Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Magellania (1897)

At the time of his passing, Jules Verne left a number of manuscripts behind, both finished and unfinished. Always the prolific writer, even as his vision began to fail him and age-related illnesses take over, he still provided a substantive enough body of work to see regular publication (I can sympathize... Were I to die in some unforeseen accident tomorrow, this blog would still continue automatically, almost without interruption, for another year and a half). In the later stages of his life, however, Verne felt sufficient cause for asserting his political voice in ways that his publisher Jules Hetzel did not allow him in the decades before. Hetzel not only suppressed some of Verne's earliest work, like Paris in the Twentieth Century, but also some of his latest, like Magellania.

When Verne died in 1905, many of this manuscripts were recovered and rewritten by his son Michel. Magellania, for instance, was published in 1909 as The Survivors of the "Jonathan". This version did little to aid Verne's reputation as anything other than a writer of juvenile adventure stories, as Michel excised practically anything of substance. In his version, a group of emigrants en route to South Africa are shipwrecked on the furthest archipelago at the tip of South America, to be saved an reorganized by the mysterious character Kaw-djer. The End. His father's version goes much deeper than this.

Kaw-djer is another Romantic outcast of a society too small to contain him, a man in the mold of Captain Nemo but without the submarine. This anti-hero has instead fled to Magellania to live a life as free as possible from the influences of government authority. He is a pacifist, a socialist and an anarchist, recognizing that authority can only ultimately be exerted over the servile by the violent. The only social relationships he feels he needs are the immediate ones of friends and families. With his medical knowledge he traverses the islands of the archipelago with his trusted friend Karroly and Karroly's son Halg, tending to the needs of the Native inhabitants. It is they who gave him the name "Kaw-djer", which means "benefactor". In his solitary moments - and as a proper Romantic figure he has many, perched atop rocky bluffs looking upon a storm-tossed sea - his shouts his creed to the world: neither God nor master!

It must, of course, be noted that while Verne may be sympathetic to the Romantic outsider he is not in agreement with him. When recapitulating the identity of our mysterious anti-hero, Verne even gives us an odd nugget of political philosophy, contra Marx: "...society must always be based on social inequality, a basic law of nature, which must apply to humanity as well; and that finally, if justice and absolute equality are not to be found in this world, that at least they exist in the next world..." In his patented style of asking the reader rhetorical questions, Verne wonders if Kaw-djer agitated for socialist causes and quit civilization when they descended into the failure of sectarian violence.

The change to Kaw-djer's life on the fringes of the known world begin when Chile and Argentina parcel off the islands of Magellania. Once again he finds himself under the flag of a nation-state and expecting no quarter should the government officials ever track him down. Despondent, he climbs the highest windblown peak of Cape Horn to throw himself from it when he spies a ship being ripped apart by the tempest. It is the aforementioned S.S. Jonathan, filled to the brim with emigrants from the United States, Canada, Germany and Ireland but whose captain and officers have been washed overboard. Kaw-djer and his companions once again act in the interests of humanity, bringing them to a safe harbour.

Then the unthinkable happens: Chile offers the survivors title to the island they find themselves on, in the interests of building a colony. This happenstance gives Kaw-djer new hope, for there will be just one island in the whole world that suffers under no flag. Unfortunately this new colony is on the verge of being ripped apart by diametrically opposing forces, neither of which are particularly to Kaw-djer's liking. On the one hand are the advocates of social order, religious men of prestige and education looking to create a representative democracy. On the other are Communists, full-blown violent revolutionaries preparing an uprising. Just as civil war is about to begin, the mush-respected Kaw-djer stands between them and, in the end, is appointed the effective dictator of the colony.

As dictator of the colony, held in universal esteem as a natural leader who governs by the moral authority of his willingness to do what is necessary for the best of everyone, he grows as a person while weathering different crises and setbacks. Gold is discovered on the island, and far from being a cause of celebration, Verne once again cites his antipathy for the substance. The pursuit of the wretched thing only creates more suffering and social instability, which is a theme he explores in another of his posthumous manuscripts, The Golden Volcano, about the Klondike Gold Rush. Kaw-djer's final act is to stand once again upon the highest bluff of Cape Horn, not to throw himself from it, but to build a lighthouse that may guide others safely through the rocky, stormblown, chaotic waters beyond end of nations.

Reconciliation to society is a major theme of Verne's latter works. He even imparts this upon the legendary Nemo in The Mysterious Island, which he also goes from a destructive attack on society to a constructive attempt to create one. Magellania was also written in 1897, a scant eight years before his death and immediately following the death of his brother. Verne was facing his own mortality and looking back upon his life, especially his wild youth and his perceived failures (including his lack of recognition by the French literary establishment and his wayward son), and was perhaps documenting his own journey to reconciliation. Michel Verne's version was published in 1909, but the original manuscript was recovered by Vernian scholar Piero Gondolo della Riva in the archives of the Hetzel family. It was then published in French in 1997 not long after the other "lost" novel Paris in the Twentieth Century and translated to English in 2002.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

VEx August Giveaway - H.G. Wells Science Fiction Treasury

In commemoration of this month's Verne va. Wells theme, I'm giving away a handsome volume of Wells' principle novels: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon and The Food of the Gods. The volume also has a preface written by Wells himself.

To enter, simply leave a comment in reply to this post that includes a way of getting in contact with you should you win. The draw will happen on midnight of Sunday, August 26!

And the Winner is... Alexandra Nash! Check your inbox for a messsage, and for the rest of you, thank you again for your ongoing support. Keep an eye out next weekend for another giveaway!

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Ball and the Cross (1910)

Amongst the four great men of Edwardian English letters, H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw shared the kind of contempt for each other that can only be held by radicals who deem each other insufficiently radical. On the other side of the isle, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc enjoyed the cammeraderie of a shared Catholic faith. Such a rotund and unified front they posed that they were given the shared epigram "Chesterbelloc."

The four dedicated decades to an ongoing, sometimes-friendly and sometimes-not, public feud. On his side, Chesterton was not above utilizing the same Scientific Romance allegories as Wells. More famous for his Father Brown detective stories, Chesterton also drafted The Ball and the Cross in 1910. It is a punchy little story about a Jacobite and an Atheist combing the world in search of a place to duel. After 20 years of publishing his secularist newsletter, the Atheist was homicidally gratified to have someone finally care enough about his opinion to disagree with it.

