Science Fiction Studies

#58 = Volume 19, Part 3 = November 1992

Salvator Proietti

Frederick Philip Grove's Version of Pastoral Utopianism

Edited by RMP

I love Nature more than Man.—F.P. Grove, Over Prairie Trails

It’s not impossible, but it’s inhuman.—Anonymous Italian street poet2

1. Frederick Philip Grove (1879-1948), born in Germany as Felix Paul Greve and emigrating to Canada around 1910, has received over the years rather divergent critical appraisals, ranging from patriotico-chauvinistic embalmment to patronizing dismissal. Even so, he is generally considered an outstanding figure in pre-World War II English-Canadian prose. He is also the author of one utopian SF novel, Consider Her Ways (1947), initially well received by reviewers,3 but quite neglected in the following decades in the field of Canadian studies and totally ignored by SF critics.4

Far from being an occasional excursus into the genre, Consider Her Ways is a crucial part of Grove’s literary discourse. In his German period, Herr Greve had translated Wells (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The First Men in the Moon, among other texts) along with works by other practitioners of satire and allegory such as Swift and Wilde.5 Nor does his interest in Wells presently disappear: one of Grove’s very first post-emigration writings, a narrative poem called "The Legend of the Planet Mars" (cf. "Poems" 82-89), offers a variation on the theme of Wells’s "The Star," wherein the holocaust of a global Martian war is interpreted by Earth’s astronomers as an attempt at interplanetary communication.

The most important conceptual antecedent of Consider Her Ways, however, is Grove’s own The Master of the Mill (1944). The writing of these two novels kept Grove busy for a large part of his Canadian career;6 and they can be seen as a culmination of the tensions and oscillations present through his entire opus. In both texts the evocation of SF and utopia, á la Wells and Bellamy, becomes a link connecting the Naturalist novel (with which Grove is often associated) and the horizons of some post-World War II North American cultural tendencies (in both the so-called highbrow and lowbrow realms). My specific argument is that Grove’s works stem from a syncretic (indeed multicultural) ideological cluster—a mixture of pastoralism, utopianism, and Darwinism—and that this leads him (an individualistic, quasi-Fabian, social democrat facing the growing industrialization of Canada, but also the crises of the Depression and the War) to question in his books any opening for human agency within history. Consider Her Ways is, in this regard, his bleakest novel. It was also, literally, his last work (he revised its Introduction just before he died). But, as I intend to demonstrate, after such a book only literary silence could have followed.

2. The Master is a naturalist novel, a family saga dealing with Western Canadian economic history between 1888 and 1938. Consider Her Ways, an SF novel whose apparent playfulness thinly disguises its ultimate bleakness, recounts the adventures of Wawa-quee, an intelligent ant from Venezuela, during a scientific expedition from the Orinoco valley to the New York Public Library. But despite their obvious generic differences, the two works essentially say the same things.

Grove is trying to use a philosophical point of view explicitly revolving around Rousseau and Thoreau (cf. Stobie Grove) to make sense of the potent contradiction he is facing in the New World of rural Canada. If, in his period, the pioneering homesteaders were still part of the present experience, "Canadian economic life...[was growing] along highly centralized and semi-monopolistic lines" (McNaught 193); Big Business had clearly established itself as dominant factor in the tensions of the country (westward expansion included), and the farmers were going to be one of the groups more severely hit by post-Depression poverty.7 The general picture of Canada’s economic structure, in other words, was similar to that of many other developed countries of the Western hemisphere.

Some popular mythologies about the West, we should add, were among the casualties of those years. In this respect, we should be aware of some basic differences between the perception of the "frontier issue" in the mainstreams of Canadian and American historiography (cf. Cross’s anthology and Berger [1986]). In the States, starting with Frederick Jackson Turner in the 1890s, the official rhetoric endeavors to link in the "Western myth" the reality of economic expansion and the ideology of an agrarian, tendentially classless, democracy. In all its variants (including the most critical ones) the idea that democracy is more likely (or is expected) to be found in the frontier setting than in the rest of society becomes pervasive in American culture, including literature. The Canadian response appears instead to be articulated along two specular lines, both of which largely exclude any connection between the reclaimed wilderness and the utopian principle of an improved social order. Thus, in the first decades of this century the pastoral idyll flourishes as the literary image of rural (not only Western) Canada. The just-settled wilderness is seen by Ralph Connor, Arthur Stringer, and the other exponents of this Canadian genteel tradition as a timeless and "harmonious universe" (Ricou 20), immersed in a "divine natural order" (Harrison 33). In this setting, individuals and communities have internalized an immutable, pre-ascribed, unfailingly safe value-system, a hierarchical and past-oriented foundation guaranteeing their heroic status and their moral superiority over the urban "evil."

What is at stake here is, of course, the attempt by a whole intelligentsia (comprising historians, critics, and novelists) to counter the Turnerian mythology of "American destiny" with some sort of Canadian equivalent. Turner’s assumption about the frontier’s metonymical centrality and his concept of America’s inherent "progressivism" are fully accepted—and opposed by the notion of Canada’s inherent (and superior) "staticity." In the first half of the century, Canadian mainstream historiography, with the same nationalistic goals in mind, shares with popular fiction that view of the Canadian frontier; and the result is a denial of that frontier’s importance. Canada, as opposed to the US, is defined as a nation whose socio-political and economic driving forces lie not in the rural democracy of the prairie settlement, but in the urban dynamism of the mercanitle class. These business centers (presumably seen as absent or irrelevant in the US) have, by controlling the fur trade first, railway-building and the wheat market later, determined the "ordered" modalities of the westward movement in Canada (thus establishing an ideological alternative to the supposedly dangerous and subversive mob-rule of the Ameican frontier; cf. Lipset 50-52). Harold Innis and D.G. Creighton, no less than the above-mentioned writers, are programmatically anti-utopian: an absolute denial of social change seems to have been translated into the socio-political entity called Canada.

