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“…the future’s uncertain and the end is always near…” @BL_Publishing #murieljaeger #sciencefictionclassics

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The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Ah, Utopias! I seem to have been circling, and repeatedly coming back to, the subject since first watching Richard Clay‘s “Utopia” series back in 2017. Then there’s the vexed subject of the loose Utopian reading list I set up for myself, which I haven’t actually got very near to approaching in recent months. However, a recent arrival from the lovely British Library, in the form of one of their Science Fiction Classics, has nudged me back closer again – as it’s a lost work that ties in with utopian/dystopian literature very significantly. It’s also a very thought-provoking read…

The book’s author, Muriel Jaeger, is an interesting subject herself. She attended Somerville College in the early 1910s, moving in a circle which included Dorothy L. Sayers and Winifred Holtby; Sayers, in particular, was a close friend. Jaeger went on to work for “Time and Tide” magazine, as well as writing her novels and scraping a precarious living; however, at the time, her novels were not particularly well received and she eventually abandoned writing. “The Question Mark” was originally published in 1926, and as the newly-reissued edition from the British Library (in their Science Fiction Classics series) reveals, it was put out by the Hogarth Press! The new edition reproduces a letter from Leonard Woolf to Jaeger about the publication of the book, as well as a striking portrait of the author; and the excellent introduction by Dr. Mo Moulton gives background on Jaeger’s life as well as putting her book in context.

“The Question Mark” takes a timely look at projections of the future, a popular subject in early science fiction, and draws on works like Wells’ “The Time Machine”. The main protagonist, a very ordinary and lowly clerk, one Guy Martin, is sent 200 years into the future. Martin is not a happy man; scraping a living, constantly short of money and struggling to make his way in the capitalist world, he finds the world of the future initially to be a blissfully comfortable and, yes, utopian one. Poverty has been wiped out; no-one wants for anything; and all manner of modern technologies provide for humanity’s every need. However, it isn’t long before Guy starts to see beneath the superficial reality of the future; because despite the comfort and convenience, something is missing. Complications come in the form of Ena, the daughter of the doctor treating Guy, who seems to be oddly immature despite her years and somewhat fixated on the visitor from the past. Guy begins to encounter humans who are not the rational, intelligent beings he first came across on his awakening; and he comes to realise that humanity seems to have replaced the capitalist class system with a new kind of system of its own…

“Do you mean that we might have had – all this,” Guy spread his hands in a wide gesture to the countryside, “if we had chosen?”

“Certainly, most of it, if you had set about getting rich collectively instead of individually.”

Jaeger’s book is an absolutely fascinating look at human behaviour and where it might go; and as I read on I sensed elements in it that were similar to another lost classic I read recently, Rose Macaulay’s “What Not“. The troubled subject of eugenics is bubbling under the surface of both narratives, and it becomes clear that instead of dividing humans into a complex strata of various classes, the future world is separated on simple lines between those deemed “intellectuals” and those deemed “normals”. The latter are portrayed as vapid and easily led; they’ll worship the latest sporting hero as easily as they will a preacher who claims to have a direct line to God. And the media feed on this, fuel the hysteria created and are a damaging influence on the whole of society (sounds familiar, that…) Once Guy realises this, he’s shocked and repelled by the world in which he finds himself; and in fact both classes seem to struggle to find a purpose in life, as all need for work and striving has actually gone. Our hero even starts to miss the past, despite the depression and alienation he felt; but as the story reveals, he may have no choice about where he lives and the book *does* end on a slightly ambiguous note.

I found “The Question Mark” absolutely compelling from start to finish. Jaeger writes really well, capturing brilliantly the depths of despair Martin sinks into before his journey to future; and painting equally well her portrait of a future world which is gradually revealed to both Guy and the reader. There are so many interesting issues here; whether human beings will always divide into types; whether we need work and a purpose to feel any worth in our lives; whether the influence of the media really *should* be dramatically curtailed; and so on. It raises difficult questions about collective responsibility and state control: at one point, Guy encounters a situation where he discovers that women can choose to be part of a harem and live in a situation where a man has multiple wives. Should humanity intervene or allow the women their choice? That’s another topic which has very modern resonances… Again, it needs to be remembered that Jaeger was publishing before “Brave New World” was written and as the introduction makes clear, took the utopian writing of Wells and his ilk which had gone before and gave it a twist. Her hero is given no easy answers, especially when faced by the response from one particular resident of the future. Ena, the product of a marriage of an “intellectual” and a “normal”, and who is classed as the latter, is portrayed as wanting to step outside that limited definition and she sees the possibility of more. The “normal” characters are motivated pretty much by romance, sex and violence; yet Ena touchingly perceives a world where she and Guy could be just ‘pals’, and that’s a heartbreaking element of the story.