The Ball and the Cross begins with a fable that could just as easily have fit into one of Chesterton's apologetic works. Copied herein is Professor Lucifer, his airship, and a monk named Michael:
The flying ship of Professor Lucifer sang through the skies like a silver arrow; the bleak white steel of it, gleaming in the bleak blue emptiness of the evening. That it was far above the earth was no expression for it; to the two men in it, it seemed to be far above the stars. The professor had himself invented the flying machine, and had also invented nearly everything in it. Every sort of tool or apparatus had, in consequence, to the full, that fantastic and distorted look which belongs to the miracles of science. For the world of science and evolution is far more nameless and elusive and like a dream than the world of poetry and religion; since in the latter images and ideas remain themselves eternally, while it is the whole idea of evolution that identities melt into each other as they do in a nightmare.

All the tools of Professor Lucifer were the ancient human tools gone mad, grown into unrecognizable shapes, forgetful of their origin, forgetful of their names. That thing which looked like an enormous key with three wheels was really a patent and very deadly revolver. That object which seemed to be created by the entanglement of two corkscrews was really the key. The thing which might have been mistaken for a tricycle turned upside-down was the inexpressibly important instrument to which the corkscrew was the key. All these things, as I say, the professor had invented; he had invented everything in the flying ship, with the exception, perhaps, of himself. This he had been born too late actually to inaugurate, but he believed at least, that he had considerably improved it.

There was, however, another man on board, so to speak, at the time. Him, also, by a curious coincidence, the professor had not invented, and him he had not even very greatly improved, though he had fished him up with a lasso out of his own back garden, in Western Bulgaria, with the pure object of improving him. He was an exceedingly holy man, almost entirely covered with white hair. You could see nothing but his eyes, and he seemed to talk with them. A monk of immense learning and acute intellect he had made himself happy in a little stone hut and a little stony garden in the Balkans, chiefly by writing the most crushing refutations of exposures of certain heresies, the last professors of which had been burnt (generally by each other) precisely 1,119 years previously. They were really very plausible and thoughtful heresies, and it was really a creditable or even glorious circumstance, that the old monk had been intellectual enough to detect their fallacy; the only misfortune was that nobody in the modern world was intellectual enough even to understand their argument. The old monk, one of whose names was Michael, and the
other a name quite impossible to remember or repeat in our Western civilization, had, however, as I have said, made himself quite happy while he was in a mountain hermitage in the society of wild animals. And now that his luck had lifted him above all the mountains in the society of a wild physicist, he made himself happy still.

"I have no intention, my good Michael," said Professor Lucifer, "of endeavouring to convert you by argument. The imbecility of your traditions can be quite finally exhibited to anybody with mere ordinary knowledge of the world, the same kind of knowledge which teaches us not to sit in draughts or not to encourage friendliness in impecunious people. It is folly to talk of this or that demonstrating the rationalist philosophy. Everything demonstrates it. Rubbing shoulders with men of all kinds----"

"You will forgive me," said the monk, meekly from under loads of white beard, "but I fear I do not understand; was it in order that I might rub my shoulder against men of all kinds that you put me inside this thing?"

"An entertaining retort, in the narrow and deductive manner of the Middle Ages," replied the Professor, calmly, "but even upon your own basis I will illustrate my point. We are up in the sky. In your religion and all the religions, as far as I know (and I know everything), the sky is made the symbol of everything that
is sacred and merciful. Well, now you are in the sky, you know better. Phrase it how you like, twist it how you like, you know that you know better. You know what are a man's real feelings about the heavens, when he finds himself alone in the heavens,
surrounded by the heavens. You know the truth, and the truth is this. The heavens are evil, the sky is evil, the stars are evil. This mere space, this mere quantity, terrifies a man more than tigers or the terrible plague. You know that since our science has spoken, the bottom has fallen out of the Universe. Now, heaven is the hopeless thing, more hopeless than any hell. Now, if there be any comfort for all your miserable progeny of morbid apes, it must be in the earth, underneath you, under the roots of the grass, in the place where hell was of old. The fiery crypts,
the lurid cellars of the underworld, to which you once condemned the wicked, are hideous enough, but at least they are more homely than the heaven in which we ride. And the time will come when you will all hide in them, to escape the horror of the stars."

"I hope you will excuse my interrupting you," said Michael, with a slight cough, "but I have always noticed----"

"Go on, pray go on," said Professor Lucifer, radiantly, "I really like to draw out your simple ideas."

"Well, the fact is," said the other, "that much as I admire your rhetoric and the rhetoric of your school, from a purely verbal point of view, such little study of you and your school in human history as I have been enabled to make has led me to--er--rather singular conclusion, which I find great difficulty in expressing, especially in a foreign language."

"Come, come," said the Professor, encouragingly, "I'll help you out. How did my view strike you?"

"Well, the truth is, I know I don't express it properly, but somehow it seemed to me that you always convey ideas of that kind with most eloquence, when--er--when----"

"Oh! get on," cried Lucifer, boisterously.

"Well, in point of fact when your flying ship is just going to run into something. I thought you wouldn't mind my mentioning it, but it's running into something now."

Lucifer exploded with an oath and leapt erect, leaning hard upon the handle that acted as a helm to the vessel. For the last ten minutes they had been shooting downwards into great cracks and caverns of cloud. Now, through a sort of purple haze, could be seen comparatively near to them what seemed to be the upper part
of a huge, dark orb or sphere, islanded in a sea of cloud. The Professor's eyes were blazing like a maniac's.

"It is a new world," he cried, with a dreadful mirth. "It is a new planet and it shall bear my name. This star and not that other vulgar one shall be 'Lucifer, sun of the morning.' Here we will have no chartered lunacies, here we will have no gods. Here man shall be as innocent as the daisies, as innocent and as cruel--here the intellect----"

"There seems," said Michael, timidly, "to be something sticking up in the middle of it."

"So there is," said the Professor, leaning over the side of the ship, his spectacles shining with intellectual excitement. "What can it be? It might of course be merely a----"

Then a shriek indescribable broke out of him of a sudden, and he flung up his arms like a lost spirit. The monk took the helm in a tired way; he did not seem much astonished for he came from an ignorant part of the world in which it is not uncommon for lost spirits to shriek when they see the curious shape which the
Professor had just seen on the top of the mysterious ball, but he took the helm only just in time, and by driving it hard to the left he prevented the flying ship from smashing into St. Paul's Cathedral.

A plain of sad-coloured cloud lay along the level of the top of the Cathedral dome, so that the ball and the cross looked like a buoy riding on a leaden sea. As the flying ship swept towards it, this plain of cloud looked as dry and definite and rocky as any grey desert. Hence it gave to the mind and body a sharp and unearthly sensation when the ship cut and sank into the cloud as into any common mist, a thing without resistance. There was, as it were, a deadly shock in the fact that there was no shock. It was as if they had cloven into ancient cliffs like so much butter. But sensations awaited them which were much stranger than those of sinking through the solid earth. For a moment their eyes and nostrils were stopped with darkness and opaque cloud; then the darkness warmed into a kind of brown fog. And far, far below
them the brown fog fell until it warmed into fire. Through the dense London atmosphere they could see below them the flaming London lights; lights which lay beneath them in squares and oblongs of fire. The fog and fire were mixed in a passionate vapour; you might say that the fog was drowning the flames; or you might say that the flames had set the fog on fire. Beside the ship and beneath it (for it swung just under the ball), the immeasurable dome itself shot out and down into the dark like a combination of voiceless cataracts. Or it was like some cyclopean sea-beast sitting above London and letting down its tentacles bewilderingly on every side, a monstrosity in that starless heaven. For the clouds that belonged to London had closed over the heads of the voyagers sealing up the entrance of the upper air. They had broken through a roof and come into a temple of twilight.

