Friday, May 4, 2018

A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future by John Jacob Astor IV

To Jupiter and Saturn in the year 2000
When he perished from the sinking of the Titanic, fur empire heir and real estate tycoon John Jacob Astor IV was one of the richest men on Earth. Among his lesser known accomplishments, Astor also wrote a science fiction novel, A Journey in Other Worlds: A Romance of the Future, published in 1894. Set in the year 2000, the novel is divided into three parts. The first depicts America at the dawn of the 21st century, the second details an expedition to the planet Jupiter, and the third follows the space voyage to Saturn.

According to Astor’s utopian vision of the future, all our problems will be solved in the year 2000, at least if you’re an American. The United States has clearly become the world’s superpower and enjoys the advantages of many remarkable technological marvels. Astor was well-versed in the science of his times, and his sci-fi speculations are exhaustively wide-ranging. The book reads as if someone binge read every issue of Popular Science magazine and then unloaded every possible idea into one story. In addition to such prescient ideas as airplanes, universal telecommunications, and various schemes of renewable energy, Astor envisions a project to alter the tilt of the Earth’s axis in order to ensure a pleasant climate year round (for America and Europe, anyway; to hell with everyone else). Colonel Bearwarden is the president of the corporation undertaking this task. Together with his young stockholder Dick Ayrault and Dr. Courtlandt, a “government expert” in all branches of science, he comes up with a plan for an interplanetary expedition. This is made possible by the (fictional) force of apergy, a means of electrically charging objects, such as spaceships, so that gravity repels rather than attracts them. Together, in a spacecraft that sounds a lot like a motor home, curtained windows and all, the three set out for Jupiter.

Once they get to their destination, the trio conduct themselves less like a scientific expedition and more like a hunting party, shooting everything in sight. By 19th-century standards, Astor provides a reasonable scientific justification for every aspect of Jupiter’s environment: its comfortable climate, breathable atmosphere, drinkable water, and its inhabitation by dinosaurs. While the book definitely deserves kudos for its audacity and imagination, it is unfortunately a bore to read. Too many chapters are simply long discussions on astrogeology, which might have been interesting if 95% of what the three men are saying hadn’t already been proven wrong over the past century. The book gets worse when it moves on to Saturn. There Astor abandons science altogether and dives wholeheartedly into the supernatural, depicting Saturn as a world inhabited by the spirits of dead humans from Earth. Though scientifically minded, Astor’s fervent religious piety is evident in his attempts to propose half-baked scientific explanations for everything from biblical stories to the afterlife. What started out as a farfetched but scientifically grounded work of speculative fiction simply devolves into yet another 19th-century Romantic paean to love and divinity.

Astor also makes it clear that his brave new world is only intended for Whites. His vision of utopian America rests largely on colonization and exploitation, whether of Africa or Jupiter. By 2000, the “progressive Anglo-Saxons” have conquered much of the globe and will soon “absorb or run out all inferior races.” While racism is common in 19th-century literature, rarely is it stated so blatantly as that. Though in many ways A Journey in Other Worlds is admirable science fiction for its time, there are good reasons, both literary and ethical, why it’s not popularly regarded as a classic.
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