Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Angel of the Revolution

The Angel of the Revolution: A Tale of the Coming Terror is a science-fiction novel written in 1893 by George Griffith. I've just finished reading it, courtesy of Project Gutenberg, and while I'm glad I read it, I'm not sure I can recommend it unconditonally.

I can state with accuracy that it's a book about a young inventor who is recruited by a secret society, whose goal is to depose the corrupt and tyrannical governments of the major nations of the world. This society knows that a vast, international war is soon to develop, and that it will be fought with terrible new machines of destruction. The society intends to put an end to this conflict, and furthermore, to make any future war impossible, leading the world into a new age of peace and enlightenment. It's competently written, with several excellent illustrations, and if you don't look too closely, it might be a quaintly dated work of speculative fiction, with some romance, intrigue, and warfare thrown in for good measure.

The problem is that the hundred-plus years worth of cultural baggage we've accumulated between 1893 and now makes it impossible to enjoy this book as a mere harmless bit of escapism.

To give one example: the secret society which recruits the young inventor calls itself the Brotherhood of Freedom, but it operates under several other names as well. Most often, they are also known as the Terrorists.

There's just no way to use the T word these days without implying a lot of things that didn't come attached to that word back in 1893. In addition, the Brotherhood is sympathetic to Socialist philosophy; they regard the idle rich as parasites and criminals; they even favor gun control. This book is a Republican nightmare. There's even a scene where the American constitution is torn to shreds by the victorious Brotherhood ... why? Because ... well, let me quote directly from the book:

Representative government in America had by this time become a complete sham. The whole political machinery and internal resources of the United States were now virtually at the command of a great Ring of capitalists who, through the medium of the huge monopolies which they controlled, and the enormous sums of money at their command, held the country in the hollow of their hand. These men were as totally devoid of all human feeling or public sentiment as it was possible for human beings to be. They had grown rich in virtue of their contempt of every principle of justice and mercy, and they had no other object in life than to still further increase their gigantic hoards of wealth, and to multiply the enormous powers which they already wielded ... and ignoring, as such wretches would naturally do, all ties of blood and kindred speech, they had determined to take advantage of the situation to the utmost.

You can see how this book could never be published in America today. If some hapless publisher did try to print it, the Glenn Becks of the country would be frothing at the mouth and burning every copy they could find. (Odd, though, that this particular paragraph sounds awfully contemporary to us here in the 21st century U.S.A, isn't it? This could have come right out of an Occupy manifesto.)

Aerial warfare is a central innovation and topic of the book and it seems to be the author's assertion -- stated explicitly at certain points -- that such an advance would make the continuance of war impossible, since the results of aerial bombardments against military and civilian targets would be so horrible and inhuman that no nation could tolerate them. This viewpoint is just adorable, and you just want to tousle the author's hair and say, "That's right, kiddo, you just keep believing that."

On top of this, the author also suggests that the global government formed by the Brotherhood in the climactic scenes of the book would be utterly free of corruption, and that the world under this government would naturally be at peace. There would be no corruption because the leaders of the government would have all earthly wealth at their command, and so there would be nothing you could bribe them with that wasn't already theirs. There would be no armed conflicts, because the global government would have a complete monopoly of force.

Oh, and of course, we can trust that the leaders of the new world government will not abuse their power, because they're so intelligent and well-educated and morally upright. I'm reassured, aren't you?

Read through modern eyes, the "good guys" of this book seem a lot more like the bad guys of any 21st century fiction. The Angel of the Revolution reads like a propaganda piece or a recruiting tool authored by the folks at KAOS. It's the book that Cobra Commander read every night when he was a child.

There are some cool bits of Jules-Verne-style technology in here, such as the airships invented by the main character, which are like the ancestors of S.H.I.E.L.D helicarriers. And the book does provide an interesting viewpoint of the politics and issues of the end of the 19th century.

But it does suggest the question: will the political ideals of today always become the naïveté of tomorrow?