Science Fiction Studies

#53 = Volume 18, Part 1 = March 1991

Robert M. Philmus

English-Language Science Fiction Via Italy

Rudyard J. Kipling. Nel Mondo di ABC... Introduction by Alessandro Monti. Documenti da Nessun Luogo #3. 1987. xiv+ 185.

Edward Everett Hale. La Luna di Mattoni. Introduction by Carlo Pagetti. Documenti da Nessun Luogo #4.1987. xiv+195.

William Morris. La Terra Cava e altri racconti... Preface by Oriana Palusci, Afterword by Stefano Manferlotti. Documenti da Nessun Luogo #5. xiii+ 164. 1988.--This and the above all published in Milan by Editrice Nord at Lire 8,000 each.

These books represent three further titles in Nord's "Documents from Nowhere" series. Like their predecessors (the first of them devoted to Chesney's Battle of Dorking, the second to "The Machine Stops" and other of E.M. Forster's short stories), these three are unabridged editions whose facing pages juxtapose the English text (in photo-reproduction) with the Italian translation of same. In consequence, the series has a value (even for those anglophones whose Italian doesn't go much beyond ciao and arriverderci) which I.F. Clarke did not perhaps sufficiently emphasize in his otherwise unexceptionable and informative comments on the series' Dorking volume:1 that under the general editorship of Carlo Pagetti, Nord is not only making available texts which may not otherwise be easy to come by, but is doing so at a price that is highly competitive (especially given the escalation of the prices of US--and UK--paperbacks in recent years; the cost of the Nord books comes out to roughly $8.00 each).

In the case of the first of the volumes I am reviewing here, the texts in question are Kipling's "With the Night Mail" (1905) and its (chrono)logical sequel, "As Easy as ABC" (1912). The first is a rather straightforward "Story of 2000 A.D." (to quote its subtitle), dealing in (some of) the perils of delivering transatlantic mail by air at the unheard-of speed of almost 200 mph(!). Its successor, on the other hand, is far from being the simple tale that its title might suggest. Set in the year 2065, it modifies the aeronautic machine of "Night Mail," as it were, for use in enforcing the Aerial Board of Control's governance of "the Planet." More exactly, "ABC" details how a fleet of such machines goes about putting down an insurrection centered in Chicago--in which respect, the fiction reads somewhat like the Flying Island episode in Book III of Gulliver's Travels as (re)told from the standpoint of someone in favor of using that device to put down rebellion --i.e., a partisan of what, in Swiftian terms, is (literally) oppression. What complicates any such view is another given: that the insurrectionists are motivated by murderous hostility not to the established (apparently oligarchic) order, but to a group that Kipling designates "the Serviles," a minority who have been agitating against the status quo and espousing a return to the antique idea of Democracy. Kipling thus enlists sympathy for the ABC operation as a necessary measure to protect the Democratic Serviles from the masses, while at the same time variously discrediting those agitators, chiefly by reason of the responsibility they bear for inciting "crowd" violence against them. Nor is that all that makes "ABC" a minor masterpiece of ideological obfuscation. Though perhaps alluding to British rule in India, its immediate (albeit belated) inspiration is likely the so-called Haymarket Riot--in which case, a significant amount of deformation underlies Kipling's futuristic account of how the Chicago anarchists were popularly received in May of 1886.

The credentials of "Night Mail" for inclusion in a series given over to SF as well as utopian fiction no doubt have to do not with Kipling's airship itself, but with the use he imagines for it. (The reality of the airplane, any schoolchild knows, antedates Kipling's story, but no one actually employed any such device in the way that he [fictively] does until sometime in 1919-- and even then, only on an experimental basis.) As for "ABC," it presumably figures in this volume--despite its futuristic technological credentials--as an anti-utopian or dystopian fiction (A. Monti speaks of it in terms of its figuring "a potential explosion of uncontrollable and devastating impulses" [viii],2which he links to the tempest in "Night Mail").

