Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (1976)

This is a really weird story, a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife.

The main story (pp.15-170) is narrated by the two-metre tall man, christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain but now known as Dr Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain.

It is a morbid and depressing story. Swain is just coming up to his 101st birthday. He lives amid the ruins of New York. The rest of America has been depopulated by Albanian Flu (p.33), but New York had a special plague of its own, known as the Green Plague. Now it is almost empty, with only Swain and a handful or relatives and friends living in the overgrown ruins. To survivors on the mainland it is known only as ‘the Island of Death’.

So Slapstick is a post-apocalypse story.

As so often in fictional memoirs, two timelines run in parallel 1. The ‘present’ in which the narrator wakes up and potters round and we are introduced to the main characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world. Thus Swain starts each chapter with a bit of gossip about his current companions, his emaciated though pregnant grand-daughter Melody, and her husband Isidore, or about their best friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa who keeps a farm worked by ‘slaves’.

Before 2. returning to a conventional chronological account which begins with the birth of him and his twin sister, follows them through their early life, and on to the series of events which led up to the disaster.

Vonnegut uses Vonnegutian tricks such as:

  • The entire text is broken up into very short sections, sometimes a few paragraphs, but sometimes just a few words, all divided by three asterisks in the centre of the page, creating the sense that the whole book is made of fragments glued together, a suitable feel, maybe, for post-apocalyptic fragments.
  • And just as the catchphrase ‘So it goes’ appeared on every page of Slaughterhouse-Five and ‘And so on’ capped every anecdote in Breakfast of Champions, so almost every bit of prose which tells a significant story or anecdote in this book is capped with ‘Hi ho’. At one point the narrator says he must go back through the book and delete all the ‘Hi ho’s’. Which he follows with another Hi ho. Hi ho. I think it is safe to say this use of ironically off-hand taglines has become a mannerism.

From his birth up to the age of 15, Wilbur and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, pretend to be drooling idiots. In fact they are geniuses, especially if they physically touch their heads together. When they do this they share a joint super-intelligence. But for 15 years all they do is pretend to be retards, and are locked by their parents in their posh Boston home. (They are from a super-rich family.)

This is every bit as weird as it sounds. On their fifteenth birthdays, they overhear their parents discussing sending them to separate homes and so make the startling announcement that they are not brain damaged but the reverse – hyper-intelligent and articulate young people.

This shocks their parents even more, who promptly call in a high-powered women psychiatrist who, vindictively knowing the damage it will cause them, recommends they be separated, declaring Wilbur is the clever one and Eliza is the defect.

So Wilbur is packed off to medical school and becomes a successful pediatrician, while Eliza goes to rot in a home for the mentally defective.

Cut to about ten years later when Wilbur is confronted by Eliza, who has been sprung from the home by a money-grabbing lawyer on the news that their parents have died. She is a wreck, distraught and determined on revenge as she confronts him at his grand mansion. But the moment they actually make physical contact, the old telepathic communication is revived and they have a five-day long orgy during which they tie up all the servants.

Maybe this whole plotline is intended as satirical but it comes over as a kind of poor man’s Philip K. Dick, with its dwelling on identity and reality, and sick obsession with a dead sibling (both Dick and Vonnegut had dead sisters).

Meanwhile, in the background of the story, we learn that oil has been running low, and that American science and technology has stagnated. The sky has turned yellow because of gases released by underarm deodorants. The Chinese are making all kinds of new discoveries. The West is collapsing. Americans are becoming more lonely.

Eliza takes her cut of Swain’s estate and goes to Macchu Picchu. Why? Because it

was then becoming a haven for rich people and their parasites, people fleeing social reforms and economic declines, not just in America, but in all parts of the world. (p.93)

An absurdist theme which runs through the book is that the Chinese, as part of their transformation into top economic power in the world, undertake a programme of miniaturising human beings. There are so many of them, they can only survive if they get smaller.

Thus it is that a lot later in the book, Swain is visited by the Chinese ambassador who is only a few inches tall (the size of Wilbur’s thumb, p.101). Piling absurdity on absurdity, he is named Fu Manchu. He asks Swain to take him to the family mausoleum in which are hidden the various writings Swain and Eliza did when their heads were together and they were a super-genius. Swain doesn’t understand why, but some of these writings are of immense importance to the Chinese – now the leading scientific and technological country in the world.

A second major idea has to do with gravity. When Swain describes life in post-apocalyptic America, he has dropped hints about there being a problem with gravity, that it varies from day to day like the weather, with some days of heavy gravity, some of light. This is, apparently, caused by scientific experiments by the Chinese, though by this stage nobody in America understands what or how or has the power to stop it.

The first time gravity changes is on the day Swain picks up a telegram at his local post office which tells him that Eliza is dead, crushed under an avalanche on Mars (p.106). Mars? Yes she had tipped off the Chinese about the secret documents hidden in the mausoleum and, as a reward, was transported to the new Chinese colony on Mars. Ill-fatedly, as it turns out.

As he walks out onto the steps outside his local post office, gravity changes – for just a minute or so it is doubled, quintupled, and Wilbur falls through the wooden steps he’s standing on, people fall through ladders, chairs, and flimsy flooring. Bridges and tall buildings collapse, elevators plummet to the ground and so on.

The Gravity Shift only lasts a minute or so but undermines the confidence of Americans even more than the failing oil supply and yellow sky.

