Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Tale of Two Dystopias

Two Edwardian-era dystopian novels that were excerpted in our anthology Unto This Last are now available from Monroe St. Press in their entirety. 

Lord of the World by Robert Hugh Benson and The Iron Heel by Jack London were published one year apart, in 1907 and 1908 respectively. Both told tales of future societies in which trends and ideas that were current at the time they were written had come to their ultimate conclusion—with disastrous results. 

In Lord of the World, a charismatic but elusive American politician, Julius Felsenburgh, averts a world war in the early 21st century and is immediately hailed as the literal savior of humanity. Granted unprecedented authority over the nations of the world, he sets out to impose his vision of universal brotherhood and harmony—and to insure that any who cling to "superstitious" beliefs are gotten out of the way. Meanwhile, an English priest, Father Percy Franklin, finds that he might be all that stands between Felsenburgh and his diabolical plans. 

The Iron Heel is written in the form of a memoir by Avis Everhard, wife of revolutionary Ernest Everhard, spanning the years 1912 through 1918. This manuscript is discovered 700 years later (in the 26th century) by a scholar who adds commentary explaining various events mentioned in the manuscript—some historical, others fictional. Avis recounts how she, Ernest and others who sought to liberate the exploited working class encountered brutal resistance from an entrenched "Oligarchy" of the wealthy and powerful, and how this class struggle tore America apart. 

The two authors not only wrote from opposite sides of the world (London from his ranch in California, Benson from his parsonage in England) but from opposite sides of the political and social spectrum. London, best known for his stories of human and animal survival such as The Call of the Wild and White Fang, spent his youth as a manual laborer and was largely self-educated; Benson was one of three sons of the Archbishop of Canterbury and enjoyed an upper-class lifestyle and education. London was an atheist and socialist; Benson, an Anglican turned Catholic priest. London firmly believed that Marxist socialism was the solution to poverty, war and other social problems of the day; Benson just as firmly believed it would only lead to worse problems. 

As divergent as these two novels are, they both proved to be groundbreaking examples of the modern dystopian genre and set patterns that were followed by later writers. George Orwell praised The Iron Heel as a very accurate prophecy of the rise of Fascism, and Orwell scholars cite it as an influence on 1984. Both books also foreshadowed, sometimes in eerily accurate fashion, the rise of totalitarian states such as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. 

Both titles are $10 and can be purchased through the Amazon link at our website.