Science Fiction Studies

#41 = Volume 14, Part 1 = March 1987



Robert Crossley

Dystopian Nights

Joseph O'Neill. Land Under England, introduced by Anthony Storr, foreword by A.E. [George W. Russell]. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1985 [rpt. of first ed.--London: Gollancz, 1935]. 298pp. $8.95 (paper).

Katharine Burdekin. Swastika Night, introduced by Daphne Patai. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1985 [rpt. of first ea., published under pseudonym "Murray Constantine"--London: Gollancz, 1937]. xv + 196pp. $8.95 (paper).

The important utopian fictions of the 1930s never seem entirely at home in their own decade. Among the efforts at a positive vision we must count, of course, Wells's aggressive optimism in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) and in the 1935 film derived from it, the dreamy escapism of Hilton's Lost Horizon (1933), and perhaps that lovely oddity, Herbert Read's The Green Child (1935). Beyond those three there is utopian chutney, appetizing bits and pieces, but no main course to be found in the work of Philip Wylie, in Wells's Star Begotten (1937), and in selected chapters from Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Odd John (1935), offering Stapledon's quirky portrait of the doomed utopian aspiration of "homo superior" in the form of physical freaks and precocious children who blow up their island colony rather than be destroyed by hostile "Great Powers," may be in mood and gesture the period's most typical excursion into Utopia. The '30s, despite the evident vigor of the Left on both sides of the Atlantic, was not a particularly fertile era for utopian visions. Crowded with memories of the Great War, the high rising edifices of scientism and modernism, and the bullying shapes of the dictators growing in power across Europe, the '30s granted writers little of the elbow room and breathing space required for building the New Jerusalem.

Daedalus, as architect of the beautiful complexity of the Labyrinth and engineer of wings promising political liberation and high spirits, is an appropriate mythical symbol for the utopographer, but Bertrand Russell thought that the fate of Icarus--emblem of a disastrous pursuit of Utopia by the ill-prepared and the irrational--might "overtake the population whom modern men of science have taught to fly."1 In fact, the texts that have defined the condition of Utopia between the two world wars tend to be the negative and satiric fables of Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here (1935), Capek's R.U.R. (1920) and War With the Newts (1936), and C. S. Lewis's reactionary Out of the Silent Planet (1938). And the book that has seemed the essence of the '30s, the Model A of the dystopia (if we accept Zamyatin's We as the Model T), is Brave New World (1932). Aldous Huxley's line of descent from Wells's When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) through We (1920) is so clear that despite Brave New World's parody of the typical Wellsian romance of the future and of Wells's characteristic utopian longings, the novel is essentially a homage to the distinctive kind of anticipatory fantasizing we associate with Wellsianism. But our map of Utopia in the '30s may be distorted by the proportion of space allotted to Huxley's achievement, just as the prominence of Orwell has given us a myopic view of the '40s.

The republication, after 50 years, of two remarkable novels, each responding in striking ways to the emergence of Hitlerism, should freshen our understanding of the creation of utopian and dystopian fiction in the 1930s. One looks backward and one forward; one is designed as a traditional masculinist quest, the other as a feminist renunciation of homocentric assumptions; one is a study of personal dementia, the other a portrait of a world gone crazy. While both champion independence of mind and expose the falsification of history which leads to the embrace of tyranny, one elevates individualism as its fundamental value and the other points to a socialist ideal of the interdependence of freedom and political responsibility. Both Land Under England and Swastika Night read like bad dreams suffered by authors responding painfully to present realities and to intimations of worse things to come.