They were so near to the ball that Lucifer leaned his hand against it, holding the vessel away, as men push a boat off from a bank. Above it the cross already draped in the dark mists of the borderland was shadowy and more awful in shape and size.

Professor Lucifer slapped his hand twice upon the surface of the great orb as if he were caressing some enormous animal. "This is the fellow," he said, "this is the one for my money."

"May I with all respect inquire," asked the old monk, "what on earth you are talking about?"

"Why this," cried Lucifer, smiting the ball again, "here is the only symbol, my boy. So fat. So satisfied. Not like that scraggy individual, stretching his arms in stark weariness." And he pointed up to the cross, his face dark with a grin. "I was telling you just now, Michael, that I can prove the best part of the rationalist case and the Christian humbug from any symbol you liked to give me, from any instance I came across. Here is an instance with a vengeance. What could possibly express your philosophy and my philosophy better than the shape of that cross and the shape of this ball? This globe is reasonable; that cross is unreasonable. It is a four-legged animal, with one leg longer than the others. The globe is inevitable. The cross is arbitrary. Above all the globe is at unity with itself; the cross is primarily and above all things at enmity with itself. The cross is the conflict of two hostile lines, of irreconcilable direction. That silent thing up there is essentially a collision, a crash, a struggle in stone. Pah! that sacred symbol of yours has actually given its name to a description of desperation and muddle. When we speak of men at once ignorant of each other and frustrated by each other, we say they are at cross-purposes. Away with the thing! The very shape of it is a contradiction in terms."

"What you say is perfectly true," said Michael, with serenity. "But we like contradictions in terms. Man is a contradiction in terms; he is a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen. That cross is, as you say, an eternal collision; so am I. That is a struggle in stone. Every form of life is a struggle in flesh. The shape of the cross is irrational, just as the shape of the human animal is irrational. You say the cross is a quadruped with one limb longer than the rest. I say man is a quadruped who only uses two of his legs."

The Professor frowned thoughtfully for an instant, and said: "Of course everything is relative, and I would not deny that the element of struggle and self-contradiction, represented by that cross, has a necessary place at a certain evolutionary stage. But surely the cross is the lower development and the sphere the
higher. After all it is easy enough to see what is really wrong with Wren's architectural arrangement."

"And what is that, pray?" inquired Michael, meekly.

"The cross is on top of the ball," said Professor Lucifer, simply. "That is surely wrong. The ball should be on top of the cross. The cross is a mere barbaric prop; the ball is perfection. The cross at its best is but the bitter tree of man's history; the ball is the rounded, the ripe and final fruit. And the fruit should be at the top of the tree, not at the bottom of it."

"Oh!" said the monk, a wrinkle coming into his forehead, "so you think that in a rationalistic scheme of symbolism the ball should be on top of the cross?"

"It sums up my whole allegory," said the professor.

"Well, that is really very interesting," resumed Michael slowly, "because I think in that case you would see a most singular effect, an effect that has generally been achieved by all those able and powerful systems which rationalism, or the religion of
the ball, has produced to lead or teach mankind. You would see, I think, that thing happen which is always the ultimate embodiment and logical outcome of your logical scheme."

"What are you talking about?" asked Lucifer. "What would happen?"

"I mean it would fall down," said the monk, looking wistfully into the void.

Lucifer made an angry movement and opened his mouth to speak, but Michael, with all his air of deliberation, was proceeding before he could bring out a word.

"I once knew a man like you, Lucifer," he said, with a maddening monotony and slowness of articulation. "He took this----"

"There is no man like me," cried Lucifer, with a violence that shook the ship.

"As I was observing," continued Michael, "this man also took the view that the symbol of Christianity was a symbol of savagery and all unreason. His history is rather amusing. It is also a perfect allegory of what happens to rationalists like yourself. He began, of course, by refusing to allow a crucifix in his house, or round
his wife's neck, or even in a picture. He said, as you say, that it was an arbitrary and fantastic shape, that it was a monstrosity, loved because it was paradoxical. Then he began to grow fiercer and more eccentric; he would batter the crosses by
the roadside; for he lived in a Roman Catholic country. Finally in a height of frenzy he climbed the steeple of the Parish Church and tore down the cross, waving it in the air, and uttering wild soliloquies up there under the stars. Then one still summer evening as he was wending his way homewards, along a lane, the devil of his madness came upon him with a violence and transfiguration which changes the world. He was standing smoking, for a moment, in the front of an interminable line of palings, when his eyes were opened. Not a light shifted, not a leaf stirred, but he saw as if by a sudden change in the eyesight that this paling was an army of innumerable crosses linked together over hill and dale. And he whirled up his heavy stick and went at it as if at an army. Mile after mile along his homeward path he broke it down and tore it up. For he hated the cross and every paling is a wall of crosses. When he returned to his house he was a literal madman. He sat upon a chair and then started up from it for the cross-bars of the carpentry repeated the intolerable image. He flung himself upon a bed only to remember that this, too, like all workmanlike things, was constructed on the accursed plan. He broke his furniture because it was made of crosses. He burnt his house because it was made of crosses. He was found in the river."

Lucifer was looking at him with a bitten lip.

"Is that story really true?" he asked.

"Oh, no," said Michael, airily. "It is a parable. It is a parable of you and all your rationalists. You begin by breaking up the Cross; but you end by breaking up the habitable world. We leave you saying that nobody ought to join the Church against his will. When we meet you again you are saying that no one has any will to
join it with. We leave you saying that there is no such place as Eden. We find you saying that there is no such place as Ireland. You start by hating the irrational and you come to hate everything, for everything is irrational and so----"

Lucifer leapt upon him with a cry like a wild beast's. "Ah," he screamed, "to every man his madness. You are mad on the cross. Let it save you."

And with a herculean energy he forced the monk backwards out of the reeling car on to the upper part of the stone ball. Michael, with as abrupt an agility, caught one of the beams of the cross and saved himself from falling. At the same instant Lucifer drove down a lever and the ship shot up with him in it alone.

"Ha! ha!" he yelled, "what sort of a support do you find it, old fellow?"

