A Journey In Other Worlds

A Journey in Other Eras

A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future
by John Jacob Astor IV
D. Appleton and Company, New York 1894
Available as free download from Gutenberg Project here

I think John Jacob Astor IV would have been fascinated by the machine that killed him. One hundred years ago today, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic after being struck by an iceberg. Many people know that Astor was one of the victims, but most do not know that he was also the world’s wealthiest science fiction author. Astor, the fourth of his name, inherited great wealth but also created plenty of his own. His real estate ventures include the building of the Astoria Hotel “the world’s most luxurious hotel”, which became the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, one of the most famous in the world. Astor patented several inventions and helped develop a turbine engine. As an inventor, he would certainly have been impressed by the reciprocating steam engines of the ship he died on, not to mention the Parsons turbine that drove the propeller. There is no record of his touring the ship, but had he asked for one, he’d have gotten the red-carpet treatment. I can imagine JJ (as he was called) deep in conversation with Titanic’s designer, Thomas Andrews, in a haze of cigar smoke and whiskey.

Such a scene could come right out of the pages of Astor’s novel, A Journey in Other Worlds, which purports to be a story of interplanetary exploration in the year 2000, but which reads more like a catalog of future technological achievements. As with many 19th century “scientific romances”, the emphasis is on the ideas, not the story or the characters. A large percentage of the novel consists of members of the white male elite standing around telling one another things they would normally know anyway, in classic “As you know, Bob”, dialogue. When they aren’t telling one another the diameter of Jupiter, they make speeches to faceless crowds or recite the “history” of the (white) race up to the year 2000, all of it in the most glowing, optimistic terms an educated imperialist can devise.

The plot, such as it is, is simple: having begun the process of tilting the Earth on its axis to a more beneficial angle, the masters of technology look around them for new challenges. They decide to travel to other planets to see if they are worth colonizing/exploiting. Far from the classic “sense of wonder”, our explorers view the entire solar system as a warehouse of riches to be looted. Space travel is made easy with the use of apergy, the opposite force to gravity, a concept introduced by Percy Greg in his novelAcross the Zodiac (1880). The nominal hero, Ayrault, accepts bids for a spacecraft specially outfitted with curtains and carpets that can be rolled up so as not to obstruct the view from the floor windows. Ayrault is careful to include gutters around the roof of the spacecraft in order to catch the rain on Jupiter, and to procure sufficient supplies of rattlesnake venom to ward off disease. Finally he and President Bearwarden and Dr. Cortlandt (an exceptionally long-winded “Government expert”) ensure that they are properly armed:

They found that, in addition to their medicine-chest, they would have to make room for the following articles, and also many more: six shot-guns (three double-barrel 12-bores, three magazine 10-bores), three rifles, three revolvers; a large supply of ammunition (explosive and solid balls), hunting-knives, fishing-tackle, compass, sextant, geometrical instruments, canned food for forty days, appliance for renewing air, clothing, rubber boots, apergetic apparatus, protection-wires, aneroid barometer, and kodaks.

The high level of firepower packed aboard the Callisto may speak as much to the origins of the Astor fortune in the fur trade, as to the expectation of hunting opportunities on the largest planet in the solar system. During their journey the Callisto passes Mars, and Ayrault carefully photographs its surface, thereby anticipating the Mariner IV mission 71 years later. Arriving on Jupiter, the trio crack a window to see if the air is okay, then venture out to explore. Astor sees the denizens of Jupiter pretty much as a dinosaur park, with flying lizards, enormous snakes and vampire bats. Their instruments of science are the guns, so as soon as they see something interesting, they shoot it to smithereens.