This volume in Nord's series is particularly valuable vis-à-vis another matter that Monti touches upon in his acute and suggestive introduction --this, when he speaks of the "lexical frenzy" of these two tales (vii). I take those words to be referring, at least in significant part, not to the difficulty that I have already suggested "ABC" presents--viz., of trying to figure out what exactly is going on at any given point--so much as to another which is even more elementary: that of understanding what Kipling means by certain of his phrases and sentences. These are not, I submit, entirely separate problems; but I shall confine my illustrations to those of the latter sort, trusting that three fairly brief quotations--all of them from a couple of pages of "Night Mail"--may serve to allow my reader to appreciate the difficulties that Kipling's attempt at 21st-century lingo can present. (That this is the generic explanation of those particular difficulties is evident from the pages of futuristic advertisements and the like which figure as an appendix to "Night Mail."3)

(1) We've been blown up about forty thousand feet! We're all one conjuror's watch inside. (26)
(2) Captain Purnall overlooks all insults, and leans half out of the colloid, staring and snuffing. The stranger leaks pungently. (ibid.)
(3) 'My mate's alright. It's my engineer. He's gone crazy.' 'Shunt the lift out of him with a spanner. Hurry!' (28)

In each of these instances, I have italicized the sentence whose meaning I am doubtful of (which is not to say, however, that the Kiplingesque meaning of "colloid" is certain)4. I would also suppose that the translator had problems similar to mine.5 But (to come directly to my point about the value of this Nord edition) rather than rendering the words in question into Italian gibberish, the translator has attempted to fathom and clarify their sense. As a result, his Italian can be translated back into an English far more comprehensible than I (for one) find Kipling's here to be--to wit: (1) 'Inside it's a battlefield'; (2) 'The strange [air]ship is losing gas abundantly; and (3) 'Chase the gas from his head with a wrench.' To be sure, the case with these three instances is the same as with any paraphrase: compared with the original, they are all slightly distortive of Kipling's exact sense. Yet this is also to say that the translation, by reason of such discrepancies, serves for getting some fix on that exact sense--in much the same way that comparing two different translations of an otherwise inaccessible work does.

This cannot be said for the Italian translations of Hale and Morris, but only because neither of those authors engages in futuristic experiments with language. The prose of Hale's The Brick Moon is rather pedestrian, and any obstacles it puts in the way of the modern reader's understanding of it are local and come from its topical allusions rather than from verbal idiosyncrasies (including the occasional neologism). Even so, the reader may find Hale's style in its broadest sense to be an impediment of another sort inasmuch as his treatment of his subject is remarkable for its dullness.

This is something of a paradox: what makes The Brick Moon dull to a remarkable degree is the fact that Hale's bare "idea"6is remarkably interesting--and all the more so in an Atlantic Monthly serial dating from 1869-70. The fiction takes its name from an artificial satellite of mammoth proportions that a group of entrepreneurial types dream of putting into orbit as the means for precising navigational determinations of longitude. Just before they are ready to put it into orbit, however, an explosion accidentally accomplishes their purpose, so that their monstrosity virtually launches itself, taking with it various people (both male and female) in its vicinity. Subsequent communications to their colleagues remaining on Earth reveal that those carried away on this human-made moon have established a utopian community whose egalitarian principles embrace at least a rudimentary feminism. Outlined thus, all this must sound very promising; but in its execution, Hale contrives to get bogged down in technicalities and (other) meaningless fictive details which reduce The Brick Moon to just another of SF's historical curiosities.

To be sure, Carlo Pagetti valiantly attempts to put Hale's real achievement into relief (as well as into various historical and generic contexts). This he does by focusing on the "double and contradictory movement towards the past and towards the future" (v) inscribed in an authorial attention, on the one hand, to certain practicalities (not only technical but financial) which bespeak a technologistic outlook and, on the other, to describing "a bourgeois Terrestrial Paradise" (x) reflective of a nostalgia for "an Arcadian rural world" (xi) which technology had visibly begun encroaching on and imperiling by the middle of the 19th century. While Professor Pagetti may thereby succeed in highlighting what is of intellectual interest about The Brick Moon, a reader will (I should think) find the book none the less a chore to peruse. Moreover, the reader not knowledgeable enough about the sundry topical matters that Hale sporadically alludes to (these chiefly relating to sectarian controversies which he apparently embroiled himself in) may wish that Professor Pagetti had provided annotative footnotes to supplement his introductory comments on such references.