"For practical purposes of support," replied Michael grimly, "it is at any rate a great deal better than the ball. May I ask if you are going to leave me here?"

"Yes, yes. I mount! I mount!" cried the professor in ungovernable excitement. "Altiora peto. My path is upward."

"How often have you told me, Professor, that there is really no up or down in space?" said the monk. "I shall mount up as much as you will."

"Indeed," said Lucifer, leering over the side of the flying ship. "May I ask what you are going to do?"

The monk pointed downward at Ludgate Hill. "I am going," he said, "to climb up into a star."

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896)

Okay Herbert, we get it. H.G. Wells described his classic 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau as "an exercise in youthful blasphemy" and he wasn't kidding. Though prefaced with the claim that everything written within its pages is possible with the science of Victorian vivisection, Doctor Moreau is a transparent set of metaphors for organized religion. So transparent that it is practically painted by numbers, the various parts falling in line, one-by-one.

The first half of the novel unfolds a mystery as an Englishman by the name of Edward Prendick is shipwrecked and rescued by another ship en route to the titular island. Slowly Prendick discovers what is happening: a mad god by the name of Dr. Moreau is creating for himself a race of men from the dust of vivisected animals. His act of creation is one of unmitigated cruelty and suffering, the laboratory religiously feared as the House of Pain. This mad god is fashioning creatures from the wild stuff of nature and then expects them to act contrary to their natures, forcing upon them a law that further adds to their discomfort. Carnivorous animals are prohibited from eating meat and lapping water on all fours is verbotten. I can't help but wonder if Wells' notorious philandering had anything to do with this metaphor.

Eventually the beast-men rise up and destroy their god, and here is where the story actually starts to get philosophically interesting. It is one thing to say that God is a meanie poo-face and religion uses fear to stop you from having fun. That part is easy. Wells takes this fairly typical objection and turns it on his ear when Prendick is left alone on the island with the beast-men. Without the authority of Dr. Moreau to strike terror into the conscience of his creations, the beast-men are quickly reverting back to their animalistic selves. Life is going back to a state of nature in all its nastiness, brutishness and brevity. Prendick's sole recourse is to become a religious prophet. To justify the law, he preaches that some day Dr. Moreau will return with the House of Pain to punish all those who have sinned. Once again the symbolism is transparent but the implications are provocative: religion may be a lie, but it is a necessary one.

In the end our protagonist is rescued, but is struck with the existential dread that Wells no doubt hoped to inflict on his readers:
I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another Beast People, animals half wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert,—to show first this bestial mark and then that... I see faces, keen and bright; others dull or dangerous; others, unsteady, insincere,—none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale...

But wait!
Then I would turn aside into some chapel,—and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered "Big Thinks," even as the Ape-man had done...

Damnit Herbert! The Island of Doctor Moreau is a textbook example of how H.G. Wells' early work falls into that most diabolically crude class of English allegory, the type in which the Lion is Jesus and the Martians are us. Oh, I get it, symbolism. G.K. Chesterton, who being an Englishman was not immune to this cultural trait, once said of his nemesis: "Mr. Wells is a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message."

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Paris in the Twentieth Century (1994)

"If no one read any longer, at least everyone could read, could even write."

This single sentence from the opening chapter most ably summarizes the theme of Jules Verne famous lost novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Originally written as one of his first novels sometime around 1863, it was rejected outright by his publisher, Jules Hetzel, who considered it inferior and implausible. Not implausible for its technological visions, but for its social vision.

Set in 1960, approximately a century after it was written, Paris in the Twentieth Century outlines a nightmarish future society of efficient mass transit, high education and literacy, financial affluence, industrious commerce, long life expectancy, and a worldwide telecommunications network all of which was still futuristic by 1960. His world is not dystopian in any actual sense of the term. In fact, it is quite like our own, which makes his critiques all the more prescient.

Verne's 20th century is unbearable because it is Philistine and bourgeoisie. Our protagonist is Michel, who has just graduated secondary school with the highest reward for Latin verse, much to the shame of his family. In this time, there is no use for art or letters. The only poetry worth reciting is in homage to the powers of capital. The only painting worth buying is the Jackson Pollock-style chaos of colour without form. The only music worth listening to is the cacophonous modern style that imitates the strum and drang of machinery. True art of form and harmony and skill is not actually suppressed... It does not need to be. It is simply ignored.

Verne's cynical genius, in this respect, was not predicting a global phototelegraphic network. Rather, it was predicting that universities would become glorified technical colleges with budgets for fine arts, languages and literature constantly on the chopping block. When Michel enjoys the likeminded company of his librarian uncle and former Latin professor, the latter bitterly complains that his rhetoric class only has three students and they are so bad at it that he doesn't mind the program being cut the following year.

These moments with his uncle and friends are few and far between. Unionization seems to have passed the 20th century by, so Michel can only get away from his deadening job at a bank on Sundays, and then only occasionally. He has little time for indulging his love of the dusty, unlent books kept in the library's cellar. Hugo, Dumas, Balzac, Chateaubriand, Voltaire, Pascal, Moliere and more authors described as the great generals in the army of French culture have gone the way of the French language itself: dead and dying beneath the demand for technical books and technical language. Twain observed that a classic was a book that everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read. In Verne's future, no one even wants to have read them.

On the contrary, to be an artist is a black mark, a scarlet letter. Calling oneself a poet or a musician is tantamount to calling oneself an imbecile, and they are treated as such. Precognitive of today's opinion columns and letters to the editor, artists are seen as less than useless. They are not only non-contributors to the economic wealth of the society, but active detractors for refusing to do "honest" labour. For example, Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper once infamously remarked that "Canadians don't care about art" and was, thankfully, put in his place by old-fashioned Conservatives who believe that a unique artistic identity is worth conserving. However, that has not stopped his government from quietly cutting funding to the arts, nor his party's neo-liberals from complaining that artists should have to support themselves with their own work and not get government "hand-outs"... while at the same time crying for more "subsidies" and "incentives" to the industrial sector. Across the Western world, when priorities shift to industry and commerce, the arts are the first to go.

Verne is a romantic at heart, and it is interesting to see this approach to things when he, practically single-handed, invented the genre of Scientific Romances. Through the course of Paris in the Twentieth Century, Verne aligns himself strongly with the Romantics. When Michel's uncle is giving a discourse on literature, it is the likes of Victor Hugo who receive the greatest commendations (and several mentions throughout). However, he does not align himself as much with Romantic music. Michel's closest coworker is a musician forced to make a living working the bank's metres-tall and metres-wide ledger book. When the musician gives a symposium on popular song, he speaks approvingly of early Romantics like Beethoven and Offenbach but condemns Wagner and Verdi as the inventors of everything wrong with music in the 20th century.

