The Invader (Margaret L. Woods, 1907)

Milly is a graduate student at Oxford. After a bout of overexertion and resulting insomnia, she submits to some amateur hypnosis. It gets her to sleep all right, but when she wakes, she’s an entirely different person. Milly was a mousy and studious woman while Mildred is a vivacious flirt. The two personalities fight for control of the body, each holding it for months at a time before the other wrests it away. Neither has more than a hazy recollection of the other’s affairs, and it’s those affairs that become the sticking point. Milly’s devoted to her husband Ian and son Tony. Mildred intends on abandoning them and running away with another man.

A very silly book made all the more so by how seriously it takes itself. That isn’t to say I didn’t like it — I enjoyed every page — but it is a silly book.

No inscriptions.

Metropolis (Thea von Harbou, 1925)

I feel like I don’t need to go too in-depth with the plot here. This is the book on which the 1927 film Metropolis was based, and for the most part, the film is a faithful adaptation. In a future city, where the masters live in dazzling luxury above ground and the workers toil at dangerous machinery underground, a saintly woman attempts to find a “heart” that with at last unite the “brains” with the “hands”, while a robot who has taken her likeness spreads discord and threatens to destroy workers and masters alike.

There are some differences between the novel and the film, however. In the film, there are all manner of electronic and mechanical wonders, but it’s all grounded in science. In the book, there’s some straight-up magic at play. Rotwang, the creator of the Machine Man, is here more of a sorcerer than a scientist and he draws a great deal from Jewish mysticism. Indeed, the Machine Man is an awful lot like a golem. Religion in general is much more at the forefront. There are religious metaphors in the film, yes, but they’re metaphors. Even in the fever-dream sequence when Freder hallucinates that the Thin Man has transformed into a monk warning that the apocalypse is at hand and sees Death release the Seven Deadly Sins and descend upon the city with his scythe, it’s never suggested that this should be taken literally. In the book, religion is no metaphor.

Josaphat’s role is considerably larger than in the film, with a new subplot that’s a  transparent Doubting Thomas allegory. Joh Frederson also has a mother who chastises him a couple times for playing God. There’s also a disturbing amount of hand-wringing over racial mixing in the book that was completely excised for the film.

I don’t know how much of this is von Harbou and how much is the uncredited translator, but the writing is odd. It takes a sort of mock-Biblical tone with lots of repetition and set phrases, but the punctuation seems to have been lifted from a twelve-year-old’s diary. I can’t recall the last time I saw so many ellipses and exclamation marks in a single sentence.

No inscriptions, although the price tag reveals that it sold for 2 shillings and 6 pence.

The Coming Race (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1871)

A man descends a deep mineshaft and finds himself in a subterranean world populated by an advanced human-like species known as Vril-ya, so-called because of their command of the almost magical power vril, which they harness to create all manner of scientific wonders. The man spends some time (months? years? quite hard to tell in a land with no day or season) among the Vril-ya, and primarily concerns himself with observing their society.

It is on its surface a utopia — without war, without class, without hunger, without disease. The people live in quiet ease, all labor having devolved to automata or made trivial by the use of vril. However, on reflection, it’s culturally stagnant and is governed by a brutal dictatorship masked only by the bland complacency of the inhabitants, at peace with its neighbors only by the mutually assured destruction of a vril war. The man fears the annihilation this “coming race” would spell for his own people if and when they reach the surface world. On the other side, the Vril-ya are deeply concerned with the dangers this Tish (literally tadpole, but meaning barbarian) poses to the Ana (people) should his Pah-bodh (false) ideology spread, risking their decline into  Koom-Posh (…hard to translate concisely, let’s say degeneration) or even Glek-Nas (utter corruption).

Incidentally, a great deal of time is spent expounding on the Vril-ya language. The vocabulary presented is no more than a dozen or two words, but Bulwer-Lytton does set forth a thought-out grammar, seemly quite influenced by Sanskrit and Welsh.

The daughter of his host, Zee, falls in love with the man, which is most perilous for him. Such a match between a Gy (female Vril-ya) and a Tish is proscribed and the Tish will be executed to prevent it. And it does come to that. The Tur (leader) issues the man’s death warrant, but Zee, rather than see her beloved killed, returns him to the cavern he entered by and he escapes back to the surface world.

The book was a touch disappointing, if only because I went in with such high hopes. Zanoni and A Strange Story are masterpieces of esoteric fiction, and as I knew Bulwer-Lytton had a personal interest in the Hollow Earth theory, I expected so much from a story that explores it. Unfortunately, he’s a bit too caught up in the concept of inner-earth people and on speculating on what they might be like, and as a consequence, he never gets around to much in the way of plot or character development.

No inscriptions.

Woman Alive (Susan Ertz, 1935)

A young doctor visits a man who, by semi-scientific, semi-mystic means, is able to project an image of future events into his subjects’ minds. The man asks to see London as it will be in 1986.

Much has happened in the intervening fifty years. Britain went to the Soviets after the world war of 1950, but communism had collapsed in on itself in by the 1960s and the country was once more independent and capitalist. It, and much of the world, is closely allied with the ocean-spanning United States of Europe. War was all but a memory until a few weeks ago, when a break-away state launched an air strike against the USE in a bid for independence. They dropped a new chemical weapon that specifically targeted women. In a matter of days, the contagion spread throughout the world, and soon it is believed that every woman on Earth is dead and that humanity’s last generation has been born.

One woman survived, however. She had been the guinea-pig for a new, experimental vaccine, which left her alone immune to the disease. The daughter of simple farmers in rural England, she becomes quite an important personage. The world is ready to war again for the possession of her — each nation wanting to use her to continue their race — but she would rather see humanity suffer the death it brought upon itself. At first, at least.

Wonderful Art-Deco illustrations (in the first US edition anyway — I can only assume they’re in the others, too)