Did Fellini Dream of Venusian Sheep?
“The Inhabitant.” The Great Romance: A Rediscovered Utopian Adventure. Ed. Dominic Alessio. Bison Frontiers of Imagination. Lincoln, NE: U Nebraska P, 2008. lxi + 102pp. $17.95 pbk.
The publication of The Great Romance, in an attractive and inexpensive Bison Frontiers of Imagination paperback, is an important event for historians of science fiction.1 The work is presented as “two novelettes, respectively only fifty-five and thirty-nine pages in length” (xi), with a third and concluding segment apparently lost. Its author is known only by the pseudonym “The Inhabitant,” and it was originally published in Ashburton, New Zealand, in 1881. The Bison edition, which adds the somewhat misleading subtitle “A Rediscovered Utopian Adventure,” has an extensive and very useful introduction by Dominic Alessio. The introduction (50 pages long) is followed by extensive notes and a list of works cited. In a short “Note on the Text,” the editor informs us that in a number of places he has retained original spelling and punctuation, in order to give the reader a sense of the original.
Alessio has thoroughly researched the New Zealand origins of the text and has many comments to make about the novel’s array of technological “firsts.” An example is the author’s description of absence of gravity in space flight, something Jules Verne ignores in De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon, 1865). But what is striking here is not the fact that this is a first fictional mention; it is the astonishing detail with which the condition of weightlessness is described, not only in flight, but on the surface of the Moon, of Venus, of a wandering asteroid. One would have to wait until Heinlein’s Destination Moon (1950) to find a similar fictional treatment of this basic fact of space adventure. Alessio claims for The Great Romance the first spacesuit, the first planetary rover, the first artificial habitat as base camp for planetary exploration. Alessio also has some cogent comments about this narrative as a reflection of British colonialism as practiced in New Zealand. He identifies, for instance, in protagonist John Brenton Hope’s first contact with an alien species on Venus, specific Maori greeting rituals.
For this reader, however, the real interest of the narrative lies elsewhere. In my eyes it is neither the “advanced” technology nor the depiction of Western colonialism that distinguishes this text. It is instead the experience of reading itself that struck me here. I had the same uncanny feeling reading this narrative as I had when first reading The Satyricon (c.AD58). Better yet, it was like experiencing Fellini’s visual rendition of Petronius’s fragmented, inscrutable Rome. In an offhand remark in an interview with Dario Zanelli, Fellini describes his film as a view from “planet Rome” (123). He implies by this, first of all, that a distant past, of which only fragments remain, can be stranger and more enigmatic than an extrapolated future. But he tells us as well that the fragment itself offers a ready-made literary device to depict the experience either of a lost past or of those undiscovered future worlds of wonder that sf seeks to present. I cannot say whether “The Inhabitant,” as author, consciously exploits the fragment in this manner. And yet—when compared to conventional utopias—the very pseudonym chosen, coupled with the vagueness of detail and of location that he or she gives us, shows a desire to question the very idea of habitation, an idea that in turn implies continuity of experience. For when readers pick up this book, they soon realize that they have no idea where they are coming from or where they are going. It is as if the author itself is a fragment of a fragmented work in a narrative marked by false starts, places where by convention we should have more detail, gaps in space, time, and logic, all of this somehow coalescing around flashes of visionary splendor that seem, in each case, to eclipse all that came before. The text begins with stanzas dedicated to John Keats promising mondes et merveilles [worlds and marvels]: “O, hush in billowy volumes, low and sweet/As love and birth, passion and strange pain mixed/The sound doth creep” (3). It ends with a suspended voyage, an uncertain future on an alien Venus, and a protagonist falling off an asteroid. The entire narrative reminds me of the mosaic wall that ends Fellini’s film. Scenes depicted there are at best an arbitrary slice of an indeterminate whole; their strange vividness only makes us more aware of what is missing, of the gaps between, the lost pieces of time, space, and history. Just like the film, the Inhabitant’s narrative seems a series of moments stolen from some larger enigma of time and human experience. Because of this, however, the narrative gives me more feel for the mystery of the future than many of the well-wrought urns of subsequent sf extrapolation.