Oh, what have you done with the world? What have you done with it? You have everything we ever wanted and everything to make you happy. I thought when I first came that all the nightmare was over. I thought you were all happy at last; and you are miserable – worse than miserable – so damn doubly hopeless that you clutch at every straw.

Underlying so much of the narrative are the many failed opportunities of humanity (another theme which resonates…) Guy comes to recognise that the inequalities are just the same as in his time, and that the intellectuals are detached and uncaring, leaving their fellow humans to get on with it in their overexcited and hysterical lives. The authorities will step in when there’s been a violent murder or such, and a visit to the location where euthanasia takes place is chilling in its matter-of-factness…

Jaeger’s portrait in the book

So “The Question Mark” turned out to be such an absorbing and interesting (and enjoyable!) read. It raises all manner of issues which are still sitting in my brain while I muse on them. In her own foreword, Jaeger takes issue with the utopias that have come before her – she accepts the worlds that have been created but she finds herself unable to accept that the inhabitants are realistic enough. As she says “At this point my effort to realise Utopia fails. With the best will in the world, I have found myself quite unable to believe in these wise, virtuous, gentle, artistic people. They do not seem to have any relation to humanity as I know it – even by the most distant descent; they suggest, rather, Special Creation.” Jaeger’s people are instantly recognisable to us, and I guess at the heart of subtext of the book is nature vs nurture: are we born a particular way or can we learn? It’s a subject that’s still debated (a recent example might be “Educating Rita”); and possibly always will be – because I don’t think there are any easy answers when it comes to humanity! Anyway; I think Leonard Woolf was right when he took a risk on “The Question Mark” – I found it a brilliant and thought-provoking book, another winner from the British Library and definitely most unjustly neglected!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! 😀

“…the possibilities of things yet to be discovered…” #williamftemple #blsfc @BL_Publishing

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The Four-Sided Triangle by William F. Temple

Although there are umpteen sci-fi books knocking around the Ramblings, and despite the fact I *do* like certain types of the genre, I still don’t find myself reading enough of it. However, I’m eternally grateful to the lovely British Library publishing wing who’ve now started to produce Science Fiction Classics in the same stunning style as their Crime Classics editions. I reviewed a couple of collections of short stories, which were the first releases in the series, and these were marvellous. So I was very pleased to receive review copies of the first two full novels, a pair of books by William F. Temple, who was featured in the short story collections.

Temple was an early practitioner of British Sci Fi writing, as well as a member of the British Interplanetary Society, and he published a number of short stories before the outbreak of World War 2; he also famously once shared a flat with Arthur C. Clarke! I decided to start with the oldest of the books, “Four-Sided Triangle”, and this was Temple’s first novel; based on a short story he’d published in 1939, it was eventually reworked and published in novel form ten years later. Mike Ashley’s excellent introduction relates the tortured story of the book’s journey into print (the manuscript was lost twice before being finally rewritten and submitted for publication!) and a later film ensured it was the work he was best known for. “Four-sided…” is the kind of Wellsian science fiction set on Earth that I really enjoy, and the scientific element is important to the story – as is the effect of science on human beings.