It is against this backdrop of America’s economic, scientific and political decline, that Swain runs for president on a platform of radically reorganising society. He decides the problem with Americans is they are lonely and isolated. He comes up with a scheme whereby all Americans will be given new middle names by computer. The number of names will be calculated so that each new ‘family’ has about 10,000 members. I.e. if something happens to you there will be 9,999 other ‘family members’ you can call on.

He runs for senator, then president, on the slogan of ‘Lonesome no more’ – which is the sub-title of this book (p.112).

It is hard not to think that this plotline – the satire on American loneliness – is a separate short story or plot idea which Vonnegut has bolted onto the weird story of two twin giants who are cruelly separated. Chucking in Chinese miniaturisation, and the notion that the Earth’s gravity can be played with, as additional sweeties.

By this stage we learn that, because of the end of oil and technology, America has collapsed as a political entity. There are no more printing presses, no more radio or TV – because there is no more fuel (p.117). it has been replaced by warlords which control territories like Michigan or Dakota – hence the King of Michigan, the Great Lake pirates, and other satirical names the narrator casually mentions in passing.

(In a satirical touch, the only way to power the computer which doles out new middle names to the population of America, is by systematically burning all the paper archives in the White House and Congress.)

(In another satirical touch he throws in the fact that the new religion which the general crisis gives rise to is the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.)

Also, by this stage, Wilbur tells us he has become addicted to some kind of tranquiliser named tri-benzo-Deportamil, which helps him to cope with all the ups and downs of his life with equanimity.

Vonnegut devotes an extensive passage to describing his happiness at visiting a lodge of his own ‘family’, the Daffodils, in Indiana, how kind and welcoming they are. And to explaining how his successful family plan meshes or overlaps with the numerous small wars which the King of Michigan and so on are fighting against each other.

In fact there is a satirical scene where Swain is summoned by the grandiose young King of Michigan who wishes him to solemnly sign a document reversing the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and handing over rule of what was then the vast territory in the centre of the USA over the king. Fine, thinks Swain, and signs.

Epilogue

At this point the memoir written by Wilbur Swain comes to an abrupt end. It is succeeded by an epilogue tying up loose ends.

This takes the story from the meeting with the King of Michigan to his death.

Swain had been contacted by a woman who had discovered a way of contacting the dead. An old farmer arranged a bucket and antique pipe in just such a way atop a defunct particle accelerator (no more electricity; hadn’t worked for years) and, to his surprise, began hearing voices out of the pipe.

Swain, still nominally president although now with few if any powers over a disintegrated country, is told about this and invited to try it. He manages to get through to his sister Eliza, who tells him the afterlife is dreadful. Swain can hear a babble of people coughing, shouting and farting in the background. Eliza says the afterlife is like a badly managed Turkey Farm. She begs him to die and join her. The device for communicating with the dead is known as ‘the Hooligan’ after the name of the farmer who accidentally created it. (p.160-164)

Convinced that she needs his help, and in a hurry to die, Swain persuades the pilot of the helicopter (Captain Bernard O’Hare – sharp-eyed Vonnegut readers might remember that Bernard O’Hare plays an important role in his 1962 novel Mother Night) which flew him to the Daffodil reunion in Indiana (and is himself a member of the Daffodil family) to fly him to Manhattan, long since known as ‘the Island of Death’ because of the mysterious epidemic which wiped out almost its entire population.

Hovering over the empty, overgrown avenues, Swain climbs down a rope ladder and onto the balcony of the Empire State Building, whose staircase he proceeds to walk down. But instead of quickly dying, in the ruined lobby of the building Swain is kidnapped by some ‘Raspberries’ a really primitive clan of humans who live by eating nuts, and berries and whatever they can forage.

As it happens these people have unwittingly stumbled on an antidote to the Green Death, namely fish from the rivers either side of Manhattan which are so polluted that some of the rare chemicals in them act as antidotes.

Now the narrator now tells us that the flu which killed everyone was caused by an invasion of microscopic Martians, whose invasion was repelled by antibodies in the systems of the survivors (p.163). While the Green Death was caused by microscopic Chinese floating through the air who were peace-loving but were invariably fatal to normal-sized human who inhaled or ingested them (p.164).

Swain proceeds to live on derelict Manhattan for a very, very long time. Back around the time when he used the Hooligan and sold Louisiana to the King of Michigan, his last few pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil ran out and he went mental. He had to be tied down for five days in the farmhouse, but managed – in the impossible way characteristic of this narrative – to have sex and impregnate the wife of the old farmer.

She had a son.

He had a daughter, who was packed off to join the seraglio of the King of Michigan who was, by this time, a disgusting old man.  She managed to escape and set off East towards New York to try and track down the mythical grandfather her dad had told her about. Her name is Melody Oriole-2. She was helped along the odyssey by strangers who gave her a baby pram, a candlestick, a compass and an umbrella. And one who rowed her across to the Island of Death.

And that’s how Swain was reunited with his grand-daughter and came to be chatting about her at the start of the book’s 49 chapters. He has his drunken 102nd birthday, organised for him by his old friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, and drops dead.

Thoughts

It’s a short book (170 pages) but with enough ideas in it to blow anyone’s mind.

