The Relevance of Past Futures: “Voices From the Radium Age”

by Rick Ouellette

This is a great collection of early 20th century science fiction, and it has plenty to say to us early 21st century readers. It is part of the revelatory “Radium Age” series from MIT Press that includes several novels; all are graced with eye-catching retro-style covers courtesy of the Canadian graphic artist Seth. This era is labeled as such by the editors for the discovery of radium by Madam Curie in 1898, which symbolically launched us into the volatile new century. It can be considered the second great phase of futuristic fiction, the writers here (many are household names) building on the 19th century foundation put in place by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne.

The highlight for me was re-reading the astounding novelette “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster from 1909. He wrote it in between “A Room with a View” and “Howard’s End” but this is something else altogether. Maybe it takes 100 years of foregrounding to so accurately see into our dysfunctional world of all-pervasive interconnecting technology. Here, the world’s population now lives one-to-a-room and entirely underground, due to environmental catastrophe (naturally). All human needs and instantaneous communications are provided uniformly by the all-pervasive Machine. Many people pass their days on the proto-Internet, subjecting each other to banal informational forums under the guise of being “Lecturers” (today better known as “influencers”). This includes the main character Vashti, a middle-aged woman whose son is one of the few rebelling against the dull homogeneity.  Vashti does not have time for her son’s desire for corporeal adventuring, after all she is a popular lecturer and “knew several thousand people.” Mr. Forster delivers a sick burn from the past by adding, “In certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.” A sort of eerie singularity has been “achieved,” and mankind has forgotten that it invented the Machine so is now subservient to it— hence totally helpless in the event of the major malfunction promised by the title.

A poster from one of the many theatrical productions of Forster’s masterwork in recent years.

 There a few other standouts among the seven longish stories that make up “Voices From the Radium Age”: “The Horror of the Heights” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1913), is an early bi-plane super adventure, not unlike Poe’s tall tales of hot-air balloon exploits, where a daring (if unlucky) aeronaut finds an unwelcoming “air jungle” in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. It’s a fascinating new look at the Sherlock Holmes author and another volume from this series features two dinosaur-populated novellas featuring his Professor Challenger character, “The Lost World” and “The Poison Belt.”

Another riveting entry is “The Comet” by W.E.B. Du Bois (1920). It is taken from a book by the African-American author and NAACP co-founder called “Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil” which combined personal essays with fantasy fiction. His protagonist Jim is a low-ranking employee from Harlem who works at a bank on the corner of Wall St. and Broadway. He is asked to retrieve some records from a vault far beneath the ground, since going down there “was too dangerous for more valuable men.” Just then, a comet spewing a deadly gas passes over Manhattan and when Jim emerges on ground level everyone he can see is dead. He makes a grim journey thru the city until finding what he thinks is the only other survivor: a wealthy white woman from the Upper East Side. Will this be the unlikely couple to restart the human race? Considered a blueprint example of the Afro-Futurist genre, Du Bois’ astringent viewpoint also has the moral backbone (and twist ending) of a great lost “Twilight Zone” episode. (Also in this series is the 1903 novel “Of One Blood” by Boston-based writer Pauline Hopkins, a visionary tale of a uncolonized, high-tech African nation visited by a mixed-race Harvard student).

W.E.B Du Bois (left) and Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

In a further gambit to move “Voices From the Radium Age” beyond sf’s usual white male perspective, editor Joshua Glen opens this collection with the table-turning fable “Sultana’s Dream” by Bengali author-educator-activist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905). Her title character is transported to Ladyland, a sustainable Eden where green technology is more advanced than we see today, and where it’s the menfolk (survivors of a calamitous war) who are now kept inside to do the (solar-powered) cooking. This feminist wish-fulfillment, although penned with a light touch, struck deep for Begum Rokeya (as she was posthumously known) who swam against a heavy tide for women’s rights in India, and who established the first girl’s school in Calcutta. (Another Radium-Age book that also explores this theme is “A World of Women” by J.D. Beresford, first published in 1913).

Far less enlightened, but still well worth a look, is “The Red One” by Jack London (1918). One of London’s South Seas tales, a researcher and (mis)adventurer lands on Guadalcanal after hitching a ride on a “blackbirder” (just one class below a straight-up slave ship). He is soon enraptured by a periodic, all-encompassing, haunting, heavenly sound. He takes an ill-considered trip to the inhospitable interior of the island, all the while denigrating the native population (esp. his female guide) with racist language that is appalling even for its era. There’s not enough discernible separation between the author and his character to let Jack off the hook here. Too bad, because the intrigue of the premise, sort of a tropical equivalent of the Monolith-on-Moon scenes in “2001,” is promising. Kudos to the editor and publisher for exposing London’s transgressions but not “cancelling” a story that merits inclusion but not admiration.

The complete (for now) Radium Age collection from MIT Press

Two other stories round out this collection. William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” from 1907 (with it’s all-too-modern strains of a runaway virus and isolation), and 1931’s “The Jameson Satellite” by “Amazing Stories” icon Neil R. Jones (the first of his many Professor Jameson tales, with the unfrozen title teacher living in a far, far-off future) also have their moments of forewarning. Perhaps my big takeaway from this book, a must-have sf fans ready to cast a wide net, is that one need not be a Nostradamus for far-reaching prognostications like the ones found between the covers here. Evidence of the past AND future is all around us (Poe, in his side gig as a science reporter, wrote about global warming in the 1840s). Human knowledge is a great long continuum where people’s imagination and principles can often out-run the times, just as historians find novel nuances in past events. And that maybe we need that perspective from the past to better come to terms with our own present predicaments.

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