Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Crystal Age by W. H. Hudson

An irritating Rip Van Winkle romance
A Crystal Age, published in 1887, is a utopian science fiction novel by English author W. H. Hudson. I hesitate to use those adjectives in describing the book, however, because it barely qualifies as either. The book reads like a tepid, watered-down ripoff of William Morris’s novel News from Nowhere, and Hudson even acknowledges the similarities in his preface to the 1906 edition. It turns out, however, that Hudson’s book preceded Morris’s by three years, so the former deserves credit for that. Wikipedia states that A Crystal Age “has been called a ‘significant S-F milestone.’” I don’t know who would call it that, however, because it is vastly inferior to News from Nowhere and just about any other utopian or dystopian novel I’ve ever read. Regardless of what influence it may have had on the genre, A Crystal Age is merely a baby step towards futurism and suffers from being too deeply rooted in the histrionic romantic literature of the past.

The story is narrated by a man named Smith. While out hiking the English countryside, he stumbles off a cliff and is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he is covered in earth and entwined in tree roots. After digging himself out he discovers that the world he has awoken to is very different from the one he fell down in. At first, Smith doesn’t comprehend what has happened, but the reader recognizes that, much like the fairy tale of Rip Van Winkle, Smith has been asleep for a long time indeed. The sylvan landscape in which he now finds himself is largely uninhabited, but he soon encounters a party strolling in the woods, engaged in an apparent funeral procession. These beautifully dressed strangers gaze in horror at Smith’s antiquated and dirt-covered garments, and they are equally disturbed by his attempts at conversation. Although they speak the English language, they have no comprehension of words like “England,” “city,” or “money,” and do not recognize the names of any of a long list of historical personages. Though they suspect Smith may be insane, they recognize a traveler in need and invite him to accompany them back to their home. This fish-out-of-water scenario is humorous at first, but it becomes annoying as it goes on for half the book. The others’ take so much offense at everything Smith says, they come across as a bunch of annoying, puritanical pricks.

Smith is taken to a mansion which seems to function as an independent city state. One patriarchal couple governs over this domain, and the mother is worshipped as a goddess. Unlike Morris’s novel, which contemplates in great detail the social conditions of a future world, this is about the extent of Hudson’s utopian thought. The world depicted has a vaguely Pre-Raphaelite vibe, and only serves as background to a plot about Smith chasing after a 15-year-old girl. To be fair, the narrator is only 21, but his pursuit of the fair Yoletta borders on stalking. Despite all his waxing poetic about the nature of love, it’s clear his attraction towards her is purely physical. Much to his chagrin, her world does not comprehend romantic love, only a sort of universal brotherhood and affection, which makes his task more difficult. He soon realizes that to win the girl he must win over the mother, so he sets about kissing up to the matriarch.

Smith doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s been transported to the future. Only in the final two chapters is there any degree of philosophical reflection on mankind’s present or future existence. I enjoy 19th-century literature and utopian novels of all stripes. Even by the standards of its day, however, A Crystal Age is merely a dull, pedestrian love story, and 21st-century readers will learn little from it. News from Nowhere is no masterpiece either, but it’s a lot better than this.
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