Tuesday, 17 April 2012

John Jacob Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds (1894)

Some people, despite their best efforts, celebrity or wealth in life, are best remembered for the manner of their death. John Jacob Astor IV is one such man: a millionaire born to a wealthy American dynasty, he graduated Harvard and a rank of colonel in the Spanish-American War to become the richest man to die aboard the Titanic.

Born to the blue-blooded Astor family in 1864, John Jacob inherited the best possible circumstances for the time. He went to the best schools and utilized the skills learned there to increase his wealth through real estate. He built New York's famous Astoria Hotel, which adjoined to the hotel built by and named for his cousin, William Waldorf Astor. With this wealth he indulged his love of invention, patenting a type of bicycle brake, a turbine engine, a pneumatic road improver, and a means of producing gas from peat moss. In 1898 he joined the ranks as a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish-American War, fought in Cuba. As a celebrity capitalist, he was no stranger to scandal: Astor divorced his wife of 18 years to marry 18 year old Madeleine Talmadge Force in 1911. Shunned and gossiped about, the pair went on a tour of Europe and Egypt in the company of Molly Brown, herself a nouveau riche outside of the aristocratic cliques of New England society. Madeleine became pregnant on the trip and they were forced to return home aboard the most luxurious ocean liner ever built. Madeleine returned to New York. Astor did not.

John Jacob Astor is also notable for having tried his hand at writing a Scientific Romance in the style of Jules Verne, entitled A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future. This 1894 novel is a work of retro-futurism, being set in 2088, and exposes Astor's grounding in his time and situation as only a work charting the future course of humanity can reveal. The first two-thirds wax on history and exploration from the very defined perspective of a millionaire capitalist, and the last third expands into a strange but sympathetic treatise on philosophy, morals and life after death.

After a first chapter hook describing the arrival of our protagonists on Jupiter, Book I acquaints us with the future according to Astor. A massive project has been initiated to alter the axis of the Earth, reducing its tilt so as to make its climate more uniform. Environment be damned! That said, science has advanced to to utilize alternative energy, well as revolutionized technology, transportation, medicine and the structure of society itself. In politics, the United States of America came to encompass all the territories of North and South America as the influence of Europe went into decline. English has become the universal language.



Book II picks up the interstellar narrative. A ship has been developed, dubbed the Calisto, which uses a form of energy called "apergy" to cross the Heavens. Bypassing Mars and other celestial bodies, they arrive where the first chapter left us. Jupiter, Astor says, is in its equivalence of the Carboniferous Period: a vast jungle not unlike those of Earth. Not exactly, of course, as one of their first encounters is with a rampaging mammoth. In the same chapter they encountered a type of flying jellyfish that was not entirely dissimilar to certain recent movies taking place on alien worlds. The crew rides atop Glyptodon and hunts dinosaurs, and altogether have a jolly good expedition in the vein of Scientific Romances of the time. Its when they leave Jupiter that things become even more interesting.