“On passing a growth of most luxuriant vegetation, they saw a half-dozen sacklike objects, and drawing nearer noticed that the tops began to swell, and at the same time became lighter in colour. Just as the doctor was about to investigate one of them with his duck-shot, the enormously inflated tops of the creatures collapsed with a loud report, and the entire group soared away.” (Emphasis mine)

Having now established that they are on safari, rather than in an exploration team, the trio continue on, talking as they go, to discover that Jupiter holds gratifyingly vast reserves of exploitable resources such as gold, coal and oil. During their travels, they continue to congratulate themselves on being the heirs of such an advanced race, all the while naming various features of the landscape. I really wish Astor had commissioned a map of Jupiter; I’d have dearly loved to see the Harlem River, Sylvialand, or the Twentieth Century Archipelago on Jupiter. The trio declare Jupiter to be a paradise, eminently fit for colonization by the huddled masses of benighted Europe. And here, for the first time, Astor introduces a new theme: religion.

“Mars is already past its prime, and Venus scarcely habitable, but in Jupiter we have a new promised land…”

From here on, the theme of religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, becomes more and more prominent. Having established the profit potential of Jupiter to their satisfaction, the trio spontaneously decide to proceed to Saturn, “where we may find even stranger things than here”. They note the habitability in passing of Ganymede and Europa, Iapetus, Hyperion and Titan, explore the rings (which, unsurprisingly, turn out to comprise rocks and sand), and land on the second largest planet in the solar system. They discover that it is cold enough to require changing into their winter garments. Arming themselves as before, they trudge off across the barren ground and shoot a couple of white birds. Almost immediately, a distracting low hum surrounds them, disorienting them until they discover the ground strewn with rubies and emeralds the size of eggs. When they go to record their thoughts, however, they discover their pencils and other instruments taken over by invisible spirits. An old man with a white beard appears out of thin air, and begins explaining things.

From here on in, most of the exploration of Saturn reveals a planet full of disembodied spirits, who like nothing more than to discuss Christian theology. Like everyone else in the book, the spirit discourses on air pressure, geological deformation of strata, or tide levels at the drop of a hat, rather like one of the omniscient characters in a Dan Brown novel. The spirit, who used to be a bishop, explains that “continuity and balance of Nature” will be restored with Christ’s second coming, and delivers several sermons worthy of a Presbyterian pulpit. Seeing no difficulty in reconciling Darwin and Moses, he cheerfully predicts the perfectibility of Mankind through evolution. The explorers are not quite convinced of this, as Cortland regrets that he was not born a thousand years later, and Ayrault laments that “I should rather never have lived, for life in itself is unsatisfying”, an odd thing to say for a man who has set foot on two planets beyond Earth for the first time in history. President Bearwarden, however, neatly encapsulates the ethos of his (Astor’s) time:

“The utilitarianism of the twentieth century, by which I live…would be out of place in space, unless we can colonize the other planets, and improve their arrangements and axes.”

The next day, they shoot down a few flying dragons with buckshot. When night falls, Ayrault goes out for a walk and encounters the ghost of an old college sweetheart. After a short conversation, he returns to bed and dreams of an angel, who quotes the Bible to him. It seems that God has designated the planet Saturn as a kind of waiting room for dead souls, where they wait to be reborn or returned, it’s not clear which. “Therefore we are brought here, where God reveals Himself to us more and more, and the flight of the other souls — those unhappy ones — does not cease…” Further conversations with ghostly bishops and other phantoms enlarge on the themes of redemption, resurrection, and geological evolution. Ayrault ducks into a hollow tree to get out of a storm, is struck by lightning, and undergoes an out-of-body return visit to Earth, where he undergoes a spiritual epiphany. When he is restored to his companions, they return to Earth.

A Journey in Other Worlds is not really a story of exploration. Rather, it is the story of an elite cadre of white men projected from the 19th century capitalism Astor so robustly celebrated, into a future in which all that has really changed are the shiny toys they play with. On the political front, the countries of Europe have become socialist failures and have sold their colonies to the US. Canada has joined the United States, which also controls the South American continent:

“Spanish and Portuguese elements in Mexico and Central and South America show a constant tendency to die out…As this goes on, in the Western hemisphere the places left vacant are gradually filled by the more progressive Anglo-Saxons.”

Secretary Deepwaters intones that, while his little cadre of engineers is re-tilting the Earth’s axis, “we shall have time meanwhile to absorb or run out all the inferior races”.