Grove also finds it impossible to do what others had done in the US: postulate a harmonious locus of unspoiled, purifying innocence, able to function as a founding "myth" for a new collective order. Utopia canadiana is necessary and indispensable; the problem is that, in Grove’s view, that vision (as opposed to, or at least autonomous from, utopia americana) cannot incarnate, as such, the "pastoral ethos" of the "renunciation of worldly striving in favor of a simpler, more contemplative life" (Marx 239), nor can it admit of an expansionist and Jeffersonian "industrialized version of the pastoral ideal" (ibid. 222). Grove, in the final analysis, cannot help trying to achieve a Canadian originality, and the results are definitely bleak and despairing.8

Only Grove’s first Canadian novel, Settlers of the Marsh (1925), leaves in its ending a feeble hope in the actualization of a better condition. In order to reach this utopian horizon, though, the protagonist has to give up his mask of innocence; the writer has him kill his wife, the personification of modern (or "citified": §3:97) sophistication, but also of that "higher, intangible order" (Harrison 75) which was supposedly shaping the settlers’ experience and social institutions. Only after these illusions have been done away with will a real horizon be open for him. Fourteen years later, in Two Generations, the closure is almost complete: the bucolic, still and silent paradise of Sleepy Hollow can only survive insofar as any contact with modernity (and indeed with human society per se) is avoided.9

In The Master this critique is carried to extreme consequences. The original condition of innocence is not only unsustainable and irretrievable; it is a meaningless mystification. For Grove, an intellectual who had brought from Europe a deep knowledge of the antecedents that had shaped the culture and limitations of the North American Left, this is a discovery that at the novel’s end assumes cosmic proportions.

3. In Canada, the most frequent national(istic) rhetoric, in political and historiographical discourse (cf. Lipset and his bibliography) as well as in literary histories (cf. Weir), seems to be that of "soft" evolutionary growth, as opposed to the "crude" revolutionary habits of the US. Indeed, the response to Darwinism, starting with the debate within the scientific circles in the 1870s, immediately becomes a major issue in Canadian culture, from politics to literature (cf. Berger Science and Cook).

Within the slim corpus of early Canadian SF, this response is unanimously problematic. In A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, the first Canadian SF novel (written around 1870 and published posthumously in 1888), one of the materials that were conducing to the development of a modern capitalistic nation had enclosed James De Mille’s message about an impossible primitive paradise; moreover, this "lost world," first introduced as a utopia, was gradually exposed in the course of the novel as a dystopia—as ultimately indistinguishable, in its values, from the "real" world (cf. Proietti 223-34). Later, after World War I, two major literary figures, Charles G.D. Roberts (in his In the Morning of Time, 1922) and E. J. Pratt (in his narrative poem "The Great Feud," 1926), use the prehistoric-fable subgenre in a clearly ambivalent way: in these works, the epic emergence of the first sentient qualities in ancestral quasi-simians is at the same time an alarmed and skeptic demonstration of the (self-)destructive potentialities inherent in homo sapiens. Finally, in Alan Sullivan’s In the Beginning (1927) the exhilarating discovery of a "lost race" still existing in the Andes becomes a pretext for a reflection on the fragility of "civilized" social conventions, with the protagonist devolving to a Neanderthal state.

The reactions to the most important North American filiation of Darwinism (in both literature and politics)—viz., Bellamy’s Looking Backward—are instead more sharply polarized. On the one hand, we have Stephen Leacock’s parody ("The Man in Asbestos," 1911); on the other, a Bellamy-esque evolutionary process brings about the secular millennium in Hugh Pedley’s Looking Forward (1913) and William Arthur Deacon’s My Vision of Canada (1933).10

Grove himself is admittedly fascinated by the idea of "socialism from above" ("Thoughts" 331). Sam Clark,11 the protagonist of The Master, had been a firm believer in a Canadian actualization of a dream much like Bellamy’s: the painless achievement of socialism promoted by Big Business. "Producers, mill-hands, and consumers: all had to profit. That had been his dream" (§4:40; an explicit parallel to European "communism" is made in §25:314). World War II is about to begin, and the failure of this utopia is evident, both in the fictional company town of Langholm and in the real Canada. The goal of Sam’s backward look is to understand how the destruction of his dream had originated. Together with him, other characters attempt to recall and reconstruct the history of the mill, in an ambitious multifocal structure.

Grove is trying to give the narration a universal scope, and the point is that nobody can really have the whole perception of the events, or control them. The mill itself, far from being the outcome of an ideal, has become a Frankenstein monster, a nightmare, a monument to human alienation, ceaselessly controlling and taking over the life and actions of the characters. It is, indeed, a mimetic prelude to the robotized hell of much "social SF."12

An arson, committed in 1888 (the publication year of Bellamy’s book) to collect an insurance premium, is the origin of the mill’s fortune. But it is also an original sin. Through this catalyst the values advocated by the three generations of the Clark family are proved essentially identical, contradictory, and questionable; three utopias are tested and discarded. (Consider Her Ways will show a way out: a tragic one.)