Whether any of them – plausible, fantastical, surreal, satirical – are any good, was hard to tell. I was so dazed by the relentless nonsensicality of much of the narrative that it was difficult to take a view. Is it a farrago of rubbish, which a summary of the plot might lead you to think? Or, as a friend of mine who’s a Vonnegut fan thinks, one of his best books?

I couldn’t work out if the four or five hours it took me to read it were time well spent or not.

I think it feels to me like a last hurrah of the absurdist approach, and typographical experimentation, which took off in Slaughterhouse-Five. But then Cat’s Cradle also has an end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic setting. In fact, both books consist of the memoir of one of the few people who survived the end of the world.

And when I saw how his next novel, Jailbird, reverts to a much more conventional layout and prose style, and realistic subject matter, this adds to the sense that Slapstick is like the fagged-out hangover of the absurdist approach which characterised its three predecessors.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

‘Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,’ said Mrs. Bowles. ‘Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you’ve got to tease people with stuff like that!’

It is 1999 and books are banned. Why? Because they make people think, ponder, reflect – and that ends up making them unhappy. And society in 1999 is dedicated to making people happy.

How? By offering them the all-day-long totally immersive experience of room-sized TVs playing endless soap operas in which you, the viewer, are included through computer-controlled scripts designed to tailor the storylines to suit your age and gender. By ensuring that even if people go out walking they have seashell-type little earpieces pumping raucous meaningless music into their brains all the time. By providing a world of physical activities, sports and gymnastics for the disciplined and, for the not-so sporty, building highways where you’re not allowed to drive slower than 55mph, and are encouraged to hit anything which trespasses onto them, cats, dogs, even people.

Or you can:

head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball.

Anything, anything at all, to stop people reading or thinking. Books are banned, religion is banned, festivals are banned, all art is abstract, and politics has died out due to lack of information or interest. People are just ruled.

In this world firemen protect citizens from the risk of being infected by ‘ideas’ by burning books wherever they are found. Enemies, snitches and gossips can anonymously report work colleagues or neighbours as suspected to be hiding books, and then the firemen turn up in their salamander-shaped fire engine, beat up the suspects to find the stash of forbidden books, throw them all in a pile and torch them with their kerosene flamethrowers.

The books leapt and danced like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers.

Part one – The Hearth and the Salamander

Guy Montag is one of these firemen and his story opens with this poetic invocation of the joys of incineration:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

Wow. Bradbury is nothing if not vivid!

Guy’s story is simple in outline. He becomes disillusioned with being a fireman, rebels against the powers that be, and escapes.

More specifically, after one particularly brutal burning, where the old lady who owned the house where books were hidden, not only refused to leave the building but herself lit the match which sent it up like a bonfire, thus turning herself into a human torch, Montag finds he has, almost without realising it, secreted a book in his jacket, which he then brings home.

Next day he takes off sick with a temperature. His wife, Mildred, is an extreme case of the bored suburban housewife. She has nagged Guy into paying a fortune to have three of the four walls in their living room converted into wall-sized TV screens, the ones which run the endless soap which the computer tailors to include her in the plots and scenes and conversations. Even when Guy is sick in bed, she won’t turn the deafening volume of the TV soap down, and listens to his complaints for the bare minimum before running back to her ‘real’ life, her ‘real’ family.

For Guy is having a crisis of conscience. Watching the woman prepared to incinerate herself rather than live in a world without books has shaken him. And, over the past few weeks, he’s found himself bumping into the idealistic young woman who’s moved in next door, Clarisse McClellan.

‘She was the first person in a good many years I’ve really liked. She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted.’

Clarisse is mercifully uninfected by the repressive culture. She likes flowers and nursery rhymes. She despises the people who go car-racing or window smashing. She yearns for a simpler time.

To his dismay Guy finds himself agreeing with Clarisse, beguiled by her honesty and openness. It makes returning to the gloomy house where his wife is either a) totally immersed in her wall-to-wall TV soap or b) even in her bed (they have separate beds) has the seashells plugged in, hissing stories and music, so that even in the darkest midnight hour, when he tries to tell he his secrets, his worries, his fears… she’s not listening, she can’t and won’t hear him. He is alone.

The hollowness of Mildred’s drugged, media-addicted life is emphasised by an earlier scene, when Guy returns home dirty and sweaty from a hard day burning books, and in the darkness of their bedroom his foot hits an object. When he stoops, it is an empty bottle of painkillers. Mildred has taken an overdose.

Guy calls emergency but instead of an ambulance, or concerned medics and nurses, the two guys who turn up are bored technicians who poke a tube with a digital camera lens down her throat guts and pump her stomach empty, at the same time administering a complete blood transfusion. They stand around yacking and one smokes a cigarette as the machines pump. It’s just another job. They tell Guy they get about ten of these a week. Once finished, they pack up and tell him she’ll probably feel hungry in the morning, bye, and he is left feeling bereft and uncomforted.

Indeed Mildred does feel hungry in the morning and has no memory whatever of her suicide attempt. When Guy describes the whole thing she laughs and says what a vivid imagination he’s got. He’s left wondering whether it was a suicide attempt, or whether she just took a few pills before going to sleep, woke up and took some more, woke up and took some more, and so on.

And worse, he wonders if it makes any difference. To her or to him. Her life is such a matter of indifference to her and, he realises with a start, to him, too.