It’s hard to read this sort of thing without wincing. There is a nod to women’s education, when scientist-explorer Ayrault praises his girlfriend Sylvia for her resolve to complete her degree at Vassar. She’s not much of a feminist, but at least she’s there and she has a name, which is more than can be said of most of the rest of the females in this book. But for the most part, rich white men with names like Bearwarden, Tubercle Girminy, and Deepwaters sit in comfortable rooms with cigars and brandy and congratulate themselves on their technological progress, which has made all of mankind happier and healthier. It is almost impossible not to imagine a similar attitude prevailing in the First Class lounge of the Titanic, as the immigrant masses belowdecks ate their meager dinner.

I could not help but wonder if Astor wrote this book more or less as a rebuttal to a now nearly forgotten novel of the day, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, by Edward Bellamy. At the time of its publication in 1887,Looking Backward was the third most popular novel in America, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur. Bellamy’s work is an almost Marxist view of the future, with an economy based on publicly owned means of production. To a Republican capitalist like Astor, the novel must have seemed to be an attack on the political foundations of Western culture. The two books nicely embody a dynamic tension that extends to science fiction written today: the novel that focuses more on social change (Bellamy) than technological change (Astor). Astor’s novel never seems to really gel, however, as he freely mixes redemptionist philosophy, electrical engineering, Victorian romance, and the thrills of big-game hunting. In the end, his explorer Ayrault seems to actually reject the scientific principles of the book, longing to return to a hedonistic, thoughtless existence:

“I have often longed in this life to be in the spirit, but never knew what longing was, till I experienced it as a spirit, to be once more in the flesh.”

Astor’s prose is often overwrought, but he does occasionally carve a gem out of the mass of ore he dumps on the reader. The flowers of Jupiter have evolved a unique method of attracting pollinators: “The flowers have become singers by long practice”. Many of the plants and animals he imagines, if not strictly original, are vividly realized. His ideas are bold and innovative: Astor anticipates the speed-trap, with cameras placed at intersections to record drivers’ speeds, the New York subway system, maglev trains, biological warfare, and even television (his “kintograph”). These ideas, if not original with Astor, were certainly the cutting edge of science in 1894. He envisions dynamos running off Niagra Falls, the terraforming of Earth, and wind and solar power. Ironically, he includes extensive descriptions of marine transports that make large liners like the Titanic obsolete. In all these passages, his enthusiasm for science and his love of technological toys shines through with breezy excitement. So great was his faith in the machines of man and the ideal of “progress”, that it may have gotten him killed. As the Titanic listed forward and the crew scrambled to get passengers into lifeboats, Astor told Second Officer Charles Lightoller, “We are safer here than in that little boat.” As the ship continued to sink, he changed his mind and assisted his pregnant wife into the lifeboat. He was last seen standing on the deck, smoking a cigar. His body was recovered a week later and was buried in Trinity Cemetery, New York City. At the time of his death, he may have been the wealthiest private individual in the world; without question, he was the wealthiest science fiction author in the world, with a net worth in 2011 dollars of over $11 billion.

A Journey in Other Worlds does not really show us much we can relate to on a scientific or technological level; much of Astor’s “science” was outdated at the time he wrote it. We can laugh at the overblown, purple prose and the naive simplicity of the unexamined assumptions underlying it, the unconscious assumptions about race and class. There are ugly moments when racism and sexism inject themselves jarringly into the narrative. But Astor, like any writer, was a product of his times, and when we have discounted the prejudices of those times, we still get a novel infused with a boy-like love of machines, technology and adventure. Though Astor could not know it, his era of manifest destiny and freewheeling, no-holds-barred capitalism would come to a close very soon. He would not live to see the Great War he feared, but neither would he live to see the collapse of the society of privilege he took for granted. As a founding member of the 1% even now being protested in Wall Street, he would have found a “Journey to 2012” far more startling, challenging, and fascinating than any number of imaginary Jupiters.

Copyright 2012 by Sarah Stegall. All rights reserved.