He is known as the most high-profile victim of the Titanic disaster that happened 100 years ago last week. Philanthropist, businessman and part of the American high society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Jacob Astor IV published this futuristic tale in 1894 about a journey around our solar system and man’s attempts to colonise his neighbours. I am absolutely astounded by the vision of the future that he created and the technologies he envisaged would exist in the year 2000:
- Solar power
- Mag lev
- Air travel
- Global telephone network
- Speed cameras!
…amongst other things. He couldn’t expect to get everything right. He imagined the gas giants of Jupiter and Saturn to be worlds with solid surfaces upon which life was abundant and ripe for terraforming for human colonisation. In 1894 he had no way of knowing otherwise and in a world of pre-Einstein physics, naturally a lot he got wrong about the physical world. He also imagined a world still dependent on coal, the growth of electricity and a form of energy based on the premise of anti-gravity called “apergy”. In this world, the two superpowers are the USA and the United Kingdom. Canada, Mexico and several other nations had chosen to join the USA. The UK rules Africa, eastern Europe, the middle east and all the way to the Pacific. Most other dialects are dying or dead in a world where the English language reigns supreme. In this world, no Great War would ever take place. I’m sure he would have seen the irony that he would be proven wrong just two years after his death.
The writing style is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction. Lengthy chapters written in a documentary format as though in a history book are given over to explaining how this world came to be. It takes a while for the story proper to get going and the interludes feel jarring as the story halts for a lengthy exposition. This is the worst of the sins and if you can forgive that then you are in a for a good old-fashioned science ficton adventure yarn for most of the first 3/4 of the book.
In the final quarter there is a lot of pseudoreligious commentary that sometimes borders on platitude. Couple this with the imperialistic and exploitative free market approach of the protagonists and it sometimes makes uncomfortable reading. The religious philosophising in particular, though made integral to the nature of the story as the characters go on personal journeys, becomes wearisome. But this was the product of its time not written by a radical like H.G. Wells but a member of high society in a free market world of American Exceptionalism and Christian imperialism.
Because of the age of the text, you just go with it when he discusses landing on the surface of Jupiter and Saturn and the lifeforms they discover there. He imagines biological life and an ecosystem much like our own and though you might chuckle at first, you soon settle in. It is little more than a minor irritation that the lifeforms are much like we have on Earth but with singing carnivorous flowers and other oddities it does make the environment alien enough.
It is a book that feels very much of its time even though you might feel pleasantly surprised at some of the technology he imagines (scarily accurate as pointed out above) and uncomfortable that the journeys are effectively game shoots for the elite. It would have been more enjoyable had he stuck to the technology and left the propaganda aside. I would recommend this if you are interested in Victorian sci fi and are already bored to death with the big names.