11 May 2017

Review: Hartmann the Anarchist by E. Douglas Fawcett

In August 2015, with a pile of over 165 unreviewed books, some of which I'd read as far back as December 2012, I began "Backlog Thursdays," picking out a book from that massive pile to finally review, starting with Richard Meier & Partners. Now my pile of unreviewed books is down to a mere 50, and while in 2015, I often struggled to have a book review up in time for "New Book Mondays," I've been so prolific a reader over the past year that now my buffer for Mondays extends out to May 2018! With last week's review of The Wasp Factory, all the books left in my to-review pile are academic books, by which I mean books I read for the purposes of teaching or scholarship. To rebalance things somewhat, I'm retiring Backlog Thursdays in favor of "Academic Thursdays": from now on, on Thursdays I'll review a book I read for the purposes of teaching or scholarship, alternating between books I've read recently and books from before August 2015. Hopefully I'll clear out that backlog yet! I begin with a book of dubious literary merit from the Victorian era,

Hardcover, 214 pages
Published 1975 (originally 1893)
Borrowed from the library
Read October 2013
Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City
by E. Douglas Fawcett
illustrated by Fred T. Jane

1893 was a dangerous year to be in London. There were at least four novels that I know of where revolutionaries destroyed significant chunks of London with air-ships as their weapons: George Griffith's Angel of the Revolution, Mr. Dick's James Ingleton, W. Graham Moffat and John White's What's the World Coming To?, and this book, E. Douglas Fawcett's Hartmann the Anarchist.

Set in 1920, Hartmann is told from the perspective of Stanley, a socialist who favors a peaceful transition of British society-- unlike many of his friends and associates in the movement, who call for violence as the only means of truly creating reform. Stanley begins hearing rumors that Rudolf Hartmann, an anarchist and engineer believed killed in 1910 after an abortive attempt to assassinate the German Crown Prince, is actually alive and has successfully solved the problem of heavier-than-air flight. Stanley ends up entangled with one of Hartmann's associates, a bomber named Burnett, and on the run from the police, only to be saved by Hartmann himself, via his aeronëf, the Attila. Hartmann, assisted by a German named Schwartz, begins laying waste to London with dynamite, burning down half the city including several major landmarks, but Stanley discovers that Hartmann's bombing killed his own mother and passes that information back to Hartmann, who in his grief and guilt, destroys the Attila. However, the destruction still paves the way for reform and modernization, the country rebuilding better than it was before and finally addressing the problems of the labor movement.

A lot of the revolutionary science fiction of the 1890s struggles with whether or not violence in the name of social change is justified. In Hartmann the Anarchist, Stanley-- and the reader-- are left repulsed at Hartmann's indiscriminate violence. Those of you who want violence, the novel seems to say, this is terrible future you are imagining. But Hartmann can escape the terrible nature of revolutionary change through the air-ship: because of his distance, it is easier for him to view the deaths he causes as theoretical necessities. Hartmann's training as an engineer gives him both physical and emotional distance from violence. Stanley's narration ends up decrying Hartmann for his perspective once Hartmann's mother dies: "You felt not for the thousands sacrificed for a theory; feel now for the report of your plans wrecked beyond the hope of repair. Feel, too, for a loved mother, the sole creature you ever cared for, but whom your reckless and futile savagery has immolated!" (210)

But Hartmann the Anarchist can have its revolutionary cake and eat it too. As in so many of the future-war and -revolution stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, I observe what you might call "the Independence Day effect": part of the pleasure of this tale is seeing familiar landmarks destroyed. (Complete, in this case, with illustrations from Fred T. Jane of Jane's Fighting Ships fame.) The reader is mean to be horrified at the human cost, but delight in the pleasures of destruction as well.* Moreover, Hartmann's destructive reign leads to the exact reforms Stanley believed needed to come through gradual evolution. After the destruction of the Attila, Stanley informs the reader, "You know… how order was once more completely reestablished, how the wreckage of that fell twenty-four hours was slowly replaced by modern buildings, how gradually the Empire recovered from the shock, and how dominant henceforth became the great problems of labour" (213). In the fashion of what James Scott would call "authoritarian high modernism," even the architecture must be knocked down in order to be built up again, and destruction having been wrought, reform can follow. Conveniently, though, Hartmann the Anarchist lets the socialist displace the blame for the "necessary" violence onto other parties.

* Wells, of course, would subvert this pleasure in The War of the Worlds and The War in the Air.

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