A while ago I’ve decided to do a little time travelling. In literature, that is. So I’ve picked up a novel called “City At World’s End”, written by one Edmond Hamilton. It’s a story about a little rural community in the US heartland having a “super-atomic bomb” go off above it, causing a rift in time, catapulting said city into the far future, and the fight of its citizens to remain on Earth. Adventure!1
It is exactly what it sounds like: pure pulp. The characters are rather flat; the premise is unintentionally hilarious. Yet, it’s a pretty charming read. :)
When I’ve picked the book up at feedbooks.com, I had a hunch about what I was getting myself into. After all, this novel is (at the time of this writing) 58 years old. That’s right, it’s from 1951. But I’ve chosen the book for exactly that reason (also I was told it had spaceships) — I wanted to know what successful scifi was like in the 50’s of the last century. From their point of view, I’d probably be like one of them “space folks”.2 But how would I end up thinking about their view of the future? How would I end up describing their vision of the times to come?
Turns out I’d only use one word, as before: “charming”. Well, that and “a bit naïve”. :)
An example. Said rural community, called Middletown, leaps one million years into the future. One million years! The sun is dying, the Earth is cold, mankind has spread across the galaxy… yet all humans they meet are still ordinary humans like you or me.3 Given that the first homo sapiens entered the stage just around 400.000 years ago, one would expect meeting rather different beings after another 1.000.000 years. Apparently, evolution took a break or something.
But at least there are aliens! One of them is Chewbacca. No, I’m not making that up. There’s a Capellan (i.e. an alien from Capella) whose description is pretty much 100% Chewbacca. He’s big, hairy, ape-like, friendly, loyal and a very good engineer. His name is Gorr Holl. — I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE, GEORGE LUCAS.
Then there are the communications. People tend to park their spaceships just out of town (they have spaceships!), yet someone forgot to invent the walkie- talkies, because there’s still a lot of people running back and forth, waving and yelling to alarm the others.
Also, the space-age people from one million years in the future are familiar with Einstein. That’s fame, I’m telling you. (No mention of Michael Jackson, tho.)
And then… women. Oh, the women, what with their constant wailing or their firm resolve or their pre-Doris Day’ish behaviour. Really, the picture painted of the females is an interesting one, saying quite a bit about the age the book was written in. On the one hand, we have Carol, the protagonist’s girlfriend. She’s the friendly, quiet type who likes the “old ways”. (Not what you think.) Beneath her surface is a fragile young woman, almost a girl still, shaken to her core. On the other hand, there’s the new space love interest, Varn Allan from space, the administrator of this neck of the woods space. On the outside, she’s a cold and efficient bureaucrat! But during the book, we learn that beneath her surface there’s a fragile young woman, almost a girl still, shaken to her core. Diversity! Dope.
So. I know the comparison is not entirely fair, but putting “City At World’s End” and its long-term vision (I fail to come up with a better term) next to today’s books, like “Accelerando” by Charles Stross or (less hard scifi) “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi, it looks, well, less visionary. I am aware that in terms of “scifi seeds” today’s authors have a better (?) starting point than the authors 50 years back, but they seem to do a better job in dreaming up a future working as canvas for their books. Maybe I’ve just picked the wrong author here, who knows. And maybe the people in the 50s just weren’t ready for too “far-fetched” visions yet?
Anyways. The tech and the portrayal of the people are equally fun, and reading the book made me grin and laugh quite a bit. But of course snickering is easy for me, from my cushioned seat in front of my computron device. It’s 2009! Yes, we may have global warming and a outrageous lack of everyday space travel and jetpacks, but still: it’s an exciting time to be alive. There’s new technology surfacing almost weekly, from biotech to personal gadgets to propulsion engines and whatnot.
Well, my verdict: If you are wondering what to read next, get yourself an old scifi book. You might have fun. Many of them are free & legal downloads by now. Both Feedbooks and ManyBooks (if it’s up…) are good places to start looking. And if you’re unsure what to get, either just pick one with closed eyes or ask around at GoodReads. :)