Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Last American

"Science fiction is when the improbable becomes probable..." 

This is the definition of the sci fi genre emblazoned in the entrance to an imaginative (free) exhibition currently on at the British Library in London, Out of this World. It sets out the history of the imagining of new or different worlds by authors from the earliest to the most current - I was delighted to discover that the first trip to outer space was described in The True History by the second century Greek-Syrian author Lucian, regarded as the father (or maybe great-great- grandfather many times removed) of this type of escapism.

Though escapism may be more than a slight misnomer - because while sci fi can provide entertaining stories, it has also long been a vital repository of comment on the societies and conditions observed and experienced by those who write it. Whilst pure yarns feature aplenty, credible science fiction requires some degree of possibility, however remote, to avoid slipping into pure fantasy (where, according the exhibition, the impossible becomes possible). Whether a reflection of contemporary progress - such as dreams of rocket flights to the Moon or Mars and speculation on what alien wonders might be found in stories such as HG Wells First Men on the Moon - or gloomier prognoses such as the post-apocalyptic On The Beach, which covered the nuclear threat of the Cold War era - science fiction should tell us something about ourselves as much as about the imagined alternate realities it postulates.

In some cases, this can be positive - Star Trek and Dr Who have long mixed teatime family entertainment with real physics, even if highly theoretical or somewhat warped (no pun intended). And of course, Dr McCoy's non-invasive hypodermic pressure syringe is now a medical fact. But in other cases, a more negative picture can be drawn, usually as a warning by the author of the possible consequences of some contemporary ill.

One such tale is a book among the exhibition called "The Last American" by John Ames Mitchell, published in 1889. This recounts the story of an expedition in the year 2951 by the Muslim Persian Admiral Khan-Li to rediscover the long lost land of Merikha, a thousand years after the contemporary world has been destroyed by runaway climate change.

Mitchell's novel is short - the original publication ran to less than 80 pages but with lots of very imaginative, colourful illustrations; it is available for free download (text only) from Project Guttenberg. And on reading it, there are a striking number of passages that cover the materialism and greed which Ames Mitchell saw as representing American society in his day, even although at that time it was an emergent power, its global reach still several decades in the future. These passages remain strikingly relevant today, not only to America but increasingly to our entire globalised world.

As the Persians of a millennium from now climb through the overgrown ruins of New York and Washington DC, postulating on the use of buildings and the purpose of ancient objects (a satirical view of the archaeology that was becoming so popular in spite of its wildly speculative methods at the time of the novel's writing), the expedition's historian is delighted to discover the ruins of what he considers to have been the cause of the Merikhans downfall:

He stopped speaking, his eyes fixed upon an inscription over a doorway, partly hidden by one of the branches of the oak.
Turning suddenly upon me with a look of triumph, he exclaimed:
"It is ours!"
"What is ours?" I asked.
"The knowledge we sought;" and he pointed to the inscription,
He was tremulous with joy. "Thou hast heard of Nhu-Yok, O my Prince?"
I answered that I had read of it at school.

He continues a little later with an explanation:

"They were great only in numbers and too weak to endure success. At the beginning of the twentieth century—as they counted time—huge fortunes were amassed in a day, and the Mehrikans became drunk with money."
Whereupon I exclaimed, "O Land of Delight! For much money is cheering."
But the old man shook his head. "Very true, O Prince; but the effect was woful. These vast fortunes soon dominated all things, even the seat of government and the courts of Justice. Tricks of finance brought fabulous gains. Young men became demoralized. For sober industry with its moderate profits was ridiculed."
"Verily, that would be natural!" I said. "But in a land where all were rich who was found to cook and scrub, to fetch and carry and to till the soil? For none will shovel earth when his pockets are stuffed with gold."
"All were not rich. And when the poor also became greedy they became hostile. Then began social upheavals with bloodshed and havoc."

Several other passages cover the materialism of the fallen society - shopping and bargain seeking were its people's highest objectives - and the expedition is at once astounded by the size of its originally powerful cities and by the totality of its collapse. The explorers are delighted when they find a well preserved Persian rug among the ruins, commenting that although the least decayed item they found, it is older than the degraded items surrounding it, such was their transient and disposable design. Without spoiling the conclusion, the denouement has reference to yet another contemporary ill Ames Mitchell saw in his pleasure-seeking contemporaries.

The tale is well written, the crumbling ruins and emptiness of the deserted citadels hauntingly conjured, and you can trace to here the origins of scenes and themes picked up, deliberately or not, by authors and screenplays in science fiction throughout the 20th century. But the most striking aspect is how prescient his observations were of the future of his own society at a time when it was still in transition from an essentially agricultural society to a fully industrialised, commercially obsessed one. 

Although New York and other large cities were well established and as terrifyingly cramped, dirty and crowded as any in the world, most Americans still lived in rural settings. Ames Mitchell's imaginative projection of the processes underway at his time is science fiction at its best - and arguably its most accurate: he was predicting man-made climate change nearly a century and a quarter ago.

Intentionally or otherwise, it is also ironic that he should have picked the country he did for the home of his intrepid explorers - in spite of their comic names (the ship's pilot is called Griptillah and the historian is Nhofhul), as they gather their artefacts for the Museum of Teheran, Islamic Iran has evidently survived the climate disaster and outlived doomed America by at least one thousand years.

No comments:

Post a Comment