Rudyard Clark had inherited the mill sometime in the 1860s—i.e., significantly, more or less when the Dominion of Canada was being created. He had embodied the democratic utopia of the self-made man, but his wealth (and his "entrepreneurial" values) had turned him into a "hard, ruthless, grasping" (§8:94) man, an "autocratic ruler" (§1:22). No less so, notwithstanding his dreams, is his son, Sam: during a strike his reactions are those of a classic robber-baron. The world, he says, was not ready for a victory of the workers, "neither were the men ready to govern themselves" (§14:164). Grove clearly shares this mistrust of the masses, and Langholm’s working class is depicted as a formless mob of Orwellian proles, easily gullible, with no confidence in Sam’s (pseudo)philanthropical good will, and only capable of a blind and terrifying violence.

"Utopia would come in time, not now" (§14:170), Sam says, and so could have said his father and his son Edmund. The latter also feels himself "humbly content to be the tool of evolution" (§18:227), thereby justifying in Darwinian terms his own merciless philosophy. This disturbing and dystopian figure is the spokesman for the new financial capitalism, which is no longer limited to the production of material goods; and he is also a descendant (perverted, perhaps, but perhaps not) of the latest Wellsian utopias. Wells, in such works as Men Like Gods (1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), had advocated the instauration of a technocratico-managerial elite, capable of acting as an enlightened (and dictatorial) guide of the world’s fates and of wiping out the pernicious sin of individualism (cf. Wagar). Edmund says that automation, in the name of general welfare, will enslave everybody to the Machine, "the god of a new universe" (§20:246), and—it could be guessed—benefactor of the lucky few (including himself) that are going to be necessary to Its functioning. The word freedom will become meaningless, Edmund had argued, since we all are going to be free in the only way that really matters: free from "economic distress" (§18:228).

The roots of his grotesque ideology (that includes the Nazi-like proposal to sterilize the unemployed) can, again, be found in 1888, in a sense. When he talks about founding a "dictatorship of mind over matter" (§18:228), Edmund seems to continue his grandfather’s crime, seen, in Sam’s words, as a step towards making the universe "subservient to man" (§9:108). The arson becomes something almost exhilarating, the highest evidence of human potentialities: "Man is homo faber as someone has said" (§18:225), comments Edmund. This event is, in his argumentation, an echo of the original discovery of fire. Sam as well, in his own retrospective musings, reaches prehistory:

"What was the titanic thing to which he had been enslaved?"

It was the logic of a chain of events, that chain which had started millennia ago, with the invention of the first wheel, the first lever; with the impulse that had prompted the caveman to take a stone in his hand when levelling a blow at the head of his enemy; the logic of man’s desire to lighten and at last to shake off the burden of labour without which he might have the life of the gods. (§9:108)

The history of the mill is a paradigm for human history; the original sin is collective, almost biological. What had been a haunting doubt in Roberts and Pratt is now a certainty. The source of Langholm’s and Earth’s inescapable decay was inscribed in the birth certificate of the human race.

The quest for a primeval virginity, so dear to Grove and to his ideological ancestors, is hopeless. Sam, like Rousseau, everywhere sees men in chains, but he discovers that those chains had always been part of the legacy of homo sapiens, an inherently "damned" species for Grove as, before him, for Mark Twain and De Mille. The apparently timeless strength of the mill becomes something more than a metaphor for a Marxian concept of alienation. The opening scene brings a full perception of its essence, as a cosmological entity rather than simply as a productive force: Sam stares at the mill and sees "a huge pyramid whose truncated apex was in line with the summits of the surrounding hills" (§1:19). The monster is camouflaged in the landscape, part of it; it is a thing of Nature, "grown out of the earth" (§26:328).

Humanity’s progress is a decline: should it, after the inevitable catastrophe, start again (in a cyclical view of history), human society would "slowly evolve the shotgun" (§27:331). There is only one alternative, says Maud Doolittle, Sam’s secretary: "Some entirely unforeseen thing. Some development of which we cannot even dream yet. It is useless to try to divine it....I have come to place a great confidence in the capacity of the collective human mind" (§27:332).

4. Consider Her Ways extrapolates and literalizes those concluding words of The Master. More particularly, it depicts a future of the sort that Maud Doolittle speaks about but cannot properly imagine because she does not realize that her "alternative" collective mind would no longer be human. In Consider, that future figures in terms of an ant society, one which anticipates some utopian horizons proposed or implied in much post-war North American (science-) fiction.

In utopia’s "dramatic dialogue with the reader" (Suvin 52), the description of the desirable possible world aims to work as a model or a stimulus for a radical modification of the "real" world. Grove’s myrmecological utopia, given its biological and socio-cultural roots, represents instead the complete denial of this possibility. The implied reader of Thomas More’s archetypal Utopia is expected to change his or her mind on some basic politico-economic issues—or at least, and indeed above all, to admit that through political economy something can be changed. But Consider, through its impenetrable genetic barrier, simply says that utopia is not for homo sapiens.

The stress on biology, furthermore, brings it close to SF proper: instead of the foregrounding of socio-political institutions, we have a full-fledged portrait of the "alien" society, in all its aspects. But the price Grove must pay for this new opening is very high.

