After reading Alone on Mars / No Man Friday last month I looked up what other books the author Stanley Bennett Hough had written under the pen name of Rex Gordon and discovered that one had been the second and Utopia 239 the first (published in 1955). I sourced a copy and got reading.
From the onset Utopia 239 reminded me of Nineteen Eighty-Four but I had it in my head that 1984 had been written much later than it had (the title probably didn’t help!) although I tried to keep an open mind throughout (rather than dive onto Wikipedia straight away to get my facts straight); I wondered which had been written first and which author had possibly gained inspiration from the other.
I say “gained inspiration” but there is a scene at the beginning of Utopia 239 where ___ is having a secret encounter with his girlfriend, someone who he has been forbidden from having liaisons with due to her father being struck off as a scientist. The two meet in a secluded area and the mental picture this paints in my mind is not all too dissimilar to how Winston and Julia would meet in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The overall world of both here seem similar, in fact Utopia 239 is at first set in 1984, so perhaps this should have been an obvious clue to its beginnings.
Utopia 239 is more than about 1984-type dystopia though, it’s about time travel, so I was looking forward to this element. Essentially, it seems the author read Nineteen Eighty-Four and then wondered what the world would be like if things continued down that path. He answered this by having his characters construct a time machine and travel into the future, hopeful of how things would turn out.
Einstein’s famous equation is referred to along with the the idea that one can only travel into the future by this method and not the past – essentially energy, while it can’t be converted into time, can be used to alter the “time elapse rate” – that’s the idea in this novel at least. I particularly enjoyed the author’s attempts to explain a method that seems plausible. In the movie Back to the Future we are teased with the Flux Capacitor as the explanation, but throughout the 4+ seasons of the sci-fi TV series Farscape how it is possible to travel through wormholes/time is in all in John Crichton’s head, for example.
Furthermore, there is also an element of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine whereby it was supposed that their capsule would remain stationary in space throughout the journey through time, leading to the concern that they might find themselves wedged in a wall or stuck underground. This didn’t happen although their arrival in the future was a bumpy one, for which no explanation is given and the travellers seemed to disregard this curiosity once they had safely landed. As travellers who had arrived at their destination and had no further time travelling planned I suppose it would make sense to forget about it, but as a scientist that would surely remain a puzzle to be solved; they seemed content with getting on with their lives in this future, even though they surely could have travelled from there further into the future if they didn’t like what they found. Interestingly they weren’t the only time travellers as it was mentioned by the people they encountered that other time travellers had also arrived in this future, supposedly also developing the means to do so from Einstein’s equations.
The future this group encounter is supposedly a utopia for the people who belong there; Utopia 239 being the name of the region and is one of many “Utopias”, although it seems frightfully dystopic for the travellers as there were no longer laws and morals, and standards seem to be relaxed. I would describe the area they ultimately arrive at as being governed by Sharia Law, the concept of “turning the other cheek” as per the teachings of Jesus in the Bible; the idea being that you could commit someone to death for murder, but then you would have to accept the same fate in return. They consider things with regards to them being “malicious”. The group try call into question the way things are “governed” and are warned some other time travellers had attempted this and possibly met their ends.
Those in this future criticised the rules and laws in the past, our time; pointing out how we are born into this world, governed as it is, with no option, and no real say in it beyond voting for people to do our bidding; something I have certainly pondered before.
The topic of sex and rape is discussed – and deemed somewhat simplistically as a malicious act – and it is explained that in this future with relaxed morals and standards a woman (or a man) could simply say no to sex and that would stand; our female character ___ ends up being seduced due to a lack of understanding, and perhaps naivety. This element did make me wonder how these people would handle cases of child sexual abuse where a child could surely be more easily persuaded by an adult but this particular avenue of enquiry wasn’t pursued.
Where the group landed and the building they stayed in for a while reminded me of Hunger Games and also a kind of Big Brother House. As might be expected therefore much of the novel is about figuring out how things operate in this time and pondering topics of a philosophical nature. I particularly liked this statement:
Frightened people are suspicious people. Suspicious people are those who never voluntarily allow themselves to be governed from outside their own immediate circle.
Indeed it is explained that in the time after the group left in 1984 the people had become slowly more passive – accepting anything their government ordered, that was until nuclear war broke out and all things changed.
In this future is is explained that people believe in God, “they are not materialists” perhaps due to times being supposedly hard (this is stated but not really portrayed all that well since the premises they arrive at seems well furnished) and they claim some fantastic relationship with a Divine Purpose – a [different] morality – and refer to the surviving tribes of Israel as being how they perceive themselves. They talk of theology and mysticism and this reminds me of the Theosophical Society an organization formed in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky to advance Theosophy, which I heard and read about last year; it seemed this was what formed the author’s ideas here.
Also touched on are Marxism, Gandi-ites and the Quakers
In the future time of Utopia 239 there is a marble pillar inscribed as a memorial stone, reminding me of the Georgia Guidestones. In this case it is inscribed with the following:
IN MEMORY OF ELISA GROLD …
THE GOSPEL OF THIS COMMUNITY …
THAT NO ONE SHALL HAVE THE POWER TO ISSUE ORDERS …
THAT A STATE OF ANARCHY SHALL PREVAIL …
THAT FREEDOM SHALL BE UNLIMITED … UN-CIRCUMSCRIBED BY LAW … UNFETTERED BY TAXATION …
YOU HERE SHALL PLEDGE TO LOVE YOU NEIGHBOUR AND THIS WORLD AS YOU DO YOURSELF AND NEITHER LESS NOR MORE …
TRIAL SHALL BE BY INSTANT JURY … MALICE ALONE SHALL CARRY PUNISHMENT … THE PUNISHERS SHALL BE TRIED FOR MALICE ….
Overall, it has to be said that I didn’t find the sum total of the 33 chapters of Utopia 239 to be as gripping and as much of a page turner as Alone on Mars; I was keen to get to the time travelling part, and then beyond that the rest of the book, while it had much to ponder as you can see from the above, didn’t have much of a story to it and a good reason to read until the end.
The easiest way to remember the date of 1984 is to know that he swapped the last two digits around
Time travel into the future by way of stasis is a trope I’ve read in numerous novels. Time travel into the past I discount these days as naivety. (Consider Eric Idle’s Galaxy song, and the fact that in 1 second’s time we’ve traveled millions of miles from the Universe’s center. Going back in time would mean traveling in space too.)
Unfortunately, political dystopias don’t much interest me. The whole HandMaiden’s tale (tail?) I go in for the natural type, or man-made calamity type.
I will try and hunt down Alone on Mars, for review.