Joseph O'Neill (1883-1953) worked in the ministry of education for the Republic of Ireland and turned to fiction writing with an alternative history of a Norse-conquered Dublin, Wind from the North (1934). Land Under England, his second novel, has an inevitable Irish flavor in the central dilemma of its narrating protagonist over how to locate and reconcile himself with his missing, worshipped, unaffectionate, self-preoccupied father. Anthony Julian's father returns home to the North of England from the Great War, estranged from his wife and son, his temperamental romanticism warped into obsession, and his amateur's love of classical literature and culture perverted by a transference of hatred for the modern "Hun" to the 5th-century Vandals who sacked Rome. Engulfed in pathological fantasies, the elder Julian patrols Hadrian's Wall searching for a legendary entrance to an underground remnant of ancient Roman society. When he disappears one day, his son assumes that the secret door has been found and he spends years pursuing a phantom image of the loving pre-war father he remembers until one day, by accident, he too falls through the door to a vast nighttime underworld, full of giant two-headed spiders, phosphorescent mushrooms glowing in the perpetual gloom, treacherous swamps full of lizards and snakes, and, plying a vast central sea, galleys full of blank-eyed, toga-clad men speaking perfect conversational Latin. If all this, as Olaf Stapledon once remarked, amounts to a highly "implausible mechanism" for a scientific romance,2 there are passages of eerie splendor in the narrator's account of the effort of the Masters of Knowledge in this dystopian Roman State to "absorb" young Julian into the community by destroying his will and his identity as an individual consciousness making judgments and choosing actions. The situation recalls Zamyatin's We, and the new introduction by the psychiatrist Anthony Storr alludes to Chinese techniques of "brainwashing" during the Korean War, though "A.E." (George W. Russell, who wrote the original foreword to the novel) is surely right to see the target of O'Neill's satire not in a Communist utopia but in the Hitler cult whose mindless force was "re-educating" the German masses and producing synchronized automatons at the time the novel was being written.

O'Neill's literary model for Land Under England is not hard to determine. In a series of letters prompted by Wells's Experiment in Autobiography, he persistently presented himself as an almost idolatrous disciple. When he sent a copy of his new book to Wells, O'Neill called him

the master of story as well as the most vital and far-seeing man of the past half century. 'Land Under England,' in so far as it has value, owes it to you more than to all other writers put together, because it is your works, the early ones as well as the later, that kindled my imagination to the point at which I felt that I wanted to create.3

In some respects the fiction is too Wellsian for O'Neill's own good, since its geography, fauna and flora, and imagery are so evidently derived from Wells's works, especially from The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, "The Valley of Spiders," and "The Door in the Wall." At the same time O'Neill did not have Wells's instinct for wedding story to idea, and the most labored parts of Land Under England are those that belong to the "adventure" plot--the fights with monsters, the endless scrabbling up and down rocks, the protracted search for the lost father. The father himself, once found, is less interesting than a reader might hope: zombie-like, totally in thrall to the beloved Romanism that has absorbed him, relentlessly nasty to his son.

The crucial successes of O'Neill's novel are psychological. As a study in isolation, the narrator becomes an exemplar of the heroism of resistance; his own tendency to mimic his father's obsessiveness and his discovery of the cost of resisting absorption into a dehumanizing state ethos allow O'Neill to develop a tension much more powerful than a simple opposition between individualism and collectivism--or, to use the terms in Storr's introduction, between autonomy and subservience or non-conformity and behaviorism. In part, like Stapledon in Last Men in London (1932), O'Neill was writing a World War I novel using the conventions of scientific romance, as the narrator indicates in a climactic series of questions after his discovery of his father. He wonders whether the man he knew as his father can really be said to exist any longer, whether he was a casualty of the European Masters of War long before his mind was occupied by the underground Masters of Knowledge:

Had he died before he came down--died, in part, during the war? Was the man who came back to us in 1919--the man without joy or laughter or life, apart from his obsession--was he the man that my mother had married, the father I had loved so intensely? Do men die while alive even on the upper earth, and give way to wandering spirits that seize their bodies? Was the man who had been robbed of his personal life here below--was he my father, or only an intruder who had already ousted my father from his body during the dreadful struggle when thousands were hurled from their bodies at every moment? (22:250)

Like Lewis Carroll's underworld, though without its light touch, O'Neill's is full of remembrances and distortions of the upper world. The shell-shocked father's nostalgia for the empire of Rome when the individual man (women are negligible in the story) could allow himself to be anesthetized and absorbed by the state had its counterpart in the frustrated victims of defeat in Germany eagerly surrendering their wills to the promise of a new Reich that would restore their vanquished maleness.