Thus we find in this novel the dominant attitude of much subsequent English-language SF: the pastoral denial of utopia. Grove is trying, in a painfully self-conscious way, to reconcile Wells’s (d)evolutionary dead end with the reopening of a utopian horizon. Both Grove and his conceptual descendants, with all their (and their audience’s) dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs, share with Wells the idea that the here-and-now of Western civilization is "the best of all the bad possible worlds" (Suvin 217). Like Wells, Grove feels that "the present way of life is with scientific certainty leading the Individualistic homme moyen sensuel toward the hell of physical indignity and psychic terror"; like Wells, Grove can only conceive of "[t]he annihilation of this world [a]s the only future alternative to its present state" (ibid.). The imagery of alienus naturalis, as opposed to homo faber, becomes the only available way out, utopian and nihilistic at the same time.

But this version of the pastoral is not the traditional and idealized image of the tame garden. D.H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley have introduced another, influential, feature: the savage, the primitive, whose world is ambiguously shaped by the "rhythms of the blood" (Williams, Country 274) and not by social conventions. SF can take this literally; sociology and anthropology are replaced by (xeno-)biology. The post-Enlightenment ideas of production, labor, economy, and political organization are done away with, subsumed under the overall category of the "alien" genetic legacy.

"Organization" is a key-word, as we are going to see. These writers are facing a North American world where the experience of commodification is leaving no areas untouched by the influence of modern mass capitalism, including Grove’s beloved prairies and pioneers. "Alienation," says Herbert Marcuse among many others, seems to be a meaningless word, since both the body and the mind of the individual have been completely "invaded," taken over by the production-and-consumption machine. The reactions to this condition give a new shape to the classic technology/pastoral opposition. To use the polarities proposed by Tony Tanner for the American post-war novel, SF oriented around such an opposition assumes the existence of two competing horizons: on the one hand, the fear of a frozen and depersonalizing identity superimposed by a dystopian outside; on the other, the fear of a total loss of individual identity. The problem is that both these fears can become fascinations: the former can give a certain degree of safety from other-directedness, the latter can provide an escape from what is perceived as a series of "superstructures...erected on ‘natural’ reality" (Tanner 29)— i.e. language, society, reason, etc. When it comes to the utopian element, no ambivalence is allowed: the second perspective is identified with the "unpatterned" state of nature, with the refusal of modernity’s "materialistic" bondages, and is absolutely desirable.13

The discovery of the biological sources of some uncanny alien social structure becomes a commonplace plot, no less than the story of the explorer "going native," often fusing his or her mind with some planetary mass-consciousness; examples could range from Sheckley to Asimov, Keith Roberts, and Ursula Le Guin. A few years after Consider, two works whose utopian aspect is made explicit are Clifford Simak’s City and Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End. In the former, the human species gives up first its cities and then its physical bodies in order to assume the shape of the Protean "lopers" and to enjoy, eternally and ecstatically, the sublime natural beauty of the planet Jupiter. In the latter, not humanity in general but only children are the actors of a new evolutionary step: the renunciation, again, of the physical body and of individuality—i.e., the attaining of an Emersonian galactic "Overmind."14—is the conditio sine qua non for the admission to utopia.

This philosophical stance does not rely on any transcendental foundation, but still implicitly postulates the existence of an immutable "human nature" (Sam Clark’s "impulse"). This innate, species-specific grid of attitudes is dominated by the principles of individual autonomy and of an artifice-making culture. This "nature," and not a succession of historical (hence modifiable and reversible) choices, becomes the root of all the world’s inescapable evils. Therefore, the movement towards Otherness can only be conceived of as a movement away from history, which this SF can literalize in alien spacetimes and characters.

The main self-contradiction of this ideological paradigm (its founding tension and limitation) is that it both denies and yet implicitly recognizes humanity’s rootedness in history. Moreover, the "naturalness" of its Other is located within post-Cartesian physics and epistemology: for example, the apparently transcendent element in Clarke’s cult-book is firmly grounded in a Darwinist vision. To put it in a formula, it is a lay escape from history. This conceptual oxymoron finds in Grove one of its first full articulations, and refreshes a fairly reactionary Modernist idea. Yet its longing for a precapitalist, unchangeable Eden (however displaced) remains an evident stigma marring its utopian potentialities: in the 1960s, both Charles Manson and the countercultural movements will be fascinated by it. Unfortunately, both of them will be right.

5. According to Consider’s ants, the male’s place in the human social order is the most strikingly aberrant of human traits; "man" goes against one of the basic laws of nature: female dominance. He is a degenerate intelligence, they say, captive to his "pure, arrogant and ignorant masculinity" (§1:4:23). And women had already been, in The Master, a prototype for this ahistorical, super-individual force—the only "alien" biology available outside SF.