Next stop is Saturn, which has a unique property. It is to this orb that the spirits of departed people go. Before long our explorers are embroiled in a conversation with one such entity, once a parson in the Atlantic States. They ask him a battery of questions, including whether there is any limit to human progress:
"Practically none," replied the spirit. "Progress depends largely on your command of the forces of Nature. At present your principal sources of power are food, fuel, electricity, the heat of the interior of the earth, wind, and tide. From the first two you cannot expect much more than now, but from the internal heat everywhere available, tradewinds, and falling water, as at Niagara, and from tides, you can obtain power almost without limit. Were this all, however, your progress would be slow; but the Eternal, realizing the shortness of your lives, has given you power with which to rend the globe. You have the action of all uncombined chemicals, atmospheric electricity, the excess or froth of which you now see in thunderstorms, and the electricity and magnetism of your own bodies. There is also molecular and sympathetic vibration, by which Joshua not understandingly levelled the walls of Jericho; and the power of your minds over matter, but little more developed now than when I moved in the flesh upon the earth. By lowering large quantities of high-powered explosives to the deepest parts of the ocean bed, and exploding them there, you can produce chasms through which some water will be forced towards the heated interior by the enormous pressure of its own weight. At a comparatively slight depth it will be converted into steam and produce an earthquake. This will so enlarge your chasm, that a great volume of water will rush into the red-hot interior, which will cause a series of such terrific eruptions that large islands will be upheaved. By the reduction of the heat of that part of the interior there will also be a shrinkage, which, in connection with the explosions, will cause the earth's solid crust to be thrown up in folds till whole continents appear. Some of the water displaced by the new land will also, as a result of the cooling, be able permanently to penetrate farther, thereby decreasing by that much the amount of water in the oceans, so that the tide-level in your existing seaports will be but slightly changed. By persevering in this work, you will become so skilled that it will be possible to evoke land of whatever kind you wish, at any place; and by having high table-land at the equator, sloping off into low plains towards north and south, and maintaining volcanoes in eruption at the poles to throw out heat and start warm ocean currents, it will be possible, in connection with the change you are now making in the axis, to render the conditions of life so easy that the earth will support a far larger number of souls.

It is not merely material progress that the spirit forsees, now that time has little meaning to him:
"With the powers at your disposal you can also alter and improve existing continents, and thereby still further increase the number of the children of men. Perhaps with mild climate, fertile soil, and decreased struggle for existence, man will develop his spiritual side."

Spiritual progress is evidently of as much interest to Astor as is technological progress. The spirit goes on to say, in a later visit:
"But while you have still your earthly bodies and the opportunities they give you of serving God, you need not be concerned about hell; no one on earth, knowing how things really are, would ever again forsake His ways. The earthly state is the most precious opportunity of securing that for which a man would give his all. Even from the most worldly point of view, a man is an unspeakable fool not to improve his talents and do good. What would those in sheol not give now for but one day in the flesh on earth, of which you unappreciatives may still have so many? The well-used opportunities of even one hour might bring joy to those in paradise forever, and greatly ease the lot of those in hell...

"I will show you the working of evolution. Life sleeps in minerals, dreams in plants, and wakes in you. The rock worn by frost and age crumbles to earth and soil. This enters the substance of the primordial plant, which, slowly rising; produces the animal germ. After that the way is clear, and man is evolved from protoplasm through the vertebrate and the ape. Here we have the epitome of the struggle for life in the ages past, and the analogue of the journey in the years to come. Does not the Almighty Himself make this clear where He says through his servant Isaiah, 'Behold of these stones will I raise up children'?--and the name Adam means red earth. God, having brought man so far, will not let evolution cease, and the next stage of life must be the spiritual."

Such a gloomy place and such discussions with metaphysical beings prompts the explorers' own speculations, at least when they are not fleeing the assaults of dragons. More visitations occur, as well as visions. One member of the group sees his own death, while another experiences it firsthand.

One can feel a certain sympathy for Astor as he attempts to go beyond the regular framework of the Scientific Romance to expound on spiritual issues as well as technological and exploratory ones. His cosmology is not a secular one: other planets, in this solar system and beyond, are repositories of spirits and waystations on the journey towards the Almighty. His specific ideas on the nature of the afterlife and its coherence with life are as odd and dated as his speculation on apergic energy, that being a kind of atomic ether. Overall, his point of view is perhaps the inverse of someone like an H.G. Wells. The future evolution of humanity cannot be merely biological, social, economic or technological. It must also be spiritual.

Such a book reveals otherwise unhinted at depths in a person who is basically known to posterity for having been rich and having died horribly in an ironic manner that only his wealth could have bought him.

1 comment:

tantalus1970 said...

interesting post. I've actually got this as an ebook but never got round to reading it (along with most of them!) I'll really have to bump it up the to-do list.