25 February 2016

Early SF Tales from the Eaton Collection: The English Revolution of the Twentieth Century by Henry Lazarus

Hardcover, 463 pages
Published 1897 (originally 1894)
Borrowed from the Eaton Collection
Read January 2015
The English Revolution of the Twentieth Century: A Prospective History
by Henry Lazarus

Like a lot of these early sort-of-sci-fi stories about the future, this one is framed by it being a document that has fallen back in time: it's a history of "the period of revolution 19— and onwards" (xxiii), focusing on a working-class uprising led by the mysterious Carlyle Democritus, who is able to mobilize the anger of the people, but also curb their excesses, preventing any "Reign of Terror"-esque tragedies. It really is a history book, written in a textbook fashion, with occasional excerpts from primary source documents, and at 400+ pages, it goes on far longer than could possibly be interesting.

The early pages, about the revolution itself, are the most interesting: the beef of Democritus (and thus, one suspects, Henry Lazarus, about whom the Science Fiction Encyclopedia indicates nothing other than that he was not a clarinetist) is largely with the accumulation of unnecessary amounts of wealth by a small portion of the population; one imagines we would see him hanging out with Occupy protesters these days. The revolutionaries seize jewelry and sell it to buy homes for the homeless, enact universal suffrage, stuff that we can mostly understand from a social justice perspective. For me, the most baffling thing was when Democritus went to meet with the King (I assume Edward VII): Democritus says that Edward has to hand over most of his jewelry, too, but that the Royal Family can keep its allowance, and that they'll have to give up all but two palaces, and promise to stop marrying foreigners. The King is down with all this (he felt burdened by all his stuff), and then Democritus makes one last request of him: to get rid of
the fashion, unnecessary to a woman’s modesty, and hitherto insisted upon at Court, of baring her bosom to the vulgar multitude. [...] [O]ne must needs visit and know the women of Eastern nations, whom the innocent and ignorant in this country deem beneath them, to realise even faintly the loathing and contempt which that disgusting European ‘fashion’ practised by our women arouses in any purely modest woman’s mind. (75)
Apparently bare bosoms are an equal problem to homelessness and mass starvation! I guess there's no doubt that Lazarus was a Victorian.

After the first hundred pages, though, it gets dead boring. First, Lazarus hates on statisticians:
The present historian is not a lover of statistics, or rather of statisticians, i.e. those of the economical political sort, a class of people much in requisition by ‘Honourable gentlemen’ and ‘Right honourable gentlemen’ of the Jubilee period,* one of whom had said, ‘Give me figures, and I’ll prove anything.’ And indeed a political statistician would prove anything. (109)
This is followed by page upon page of statistics used to support his points. Many of the pages of the edition I read had never been cut open. I can't lay claim to have actually read every page, but I am at least the first person to set their eyes upon all of them. The tedium of the book can be demonstrated by the fact that I took five single-spaced pages of notes on the first 109 pages, and then four and a half on the remaining 340 pages. Still, mixed in among the social reforms of the kind a contemporary liberal might applaud, there's the occasional nugget of an idea that seems totally crazy to us.

For example, Lazarus has some of the typical racial attitudes of his time, which are all over the place in 1890s revolutionary science fiction: "Amongst nations the children of Britain are as the oak amongst forest trees. Idle to inquire why, as idle to ignore the Divine message or fact. It is so" (287). This of course results in a British-American alliance of Anglo-Saxon enlightened despotism over the whole world.

And then Lazarus's wacky ideas about women return:
the God who made them [women] willed them to be the weaker of human kind, the weaker in order to invoke the protection of the strong. Be not misled by the ravings of Jubilee rant-idiocy of the political radical or any other type. True, they invented a hybrid variety of non-male monstrosity, by pumping the bosom nutrient into the brain organs, and called it strong-minded-women class—tough of skin, voluble of tongue, but that was not a branch of womankind, only of abortive, radical-political-economy malekind, a type of infinite degradation. (339)
Whoa, dude! We get it, women should not do anything other than be on pedestals. Your utopia sounds bad, and you should feel bad.

* This is Lazarus's future history term for 1880-94; Queen Victoria's Jubilee was in 1887.

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