Science Fiction Studies

Documents in the History of Science Fiction

The reviews printed below were sent to us by John Eggeling of Phantasmagoria Books, 8 Colwell Road, East Dulwich, London SE22.

Edward Maitland By and By: An Historical Romance of the Future. Three volumes, Bentley, 1873. [From The Examiner, April 26, 1873, pp 434-36].

There is danger of our having too many imitations of 'Erewhon' and 'The Coming Race,' but 'By and By' is hardly an imitation. Though its method may have been suggested by one or other of those works, it differs from them in being much more of a novel, and Mr Maitland appears to have thrown his imaginary history a few centuries into the future, instead of placing it in the past or present, only in order that he may show what he thinks is likely to be "the evolution of religion and morals" after "the Victorian Emancipation," concerning which he is very hopeful, has borne its natural fruits in the freer society and the higher intelligence of remote generations. They who take up the book merely for pastime will, perhaps, think that he has overloaded his first volume with philosophical disquisition and scientific speculation; but the romance gets under weigh in time, and after that it floats as rapidly and easily as any of the aeromotives that play a conspicuous part in its action. It is needless to say that it abounds in fine thought and brilliant writing, and, though we cannot exactly see how it completes the trilogy of which 'The Pilgrim and the Shrine' and 'Higher Law' are the preceding parts, it is extremely interesting and highly instructive. Mr Maitland thoroughly maintains the reputation that has been won for him by the earlier works of which he now, for the first time, publicly avows himself the author, and perhaps he will enhance the reputation as a social philosopher which those works will ensure him. Though they may not assent to all his conclusions, his readers must admire the force and clearness with which he presents them, and the skill and completeness with which he portrays the distant future as a living present, and traces back his principles and precedents to the times in which we now live. It must be admitted, too, that his wildest imaginings are very plausible, and that many of them become more and more reasonable the more closely they are examined.

The hero of the book, not quite happily named, is a Christmas Carol, so called because he was born on Christmas Eve, the scene of his birth being an improved balloon stranded on an iceberg. The development of science in the period intervening between our day and the day in which he is supposed to live has turned air-voyaging into the most convenient mode of travelling, and Criss, as the hero is familiarly called, having been born in the air, has a special aptitude for this sort of locomotion, and finds in it almost boundless opportunities for bringing distant places near together, and holding intimate communion with the denizens of heaven, who are material angels presenting no impossible differences from the dwellers on the earth. By that communion his fine nature is further refined, but he is altogether an earthling, and on earth most of his life is passed. His chief home is London, London magnified and improved as it may reasonably be by the legitimate expansion of scientific knowledge and social wisdom in the ages to come. Here is one glimpse of it:

We in our days are so accustomed to things as we have them, that we are apt to forget they were not always so. There was a time when the roofs of their houses were as strange and mysterious to the inmates as the interior of the earth on which they stood. But the practice of aeromotion, and the substitution of magnetism for coal in the production of heat, combined to bring about a great revolution in our architecture and habits, and affected even our system of jurisprudence. For it was found necessary, in the interests of that privacy which is essential to the development of the character and affections, to secure our interiors from the observation of impertinent aerialists, by making certain changes in our window system, and also to add certain stringent provisions to the laws relating to libel and slander. The most effective of these provisions was one that was in direct opposition to the enactment of our ancestors. There was a period when they suffered the libeler to go free on pleading justification and sustaining his plea by proof of its truth. We, on the contrary, treat such a plea as an aggravation of the original offence, and punish it accordingly.

But what would our ancestors have said, could they have seen the London of to-day, on a fine evening! The growing scarcity of coal, once deplored by them as the commencement of Britain's decline and downfall, proved in reality its greatest blessing through the impulse it gave to scientific research and the discovery of substitutes. Not to dwell upon the mechanical and economical gains thus effected, I will mention only the gain in comfort and health. Who now that sees our flat and commodious roofs, with their friendly gatherings and elegant adornments, can realise the time when, for an aerialist to pass over a large town at a moderate height, would have been to court destruction by suffocation! For then every house was a volcano and every chimney a crater, in a state of perpetual eruption, vomiting forth fire and smoke that made the atmosphere lurid and loaded it with darkness and poison. Now the roofs of our houses are the favourite resort of invalids, where the freshest air and the quietest repose are to be found, and not a "London black," once so proverbial, comes to soil their garments. Instead of seeking pure air in the country, as people used to do, such is the perfection to which sanitary science has been brought in our time, that invalids leave the country to seek the purer air of the town. The abolition of coal-gas for the purpose of lighting has much to do with this. So brilliant now are our towns at night that in many a house little extra light is needed beyond that which comes from without. Many a pleasant acquaintance did Criss make in his town sallies over the roofs, and many a sick person learnt to watch eagerly for his bright look and cheerful converse.