The Master is a meta-utopia that functions—like other novels of Grove’s— as a sort of morality play; the history of the mill represents a stylized allegory of human history, articulated around three clusters of characters, whose members are at times interchangeable, difficult to tell from each other. The Clarks, creators of the mill, personify human agency, and its lethality. The workers, creations of the mill, embody powerless passivity and helpless irrelevance; to them, significantly, individuation is never allowed at all. The final cluster consists of the four women surrounding the Clarks. These women keep hovering over and around the events, but never really play an active role in them; they are outside of the plotline and, in a sense, outside history. The indistinctness of their identity is not related to the Frankensteinian mill; it is a fact never argued, totally beyond discussion, apparently inherent in their very being. And their passivity can bring about, if not alternative agency, at least the most thorough perception of the past events. They survive the male triad, patch together Langholm’s history, and—in a final chapter posterior to, and unconnected with, the main plot—formulate the prophetic speculation that concludes the novel. They cannot provide an answer, though; they are not alien enough to "foresee" those things to come: for Maud and her friends, humanity is inescapably a "we." Unlike Lawrence, Dreiser, Steinbeck, and other English-language writers in those years, Grove cannot actualize, through women, a societal new deal; a whole new pack of cards is needed.

In Consider, annihilation of individual identity is also the first step towards the formicarian utopia. It is also the touch that gave a final shape to the work. The initial, more imitatively Swiftian, version (of 1925) had been a long pseudo-treatise on MAN: His Habits, Social Organization and Outlook, written by the ants and followed, as an appendix, by a counter-essay in defense of humanity and its chief value, inequality. Further revisions had given the book the form of a novel (or, as Frye would have it, an anatomy).15 The final touch is the introduction, which fictionalizes the transition between the two worlds and makes the "dramatic dialogue" possible. But for Grove any communication with the Other can only be achieved through self-denial: "By some mesmeric action I, my individuality, had been sucked up or down into an alien mass-consciousness which communed with me through channels other than those of the senses" (§0:xxxix).

"F.P.G.," amateur entomologist and the book’s human narrator, receives from a group of ants Wawa-quee’s report (a first-person narrative) of her extraordinary journey. This communication takes place telepathically. Only by feeling directly and from the inside the Other’s experience, only by going beyond the mediation of language and the barrier of an irremediably mendacious subjectivity, can a real knowledge be attained. Human language can simultaneously and incestuously serve "the purpose of communication and the purpose of preventing comunication" (§4:1:181), the ants say, following the example of the Houyhnhnms (cf. Philmus).

Silverberg has called telepathy a "languageless language" (Dying Inside §3:19); in Grove and elsewhere it becomes a "scientific" way to supersede the modern idea of the arbitrariness of the communicative sign as substitute for what it signifies—an arbitrariness, or conventionality, which puts a "principle of lie" at the core of contemporary semiology (Eco 7). The ancient "pre-Socratic unity of the logos, in which language was seen at one with the order of the world and of nature, with divine and human law, and with reason" (Williams, Marxism 22), is recuperated and updated.

So considered, communication is incompatible with otherness and difference—even more so within the ant society. Intelligence resides in the totality of the anthill, whose "mass-consciousness" leaves no autonomy of action and no survival instinct to the single member. Equality of status can only be achieved "where the division of labour attendant upon a social life is reflected in a morphological division into physiological castes" (§5:4:278). The Atta Gigantea ants mold the Swiftian ideal of the wise Houyhnhnms into the structure of the Selenite society of Wells’s The First Men in the Moon. Theirs is a rigid society of biological specialization, from the queen to the "maxims" ("the leaders and organizers"), the "mediae" ("the ordinary outdoor workers or leaf-cutters"), and the "minims" ("the indoor workers who attend the culture of the fungi on which the Attas feed": Appendix 297). Class fluidity, they say, "is a curse to mankind" (§5:4:280).

The threat in The Master was the re-shaping of nature, the imposition of human constraints on its continuum and, ultimately, on the principle of individuality, seen as an analogue for the (Canadian) emergence of technological and capitalistic modernity. But the same society was providing the obverse threat of massification; and in Consider, Wawa-quee concludes that the visible patterns of individual status and prestige among humans are mysteriously connected to a pervasive, uncontrollable entity beyond the individual’s grasp—i.e., money: "Just what it is, I do not know: and neither, I suspect, does man himself" (§5:4:281).

Democracy, with its "fluidity of the castes," makes for similar kinds of instability and perpetual dissatisfaction. Grove neutralizes those anxieties by engraining individuation into the structures of the "natural" collectivism of antdom. "Our" most striking contradiction, Wawa-quee says of humans, is that we don’t seem to realize how profitable it would be for us to follow our own path to the end, thus attaining a surrogate state of nature through biotechnology:

I could never understand...why ["man"] does not, by certain innocent surgical manipulations, so alter the structure of the brain of all whom he intend for slaves as to make it impossible for them to covet a higher status. If he gave his medical officers the power to enquire into financial circumstances (as he calls them) of the parents of a new-born child...and, if these financial circumstances are found to be such as to predestine the child to a life of slavery, what could be simpler than for this medical officer to make the future man happy in that acquiescence in slavery that will be enforced in any case, but by methods both cruel and inefficient? (§5:4:281)