While Guy is still in bed feeling feverish, his boss at the firestation, Captain Beatty pays a call. There is something uncanny and wise about old Beatty. At the knock at the front door Guy hastily stuffs the book he took from the old lady’s house under his pillow and remains in his sick-bed. When Beatty comes into his bedroom, takes a seat, lights his pipe and makes himself at home, Guy is paranoidly certain, certain… that Beatty knows he is hiding a book.

The scene is handled as powerfully as a fairy tale, as a fable: old man Beatty wisely and tolerantly explains that all firemen, sooner or later, experience a moment of doubt about their work, may even take a book home to read in secret. The authorities don’t hold it against them. Everyone has to find out for themselves how empty and pointless books are. So long as the fireman in question hands it in within, say, 24 hours, no more will be said about it. He looks at Guy. Guy, lying in his sickbed, sweats and turns red. Surely he knows!

Beatty takes his time. He leisurely explains how the firemen came about, how society willingly turned its back on books and learning. Why their job is so important.

Eventually the captain leaves. Guy gets up, shaking. Now is the time. He makes Mildred turn the bloody TV off and listen to him and watch him as he gets a chair, stands on it and reaches up to the ventilator grille in the hall. Guy stretches out and pulls over and down a sack which he lowers to the floor, gets down and opens up. The sack is full of books. Mildred is horrified and squirms away from these infectious objects. Guy himself sits there stunned. What has he done?

At that moment there is another ring on the front door bell and Guy and Mildred freeze in terror. Is it the captain back again? Panic sweat silence. After a few more rings, whoever it was goes away. The reader’s heart has stopped alongside Guy’s and Mildred’s. We are caught in Guy’s terror and guilt.

Part two – The Sieve and the Sand

For the rest of that cold November afternoon, Guy reads at random passages from his forbidden stash of books out loud to his bewildered wife, who keeps complaining that they don’t make sense. He mentions how the books remind him of Clarisse. Who? asks the wife. The young woman who moved in next door. Oh, says Mildred, I forgot to tell you. She was killed by joyriders. The rest of the family have moved away. Guy is devastated. How can all that young beauty and innocence just be snuffed out like that?

Then there comes a snuffling at the door.

The Hound? Is it the Hound? At the firestation there is an eight-legged machine nicknamed the Hound. Every human has a distinctive combination of hormones and secretions which gives them a unique chemical ‘small’. The Hound’s sensors can be set to this combination, then it is set loose to hunt them down. Being mechanical it tracks down its prey unrelentingly, unceasingly, until it finds and brings him down, holds him splayed with his mechanical legs and then the target is:

gripped in gentling paws while a four-inch hollow steel needle plunged down from the proboscis of the Hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine.

Lying there now, with his wife huddled in a weeping neurotic ball, with the pile of incriminating books sprawled across his hallway, Guy is certain, sure that he can hear… a mechanical sniffling and snorting at his door. It is the Hound! The Hound has come to trap and kill him with its merciless shining needle!

They wait and wait. the snuffling ends. Guy opens the door. Nothing there. Guy takes one of the books, an old Bible, and goes to visit an old man he met once on a park bench, months ago, years ago. The old man was convinced Guy was going to turn him in, but they got talking and Guy was sympathetic to his stories of books and literature. The man gave Guy his card. He’s named Faber. He was a literature professor until one term, forty years ago, nobody turned up for his class. Society had lost interest.

Now Guy turns up on his doorstep, initially terrifying Faber who thinks he’s going to be arrested. But Guy shows him the Bible and they talk. Faber fills in some of the history which he lived through, how the government slowly got rid of books as part of its campaign to make everyone equal and happy.

Together they stumble towards an idea that maybe the books can be saved somehow. Maybe they can get back to the literate society which Faber remembers from his youth. Maybe – here’s a plan – they could plant books on every firemen in the land and so get the firemen abolished – by themselves! Obviously not just the two of them, it would need a network. Hmmm.

Faber gives Guy a device he’s built, an emerald-green earpiece. Via it Faber can hear Guy talking and Guy receives Faber’s messages. They are two-become-one.

Guy goes home. His wife’s two ghastly suburban wife friends come round for a party with the immersive TV show. Montag appals them by turning the TV walls off and then insisting on reading poetry to them, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, to be precise, which is indeed a bleak and nihilistic poem.

Not surprising that the women are all upset and one bursts into tears. Mildred forces Guy to put the book in an incinerator, and tries to cover up by saying it is part of a fireman’s training to occasionally dip into these nonsensical books in order to ridicule them – but the two women don’t really believe it and anyway Guy runs them out of the house.

Faber hears all this via the earpiece and is appalled at Guy’s rashness. What Faber thought they’d agreed should be the next step was for Guy to return to the station and confront Beatty.

Captain Beatty is waiting for him, with his hand open. Without a word Guy hands over the book to him. Beatty greets him like the prodigal son returned to the fold, reinforces the idea that books are pointless, silly, contradictory, only make people unhappy.

(His role – as wise father confessor who has himself experienced all the urge to rebel, has had all the illegal thoughts, and has overcome them in order to obey the system – reminds me very much of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Captain Beatty invites Guy to sit down and play cards with the rest of the men. Then the alarm goes off, they jump down the pole to the garage, suit up and race off to fire someone else’s house.

Part three – Burning Bright

Except that the fire engine stops in front of Guy’s house. Beatty teases Guy: is he really surprised, after his performance with the poetry? First the two housewives turned him in, then his own wife, Mildred. And Mildred blunders past him carrying a suitcase, weeping, without makeup, stumbles into a taxi and is gone.