Despite his reputation, Verne was not uncritical of advances in science and technology. He was not a relentless optimist. His motif was to keenly recognize the inherent possibilities of technological development, both in terms of the technologies themselves and of their social application. He foresaw the potential of technology for advancement and for destruction, for progress and regress, from the possibility of mental expansion in a world collapsed to a circumnavigation of a mere 80 days to the threat of unopposable force in hands of governments and revolutionaries. In Paris in the Twentieth Century the conflict is not that technology is necessarily ruinous. His fear, in the wake of his own stints as a banker and playwright, is a society in which commerce and industry has become the unofficial religion.

Perhaps quite intentionally, given Verne's second-nature as a pedagogue, Paris in the Twentieth Century is a catalogue for the aspiring Romantic. Nested within the lists rattled off by Michel's friends and relations is a plea to pick up the classics and read them. Verne obviously wants his readers to also read Victor Hugo. The soundtrack to his work is not rock music about air pirates, but Jacques Offenbach, who himself adapted one of Verne's stories into an operetta in 1877. So interesting, then, that the lost novel should have resurfaced in the midst of the very sort of world he predicted, almost as a corrective letter from the past.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The First Men in the Moon (1901)

Written in 1901, The First Men in the Moon is one of H.G. Wells' earliest, most beloved, and possibly most misunderstood stories. The premise hardly requires recapitulation: the businessman Bedford gains the companionship of Professor Cavor, the inventor of an anti-gravity metal, and together they meet an insectoid alien race on the moon. It not only inspired a 1964 film adaptation featuring the stop-motion of Ray Harryhausen, but a lost 1919 silent film version and contributed, along with Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, to Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon.

Many readers look upon The First Men in the Moon as one of the first dystopian tales of alien life. To this point, the Planetary Romances of the 18th and 19th centuries were criticisms of life on Earth. The invented aliens of de Bergerac and Voltaire being a means for the author to voice their own less-than complimentary observations. Not so with Wells. Wells, it is argued, quite plainly makes his lunar underworld a wretched, threatening insect-like coven. It is eugenic, deterministic, and totalitarian, and obviously these are evils, are they not?

Let Wells himself describe the society, through Professor Cavor:
"In the moon," says Cavor, "every citizen knows his place. He is born to that place, and the elaborate discipline of training and education and surgery he undergoes fits him at last so completely to it that he has neither ideas nor organs for any purpose beyond it. 'Why should he?' Phi-oo would ask. If, for example, a Selenite is destined to be a mathematician, his teachers and trainers set out at once to that end. They check any incipient disposition to other pursuits, they encourage his mathematical bias with a perfect psychological skill. His brain grows, or at least the mathematical faculties of his brain grow, and the rest of him only so much as is necessary to sustain this essential part of him. At last, save for rest and food, his one delight lies in the exercise and display of his faculty, his one interest in its application, his sole society with other specialists in his own line. His brain grows continually larger, at least so far as the portions engaging in mathematics are concerned; they bulge ever larger and seem to suck all life and vigour from the rest of his frame. His limbs shrivel, his heart and digestive organs diminish, his insect face is hidden under its bulging contours. His voice becomes a mere stridulation for the stating of formula; he seems deaf to all but properly enunciated problems. The faculty of laughter, save for the sudden discovery of some paradox, is lost to him; his deepest emotion is the evolution of a novel computation. And so he attains his end.

"Or, again, a Selenite appointed to be a minder of mooncalves is from his earliest years induced to think and live mooncalf, to find his pleasure in mooncalf lore, his exercise in their tending and pursuit. He is trained to become wiry and active, his eye is indurated to the tight wrappings, the angular contours that constitute a 'smart mooncalfishness.' He takes at last no interest in the deeper part of the moon; he regards all Selenites not equally versed in mooncalves with indifference, derision, or hostility. His thoughts are of mooncalf pastures, and his dialect an accomplished mooncalf technique. So also he loves his work, and discharges in perfect happiness the duty that justifies his being. And so it is with all sorts and conditions of Selenites--each is a perfect unit in a world machine....

These observations were made on the way to Cavor's appointment with the Grand Lunar. This engineered leader and the human scientist enjoy a conversation about Earth that winds its way around to the individualism of the race:
"...He searched me with questions. 'And for all sorts of work you have the same sort of men. But who thinks? Who governs?'

"I gave him an outline of the democratic method.

"When I had done he ordered cooling sprays upon his brow, and then requested me to repeat my explanation conceiving something had miscarried.

"'Do they not do different things, then?' said Phi-oo.

"Some, I admitted, were thinkers and some officials; some hunted, some were mechanics, some artists, some toilers. 'But _all_ rule,' I said.

"'And have they not different shapes to fit them to their different duties?'

"'None that you can see,' I said, 'except perhaps, for clothes. Their minds perhaps differ a little,' I reflected.

"'Their minds must differ a great deal,' said the Grand Lunar, 'or they would all want to do the same things.'

"In order to bring myself into a closer harmony with his preconceptions, I said that his surmise was right. 'It was all hidden in the brain,' I said; 'but the difference was there. Perhaps if one could see the minds and souls of men they would be as varied and unequal as the Selenites. There were great men and small men, men who could reach out far and wide, men who could go swiftly; noisy, trumpet-minded men, and men who could remember without thinking....'"

[The record is indistinct for three words.]

"He interrupted me to recall me to my previous statements. 'But you said all men rule?' he pressed.

"'To a certain extent,' I said, and made, I fear, a denser fog with my explanation.

"He reached out to a salient fact. 'Do you mean,' asked, 'that there is no Grand Earthly?'

"I thought of several people, but assured him finally there was none. I explained that such autocrats and emperors as we had tried upon earth had usually ended in drink, or vice, or violence, and that the large and influential section of the people of the earth to which I belonged, the Anglo-Saxons, did not mean to try that sort of thing again. At which the Grand Lunar was even more amazed.

"'But how do you keep even such wisdom as you have?' he asked; and I explained to him the way we helped our limited"

[A word omitted here, probably "brains."]

"with libraries of books. I explained to him how our science was growing by the united labours of innumerable little men, and on that he made no comment save that it was evident we had mastered much in spite of our social savagery, or we could not have come to the moon. Yet the contrast was very marked. With knowledge the Selenites grew and changed; mankind stored their knowledge about them and remained brutes--equipped. He said this..."

[Here there is a short piece of the record indistinct.]

"He then caused me to describe how we went about this earth of ours, and I described to him our railways and ships. For a time he could not understand that we had had the use of steam only one hundred years, but when he did he was clearly amazed. (I may mention as a singular thing, that the Selenites use years to count by, just as we do on earth, though I can make nothing of their numeral system. That, however, does not matter, because Phi-oo understands ours.) From that I went on to tell him that mankind had dwelt in cities only for nine or ten thousand years, and that we were still not united in one brotherhood, but under many different forms of government. This astonished the Grand Lunar very much, when it was made clear to him. At first he thought we referred merely to administrative areas.

