The future world of 1881, John O’Leary

The Great Romance 
The Inhabitant; Dominic Alessio (ed)
University of Nebraska Press, US$17.95,
ISBN 9780803259966

At a time when James Cameron’s film Avatar is breaking box-office records, thanks largely to the hyper-vivid, computer-generated images of the planet Pandora provided by our own Weta Workshops, it is salutary to be reminded that New Zealand has been the site of arresting visions of alternative or future worlds for well over a century.

Samuel Butler set his Erewhon somewhere beyond mountains very like the Southern Alps. The country’s premier Julius Vogel painted a remarkably prescient picture of society’s future in his utopian novel Anno Domini 2000 or Woman’s Destiny. The world’s second-oldest science fiction film was made in New Zealand – alas, Message from Mars has not survived. The country, in short, punches well above its weight when it comes to utopian and science fiction fantasy, a characteristic which may go some way to explaining the publication, in 1881 in Ashburton, of such an intriguing novella as The Great Romance.

A deal of mystery surrounds this obscure work. It is not known who wrote it – the author described himself simply as The Inhabitant, a standard appellation, editor Dominic Alessio explains, for writers of guide books, which, in a sense, is what The Great Romance is. We don’t even have the whole text, for the third and final part of the novella is missing, lurking perhaps in some dusty archive. All of which adds to the interest of the two earlier sections, which narrate the experiences of time-traveller John Brenton Hope, who wakes in 2146 after slipping into a chemically-induced sleep in a future 1950.

The world he finds is a utopia of the kind a late-Victorian eugenicist would have hoped for: beautiful, healthy, moral people live in clean, orderly cities (there is a reference to less happy folk in the “great border lands of peoples” but it is made clear that these are in decline population-wise, and will soon vanish). In particular, earth’s 22nd century inhabitants have developed the ability to read each other’s thoughts, a capacity which has improved the morality of the race since lying is no longer possible (it also makes the book’s dialogues a little strange to read, it has to be said).

Impressive as this future world is, and despite falling in love with the beauteous Edith, Hope chooses to leave it for another – for Venus, in fact, which as Alessio reminds us, was considered a living planet during much of the 19th century (only later did the search for extraterrestrial life shift to Mars). Accordingly, accompanied by Edith’s brother and a mutual male friend, Hope blasts off from earth. It is here that The Great Romance comes into its own, for in his descriptions of the wonders and dangers of space travel The Inhabitant displays an impressive grasp of scientific realities.

The effects of weightlessness, including muscle fatigue, are taken into account; the perils of meteor impacts on spacecraft are discussed; the problems of re-entry into a planet’s atmosphere are considered. Particularly fine is the description of the sight of Venus hanging above a small orbiting moon on which the space travellers briefly land, which recalls the pictures of the earth taken from our own moon nearly a century later:

We prepared to strike off again, for there, hanging above us, as though it might suddenly fall and crush us into oblivion, hung the great planet, half in sunshine, half in shadow, covering a third of the sky, hanging right over our heads its clouds and waters, mountains and forests, spread out in wonderful state above us.

 

Such sophisticated scientific realism, as Alessio observes, suggests that late 19th century New Zealand was not the dull, provincial backwater peopled by unimaginative cow-cockies that some critics have proposed. Maoriland was modern, it seems, and texts like The Great Romance tend to prove it.

Advanced as the novella is in terms of its science fiction, it is typical of its time in several other respects, notably in its attitude towards women and indigenous races. The beauteous Edith, for example, is rhapsodised by Hope in characteristically late-Victorian terms which, while no doubt interesting for historians of gender relations, are tedious for the modern reader. Much more interesting is the account Hope gives of his encounter with two of the indigenous inhabitants of Venus, gentle, large-limbed creatures possessed of happy, tranquil dispositions despite their rather limited material civilisation.

As Alessio notes, the Venuses (as Hope calls them) are far from being the evil, bug-eyed monsters of novels like H G Wells’s The War of the Worlds; nor are they simply slightly modified versions of humans, as tended to be the case with earlier science fiction. Authentically but not threateningly alien, they are treated by Hope with affection and respect; he even entertains the idea of cross-species sexual relationships between humans and the Venuses, and decides against colonising their planet lest it damage their existence (later, however, he appears to change his mind on this score).

Alessio suggests – rightly in my opinion – that The Inhabitant’s non-didactic, paternalistic description of the planet’s indigenous inhabitants can be read as a coded representation of the attitudes held by many 19th settlers toward Maori; attitudes that contained elements of racism but which were, for the most part, rather more positive than those held by Europeans in relation to, say, Africans (it is notable, for example, that the happy inhabitants of earth in 2146 do not include among their number “the Hottentot, [and] the degraded Negro”).

Alessio’s discussion of The Great Romance in terms of postcolonial criticism is enlightening, generally speaking, avoiding as it does both a simplistic, literal reading of the novella and the self-regarding aridities of high theory. It reminds us, usefully, that western representations of the indigenous Other were more various, and more nuanced, than is often allowed.

Missing its third and final section, the story of The Great Romance remains unfinished, with Hope travelling across the planet in search of the Venuses’ homeland, and one of his human friends falling off an asteroid into the void of space (literally, a cliff-hanger of a chapter ending). Despite this, the novella is worth buying as an intriguing oddity to add to one’s shelf of 19th century New Zealand fiction.

 

John O’Leary is an academic researcher.

 

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