And Guy is so conflicted, transported, bewildered by the contradictions of his situation, that he has no hesitation at all about burning his entire house down, burning the house of lies and alienation and unhappiness to the ground, and burning the books which fly along the hallway.

Then Beatty arrests him, smacking him in the face. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making the emerald earpiece link to Faber fall out of Guy’s ear (Faber has been listening in to everything that’s happened). ‘Hello, hello,’ says Captain Beatty, picking it up. ‘I thought you were doing more than just muttering to yourself. So you have an accomplice. Well, we will track him down and arrest him, too.’

And Guy snaps. He is still holding the flamethrower. ‘No,’ he says, and before he knows it, his hands have flicked the switch and turned Beatty into a flaming torch. Stunned, dazed, Guy makes the other two fireman turn their backs and coshes them unconscious.

Then in a nightmare of terror, just as he thought he could relax, the Hound appears out of nowhere and leaps at him, jabbing its steel needle into his leg, but Guy still has self-possession enough to turn the flamethrower on the Hound and burn out its innards, making it spring backwards, having administered a fraction of the fatal dose.

Rummaging in the garden where he had stashed a few remaining books, Guy turns and hobbles, one leg completely anaesthetised and numb from the Hound’s partial injection, down the alleyway.

Then there is the terrific scene I remember from reading the book as a boy, where Guy has to run across one of the ten-lane highways that ring the city. It is completely empty and floodlit like a gladiator’s arena. He sets off limping and is half-way across, when he hears the roar of a carful of joyriders revving up and aiming straight at him. At the last minute Guy trips and falls headlong and the car swerves a fraction to avoid him, the driver knowing that going over a bump at 150 mph would fling the car into the air and crash it. That’s all that saves him. No morality or sympathy. And while the car decelerates a few hundred yards further on down the highway, and spins to a turn in order to come back and try to hit him again, Guy limps to the other side of the highway and melts into the dark alleyways.

He gets to Faber’s house and tells him what’s happened. Faber turns on the TV. There is a massive manhunt out for Guy and they have brought in another Hound from another precinct. They watch as a police helicopter equipped with a camera sets off following the new Hound as it lollops through the city on its eight mechanical legs.

Quickly, Guy tells Faber to disinfect the entire house, burn the bedspread they’re sitting on, the rug he walked across, the chair he sat in, dowse everything in disinfectant, turn on the garden sprinklers. He asks Faber for a suitcase of the old man’s clothes to change into later. They take a swig of scotch, shake hands, then Guy runs off.

He makes a detour to the house of fireman Black, one of his colleagues, creeps in through the porch, hides some of his books in the kitchen and sneaks out again. Black will be betrayed. The fireman’s house will be torched. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Through the city’s darkened back alleys Guy runs, glimpsing through people’s windows, on their giant TV screens, live footage of the police helicopter following the Hound as it beetles towards Faber’s house, encounters the wall of sprinklers, hesitates, then picks up Guy’s scent.

Faster faster Guy runs in a breathless, terrifically intense chase, until he makes it to the river, the river on the edge of the city, just a minute or two before the Hound, strips off his clothes, wades far out, clutches the suitcase and lets himself be carried fast fast fast by the current away from the Hound, the city, the helicopters, the police, the fire service, his burned house, his murdered captain, far away into the cleansing healing countryside.

Saved and lost

Faber had told him to look for the old disused railway lines. When Guy has drifted down the river, moiled in the water, until he breathes country air, trees, hay – he clambers out naked and reborn, dresses in Faber’s old clothes, smells the countryside, looks up at the stars. Free!

His foot clinks against something. It’s a disused rail. He sets off stumbling along it wondering what he’ll find. What he finds is a small fire with four or five old geezers crouching round it for warmth. They welcome him to the circle, make a simple meal of bacon fried in a pan. the leader is Granger. He explains there is a very loose network of them all across the country, rebels, outcasts, who have memorised entire books. A community of memorisers, ‘bums on the outside, libraries inside’.

They hear the jets screech overhead. All through the book conversations have been interrupted by the roar of jet engines, and the narrative has been punctuated by radio announcements of looming war, of enlistment and call-ups. Now Bradbury goes into full-on hallucinatory, poetic prose mode to describe the nuclear war which ends the book.

‘Look!’ cried Montag.
And the war began and ended in that instant.

He gives a slow-motion nightmare description of the bombs falling, the last hundred feet, the last yard, the last inch. And then – Whoomf – the entire city jumps into the air, cartwheels, and falls as ashes.

The bums are knocked flat, and then slowly clamber up again, covered in dust and spume from the river. That’s it. The war is over. The city is gone, as hundreds of other cities all round the world are gone. Granger makes a speech about how people back there will be needing them, about how they’ll try to rebuild, about how they won’t flaunt their book knowledge but how, just maybe, the wisdom they carry might just about maybe prevent there being any more future wars. Guy joins the scruffy old men as they set off back towards the ruins, wondering what they’ll find.