Let me give a few examples of loose ends in this text which, at first glance, might encourage the reader to see it simply as bad writing. First of all, the title is a dead end. The “great romance” is barely a romance, either in the ancient or the modern sense of the word. It is not a romance in the sense of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (c. 1610) for nothing is lost and found; in fact, in the end everything is lost. Nor is it a “romance” in the sense of the medieval roman, ancestor of the modern novel, for there is neither character development nor plot, but rather an inconclusive series of explorations and actions. The editor’s added designation, utopian, seems equally stunted, if one compares this text with the work it is said to have inspired, Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). Protagonist Hope, a famous scientist, is given a sleeping potion in the year 1950 by his “dearest friend, John Malcolm Weir, the greatest chemist of his day” (5). He wakes up 200 years in the future to find the descendants of friend Weir, Alfred and Edith, “perfected” humans who live in a London vaguely described as having wide, tree-lined streets. Universal peace and stability have been achieved through universal telepathy. The idea here is that if everyone can read everyone else’s thoughts, then no one will think ill of another or do him or her harm, a claim that remains unexamined in subsequent passages. In addition, these future humans have access to an aqua vitae, which can bestow longevity, if not immortality. In conventional utopias, such acquisitions lead to detailed discussions of the uses and morals of the perfect society. But here we have neither discussion nor tensions. Hope himself is an anachronism, a relic out of step with this future of complacent, perfected beings, yet we never see him exploring possible feelings of alienation. At one point, he touches upon the nightside of telepathy in an inspired fragment that looks forward to such works as Delany’s “Corona” (1967): “Men have asked to be destroyed for very shame, men with great minds ... yet so mixed with vile relics of the past that they were in a perpetual hell” (8). But this, like all the various threads of the utopian narrative, leads nowhere.
Another potential for conflict is touched upon: that between complacent utopians and a restless younger generation, such as we have in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methusaleh (1921): “Amongst the younger men and women, the old idea of perpetual life is reviving, and although we have never flown beyond this planet, only perfected our thought, we are dreaming now of other worlds” (9). But as it turns out, these “younger men” are not dreaming of other worlds; it is Hope rather, the resurrected relic of the old, who leads his new companions to Venus. It is Hope as well who tells us such exploration is needed in order to relieve population pressures on Earth resources. Yet, despite this, none of the explorers, from either generation, ever considers the effects of immortality on this problem. If readers approach the novel either as a utopia or a space exploration, they remain baffled. On the surface, the book seems little more that a series of fragments, loose ends never tied together.
The same is true for the novel’s treatment of its love interest. Edith Weir, the descendant of the protagonist’s long-dead friend, is presented, alternately, as beautiful heroine of courtly romance and as sexually liberated woman, but neither sex nor romantic love materializes in the novel. Once Hope is in space, Edith becomes little more than a muse whom he invokes now and then. Finally, what Alessio in the Introduction touts as the first-ever example in sf of human contact with exo-biologically complex aliens—the “Venuses”—is barely a fragment. This becomes clear when one compares the depiction of the Venuses with the aliens of the work Alessio uses as comparison—J.H. Rosny aîné’s Les Navigateurs de l’infini [Navigators of the Infinite, 1926]. Rosny’s planet is a Mars that, very like Venus here, has atmosphere and is capable of sustaining what we consider higher forms of carbon life. Rosny gives us, however, a thorough, detailed, and functioning alien ecology. His is an alien evolutionary history rigorously worked out in Darwinian terms, whose purpose is to leave few or no gaps in the process of life formation. In fact Rosny offers what The Inhabitant expressly does not—a plausible and successful interspecies union between human and alien, with offspring. Any suggestions in this direction remain, at best, figments of Hope’s musings. Moreover, the Venuses— lumbering, placid humanoid creatures with “slow-moving brains”—hold little attraction for Hope, who finds himself (a bit like Frankenstein’s Creature) an Adam without an Eve on an alien world. As such, he is faced with a travesty of the first couple, a pair of beings that are only apparently male and female. If Hope is alone of his species on this vast planet, the same seems true of his alien humanoid couple. No others are sighted in the narrative, and they very well could be the last survivors of some earlier, unexplained diaspora: “He looked in vain for any sign of human sense, for any raft, or hut, for any upright form moving between the branching trees or on the open plain” (96). The names Hope gives these creatures, as fragments of some lost race, are Hyperion and Philomena, which in turn are inscrutable fragments from what is a now-lost human history. For indeed, what logical connection is there between these placid Venuses and either Hyperion (the fallen titan of Keat’s fragmentary poem) or Ovid’s raped and mutilated Philomena? We might, if we think hard enough, make one tenuous connection with the latter, for the Venuses do not appear to speak. Indeed, Hope himself, a relic from the age of speech, remains just as isolated in lonely silence among his telepathic, thought-reading companions. In fact, the scene of this alien encounter remains as fragmentarily enigmatic as the scene in the Roman villa in Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), where a silent Roman patrician couple pack off their children and, for no apparent reason, sit down to calmly slit their veins.
