Another of my Project Gutenberg finds, “A Crystal Age” by W.H. Hudson is an early science fiction story. Originally published in 1887 anonymously, later editions had the author’s name. One wonders why it was published anonymously to begin with as science fiction was not unheard of at that time. According to Wikipedia, utopia/dystopia literature was quite the rage at the time, not unlike today.
Some of the plot devices it employs are echoed in later books. The narrator is out on a botanical expedition in the hills near his English home when he falls and then awakens much later in strange surroundings with no real explanation of how this occurs. The fact is he has been unconscious apparently for millennia, or somehow fallen through a portal in time (my own guess, it’s never mentioned in the book) and finds himself in the far distant future. This sort of magical transportation is what Edgar Rice Burroughs used in his “John Carter of Mars” series, where Carter is mysteriously whisked to the red planet without explanation, although “A Crystal Age” predates “John Carter” by a good 25 years or so.
The story is an interesting imagining of what the far future might look like, and how people of that time would behave. But our hero baffles me in several ways. A couple of points most difficult to reconcile are that everyone in the future speaks 19th century English, and yet the written language has become incomprehensible. The narrator, Smith, likens the forms of the letters in books to Hebrew characters. Why would the written language alter so completely, but not the spoken? Language changes relatively quickly, and in the span of time that must have elapsed between the England of Smith’s day and the time he wakes to find himself in where no trace remains of any city, language would have altered beyond recognition. Even today, with only a couple thousand years between us, no one knows what ancient Greek sounded like, and there is debate about Latin pronunciations.
Anyway, when he wakes from his fall after an unknown amount of time, he finds himself covered by vining plants from which he must extricate himself. His boots are muddy, dry, cracked, as if they have aged while he has not. He begins to walk in an unfamiliar landscape, passing animals that come to stare at him seemingly in wonder as if they can recognize an unfamiliar human, an outsider. Maybe they can tell a carnivore when they see one.
Then, like H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” our narrator right off the bat falls in love with a young girl in a small group of humans he encounters, although the young Yoletta is vastly more intelligent and independent than the Eloi Weena. While Smith struggles to understand the peculiar ways of these people, he readily capitulates to their way of life, and strives to fit in from the outset, and makes no attempt to try to understand where he is or how he got there, or how the world came to be the way it is, or what may lie beyond the small area this family inhabits. His obsession with Yoletta drives his every action, from the minute he lays eyes on her.
He never even wonders about his own family or friends, or whether they might be concerned about him. His infatuation with Yoletta has an almost slavish quality. He indentures himself to the family for a year in return for a suit of clothes such as the group all wear so that he won’t stand out or offend them, and in so doing, please Yoletta. His new benefactors are affronted by Smith’s appearance and clothing, particularly his boots, although why is never made clear. The reader can only assume it’s a quirk of their society, the way removing hats on entering a building is with us.
The people seem to take offense easily, although are equally quick to forgive and move on. They’re so accustomed to their own lifestyle that they find it incomprehensible that Smith could come from a place where things are done differently. They’re a bit like the Eloi in that they seem to spend no time in self-examination, or question their existence or have any desire to travel beyond the confines of their small corner of the world.
Yoletta is an unusual character for the time this was written. She espouses views that are progressive, while Smith’s are utterly conventional, chauvinistic. Smith loves Yoletta because she’s beautiful, even while he knows nothing about her. Despite his attempts to flatter, compliment, and flirt with her, Yoletta treats him as she would a friend, with affection and courtesy, but clearly doesn’t return his ardor. During Smith’s first attempt to tell Yoletta how beautiful he finds her, Yoletta observes:
“There are different kinds of beauty, I allow, and some people seem more beautiful to us than others, but that is only because we love them more. The best loved are always the most beautiful.”
This is in direct contrast to Smith’s idea that the most beautiful are the best loved. Yoletta is wiser than her years suggest. Smith, on the other hand, has some growing up to do.
The writing is rich, as was the custom of the time, with poetic descriptions that would bore most modern readers, but which I still enjoy. I think modern prose can often be too stark, there’s room still for more colorful writing.
“For a long time the sky had been overcast with multitudes and endless hurrying processions of wild-looking clouds – torn, wind-chased fugitives, of every mournful shade of color, from palest gray to slatey-black; and storms of rain had been frequent, impetuous, and suddenly intermitted, or passing away phantom-like towards the misty hills, there to lose themselves among other phantoms, ever wandering sorrowfully in that vast, shadowy borderland where earth and heaven mingled; and gusts of wind which, as they roared by over a thousand straining trees and passed off with hoarse, volleying sounds, seemed to mimic the echoing thunder.”
It’s a short book, more of a novella by our standards (133 pages all told, including all Project Gutenberg’s added notations and licensing and so on), definitely worth a read even after all these years.
UPDATE: 1/20/2014 – Erin Johanson was kind enough to mention it’s available on Amazon for Kindle for free as well here. (Thanks, Erin!) Project Gutenberg has all their offerings in multiple formats, including MOBI, which is what the Kindle uses so lots of ways to find books!
UPDATE 2: Changed to “The Time Machine”. Thanks, Ralfast.