Themes

Rereading Fahrenheit 451 after all these years, I see it through the prism of the two books of short stories I’ve just read as:

  1. less a novel with a plot than as a series of linked set-piece descriptions, often very brilliant and evocative
  2. less a novel than one of Bradbury’s many fables – that’s to say, a simplified story with a strong moral message
  3. an expansion of the theme which occurs in at least three of his short stories, that the future will burn books

Political correctness

I was astonished to see that the book contains an attack on political correctness. It attributes the death of books and literacy to a politically correct wish not to offend. When Captain Beatty calls on Guy, he explains how the books came to be banned, how the entire present state of civilisation came about. It was a question of not wanting to upset anyone’s sensibilities, particularly the sensibilities of minorities.

‘You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of this.’

And:

‘The bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat -lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.

‘Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God!’

The population did it to themselves. Not wishing to offend any of the thousand and one minorities, authors censored themselves till their books, plays and movies were so bland no-one wanted to read them. Meanwhile, comics, sex and soap operas proliferated because they a) made people happy b) didn’t upset any particular minorities, in fact c) didn’t upset anyone. They were, in a sense, content free.

‘The public itself stopped reading of its own accord… I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them…’

America’s once and future wars

I had forgotten that the whole story is set against the looming prospect of war. According to the novel, America has started and won two atomic wars between 1960 and 1999. Now another one is in the offing. The characters’ conversations are continually interrupted by the deafening roar of jet bombers flying overhead.

Faber, for example, tells Guy not to even bother trying to overthrow the system; just let there be another war and society tear itself to pieces.

Guy hears the official radio announcing the mobilisation of a million men (in reality, ten million, Faber tells him.) When Mildred’s ghastly housewife friends come visiting they all empty-headedly declare the war will be over in 48 hours, just like the government promises.

A radio hummed somewhere. ‘. . . war may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its –‘ The firehouse trembled as a great flight of jet planes whistled a single note across the black morning sky.

And as he walked he was listening to the Seashell radio in one ear… ‘We have mobilized a million men. Quick victory is ours if the war comes…’

‘Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the TV `families.’ Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.’

‘The Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be, back next week. Quick…’ [said Mrs Phelps]

You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy discs, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt.

Thus ever-present threat of war is as much a part of the fabric of the story as it is of George Orwell’s contemporary dystopia, Nineteen Eight-Four. Contributes as much to the sense of dread and menace, as if Guy’s personal tragedy is reflected by the whole world coming to grief.

And then of course the entire world does blow up. Guy’s story turns out to be an invisible footnote to the end of civilisation as we know it.

Anti-Americanism

It is also striking that Bradbury was aware, in 1953, of America’s unpopularity.

‘Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumours; the world is starving, but we’re well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?’

Was he aware of this in 1953, or was he predicting it for his dystopian future? Either way it was remarkably prescient to anticipate the anti-American feeling which certainly dominated the world I grew up in in the 1970s, the left united against American commercial and military imperialism, against its support for dictators all round the globe and, right at the heart of the inferno, the epic mess of the Vietnam War.

The future will be stupid / TV / the internet

Beatty/Bradbury makes it quite clear – there will be no need for government intervention or oppression – ‘technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure’ will manoeuvre the whole population into willingly abolishing books, literature and thinking.

The thrust of the book is that American society is dumbing down into a brainless landscape of immersive video experiences and cheap thrills (wrecking balls, fast cars).

It would be easy to extract from the book all the moments when people’s experiences are mediated through the media: the centrepiece is Mildred’s addiction to her TV soaps, supported by the little TV party she has with her friends who are also fully paid up members of the TV ‘family’.

But, more subtly, the radio is present in the background, at his house, at the firestation, whispering rumours of war.

And then, during his terrified flight, Guy watches his own running relayed, first on Faber’s TV, and then through the lounge windows of the houses he runs past, Guy can see the live helicopter footage of the police chasing him. Like O.J. Simpson’s famous car chase.

On one level the entire book is a sermon against the dumbing down of America. 65 years later how does that message, that fear, hold up?

Personally, despite all temptations to the contrary, to throw your hands in the air and bewail the dumbing down of the social media age, I wonder, I’m more inclined – like Nietzsche – to confront all the woes of the age but, by an effort of will, to overcome them and assert that I don’t think it is.

More books are being sold and read than at any time in human history. Despite its visual content and the streaming of TV and video over laptops and smartphones, in reality the internet is still largely a reading experience. People read texts and tweets and emails. And argue and discuss them, all the time, in epic, unprecedented numbers.

Sure, most of the twitter storms and media frenzies which make the headlines are pitiful and stupid: but so was most of the arguing in pubs and front rooms and beauty salons for the last hundred years; the only difference now is that anyone can read the outpourings of everyone else.

We may be appalled at the stupidity of much of what appears on the internet, but a moment’s reflection suggests there is also an unprecedented wealth of highly intelligent, thoughtful and stimulating material out there – TED talks, millions of interesting blogs, countless new sources of detailed statistics, data and information.

In fact probably more people are taking part in written-down debates and arguments than at any point in human history. You may not like a lot of what is being written and debated and discussed, but books are not being burnt. There is no tampering with free speech in the free West. Quite the opposite: there has been an unprecedented explosion of quite literally, free speech.

If you give in, if you submit to the headlines about Trump and Brexit it is easy to despair. But then there was much more to despair about when Europe went to war in 1914, about the chaos of the 1920s, about the rise of fascism in the 1930s, about the world war of the 1940s, about the Cold War and the real threat of nuclear armageddon in the 1950s, about the widespread economic collapse of the 1970s, about the renewed Cold War confrontation of the 1980s. Relative to all those periods of global chaos and holocaust, the present seems amazingly peaceful and free.