The real core of this novel is space travel—not space adventure, but the act of space travel itself. And here, the presentation of experience as fragment makes real narrative sense. The essential monotony of a long stretch of transit time is essentially untellable. Later sf writers fill this void with physics lessons and other didactic chores intended to while away the time. Here, the void of transit suddenly explodes with vivid episodes, such as a near-fatal encounter with a “black cloud”: “This was the thirtieth day of our journey.... But this day, as I looked out of our watch tower, I saw right ahead of us, an increase in the darkness—an aërial fog bank—a Magellan cloud” (38). Later, the ship literally erupts from the physical and mental darkness of space into the atmosphere of Venus. Its entry into Venus’s gravitational field is illuminated by inspired descriptions as the orbit and gravitational pull of Venus’s moon are used, in visionary fashion for the time, to slow the spaceship’s entry velocity. A cannon shot, in the manner of a rocket thrust, is later used to soften the landing on the Venusian ocean: “Moxton took from our stores a large electric ball, which could be discharged from a cannon.... He pointed it straight down and discharged it into the ocean beneath us, we saw it strike the water and plough through the blue depths for a mile or more, then lay like a drowned sun beneath us” (49). These stand out as vivid moments, stolen from blankness and oblivion, “from the same dreary light [pouring] its unvarying sunshine over us, the monotonous air all around us, around the nicely finished interior of the Star Climber” (44). The ship’s very name (one of the best spaceship names I have encountered) defines it as a thing moving by steps or leaps through space. Its trajectory forms a series of fragments of light, here swallowed by the black cloud (“This unreal blackness must be feeding among all her delicate wings” ), there emerging in order to carry its human cargo onward, “like the Ancient Mariner’s bark,” to some new plateau in the mosaic of space.
The Inhabitant’s sense of space adventure as spots of time, in fact, antedates by 40 years the vision of Rosny’s Navigateurs. Rosny’s astronauts only go to Mars. The “infinite” of Rosny’s title, however, is the Pascalian void of potential space travel which they confront as infinitesimally small units on the scale of quantity. Yet at the same time, because they claim the status of the only thinking entities in this void, their actions demand to be seen, from the human side of Pascal’s equation, as fragments of light in darkness. This is the way we should read the most memorable scenes in Hope’s narrative—as descriptions of human interactions with the unknown that create mosaics of darkness and light. Take, for example, Hope’s description of the encounter with the Magellan cloud:
To think of a world, like the one we had left, plunging into such a mass as it came rushing through space. A garden of Eden—a desolate wilderness would be nothing to the brightness and beauty and life before, the canker eaten blackness, the universal death behind. There would be no time for thought; like a black fogbank it would loom—then sweep over all with awful swiftness ... amid unutterable darkness the stinging vapor would lap everything into its destruction—and the creative work must begin anew. (42)
Another notable moment occurs when Hope’s companions, earthbound, are captured by an asteroid. Exploring this rock, they come inadvertently to its edge:
What a sight awaited them! Thus must surely be the very spot where Milton’s devils fell ... only the bright sun never shone there, for now beneath them was a clear precipice, not of hundreds or thousands of feet ... but down, down, down beyond the lower edge of the world, and still on. The only thing that broke the dream was the vision of stars far away in the immense depth below. (101)
Such instants stand out in surreal clarity against the dullness of whatever scenario we try to read into this narrative: utopia, colonialism, first contact.
In further explorations of Venus, inexplicably, no further humans are sighted. There are fauna, mostly harmless vegetarians. Nor are they particularly alien, for the Venusian sheep look like Australian kangaroos. There are, however, more predatory creatures afoot, and Hope’s narrative ends, crazily, with the description of a senseless slaughter of Venusian “buffaloes” by tiger-like creatures. In other words, it ends facing an abyss; it closes upon a frozen moment in time. This scene is matched by Weir’s falling off his asteroid; he too remains frozen in endless falling through the meaningless void. If there is, as the introduction tells us, a final lost volume to this narrative, I would prefer it never be found. For it is only logical that this book of fragments, that gives us flashes of light amidst the endless darkness of cosmic spacetime, should end as a supreme fragment. The utopian future it sets forth is no more than a sketch. The Venusian adventures are sketches as well. What leap out, however, from this text are the surreal scenes that confront the reader with the wonders of space exploration, and ultimately with the cosmic condition itself. These moments define the novel. They place it between Verne’s moon cycle and Rosny’s Navigateurs as a milestone in the history of early sf. Furthermore, its antipodal place of origin, New Zealand, points to the fact that sf, as it develops in the nineteenth century, is becoming a world literature. This book is a find for me, and I will definitely use it next time I teach a class on the origins of sf. I recommend it strongly for all serious readers of the genre.
1. This early sf story, with an introduction by Dominic Alessio, was previously published as a “Document in the History of Science Fiction” in SFS 20.3 (Nov. 1993): 305-41.
Fellini, Federico, and Dario Zanelli. “From the Planet Rome.” Fellini’s Satryicon. New York: Ballantine, 1970. 112-26.
Heinlein, Robert A. “Shooting Destination Moon.” Astounding Science Fiction (July 1950): 48-72.
Rosny aîné, J.-H. Les Navigateurs de l’infini. 1925. Récits de Science-Fiction. Ed. Jean-Baptiste Baronian. Verviers, Belgium: Marabout, 1975. 40-92.