In Wells, ants had been used as a metaphor for some kind of totalitarian militarism (especially in "The Empire of the Ants" [1905]); and the Western world trapped in World War II had been described as "ant-like" in his pessimistic pamphlet Mind at the End of Its Tether.16 Wells himself, though, had been ambiguously fascinated by the features of the ant-like Selenites in First Men (whose leader ends up formulating a judgment on the human race which echoes that of Swift’s King of Brobdingnag). Grove goes one step further: while Swift, in Book Four of the Travels, had oppositionally split the unhuman rationality of the Wise Horses from the mindless passion of the anthropomorphic Yahoos (cf. Suvin 110-11), Grove opposes the ants’ "naturalness" to homo sapiens’ rationality and, indeed, humanity. If the naturalness is meant to appreciatively sanction the ants’ regimented civilization, the opposition identifies that order as being humanly unachievable. The point mainly lies with the split itself between biological and social laws, as The Master had argued, and not with one particular version of the socio-productive structure. Therefore Grove’s myrmecological utopia is a society, founded on the literalization of the phrase "body politic," with a sophisticated organization but without a social contract. The opposite of a doomed homo sapiens is a species without technology and artifacts, one that lives and prospers without "making" anything, that does not use anything but by-products of the body and what is available in the ecological niche it inhabits. This principle is applied to food-gathering, anthill-building, the preservation of knowledge, and every other aspect of life. "We ants seek for discoveries rather than for inventions," says one of them (§5:1:238). Economy, politics, society and production have completely disappeared.

The linguistic strategies are coherent with this. As in many SF tales, Consider’s description of the alien world is what most engages the reader’s attention;17 here, though, the alienation stems from the viewpoint of the narrator. Some variants of the estrangement technique follow. First of all, the reader is asked to (re)construct what is going on through the dark glass of Wawa-quee’s perceptions and presuppositions in the course of her exploration of what is for her terra incognita; she can’t help, for example, describing a New York subway station as a "canyon" within a huge "hominary" (§5:1:245). On the other hand, the reader is compelled rely on those presuppositions and assumptions in order to infer the patterns of the ants’ world; except for some general information given in passing, the ants obviously cannot be expected to give a full report of what is just quotidian to them: the reality-effect of the narration would be at stake. Thus, for example, we never learn anything about how the "scent-trees" used for recording and storing knowledge (the ants’ equivalents for books) work. In the final and climactic part of the trip, with its total and almost lethal immersion into the unknown of New York City, one recurring error (a sin of myrmecocentrism, the ants say) is our main clue, and the crucial point. Wawa-quee and her friends keep interpreting everything they see and encounter in biological and physiological terms: electric and telephone cables as immense spider webs, electric lamps as a race of fireflies enslaved and exploited by humans, means of transportation ("space-machines") as monstrous animals, high shoe-heels (reminiscent of Swift again) as a distinctive morphological feature of female humans, clothes as a unique daily skin-moult or a sort of outer "integument" of human skin. Most elaborate of all is the explanation concocted by the expedition’s "zoologist-in-chief" to justify and connect two social habits observed among humans: kissing and women’s make-up:

She [a library user] was tall, slender, and athletic; and her face showed several coatings of a wax-like substance of two colours, white and red. This coating, Bissa-tee conjectured, was applied by the tongues of the males; one day, she asserted, she had, in a recess of the library, distinctly seen a male applying its mouth to the cheek of a female; and, investigating at once, she had, beyond the possibility of a doubt, ascertained the fact that the same substance, also red and white, was coating the lips of the male which promptly protruded its tongue to lick it back into its mouth. (§5:3:261-62)

6. If, in much North American fiction, the journey-plot makes for a parable about the discovery or the foundation of an identity, this picaresque adventure from a Third World jungle to the center of the Western empire is for Wawa-quee nothing but a reassuring ratification of her own superiority. No real Bildung for her, and no chance for us, an inferior species, nothing more than savages "explored" by higher intellect.

What makes humanity abhorrent is something deeper than simply the urban organization of its gregarious life. All the horrors of human folly had already manifested themselves in the first part of the novel, in a rural context more familiar to the ants. Closeness to nature and a farming setting are not antidotes to the malignant essence of human nature. Violence dominates the ants’ first encounters with "us" and with our technologies; initially the ants misinterpret the sight of a patient in a dentist’s chair as a scene of sadistic torture (§1:5:28), and the reader is allowed the condescending distance of the comic effect, but shortly afterwards their conclusion turns out to be ultimately correct: the violence in the vivisection of another group of ants (§1:5:34) and in the pig-slaughtering scene (§2:5:94-95) is terrifying, gratuitous, and unequivocal. The judgment on homo sapiens does not admit of degrees. Much more articulated is the mapping of antdom. If the Atta Gigantea are an autonomous standpoint for observation (a full-fledged "alien"), they are at the top of a ladder that starts with ordinary, non-sentient, animals; in the middle, the other races they meet in the first four sections of the book function (not always successfully) as satirical allegories of some aspect of human history. Thus we have patronizing descriptions of slave-holding, cattle-raising, harvesting, and warlike races whose members include capitalists, robber barons, and parasitic intellectuals. But sarcasm and satirical playfulness don’t apply to the Attas; their size is minuscule, and they can be physically killed (most of them are: by other ants, other insects, other animals, humans, natural phenomena, and insecticides), but their moral superiority is never in question. Their static society is perfect, and the only lesson they learn is that any contact with other, hopelessly unperfectible, societies must be avoided.18

The utopian principle is not to be found within ants or insects in general, but only in the particular group of ants that Wawa-quee belongs to. The other races are less evolved, less intelligent, more human-like:

We Attas alone have reached a level of civilization which makes it possible for us to live self-contained lives, respecting, and not interfering with, other forms of animal life unless we are ourselves interfered with. That is the reason why, without any hesitation, we can now assert...that we Attas must ultimately redeem the world from the sin of predacious life. We alone are in full accord with nature’s purpose. (§3:5:165-66)