The affluent society

In the 1950s and 60s American intellectuals worried that people were becoming so affluent, so comfortable and easy, that their lives were becoming hollow and meaningless. Mildred is the symbol of that feared, valium future, with her addiction to immersive TV soaps and her seashell headphones and the telltale suicide attempt in the opening pages which reveals for all to see how hollow and empty that life really is.

It was only reading some of the critiques of the book by young contemporary bloggers that I realised how this is an overlooked aspect or theme of the book, because that sense of American wellbeing has disappeared.

In the book everyone is middle class and has pretty much all they want. Money and jobs aren’t an issue. The problem is that everyone is entertaining themselves to death. The fundamental basis of the book is that America is too wealthy and how corrupting that affluent complacency became.

Whereas the last ten to twenty years have seen the reverse. For the first time American living standards have fallen. For the first time children can expect to be worse off than their parents. For the first time the ‘squeezed’ middle class is experiencing declining wages and standards of living. This – from everything I read – is the background to the revolt against the political establishment which gave rise to Trump, the unhappiness of huge parts of America which have experienced long-term economic decline.

Behind the louder themes of dumbing down, and nuclear war, and burning books, and a repressive society – possibly this quiet subtler thread is now the most telling part of the narrative. It foresaw an America which got steadily richer and richer and more and more hollow. For some decades, into the Me Generation 1970s, this seemed to be the case. But now, from the vantage point of rust belt, opioid-addicted America, Bradbury’s concern about the country becoming too wealthy, affluent and complacent seems like a period piece.

Although, on the face of it, a nightmare dystopia, Fahrenheit 451 is in fact a message in a bottle from a much happier, much more optimistic era in history.

Movie adaptation

Fahrenheit 451 was adapted into a movie by French director François Truffault. He was hot property in the 1960s. His adaptation looks incredibly clunky to us, now,


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

Why is this, Wells’s first novella, such a classic? At least in part because it is short, pacy and vivid.

Short 

Barely 90 pages in the Pan paperback version, at 33,000 words The Time Machine is comparable to the first Sherlock Holmes novels or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (25,000 words). It gets in, makes its sensational statement, and is all over while you’re still reeling. It takes as long to read as the average movie to watch.

Pacy 

Not only is it short, but it moves at a cracking pace, the opening words introducing us to the (anonymous) Time Traveller in conversation with his dinner guests. We are plunged straight into a discussion of the theory of time before, a few pages later, he shows them a small time machine (p.13), before then (p.16) exhibiting the nearly completed full-size machine itself, and then – a mere week, and three pages, later (p.19), his friends, assembled for the usual Thursday evening dinner, gasp as he staggers dramatically through the door, and tells the assembled guests his extraordinary story.

Given that the Pan paperback text starts on page seven, it’s gone from nothing to details of his time travelling adventures in twelve swift pages.

Vivid 

And nobody who’s read it can forget the tremendous scenes he conjures up –

  • the idyllic, sunny world of the Eloi
  • the horror of the underground world inhabited by the filthy, white ape-like Morlocks
  • the Time Traveller wandering, accompanied by the elfin Weena, through the ruins of a vast abandoned Natural History Museum
  • the fire in the forest as the Morlocks attack him and Weena
  • and then the climactic scene as the Morlocks swarm all over him as he struggles to reattach the levers to the time machine which make it work and let him escape

And I have never forgotten being entranced, as a boy, by the coda to the main adventure, his visions of the world millions of years hence, when the dying sun has stopped rising or setting, the moon has disappeared, and the world is a vast beach lapped by a thick oily sea, inhabited only by monstrous crabs.

‘I stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight.

‘The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt—pink under the lurid sky. There was a sense of oppression in my head, and I noticed that I was breathing very fast. The sensation reminded me of my only experience of mountaineering, and from that I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.

‘Far away up the desolate slope I heard a harsh scream, and saw a thing like a huge white butterfly go slanting and fluttering up into the sky and, circling, disappear over some low hillocks beyond. The sound of its voice was so dismal that I shivered and seated myself more firmly upon the machine. Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennæ, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.’

Wow. Just wow. What a scene! How many teenage imaginations have been inflamed by Well’s vivid vision of a bleak and otherworldly futurity.

The scientific perspective

Underpinning the grip of the narrative is Wells’s aura of scientific knowledgeability. The idea of a world divided into gladsome nymphs cavorting in the sunshine and vile cannibal apes living underground is one thing. What gives it depth is the narrator’s thought-provoking speculations about why this future world has come about. His initial theory is proven wrong, but is interesting nonetheless. He speculates that intelligence is required by creatures that have to cope with changing and dangerous circumstances.

‘It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.’ (Chapter 13)

In other words he applies a purely Darwinian worldview to the world that he encounters. There is no Victorian sentimentality about God or religion or ‘the spirit’. From the get-go Wells is an adherent of Darwinian materialism and comes up with materialist explanations for everything he sees – lacking big animal predators or external threat, mankind has dwindled to four-foot, happy, brainless elves.

But when presented with new evidence, like a good scientist he abandons theory one and comes up with his theory two, although confessing to his listeners that it might still be wrong. Now he speculates that the two races – the Eloi and the Morlocks – represent the very long-term outcome of the trend already visible in Victorian times – the division of society into two classes, an insouciant, privileged upper class, and a grunting, toiling underclass, increasingly consigned, literally, to a subterranean existence.