Joseph O'Neill's work has been overlooked for decades; the fact that Brian Stableford gives him a total of three sentences--three more that he usually gets in histories of SF and of Utopia--in his Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (London, 1985) is symptomatic. But Stableford never even mentions the woman who wrote under the pseudonym of "Murray Constantine." More than any other major figure in utopian literature from the interwar period, Katharine Burdekin (1896-1963) has suffered almost total neglect. Biographical information about her is extremely scanty and her novels, both those published under her own name in the 1920s and the more important ones written under her assumed name in the 1930s, have been out of print and unobtainable--except through a very few large research libraries--for nearly 50 years. It is not apparent why Burdekin chose a male pseudonym for her four final works of fiction (The Devil, Poor Devil; Proud Man; Swastika Night; and Venus in Scorpio), although Naomi Mitchison's experience as a woman writer on the Left censored for writing about sexual politics in her fiction during the same period suggests one possibility.4 Daphne Patai, who persisted in searching out the carefully maintained secret of the identity of "Murray Constantine," has done a great service in making the most powerful of Burdekin's fictions available again.

For its importance to the tradition of 20th-century utopian thought, Swastika Night is a rediscovery to rank with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, resurrected from a small magazine by Ann Lane eight years ago. Where Herland presents a sunny utopia of parthenogenic women, laced with elegantly barbed satire on the masculinist assumptions of the three male travelers and the society they represent, Swastika Night offers an ugly view into the long 700-year night of a future world in which Nazism has fashioned a stark neo-feudal society where Jews no longer exist, Christians have been marginalized, all art save music has been eradicated, marriage is a "lost word," and the only legitimized forms of affection for men are homoerotic (for women there is nothing). In its senescence when the novel opens, the world of the future is divided between the Japanese and German Empires after the Twenty Years' War (Burdekin's prophetic version of World War II). The nations of Europe and Africa--the Germanized portion of the planet-- are still patrolled by armies of occupation and are run by local Teutonic Knights who command unquestioned obedience and who administer "justice" with Nazi efficiency and casual brutality. The Knights are also the priests in the cult of Hitler, the state religion which has as its central dogma the belief that Hitler--mythologized as a seven- foot-tall celibate blond with blue eyes, sweeping beard, and shoulder-length hair--was neither born nor died but was "exploded" from the head of God the Thunderer and assumed into heaven at the age of 30 after subduing the four arch-fiends (Lenin, Stalin, Ernst Roehm, and Karl Barth) and fulfilling his mission of establishing a holy empire.5

The central feature in Burdekin's dystopian nightmare, and what motivates its distinctive critical vision, is the "Reduction of Women" which occurred after the Nazi victory over its political enemies. Their heads shaven, their male babies taken from them at the age of a year and a half to be raised by men, imprisoned in cages and fed a bare subsistence diet, the women have no souls according to Nazi ideology and are therefore not human but a biological nuisance required for the propagation of the species. Women are owned by men, but are visited by their men only for the dreary, lustless task of procreation; women do not have the right to refuse any male who wishes to use them, and therefore rape is not a crime. Cowed into submission (a posture, Burdekin keeps insinuating, that women before the Nazi hegemony were already accustoming themselves to by willingly submitting to men's expectations and demands), the barely conscious women of the future yet retain one channel of irresistible power. The world during the latter period of the Hitler Millennium is in a crisis whose nature is known only to the Knights: girl babies are being born in ever-decreasing numbers and the human species is in danger of extinction. Because the birth of a girl is considered a disgrace, she is ignored by her father, left entirely in the care of women, and is destined to grow up with little food, no freedom of movement, and the sole function of being used to incubate more male babies. After several centuries of socially-programmed uselessness, women have adapted biologically to a hostile environment by beginning to stop reproducing themselves. As the one Teutonic Knight who understands something about the history of Nazism and its continuing crimes against nature puts it, the women "whose discouragement is entirely unconscious, are not being born" (4:70). Just as the women in Herland accomplish a physiological "miracle" and find themselves creating girl-children in a world without men, so conversely the women in Swastika Night, unable to make a physical resistance to their oppression, make a genetic choice not to endure rape, slavery, and dehumanization. There are no right-to-lifers among these women, who know that life without autonomy or pride or a soul is not a right but a curse. Instinctively, they choose to bring no more women into the world.