What makes the Atta society different and preferable is the same critique that Sam Clark had put forward in The Master of the Mill:

Any given development, once started, leads on by a logic of its own. It has not reached maturity, it has not come of age, till that logic has been pursued to its ultimate conclusion....Nothing remains but decay, brought about by a new development, from a new point of departure, contained, perhaps, in some phase of the old development, or furnished by some new and startling invention. (§9:107)

In Consider Her Ways, too, the ant Anna-zee had always seen science and change as pure vanity, as the causes of an intolerable, destabilizing horror vacui:

The question "How"...can be answered after a fashion by one provisional answer after the other...; the trouble is that certainty on one point answers one limited question only and itself opens up other questions. The achievement of any ant of science is merely the basis for the achievement of another ant of science; from moment to moment, it is superseded...; in other words, the best that science...can achieve is the conversion of the vast knowable universe into an unknowable universe. (§3:5:168-69)

Raymond Williams ("Science Fiction"), Robert Heinlein (45), and—later— Scholes and Rabkin (42) have put the accent on the historical relevance of what they define as "anti-science fiction." After World War II the attitude characteristic of such SF will not be found exclusively within an explicitly reactionary framework. Pastoralism, ecologism, and opposition to technology combine to form an ideology perpetually oscillating between utopianism and nihilism. In Consider Her Ways, the "message" is that only a "predacious" mentality, such as the human one, can accept a scientific world-view; and that "predaciousness" is the precondition for the existence of a scientific society. Anna-zee has no doubt about the ants’ having made the right choice in opting for the quest of why’s that can be safely undertaken "sitting in comfort at home" (§3:5:170). Thus we come full circle, back to the stillness of the Sleepy Hollow community, but in a way which also points to that insistence on separatism, isolation, staying outside, that will characterize the North American countercultures.19

The utopian idyll is finally recuperated, but without its human inhabitants, Canadian or otherwise. The Master of the Mill has been called a "novel on the triumph of nature over man" (Fenton 207). Consider Her Ways says: should this happen, no great harm would be done.


1. The present article, which reworks and expands a section of the Italian essay of mine listed in my Works Cited, has been made possible by a Govt. of Canada Award granted to me for a research project on Canadian SF for the academic year 1990-91. I also gratefully acknowledge the encouragement and suggestions of (among many others) Agostino Lombardo and Alessandro Gebbia.

2. This second epigraph, which comes from a poet in Rome, 1987, is to be found in Canevacci; the translation is mine.

3. A selection of reviews can be found in Pacey 177-84. In speaking of Consider as utopian, I have in mind Suvin’s discussion of utopia as the "socio-political subgenre of SF" (37ff.).

4. Cf. the bibliographies in Keith and Hjartarson. Besides references in the three critical monographs on Grove (Spettigue’s, Stobie’s, and Sutherland’s) and in two surveys of Canadian SF (Ketterer’s ["Survey"] and Wood’s), there are only three articles and two entries in SF encyclopedias dealing with Consider Her Ways, plus a short chapter (23-26) in Ketterer’s 1992 book on Canadian SF. The three articles come from Sproxton, Stobie, and Middlebro (whose contribution is really a brief note); and the two encyclopedia entries are by Wingrove and Wood.

5. For a complete list of Grove’s translations, see Spettigue (1973). This book, together with Stobie’s and with Grove’s Letters and "Thoughts," is my source for Grove’s intellectual biography.

6. At the end of The Master, Grove himself gives the composition date: 1930-44. On the genesis of the "ant-book," see Sproxton as well as Stobie’s 1978 essay.

7. Bliss’s study provides a history of the Canadian business class. For a picture of post-Depression Canada, see Neatby. I refer to McNaught’s book as the standard, most easily available, general history of Canada. McCormack’s Reformers, Rebels and Revolutionaries is another valuable source for an understanding of Grove’s historical context: Manitoba (where Grove lived) and the whole of Western Canada were in the 1910s the setting of both economic expansion and acute social unrest, with a very active labor movement.

8. For an analysis of the pastoral theme in English and American literature, see the classic studies by Williams (The Country and the City) and Leo Marx. Empson’s book first and definitively noted the analogies between the pastoral and the Naturalist post-World War I "proletarian" novel (significantly, a genre explicitly ridiculed in The Master; cf. §20:249 and §22:278). On the pastoral in Grove, see Dewar, who—strangely enough—does not discuss Settlers.

9. The reference to Sleepy Hollow is obviously and aptly taken from Washington Irving; for an extensive analysis of Irving’s precapitalist paradises (and of his own use of the literalized-metaphor technique), see Portelli’s Re nascosto.

10. In Pedley (a preacher who in the 1910s had actively supported the Socialist movement) a pan-Christian state-church brings about Canadian utopia. In Deacon (a major figure in the Canadian literary world Between-the-Wars) the conclusive chapter of a nationalistic treat envisages an "evolutionary" process leading to the establishment of a disturbing utopian world dominated by an "Aryan" Canada. Colombo et al. and Ketterer ("Survey") are the basic sources for my picture of Canadian SF.

11. The source of this name might be traced back to The Rapids (1922), a popular novel by best-selling author Alan Sullivan, fictionalizing the life of Francis H. Clergue, founder of Algoma Steel Co. and of a big financial empire based in Ontario during the 1890s. In Sullivan’s novel, the millionaire had been renamed Robert Fischer Clark.

