this is part of the science of survival. No crucifixes or spells, but a tangible method of survival, something than can be grasped and understood. Of course there are the less-than-serious items, such as a lunchbox stocked with a book and sweets. Here we have novelty contrasted with practicality – or impracticality, depending on your perspective.

I cannot offer a complete explanation as to why we have this insatiable need to prepare for disaster, besides the fact that it is evolutionarily advantageous to mitigate the fallout. However, I hope that I have made clear a pattern of human behaviour that stretches back at least for the last century, in which literature, and the seemingly fictional, has come to overlap the real world.

Fear the Machine: EM Forster’s “The Machine Stops”

themachinestopsEdward Morgan Forster wrote only five published novels in his lifetime, all of them by the age of 45. A sixth, Maurice, about a homosexual relationship, though written in 1913, was not published until 1971, a year after his death, because Forster did not want to publicise his sexual orientation. It is for these novels, more than his short stories, that Forster is remembered, bolstered in recent years by the Merchant-Ivory film productions of his canon. Born in 1879, Forster’s father died of tuberculosis the following year, and he was raised under the heavy influence of his mother and other female relations, who shaped his perception, and later characterisation, of women. When his great-aunt died in 1887, she left Forster an £8000 legacy (worth about half a million pounds today) which allowed him to further his education at Tonbridge school in Kent, then King’s College, Cambridge. Forster was never quite comfortable with this privileged life handed to him, though, and most of his work reflected on the disparity between the classes in Edwardian England.

Four of his six novels were published before the First World War. Forster was very much a product of the early Modernist era, and after the war, plaintively stated that he no longer knew how to write novels for this post-War world. He instead turned towards literary theory and criticism, academic pursuits filling the rest of his long life. He also worked as president of the humanist society at Cambridge, and his humanist philosophies come out clearly in his work, especially in “The Machine Stops.” First published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review in November of 1909, the only science fiction story he ever wrote, as the genre was not exactly a popular one for the Modernists, who considered themselves above the likes of HG Wells. Forster himself said that “The Machine Stops is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of HG Wells”, highlighting Forster’s concern about machines and technology encroaching into human life, making us dependent. Technology, seen by so many as liberation from labour and toil, was seen by Forster as a prison. I think Forster’s distrust of technology in 1909 was fairly prescient, years before the horrors of the First World War demonstrated the destructiveness of some modern advances. I found an interesting diary entry of his from January of 1908, when he must have been in the midst of writing ‘The Machine Stops’, or at the very least, contemplating the story:

Jan, 27 (1908) Last Monday a man – named Farman – flew a ¾ mile circuit in 1 ½ minutes. It’s coming quickly, and if I live to be old I shall see the sky as pestilential as the roads. It really is a new civilisation. I have been born at the end of the age of peace and can’t expect to feel anything but despair. Science, instead of freeing man – the Greeks nearly freed him by right feeling – is enslaving him to machines. Nationality will go, but the brotherhood of man will not come. No doubt the men of the past were mistaken in thinking ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’[1] but the war of the future will make no pretence of beauty or of being the conflict of ideas. God what a prospect! The little houses that I am used to will be swept away, the fields will stink of petrol, and the airships will shatter the stars. Man may get a new and perhaps a greater soul for the new conditions. But such a soul as mine will be crushed out.

“The Machine Stops” is Forster’s own exegesis on the rapidly developing modern world, an exercise in the dystopic, or what should more rightly be called an anti-utopia. Whereas the world of Orwell’s 1984 is a totalitarian dystopia of misery, an order designed to create misery, the inhabitants of Forster’s anti-utopia are perfectly happy with the way that they live – it is just us, as readers, who see it as a nightmare. Many have compared this to a work of fantasy rather than science fiction, though I doubt Forster would have accepted either term for his story, the former genre relying – by his own definition – on the supernatural and mythic, the latter genre, not yet even christened. It is a unique piece that, by its own uniqueness, sees it rejected out of hand as something unworthy of Forster. In his lectures on ‘Aspects of the Novel’, Forster went on to define not just his sense of what is fantasy in fiction, but prophecy, and that is the best way to understand “The Machine Stops”. He says that readers are forced to contribute two qualities in reading a story of prophecy: ‘humility and the suspension of a sense of humour.’ Why humility? Because without it, ‘we shall not hear the voice of the prophet.’ And the sense of humour may cause us to laugh at the prophet, instead of listening.

