Friday, April 20, 2018

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille

The heartache of skepticism
Canadian author James De Mille’s novel A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder was originally serialized in Harper’s Weekly before being published as a book in 1888. In this science fiction adventure, four yachtsmen on a pleasure cruise pluck the titular cylinder from the sea near the Canary Islands. As they take turns reading the pages it contains, the text reveals the fantastic first-person narrative of a lost sailor who drifts to Antarctica, where he discovers an undiscovered civilization at the South Pole. De Mille’s novel bears obvious similarities to other classic lost-world novels like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. There’s a reason, however, why De Mille never became a household name like those other adventure writers. Though all of the aforementioned novels are rather overrated, A Strange Manuscript in a Copper Cylinder is worse than all of them.

One thing I will credit De Mille for is he doesn’t waste much time. Verne will sometimes make you wait half a book before a monster appears, but De Mille hauls out savage tribes and ichthyosaurs in the first couple chapters. After a few chapters, the narrator, Adam Moore, follows an Antarctic river to the land of the Kosekin, a civilized race thriving in a warm pocket of climate at the bottom of the Earth. Unfortunately for the reader, he pretty much stays put for the rest of the book.

A biblical explanation is given for the existence of the Kosekin, one that will be familiar to frequent readers of century-old adventure fiction. As a race, they are defined by the ways in which their culture is opposite to ours. While we love life, they love death. While we love light, they love darkness. While we appreciate wealth and power, they strive for poverty and squalor. This Bizarro World gimmick might be entertaining for a chapter or two, but it goes on and on for the rest of the book. By the tenth or twelfth chapter the reader has had more than enough. De Mille is like a comedian who tells the same joke over and over again. And what exactly is he satirizing with this culture of self-negation? Socialism? Buddhism? Christianity? The reader soon stops caring.

The best part of the novel is the occasional commentary provided by the four yachtsmen, who argue over the veracity of Moore’s narrative. One character asserts that the manuscript is a hoax, and the objections he raises are the same ones that have been popping into the reader’s head all throughout the reading of the book. As the four gentlemen discuss the scientific, sociological, and linguistic details of the manuscript, one realizes how much thought De Mille put into his construction of the narrative. If that’s the case, however, why are the Kosekin so simplistic and boring?

I was prepared to give this book a better rating (that is to say, a mediocre rating) until I got to the last two sentences, which are the worst ending to any adventure novel I’ve ever read. While it might make sense to abruptly cut short the “strange manuscript,” as Poe did with his Pym narrative, what could De Mille possibly have been thinking when he decided to tack on such a brief and inadequate epilogue to the four yachtsmens’ commentary? Unless he just happened to die at that point in writing of the book (which is a possibility, since this was published posthumously), there’s really no excuse for it. Unless you’ve read just about every other classic sci-fi novel featuring a lost utopian or dystopian civilization, and you just can’t get enough, this Strange Manuscript is best left in its cylinder, with the lid screwed on tight.

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