This theory itself strikes me as being crude as an explanation for the society he finds in the year eight hundred and two thousand, seven hundred and one. The scientific worldview of the book is created less by this big speculation, than by his understanding of countless little details. For example, the way he speculates that the big, flat eyes and white coloration of the Morlocks are a result of living in underground darkness – and mentions the Victorian naturalists who had found the same qualities in fish which live in the depths of the oceans.

Or his knowledge of the solar system, of the movements of the earth, moon and other planets around the sun, which he brings to bear in his speculations about the way the night sky of earth in the far distant future, millions of years hence, is so radically different from our time.

George Orwell paid tribute to Wells by saying that he showed adolescents and young adults of his generation that the world was not going to be as their stuffy, hidebound, stiflingly Anglican parents thought it would be. It wasn’t going to be all boy scouts and British Empire forever. Wells showed that vastly bigger forces were at work on all humankind. The future was going to be something altogether weirder and more uncanny. It was going to be strange and wonderful. And this, Orwell says, was experienced as a huge imaginative liberation from the restrictions of Edwardian society.

Over and above this, Wells repeatedly hits the note, beloved of adolescents, of the futility of human life, especially of contemporary polite society. The perspectives he opens up, the vast realms of astronomy and evolution, the epochs and distances, dwarf out petty concerns.

I suppose this is one of the key notes and comforts of science fiction as a genre.

‘Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. I thought of the great precessional cycle that the pole of the earth describes. Only forty times had that silent revolution occurred during all the years that I had traversed. And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organisations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence. Instead were these frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry, and the white Things of which I went in terror.’

Wonder 

And this, I think, accounts for the enduring success and influence of the early Wells science fantasias – their sense of wonder! They capture a profound sense of awe and amazement. They are astonishing and astounding. You can feel your imagination being stretched and extended in previously undreamed-of ways.

It’s that ability to amaze which marks Wells out, and the speed with which he gets to the amazing bits, with the minimum of Victorian etiquette and bombast and narrative machinery. Within minutes of opening the book we are there in the room as the time traveller tests his time machine, and all the early books are like that. Immediate.

The anchor of the mundane

The story was so fantastic and incredible, the telling so credible and sober. (Chapter 16)

I’d forgotten that The Time Machine is set in Richmond-upon-Thames. That’s where the house of the unnamed time traveller is situated, on a hill overlooking the river Thames, where a half dozen or so professional chaps meet up every Thursday for dinner and intelligent conversation.

Since the time machine doesn’t move in space but only in time, that means that the eerie statue of the sphinx, the ruined hall where the Eloi eat and sleep, and the nearby air shafts up which the Morlocks climb to seize their prey – all are, or more accurately, will be situated, in Richmond. Weird thought.

Similarly, the porcelain palace, as he calls it, an immense ruined building which turns out to be a kind of natural history museum, is off in the direction of Banstead, which he has to get to by passing through what was once Wimbledon. From the heights on which the palace is built he can look north-east and see a creek or inlet of the Thames where ‘Battersea must once have been’.

For a Londoner (and most of Wells’s early readers were from London’s literary circles and readerships) these incongruous references to banal and everyday locations add another layer of frisson and excitement – to see places you know and travel through and are thoroughly bored with, described as they will appear in an inconceivably distant future, is strange and marvellous.

The mundaneness of the settings – the glimpses of the traveller’s bustling servants and the dinner guests fussing with their pipes – and the drabness of these suburban place names, perform two functions:

  1. they anchor and root the stories in the real actual everyday world, lending the astonishing stories a patina of plausibility
  2. at the same time, the banality of place names and domestic habits are like velvet backgrounds against which he sets the wonderful jewels of his imagination

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Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

We by Evgeny Zamyatin (1921)

We is always referenced as the godfather of dystopias, set in a perfect future state where people are known as numbers, and everyone functions according to a regulated Table of Hours. But what lies in the wild country beyond? Our hero, D-503, awakens from his zombie life via his obsession with a mysterious woman, I-330, who reveals to him his true nature, while around them OneState collapses into rebellion and counter-revolution.

That’s the plot, but the real experience of reading this book is bewilderment at its wild and hysterical style, 220 pages of continuous hysteria and feverish delirium as D-503 hallucinates his affair, the streets turn purple, his dreams become real, he obsesses about lips and ears, and has wild visions.

The actual story – the sequence of events – is sometimes impossible  to make out through the feverish prose. Somewhere I read a suggestion that Zamyatin was trying to write an expressionist prose, full of fevers and terrors. Maybe more accurate would be that the style attempts in prose what El Lissitsky and Rodchenko were doing in Suprematism and Constructivism, creating abrupt lines, energies of clashing perspectives, vibrant colours.

Orwell acknowledged that Nineteen Eighty-Four is indebted to We, but Orwell’s novel is terrifying because it’s so plausible, is imagined down to the tiniest realistic detail, nothing like Zamyatin’s deliriums.

On a completely different tack it’s extraordinary to think that a Petersburg intellectual could create such a sustained flight of fancy while Don Cossacks were killing each other with axes (Sholokhov) and the Red Army in Poland was murdering Jews with clubs and sabers (Babel). What a terrible, terrifying time.


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