“The Machine Stops” is set in a future where humanity resides in subterranean cells, separated even from family, fed, entertained, healed and interacting only through the Machine via armchairs from which they rarely move:

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

This pale lump of fleshy fungus is Vashti, our guide in this world. But you notice the tone of the omniscient narration, divorced from feeling? Forster is using this tone deliberately: the lack of feeling we have as readers is no different from the characters. And it is the technology that precipitates this divorce from feeling and connexion, seemingly no different from facebook or email or skype today:

An electric bell rang.

The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.

“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chair in motion. The chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room where the bell still rang importunately.

“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said: “Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes — for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I must deliver my lecture on ‘Music during the Australian Period’.”

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her.

Kuno is Vashti’s son, living on the other side of the world, under the hill of Wessex, because the Machine assigned him a cell there. We never see much in the way of maternal affection, but only because, as we learn, after applying for reproduction, children are taken and raised in nurseries by the Machine.

“What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?”

“Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want—”

“Well?”

“I want you to come and see me.”

Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.

“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”

“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”

h the Machine; nothing need be original or natural. This is, in part, Forster’s response to Oscar Wilde, who wrote in 1890: ‘As we become more highly organised, the elect spirits of each age, the critical and cultured spirits, will grow less and less interested in actual life, and will seek to gain their impressions almost entirely from what Art has touched.’ Oscar Wilde is recast as Vashti in the story, a woman who pursues only second-hand intellectual ideas from the comfort of an armchair, divorced from physical reality. Kuno, the antithesis, is Forster, looking for his reflection in the real world, one not obviated by the Machine. He calls his mother to him, and against her will, she makes the trip via airship halfway around the world, though the journey is dizzying and uncomfortable because she is forced to confront wide-open spaces.

So when Vashti found her cabin invaded by a rosy finger of light, she was annoyed, and tried to adjust the blind. But the blind flew up altogether, and she saw through the skylight small pink clouds, swaying against a background of blue, and as the sun crept higher, its radiance entered direct, brimming down the wall, like a golden sea. It rose and fell with the air-ship’s motion, just as waves rise and fall, but it advanced steadily, as a tide advances.

Unless she was careful, it would strike her face. A spasm of horror shook her and she rang for the attendant. The attendant too was horrified, but she could do nothing; it was not her place to mend the blind. She could only suggest that the lady should change her cabin, which she accordingly prepared to do.

To comfort herself, Vashti clings to her copy of The Book of the Machine, the bible of this society, and the Machine is God. To go against the Machine is to go against righteousness. The Machine commands that people shall live under the ground, in their cells, separated from touch, from smell, from space, and connected only via the mechanical threads of the Machine. This is why Vashti is so repulsed by the surface of the world, finds herself unable to comprehend the non-mechanical. Sometimes the parallels with our own society a hundred years on are almost uncomfortable to contemplate. We find ourselves now so enmeshed in the powers of computers and the internet that should these fail us, civilisation itself would fall. Without computers, there is no electricity, no food, no water, no fuel-injected engines, no phone calls, no credit card payments, no cashpoints. We have stepped beyond the mechanical that Forster envisioned, and now the mechanical is controlled by the digital.

The second part of the story is Kuno’s discovery of the outside world, Vashti’s rejection of her son as a threat to civilisation and the Machine. He has gone to see the surface of the world without respirator, without an egression permit, and without the aid of the Machine. It is perhaps this last that is so anathema to Vashti’s thinking, because Kuno has displayed both mental and physical independence.

“Except through the vomitories, for which one must have an Egression-permit, it is impossible to get out. The Book says so.”

“Well, the Book’s wrong, for I have been out on my feet.” For Kuno was possessed of a certain physical strength.

By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb, rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of the world our weakly must be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong will suffer euthanasia, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress eternally.