An important episode in this "historical romance of the future," and the most important of the hero's benefactions to the world, is his successful project for diverting the waters of Lake Tchad and opening up communications with the ocean, so that the desert of Sahara is turned from a sea of sand into a spacious lake, and the now desolate interior of Africa is thereby fertilised; but the book has principally to do, as we have said, with "the evolution of religion and morals." Mr Maitland makes much of the project which he has worked out at some length in these columns, for converting the National Church into a really useful agent for the instruction of the people in that genuine religion which is an outcome of science and morality, for developing Christianity in its proper channels and separating it wholly from what in one place he calls Churchianity and from the dominion of every sort of priestcraft in any way connected with dogma. In his regenerated world such Christianity as exists nowadays is relegated to the most barbarous races, or confined in civilised states to a small and contemptible class of Remnants, the mass of society having profited by the growth of free thought that is dated from the Victorian Emancipation of the nineteenth century. The change from the old to the new religion is thus briefly stated:

The physical good of man must be the basis of the moral. The grand mistake of the ancient world lay in its commencing at the wrong end. It inverted the Pyramid. Placing religion first, they proceeded from it to morals, and thence to physics. That is, they built on that of which they knew the least. From the unknown and unknowable, they inferred the knowable. It was because their religion, while claiming to be the basis of morals, consisted in assumptions, that it failed to regenerate the world. We moderns, on the contrary starting from the physical and verifiable, make morals the basis of religion. We cannot, as did our forefathers, even imagine a religion divorced from, or antagonistic to morality. We hold it as impossible for the Divine Will to be in conflict with the moral law, as with the physical. For us, Religion signifies the relation of the part to the whole, as Morality is the relation of part to part. We must learn the smaller and nearer lesson first. From our duty to the finite springs the idea of our duty to the Infinite. If we care not for that which is within our reach, we are not likely to care for that which lies beyond. The love of the seen must precede and produce the love of the unseen.

And this is given as the cardinal dogma of the New Church—or rather as a definition that is not a dogma, "inasmuch as it does not claim to be true, independently of reason and evidence:"

As in the region of Morals the Divine Will can never conflict with the Moral law, so, in the region of Physics, the Divine Will can never conflict with the Natural law.

Whatever may have been the mental capacity of primitive man, it has been found that under its modern development the human mind is unable to conceive of universal law as proceeding from any source short of the Divine—that is, the supreme all-pervading creative energy of the Universe. And we find it to be equally impossible for us to regard as Divine a will or law that is variable and self-contradictory. So that, did we find a conflict occurring between Law and Will, we should necessarily and involuntarily determine that one or the other was not entitled to be regarded as Divine.

Our readers will see from these extract, the shortest of many that we could make, of what a liberal nature are the religious views that Mr Maitland places prominently in his work. Intimately connected with them are various social reformations, the chief being those affecting women and all the relations of sex. Some notion of Mr Maitland's views on this subject, which he bravely and wisely advanced in his 'Higher Law,' may be gleaned from this paragraph:

The days happily are long past in which, while to man all careers were open, to women there was but one, and it depended upon the will of individual men to accord them that. It is little wonder that, thus placed, the women of those times should have devoted themselves to the pursuit of marriage with an eagerness commensurate with the uncertainty of success, and reckless whether the issue promised ill or well. Nor is it strange that, caring nothing for the characters of the men, but only for their wealth, women should have so deteriorated in their own characters that the men ceased to care for them, except as companions of the moment, and declined to ally themselves with them in any but the most temporary manner. The literature of the Victorian era, just preceding the Emancipation, abounds in evidences of the hapless condition of the British female of that period, particularly in the middle and upper classes. It was the very intensity of her despair of any amelioration of her condition by conventional remedies that precipitated the radical change of which we are now so richly reaping the benefits. That this change was not effected long before was owing, it must be confessed, to the timidity of the men and their want of faith in the inherent goodness of the female heart. The men had suffered the women to retain their belief in ecclesiastical infallibility long after they themselves had abandoned such belief. The irrevocability of marriage, dictated as it was by priests, had at least the appearance of being a revenge taken by them for their own exclusion from it. It was the disastrous result of ecclesiastical restriction upon the relations of the sexes, far more than a process of rational investigation, that opened the female mind to the baselessness of ecclesiastical pretensions. The men fought their own way to freedom by dint of hard brain-work. It was for them a battle royal between truth and falsehood, or rather between the right to obey the dictates of their own minds and consciences and the claims of antiquated tradition. But they did not take their women with them. Either through difference of nature or difference of training, these were not amenable to the considerations which had influenced the men. Woman cared nothing for the abstract truth or falsehood of her religion. Her heart was the sole instrument whereby she judged such matters. The ordinance of the church, which rigidly forbade all intercourse with the other sex save on condition of an indissoluble life-long contract, had come to have the effect of abolishing even those very contracts. While those who were already involved in them, finding themselves unable to part, were driven more and more to desert. Woman had so far subordinated her intellect and moral sense to the authority of her priests, so far forgotten her heart, as to accept at their hands a deity and a faith which were independent of any considerations recognisable by those faculties. Her new-born infant might be consigned to everlasting torture for the omission by its parents of a prescribed ecclesiastical ceremony; but the system that kept her from getting a husband in this world was intolerable. And by insisting on the absolute permanence of the tie, the church had virtually abolished marriage.

Mr Maitland speaks slightingly of the demands of women in the present day for a share in political suffrage. He considers that the great revolution in the condition of women which he expects and hopes for must come from the collapse of the existing marriage institutions—of which he says, very happily, "Our ancient customs in regard to women were such that we can hardly refer to them without a flush; so fatal to their morals was apt to be the struggle to secure their virtue." He anticipates a gradual, but hardly a slow, reform from the abolition of the present arrangement by which the majority of women have very little other prospect before them than the choice between selling themselves to men as slaves for life and selling themselves as playthings for an hour, and he shows how in his emancipated society sexual vice is almost abolished and both men and women are infinitely advanced in true morality by the replacing of the present bondage of wedlock by "the extension of the principle of limited liability to the relations between the sexes." In his new society there are three degrees of marriage; "those which are dissoluble only through the intervention of a court of law" [but in which "the old laws that forbade divorce save as a premium on one sort of vice" are no longer in force]; "those which require the mutual consent of the parties; and those which are voidable at the will of one of the parties." Under this arrangement sexual vice is reduced to a minimum, especially as with it is combined a reversal of the cruel treatment accorded to the greatest victims of that vice in the nineteenth and earlier centuries. This is illustrated in the history of the most refined and charming of all the women introduced into his story, who in girlhood had been betrayed by an evil-minded man. "Her unhappiness on this score was sufficient without the added agony of the social stigma once attached to the hopeless victim of the seducer's arts. Society nowadays accords to a girl under such circumstances either a passing laugh of good-natured ridicule or a smile of kindly compassion, and bids her be more careful in the choice of her next lover. Its serious reprobation falls upon the man. Thenceforth he has no chance of getting a decent woman to accept him. The sex itself avenges its betrayed member!"                

Much honour is due to Mr Maitland for the fearless manner in which, delicately and incisively, he discusses these questions of conventional and real morality in 'By and By.' He also discusses a great number of other subjects, and all in the course of a vigorous and attractive "romance." We have no intention of telling the plot of his story. That, indeed, is slight; but it is none the less interesting for its slightness. Many parts of it, like the description of the insurrection in Abyssinia and the flight and death of its Emperor, are told with great dramatic power. Some episodes, however, appear inartistic. Having given one unsuitable wife to Criss, it is difficult to see why he should have fastened upon him another, and, as regards the first, the base and futile efforts made to reform her appear quite out of keeping with the otherwise noble character of the hero. Had Mr Maitland desired to show that the unreasonable passion of love as it is fostered nowadays by novels and religious literature is a form of madness that the wisest men cannot hope to cure, it seems to us that he might have chosen a better way than the one he adopts.                

One fanciful passage in the book reads curiously in connection with a statement that has lately been made in the scientific journals. Mr Maitland's angels are without sex in youth, and he has a pretty description of the way in which two, in accordance with the progress of their moral and intellectual growth, develop into male and female. It is now reported that a scientific lady in America had discovered that butterflies, according to the food given to them, can be converted to either sex. Does Mr Maitland consider that in the highest as well as in the lowest varieties of animal life—for his angels are only rarified humanity—sex can be made a mere matter of training?


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