"'Our States and Empires are still the rawest sketches of what order will some day be,' I said, and so I came to tell him...."

[At this point a length of record that probably represents thirty or forty words is totally illegible.]

"The Grand Lunar was greatly impressed by the folly of men in clinging to the inconvenience of diverse tongues. 'They want to communicate, and yet not to communicate,' he said, and then for a long time he questioned me closely concerning war.

"He was at first perplexed and incredulous. 'You mean to say,' he asked, seeking confirmation, 'that you run about over the surface of your world--this world, whose riches you have scarcely begun to scrape--killing one another for beasts to eat?'

"I told him that was perfectly correct.

"He asked for particulars to assist his imagination.

"'But do not ships and your poor little cities get injured?' he asked, and I found the waste of property and conveniences seemed to impress him almost as much as the killing. 'Tell me more,' said the Grand Lunar; 'make me see pictures. I cannot conceive these things.'

"And so, for a space, though something loath, I told him the story of earthly War.

"I told him of the first orders and ceremonies of war, of warnings and ultimatums, and the marshalling and marching of troops. I gave him an idea of manoeuvres and positions and battle joined. I told him of sieges and assaults, of starvation and hardship in trenches, and of sentinels freezing in the snow. I told him of routs and surprises, and desperate last stands and faint hopes, and the pitiless pursuit of fugitives and the dead upon the field. I told, too, of the past, of invasions and massacres, of the Huns and Tartars, and the wars of Mahomet and the Caliphs, and of the Crusades. And as I went on, and Phi-oo translated, and the Selenites cooed and murmured in a steadily intensified emotion.

"I told them an ironclad could fire a shot of a ton twelve miles, and go through 20 feet of iron--and how we could steer torpedoes under water. I went on to describe a Maxim gun in action, and what I could imagine of the Battle of Colenso. The Grand Lunar was so incredulous that he interrupted the translation of what I had said in order to have my verification of my account. They particularly doubted my description of the men cheering and rejoicing as they went into battle.

"'But surely they do not like it!' translated Phi-oo.

"I assured them men of my race considered battle the most glorious experience of life, at which the whole assembly was stricken with amazement.

"'But what good is this war?' asked the Grand Lunar, sticking to his theme.

"'Oh! as for _good_!' said I; 'it thins the population!'

"'But why should there be a need--?'

"There came a pause, the cooling sprays impinged upon his brow, and then he spoke again."

Self-evidently Wells contrasts the nobility of the human spirit, even with its attendant faults, against the cruel tyranny of lunar society. Those with a knowledge of Wells' social critiques might reasonably interpret First Men in the Moon as a critique of the British class system and its attendant imperialism. The stratification of the Selenites could be seen as a variation on the drama of the Morlocks and Eloi of The Time Machine, published six years prior.

This reading misjudges Wells' own ethos, as demonstrated by later works like The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, and even A Modern Utopia, published a mere four years after First Men in the Moon. The short of it is that a eugenic, totalitarian state is exactly the one that Wells prescribes, where absolute freedom is permitted in exchange for any kind of self-determination. When given authority by his imagination to draft a world to his liking, The Englishman takes on the character of the Grand Lunar.

Thus does The First Men in the Moon revert back from an alien dystopia to an Enlightenment critique. It has only masqueraded for so long because Wells' own vision for society was so abhorrent that it would be unconscionable to consider the Selenites to be anything other than a dictatorship. We only say that, however, because we are on the far side of the Holocaust. It is difficult to conceive that, at the time of Wells, a doctrine of eugenics and centralized authority was a mainstream doctrine.

To paraphrase numerous satirists of the era, conservatives are those who adopt liberal ideas once liberals have worn them out. That is no less true about "the self-direction of human evolution". Some of the early adopters of eugenics were liberal movements like Wells' Fabian Society, who saw the genetic "enhancement" of human specimens as a means of abolishing human suffering. It became a cause of the Temperance and Suffragette movements for its promise of eliminating the "inherited evils" of alcoholism and unfit parenthood (often unfairly criticized, the Temperance movement were not merely moral busybodies, but were responding to a very real problem: rampant spousal abuse caused by drunken men seeking refuge from the crushing poverty and despair of the Industrial Revolution). Eugenics was seen as a humane way of dealing with the problem of developmental disabilities, and so forced sterilization of "defectives" was widely instituted throughout the Western world, including the United States and Canada. Some misguided souls still flirt with the idea, though under new, less-offensive labels like "transhumanism".

The fault of eugenic movements is deciding who qualifies as "defective" and whose genes should be passed on. In England, ideas of genetic merit went beyond demonstrable disorders and was judged on the basis of social standing. The poor and the criminal were deemed inferior, apparently under a belief that nature precedes nurture. In North America, the "primitive savages" were deemed unfit. In the Canadian province of Alberta, Aboriginal inmates of forced sterilization reached 25% of the total, even though they only comprised 2.5% of the provincial population. Young, poor and unmarried women were also disproportionately represented because of an assumed predisposition for prostitution. And, of course, in Germany the "impure" were Jews, Romani, and homosexuals amongst others. It requires very little effort to take an already skewed liberal response to unwanted social ills and hand it over to conservatives as a final solution to unwanted social groups.

We rightly decry eugenics and other scientific social dogmas as evil. That declaration blinds us to the actual message conveyed by someone like H.G. Wells in The First Men in the Moon. It was only at the very latest stages of his life that he questioned the efficacy - not the rightness, but the implementation - of eugenic thinking. In 1901, the Selenites, it may be said, were his ideal.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Verne, Wells and Star Wars

Verne vs. Wells by Marcel Mercado.

One of the enduring fictions about the dim, misty origins of Science Fiction is that Jules Verne wrote stories about technology while H.G. Wells wrote stories about society. Robert J. Sawyer, for instance, employs this fiction in his scathing review of Star Wars. I agree with his fundamental points about Star Wars, but disagree with his demonstrably false assertions about Verne. He says that Verne merely wrote about technology, and nothing is more boring than reading about outmoded technologies. Wells, he asserts, is widely read and studied while the second most translated author of all time languishes in obscurity, citation pending.

Not that Verne helps his case much when, in a 1903 interview with R.H. Sherard, he says things like:
Je pensais bien que vous alliez me demander cela... His books were sent to me, and I have read them. It is very curious, and, I will add, very English. But I do not see the possibility of comparison between his work and mine. We do not proceed in the same manner. It occurs to me that his stories do not repose on very scientific bases. No, there is no rapport between his work and mine. I make use of physics. He invents. I go to the moon in a cannon-ball, discharged from a cannon. There is no invention. He goes to Mars in an airship, which he constructs of a metal which does away with the law of gravitation. Ça c’est très joli... but show me this metal. Let him produce it.