All I have concluded from a lifetime of studying man and his sickness of body and mind is that if the liver and intestines are in good condition and the sexual urges satisfied, then God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the world. But if all or any of these are out of order or frustrated, then during that time there is no God and no Heaven, and the world is a sorry, grey, dismal mess. We are in the invisible cages in nature’s mad zoo, cages too big or too small for us; but the bars are very real

The book is narrated by Doctor Harvey, a bachelor country medic nearing retirement who’s usually just referred to as Doc. He chooses to tantalize the reader with a glimpse of some fantastic invention in the first couple of pages, then goes back to the start of the story to relate the events which led up to that discovering. The Doc is a good man, very much caring for his flock of patients in the local village, and he adopts a young boy called Bill. The latter is a prodigy from a violent home, and his scientific knowledge is immense. Doc bring him up and sends him to university, where he befriends the son of local gentry, Robin Heath. Normally these two men would never have mixed and met, but university is a great leveller and they share an interest in all things scientific. When they return to their village they naturally set up a lab together with money Robin manages to squeeze out of his father, and the two begin to invent.

However, a complication is added into the mix in the form of Lena; a beautiful woman with a complicated background and suicidal tendencies, she’s drawn into the circle of the inventors and Doc, and naturally enough both men fall head over heels. Lena, of course, only loves one of them, and so it seems we’re set for all kinds of emotional turmoil. However, Bill and Robin’s invention may be able to assist a little – or is a little scientific knowledge a dangerous thing? I’m not going to say any more about the plot because once you’ve started to read you can probably guess what’s going to happen. Let’s just say the wonderful invention is very good at replicating objects…

“Four-Sided…” is perhaps an unusual choice as one of the first SF Classics but I think it’s a very brave and interesting one. At nearly 300 pages the book is longer than a lot of sci-fi pot boilers were, which allows for much more character development than is probably usual. Again, with a limited range of characters the author is able to do more with them. The book was actually finally finished just after the Second World War (in which Temple served) and the subject matter is quite daring in places: there is nudity (Lena is an early ‘free spirit’ with a feral upbringing behind her); frank discussion of suicide; and equally frank coverage of domestic violence and all but stated outright sexual abuse. The latter is significant in the character of Bill (to whom this happened) as his reaction to Lena is intense and coloured by his young experiences.

Oh, this incurable English habit of pretending to treat as a joke the strange and the new, whether idea or fact; and the more important the subject the lighter the treatment!

Additionally, the book takes on large topics like authenticity (is an identically reproduced copy of the Mona Lisa as valuable as the original?) and human morality. The Reproducer creates something which should solve the problems of the scientists, but it doesn’t; human emotions are complex and unpredictable, and in this story happiness seems to elude everyone. Doc spends much of his time in despair, but manages to effect some kind of balance in the end. More I shall not say… As for the science, well fortunately for me with my non-scientific, grasshopper brain, it doesn’t dominate and the reader pretty much just has to accept that what happens, happens. Which was fine for me! Doc seemed to find it all a little bemusing too, and I’m with him on that:

I can’t quite remember what Newton had thought, nor Dalton, who followed him. As for Thomson (J.J.), Rutherford, Dirac and Planck, they came in to confuse utterly a conception that was already clouding. Bohr had something to do with the Theory of Indeterminacy, which either explained or didn’t explain why electrons jumped from orbit to orbit without apparent cause and oddly taking no time at all for the journey, and Rutherford shot millions of alpha-particles (which might have been the same things as ‘photons’… no, on second thoughts, perhaps they were not) from a cathode ray tube at atoms in the early attempts to split them. Gentlemen named Siegbahn and Hahn were somehow involved with “Uranium 235”, there was such a thing as “heavy water”, and an Italian named Fermi had discovered something pretty important too.

Quite…

Were there any downsides to the book? Well, if I’m honest I *did* struggle a little bit with the author’s (or Doc’s) view of women; Lena, despite her free spirit, is apparently only seeking the fulfilment of a husband, family and home (or so her artistic efforts are dismissed). Additionally, the terminology used to describe her is often somewhat clichéd and verges on titillation at points; I guess that’s a potential issue with all books from this era, but it *did* grate a little.

Nevertheless, “Four-Sided Triangle” was a really engrossing read. I loved its exploration of the morality behind scientific inventions, the consequences of uncontrolled progress (as Bill’s hasty experiments have tragic effects at one point) and also the investigation of human emotions and indeed the effects of class mores. So although Temple’s book might seem an unexpected choice to open this new series with, I think it’s an excellent and fascinating work and I’m keen to spend some time with his other BLSFC, “Shoot at the Moon” some time soon! 🙂

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