Forster is examining eugenics in a why the early 20th century eugenicists never considered: that what was once considered good, is now defective. The survival of a child is based upon their ability to conform to a world system that discourages athletics and independent thinking. Kuno’s independent thinking is leading him into trouble; in a society of agoraphobics, the agoraphilic is a threat to the world order.

“You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say ‘space is annihilated,’ but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of ‘Near’ and ‘Far.’ ‘Near’ is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. ‘Far’ is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet; the vomitory is ‘far,’ though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong. Then I went further…

Kuno describes his exploration of the surface world, his realisaiton that the Machine, and its Book, are wrong. His mother accuses him of “throwing away civilisation”, but it is only civilisaiton as she is able to comprehend it. Kuno resists:

“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops — but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds — but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy—or, at least, only one—to tell men again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Ælfrid saw them when he overthrew the Danes…

Kuno is grasping for history, the first part of humanity that is erased in the rise of a dystopia or an anti-utopia. His mother cannot accept this part of her son, is embarrassed by him. But the significant clue of Kuno’s ability to escape to the surface of the earth without the aid of the Machine hints at the breaking down of the Machine. In his own way, Kuno is trying to warn his mother that the civilisation she is so assiduously supporting is on the verge of collapse. The third and final section of this relatively long short story is the inevitable catastrophe.

As for Vashti, her life went peacefully forward until the final disaster. She made her room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light. She lectured and attended lectures. She exchanged ideas with her innumerable friends and believed she was growing more spiritual. At times a friend was granted Euthanasia, and left his or her room for the homelessness that is beyond all human conception. Vashti did not much mind. After an unsuccessful lecture, she would sometimes ask for Euthanasia herself. But the death-rate was not permitted to exceed the birth-rate, and the Machine had hitherto refused it to her. The troubles began quietly, long before she was conscious of them.

One day she was astonished at receiving a message from her son. They never communicated, having nothing in common, and she had only heard indirectly that he was still alive, and had been transferred from the northern hemisphere, where he had behaved so mischievously, to the southern—indeed, to a room not far from her own.

“Does he want me to visit him?” she thought. “Never again, never. And I have not the time.”

No, it was madness of another kind.

He refused to visualize his face upon the blue plate, and speaking out of the darkness with solemnity said:

“The Machine stops.”

“What do you say?”

“The Machine is stopping, I know it, I know the signs.”

As it must, the power begins to fail, the food ceases to come, the air is no longer circulating, and Vashti must venture beyond her door, into a catacomb, or hive, of tombs. But she is doomed, just like everyone else who lived underground, under the aegis of the Machine. Kuno does return for his mother, though it is too late.

“Where are you?” she sobbed.

His voice in the darkness said, “Here.”

“Is there any hope, Kuno?”

“None for us.”

“Where are you?”

She crawled over the bodies of the dead. His blood spurted over her hands.

“Quicker,” he gasped, “I am dying—but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.”

He kissed her.

“We have come back to our own. We die, but we have recaptured life, as it was in Wessex, when Ælfrid overthrew the Danes. We know what they know outside, they who dwelt in the cloud that is the colour of a pearl.”

As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.

Contemporary reviewers were not so kind about “The Machine Stops”. In a 1938 book about Forster from Rose Macaulay, published by Virginia Woolf, Macaulay stated that ‘The Machine Stops, which shows fertile and graphic Wellsian inventiveness combined with Chestertonian machanophobia, in manner and matter is the least Forsterian of his writings. It has a Forster moral, but lacks charm, humour and style; it might have been written by someone else.’ I think Macaulay and other contemporaries failed to grasp what Forster was trying to accomplish with this story: “The Machine Stops” was not meant to be humorous or charming, because the world of the Machine is not humorous or charming, and that is the style. Had Macaulay had access to Forster’s journals, she undoubtedly would have seen that the story could come from no other hand by Forster’s. Alas, because Forster did not react well to criticism of his work, he never attempted another story like “The Machine Stops”, but before he died in 1970, I like to think that he could look on the world that emerged over six decades after he wrote it, and know that he was right.


[1] ‘It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country’, quoted from the Second Book of Odes by Horace.

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