The Morris volume reprints four tales whose style Wells eventually epitomized (with reference to Morris's last book, The Well at the World's End) as "stout oaken stuff." These four, all originally published in the course of 1856 in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (which Morris edited), the (full) Italian title properly characterizes as "Medieval fantastic" (a term which applies as well to their language, which is regressively rather than futuristically experimental). Certainly none of them--viz., "The Hollow Land," "The Story of the Unborn," "A Dream," and "Lindenberg Pool"--qualifies as SF. But there is also room to wonder what they are doing in the Nord series. That is the question which Stefano Manferlotti in effect raises in "William Morris and the Crisis of Literary Utopia," an afterword which takes Orwell as a starting point for interrogating News from Nowhere (1891) but totally ignores the actual contents of La Terra Cava (which aren't so much as named). Oriana Palusci does somewhat better in her opening remarks. Along with suggestive generalities about the four tales (e.g., that they are the literary equivalent of Pre-Raphaelitism in painting [iiiiv]), she argues that "Lindenberg Pool" anticipates News in its "entrance into the fantastic world" (viii).

This idea strikes me as being even more applicable to the connection between News and "The Hollow Land." The latter can be thought of as a series of tableaux divided in two by the hero's (Florian's) mysterious passage from a world of war and vendetta to that named by Morris's title. On the one side, Morris recreates (rather convincingly) the feel--and especially the ethos--of a genuine Medieval epic; but on the other, he offers a Hollow Land which defines itself against (i.e., in relation to) that ethos. A good argument could be mounted against the Hollow Land's being deemed a utopia in any but the vaguest--and much too all-inclusive--sense of the word; but an equally good case could be made for this fiction as a prototype for News in the way that its Hollow Land communicates with the (literal) bloody-mindedness of "present reality." (Of course, the amount of attention that "the real" gets in News relative to "the ideal" is just about the reverse of their ratio in "The Hollow Land"--which, however, is not to say that that tale qualifies as anti-utopian.) Given the considerations that I mentioned at the outset, any generic dispute of the sort I've just engaged is, I readily concede, picayune--all the more so in view of the general caliber of the critical essays these volumes contain. Indeed, the only thing about these three books that an English reader could seriously quarrel with is that their editorial meticulousness (which presumably presides over the excellent Italian translations) doesn't extend to specifying which edition is being offered in facsimile. That, however, is an oversight correctable in future volumes (and reissues of these) --if, that is, Nord can attract enough anglophone clients to make the continuance of the series appear worthwhile.


1. For Clarke's review, see SFS #38, 16 (1986): 84-86.

2. Here and elsewhere the translations from Italian are mine.

3. This appendix, included in the Nord volume, clearly establishes the linguistic peculiarities of "Night Mail"--and to a lesser extent "ABC," which takes its epigraph from the earlier story--to be intentionally futuristic. On that basis, James Gunn, for example, claims "Night Mail" as the first work of modern SF: see The Road to Science Fiction [#1]: From Gilgamesh to Wells (NY: New American Library, 1977), 359 (which volume, however, reprints the tale without its appendix).

4. Nor is Kipling's use of the word in "ABC" of much help: "Pirolo...slipped over my head some sort of rubber helmet....I could feel thick colloid bosses before my eyes..."

5. In this case, the translator is Giacomo Prampolini; the Italianizer of "ABC" is Marzia Ettlinger Fano.

6. In Kingsley Amis's meaning of the word idea, which is virtually synonymous with what H.G. Wells calls the "invention."

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