12. In the 1930s, Canadian SF produced a small number of novels dealing with the technology of mind-manipulation as well—among them, Robert Stead’s The Copper Disc (1931), Maurice Dix’s The Golden Fluid (1935), and Donald Macpherson’s Men Are Like Animals (1937).

13. For this discussion I am indebted to Portelli’s "Tempo."

14. It should be noted that Clarke’s novel ends, appallingly, with a "final" solution for those who don’t take part in the "total breakthrough" of the kids: the other Earthlings have no place in the evolutionary telos, and can be disposed of. Simak’s City is more problematic, and in the last section we have a specular opposition between a "positive" manufacturing canine society and a non-technological, bleak, and regimented ant civilization.

15. Sproxton and Stobie ("Ants") provide information on this version as well as on its (and Consider’s) sources, both fictional and non-fictional. Neither essay, surprisingly, mentions the possible influence of Julian Huxley’s 1923 conte philosophique, "Philosophic Ants." On Consider as anatomy, see also Ketterer’s Canadian 26.

16. Ants have provided other SF authors (such as Frederik Pohl, John Wyndham, and the Capek brothers) with similar dystopian metaphors. An interestingly Grovian variant is Ursula Le Guin’s story "The Author of the Acacia Seeds" (1974), which starts with "a manuscript found in an anthill" (3) and ends up theorizing, beyond insect lit. and beyond "phytolinguistics," a "still less communicating, still more passive, wholly atemporal" (11) art-form, created in the mineral realm. It is Grove’s series, stretched to its utmost extreme (man-woman-animal-plant-stone). In Canadian literature, the same basic tension and ambiguity of Consider can be found in Margaret Atwood’s recent SF (short) short story, "Coldblooded," which might be read as a feminist homage to Grove’s novel.

17. Angenot’s essay is still the fundamental study on the linguistic strategies of SF.

18. The necessity of separation applies also to the other ant races. Not by chance, we discover that the ant Assa-ree, before attempting a coup to overthrow Wawa-quee’s leadership, had already shown a "treacherous" attitude by letting a male of another group fertilize her. Mercilessly, Wawa-quee executes her.

19. We might speculate that the Dutch suffix "-zee" is another echo of Washington Irving’s placid community.

We should note here that Grove’s views don’t bring him to anchoritic retreat: in 1943 he was a candidate to the Ontario legislature for the socialist CCF party (cf. Stobie Grove 182-83). Grove has been labelled a "drop-out" (Sutherland 3); the intuition is accurate, but only half of the truth: the idea of human perfectibility is for him both a source of despair and an inescapable necessity.


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Atwood, Margaret. "Coldblooded." This Magazine 24:40, Sept 1990.

Berger, Carl. Science, God, and Nature in Victorian Canada. Toronto, 1983.

—————. The Writing of Canadian History: Aspects of English-Canadian Historical Writing since 1900. Toronto, 1986.

Bliss, Michael. Northern Enterprise: Five Centuries of Canadian Business. Toronto, 1987.

Canevacci, Massimo. "Il punk e l’alieno: immagini dialettiche al Pantheon." I giorni cantati #2 (1987).

Colombo, John Robert, Michael Richardson, John Bell & Alexandre L. Amprimoz. CND SF & F: A Bibliography of Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy. Toronto, 1979.

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Dewar, Kenneth C. "Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in F.P.Grove." Hjartarson, 211-26.

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, IN, 1975.

Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. 1935; London, 1986.

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Grove, Frederick Philip. Consider Her Ways. 1947; Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977.

—————. The Letters of Frederick Philip Grove. Ed. Desmond Pacey. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1976.

—————. The Master of the Mill. 1944; Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1961.

—————. Over Prairie Trails. 1922; Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1957.

—————. "Poems." Ed. Terrence Craig. Canadian Poetry #10 (1982): 58-90.

—————. Settlers of the Marsh. 1925; Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1989.

—————. "Thoughts and Reflections." Hjartarson, 302-40.

Harrison, Dick. Unnamed Country: The Struggle for a Canadian Prairie Fiction. Edmonton, 1977.

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Keith, W.J. "Frederick Philip Grove." Canadian Writers and Their Works: Fiction Series, Vol. 4. Ed. Robert Lecker, Jack David & Ellen Quigley. Toronto, 1991. 21-70.

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—————. "Il tempo in bilico." La nascita del rock’n’roll. Ed. Ernesto Assante and Enzo Capua. Rome, 1981. 13-40.

Proietti, Salvatore. "Dalla fine dell’utopia alla fine come utopia: De Mille, Grove e le origini della fantascienza canadese." Il sogno di Acadia. Ed. Alessandro Gebbia. Rome, 1990. 223-49.

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—————. Frederick Philip Grove. Toronto, 1969.

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—————. "Grove and the Ants" (1978). Hjartarson, 227-42.

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Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. London, 1968.

—————. Marxism and Literature. London, 1977.

—————. "Science Fiction" (1956). SFS 15:356-60, #46, Nov. 1988.

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Wood, Susan. "Canada." The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Ed. Peter Nicholls. London, 1979. 101-02.

—————. "Grove, Frederick Philip." Twentieth Century Science-Fiction Writers. Ed. Curtis C. Smith. 2nd ed. Chicago, 1986, 303-04.

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