It appears that Verne concedes the social ground by objecting merely to how Wells conducts his science. Wells, in the mean time, is happy to oblige the Frenchman whose first works were already 30 years old by the time Wells put pen to paper. In the preface to a collected edition of his works, the Englishman said:
His work dealt almost always with the actual possibilities of invention and discovery, and he made some remarkable forecasts. The interest he invoked was a practical one; he wrote and believed and told that this or that thing could be done, which was not at that time done. He helped his reader to imagine it done and to realise what fun, excitement or mischief would ensue. Many of his inventions have "come true." But these stories of mine... do not pretend to deal with possible things; they are exercises of the imagination in a quite different field.

Appearances can be deceiving. Though Sawyer quips about his "Gallic disdain", Verne fixated on Wells' science because that was their genres diverged. It wasn't that Verne wrote about technology and Wells wrote about society. Both authors wrote about quite a lot about society. Verne's point, I believe, was that Wells was mercenary when it came to science. He utilized it as a new magic, a new fantasy, a new just-so-story through which he could peddle his particular social criticisms.

Someone who says that Jules Verne wrote about technology rather than society is someone who has not read Jules Verne. Perhaps they have only some vague memories of Disney movies with Kirk Douglas and a seal. Possibly they recall the star-studded romps of Around the World in 80 Days or Pat Boone singing his way through Journey to the Centre of the Earth. It's highly unlikely that they ever saw Vincent Price's Robur in Master of the World, or else their hypothesis might begin to unravel.

Suffice it to say that it is impossible to actually read the novels of Jules Verne and arrive at the conclusion that he was a mere techno-fetishist. For example, while Verne criticizes Wells' Cavorite, the actual moon launch in From the Earth to the Moon occupies a very small portion of the novel. The great Columbiad does not even fire until the last chapter, reserving the celestial voyage for a sequel entitled Around the Moon. The bulk of the novel is dedicated to the material and cultural infrastructure of a space launch.

Therein From the Earth to the Moon descends into a burlesque of American society worthy of Mark Twain. The novel opens with the members of the Baltimore Gun Club lamenting the fact that the War Between the States is over and there are no more glories to be had or advances in weaponry to be made. As they do so, Verne makes conspicuous mention of how many limbs each member is missing. In the wake of Gun Club president Barbicane's announcement, the streets are in an uproar:
It is impossible to describe the effect produced by the last words of the honorable president-- the cries, the shouts, the succession of roars, hurrahs, and all the varied vociferations which the American language is capable of supplying. It was a scene of indescribable confusion and uproar. They shouted, they clapped, they stamped on the floor of the hall. All the weapons in the museum discharged at once could not have more violently set in motion the waves of sound. One need not be surprised at this. There are some cannoneers nearly as noisy as their own guns.

Barbicane remained calm in the midst of this enthusiastic clamor; perhaps he was desirous of addressing a few more words to his colleagues, for by his gestures he demanded silence, and his powerful alarum was worn out by its violent reports. No attention, however, was paid to his request. He was presently torn from his seat and passed from the hands of his faithful colleagues into the arms of a no less excited crowd.

Nothing can astound an American. It has often been asserted that the word "impossible" in not a French one. People have evidently been deceived by the dictionary. In America, all is easy, all is simple; and as for mechanical difficulties, they are overcome before they arise. Between Barbicane's proposition and its realization no true Yankee would have allowed even the semblance of a difficulty to be possible. A thing with them is no sooner said than done.

The triumphal progress of the president continued throughout the evening. It was a regular torchlight procession. Irish, Germans, French, Scotch, all the heterogeneous units which make up the population of Maryland shouted in their respective vernaculars; and the "vivas," "hurrahs," and "bravos" were intermingled in inexpressible enthusiasm.

Just at this crisis, as though she comprehended all this agitation regarding herself, the moon shone forth with serene splendor, eclipsing by her intense illumination all the surrounding lights. The Yankees all turned their gaze toward her resplendent orb, kissed their hands, called her by all kinds of endearing names. Between eight o'clock and midnight one optician in Jones'-Fall Street made his fortune by the sale of opera-glasses.


From that day forward Impey Barbicane became one of the greatest citizens of the United States, a kind of Washington of science. A single trait of feeling, taken from many others, will serve to show the point which this homage of a whole people to a single individual attained.

Some few days after this memorable meeting of the Gun Club, the manager of an English company announced, at the Baltimore theatre, the production of "Much ado about Nothing." But the populace, seeing in that title an allusion damaging to Barbicane's project, broke into the auditorium, smashed the benches, and compelled the unlucky director to alter his playbill. Being a sensible man, he bowed to the public will and replaced the offending comedy by "As you like it"; and for many weeks he realized fabulous profits.

Verne was not himself immune to "invention". What allows the Gun Club to make the lunar attempt is a "new type" of gun cotton with exponentially more power than any type existing at the time. With that gun cotton, the Gun Club makes an even grander attempt at something that puts the exclamation point on Verne as a social commentator.

In the third book of the series, The Purchase of the Pole, the Baltimore Gun Club forms a corporation that buys up the vast, useless tracts of the North Pole. Soon their reason is leaked: they plan on using their explosive to alter the axis of the Earth, rotating the poles to the equator so that they can exploit the mineral wealth heretofore locked beneath ageless ice. The whole novel is spent with citizens and governments in panicked attempts to stop a private, unaccountable corporation from destroying civilization and the planet in their shortsighted grab for profit. Rarely is Wells even this timely.

Verne's most famous character was a revolutionary. Originally, Nemo was supposed to be a Polish reactionary against an aggressive Russian empire, but Verne's publisher - Jules Hetzel - felt that was too controversial (and would have impacted sales Eastern European sales). Thus the mariner was altered to an Indian prince suffering at the hands of the British. Hetzel also put the breaks on one of Verne's very first novel, Paris in the Twentieth Century. Describing a future society where the arts and letters have fallen into disuse in a society devoted capital, Hetzel felt that this bleak extrapolation of the effects of industrialization and modernization on the human psyche was too depressing for a marketable novel. The manuscript was finally published in 1994 and became a best-seller in France. In Facing the Flag, adapted by Karel Zeman into the magnificent film The Fabulous World of Jules Verne, a rouge band of terrorists acquire a weapon of mass destruction.

Verne criticized Wells' science because Verne's was a far-reaching, polymathic form of Scientific Romance. Within 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea alone, one gets the tortured tale of a failed revolutionary and an oceanographic survey of marine life studded with historical interludes about various shipwrecks and events. Not all of Verne's "Voyages Extraordinaires" can technically be described as Science Fiction. Around the World in 80 Days and In Search of the Castaways are fantastic adventures without a single fantastic contraption. He also wrote non-fiction books about history, nature, science and exploration.