Swastika Night must have been inspired, at least in part, by Burdekin's friend Margaret Goldsmith, with whom she collaborated on her final book, Venus in Scorpio. In 1935 Goldsmith published Seven Women Against the World--a study of revolutionary women from Charlotte Corday to Rosa Luxemburg; Goldsmith's dedication reads: "To THOSE WOMEN OF GERMANY Who Are Fighting Unknown for Human Liberties." It is a hopeful and heroic dedication, and Swastika Night similarly, for all its gruesomeness, is about a light that manages to burn in the long dark dystopian night of the Nazi terror. It is a light that shines in a secret historical manuscript hidden for six centuries and saved from the holocaust of books after the Reich's triumph. It shines as well in the despised Christian communities that refuse to accept the Hitlerian religion; in the pockets of underground resistance to conformity in rural England; in the legend of a new Alfred who, like Alfred the Great, will start a movement of liberation; and, not least, in the demoralized women attending their required quarterly worship service in the swastika-shaped cathedral, women whose minds are suddenly if only temporarily irradiated by hope and pride and questioning when the Knight-Priest makes a slip of the tongue and urges them to "bear strong daughters" (1:13). Patai in her lucid, compact introduction to the new edition compares Burdekin's novel with Orwell's 1984, and while the comparison is just it should not be misconstrued. Swastika Night is a vision of great originality and terror--arguably more profound, and certainly fresher, than Orwell's derivative reworking of the themes of Zamyatin's We.6 It anticipates the subtler horrors of Margaret Atwood's near-future narrative of the degradation of women by fundamentalist gynophobes in The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and it should appear on anyone's short list of the essential works of dystopian imagination, as a novel with as much critical energy and point as either Huxley's or Orwell's more celebrated warnings, but built on a substructure more thoughtful, more deeply humane, more inspiriting than theirs.


1. Bertrand Russell, Icarus, or The Future of Science (NY, 1924), p. 6.

2. Olaf Stapledon's manuscript notes for a lecture on "Science and Literature" (1937), Sydney Jones Library, University of Liverpool.

3. Undated letter of Joseph O'Neill to H. G. Wells, Wells Archive, University of Illinois Library.

4. See Naomi Mitchison's account of her difficulties with several publishing firms--including Victor Gollancz, publisher of Swastika Night--over We Have Been Warned (1935) in her autobiography, You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940 (London, 1979), pp. 171-79.

5. Marx, Lenin, and Barth make obvious candidates for a pantheon of devils in a Nazi cult of the future, but Ernst Roehm is a more obscure choice. Writing close to the events in the summer of 1934 when Roehm, Hitler's friend and the head of the Storm Troopers, was summarily arrested and executed during the purge known as the "Night of the Long Knives," Burdekin was unable to see what later historians would recognize: that the idea of Roehm as a Judas who betrayed Hitler and sought to seize power himself was largely the creation of Nazi propagandists who wanted to justify the bloody consolidation of the Fuhrer's command of Germany's military and paramilitary institutions. Nevertheless, the inclusion of Roehm among the archdemons is not incompatible with Burdekin's interest in showing throughout the narrative how myths are manufactured out of accidental or deliberate misconstructions of the past.

6. For an argument that Swastika Night is "undoubtedly the most sophisticated and original of all the many anti-fascist dystopias of the late 1930s and 1940s," see Andy Croft's "Worlds Without End Foisted Upon the Future--Some Antecedents of Nineteen Eighty-Four," in Inside the Myth: Orwell: Views From the Left, ed. Christopher Norris (London, 1984), esp. pp. 208-10. Daphne Patai offers fuller comparative analyses of Orwell and Burdekin in her The Orwell Mystique: A Study in Male Ideology (Amherst, MA: 1984), pp. 253-61, and "Orwell's Despair, Burdekin's Hope: Gender and Power in Dystopia," Women's Studies International Forum, 7 (1984):85-95.

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