Verne, ultimately, is comprehensive. In regards to Wells - who he did think was an accomplished writer - Verne prefigured the lament of every scientist who sees their discipline mutilated on the silver screen: "My God, it is so easy to get it right if you just did the research!" Being comprehensive was not Wells' concern.

Wells is much more focused and bears more in common with the likes of a George Lucas than Robert J. Sawyer may care to admit. Verne wrote about science and history and nature and society, making careful observations and extrapolations, delivering in technological treatises and uproarious satires. He placed his characters into settings to work out their dramas. Wells wrote about his vision of a socialist, technocratic, secular, eugenic, universal utopian government. The Scientific Romances for which he is most famous now were little more than extended allegories for his political views, often crudely symbolic and without characters to speak of, and by the end of his career he had largely abandoned them. In a shared interview after that fateful Halloween broadcast, the elder Wells congratulated the younger Welles for inflating the sales of one of his more obscure old novels.

Like Lucas' lightsabres and Death Stars, the technology in Wells' novels is a handwaved gesture, a bit of drag dressing up a story that is not necessarily about technology and its effects on civilization. His Cavorite is no more scientific than de Bergerac's bottles of dew. War of the Worlds is no more about the possibilities of extraterrestrial life than is The Island of Doctor Moreau a treatise on the possibilities of vivisection. Rather, the former speaks more to Wells' disdain for imperialism mixed with some cosmic nihilism and the latter is admittedly "an exercise in youthful blasphemy." In that same preface, he acknowledges that these stories are fantasies.

Shortly after Sherard's interview with Verne, the Englishman does begin to overlap with the Frenchman. The heady fantasies occupying the earliest days of his career give way to the serious scientific speculation of books like The Shape of Things to Come and The War in the Air. The War in the Air may be the closest novel to Verne's, imbued with the same spirit of extrapolating the effects of a technology and its implicit possibilities. Yet it is The Shape of Things to Come that compasses this stage of Wells' work.

Verne asked what cultural effects these new technologies might have and let it play out with little in the way of commentary. Nemo's own redemption in The Mysterious Island comes not through reshaping the world, but through finding peace within himself. Not so with Wells. Wells is perfectly content to raze the world and rebuild it in his image. Verne spoke of how technology may be used, Wells spoke of how it ought to be used. Verne observed, Wells prescribed.

In The Shape of Things to Come, Wells writes a future-history textbook; these are the recollections of men living beyond our own time and reflecting back on the creation of their utopian society. The first chapter of the fifth book recapitulates the task at hand for the newly formed world government:
Then the World Council had set itself to certain tasks that had been so inconceivable hitherto that not the most daring sociologists had looked them in the face. They had contented themselves with pious aspirations, and taken refuge in the persuasion that, if they were sufficiently disregarded, these tasks would somehow do themselves. They were tasks of profound mental reconstruction, reconstruction going deeper into the substratum of the individual life than anything that had ever been attempted before. In the first place traditions of nationality had to be cleared away for good, and racial prejudice replaced by racial understanding. This was a positive job against immense resistances. Next a lingua-franca had to be made universal and one or other of the great literature-bearing languages rendered accessible to everyone. This again was not to be done for the wishing. And thirdly, and most evaded of all three obstacles that had to be surmounted, issue had to be joined with the various quasi-universal religious and cultural systems, Christianity, Jewry, Islam, Buddhism and so forth, which right up to the close of the twentieth century were still in active competition with the Modern State movement for the direction of the individual life and the control of human affairs. While these competing cultures remained in being they were bound to become refuges and rallying-shelters for all the opposition forces that set themselves to cripple and defeat the new order of the world.

On genetics, Wells' regime does express a few misgivings with regards to human flesh that it does not to nature:
"The particular field in which we propose a continuation of restraint is in the application of the rapidly advancing science of genetics to the increase of variability so far as human beings, and probably some other of the higher mammals, are concerned. We believe that the general feeling of the race is against any such experimentation at present. Under the Second Council the painless destruction of monsters and the more dreadful and pitiful sorts of defective was legalized, and also the sterilization of various types that would otherwise have transmitted tendencies that were plainly undesirable. This is as far, we think, as humanity should go in directing its racial heredity, until our knowledge of behaviour has been greatly amplified. For an age or so we can be content with humanity as it now is, humanity no longer distressed and driven to cruelty by overcrowding, under-nourishment, infections, mental and physical poisons of every sort. There is a rich mine of still greatly underdeveloped capacity in the human brain as it is, and this we may very happily explore by means of artistic effort, by scientific investigations, by living freely and gaily, for the next few generations. Normal human life can be cleansed, extended and amplified. With that we propose to content ourselves. Even upon this planet we have millions of years ahead before there can be any fundamental change in our environment.

"Directly we turn from humanity to other forms of life it is manifest that a most attractive realm is opening to us. We may have new and wonderful forests; we may have new plants; we may replace the weedy and scanty greensward of the past by a subtler and livelier texture. Undreamt-of fruits and blossoms may be summoned out of non-existence. The insect world, on which so much of the rest of life depends, may be made more congenial to mankind. The smaller fry of life and the little beasts and the birds can be varied now until they all come into a tolerable friendship with ourselves. As our hands lose their clumsiness we may interfere more and more surely with the balance of life. There is no longer fear of abundance now that man is sane.

There are good things within Wells' system, to be sure. The appropriate "organization of plenty", for instance, creating a post-scarcity economy. With the abolition of want comes the associated diminution of violent crime and opportunity for using the intellect in other pursuits. Nevermind that the society itself is predicated on the crime of cultural genocide and proscribes what one may intellectually pursue. It is Wells' distasteful means that are in question, the dictatorship of the test-tube and the enslavement of humankind to efficiency.

The Englishman does write himself a critic, the artist Theotocopulos railing against progress some 70 years after Verne's Michel did the same in Paris in the Twentieth Century. What Wells prescribed as a goal, Verne observed - a generation before - as a misery. Compared to Wells, George Lucas' apparent belief in the divine rights of genetic god-men is merely incidental thoughtlessness. Wells has clearly given his oppressive regime a great deal of reflection.

Either way, it is no longer tennable to suggest that Verne merely wrote of technology while Wells wrote of society. The Frenchman, a polymath, is unencumbered by the need to peddle such specific social dogmas and is therefore often more insightful than the Englishman. If there is anyone really worth comparing Verne to, it would be to the great chain of French authors like Dumas, Hugo, Voltaire and de Bergerac. Meanwhile, Wells was more preoccupied with internecine conflicts amongst the Edwardian English intelligentsia, namely George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. Indeed, comparing them may be a case of apples and oranges.