RogerBW's Blog

The Heads of Cerberus, Francis Stevens 21 March 2022

1919 dystopian science fiction. Three friends accidentally inhale a strange dust, and find themselves in a Philadelphia… of the future!

Well, more or less and eventually. There's a lot of setup that serves no particular narrative purpose, but does help to establish the characters: Robert Drayton is a lawyer ruined for refusing to conceal bad behaviour, turning to crime on the basis that whatever he does he'll be treated like a criminal anyway; Terry Trenmore is a big-hearted (and just generally big) Irishman, an old friend who's fallen out of touch, whose home Drayton accidentally picks for his first burglary; Viola is Terry's sister who is Beautiful (and therefore Good, or perhaps vice versa), but of course delicate, because this is 1919 and no proper woman needs real fortitude. (Possibly I'm being unfair, but I have to assume that Stevens – who turned to writing to support her family after her husband died, and was hardly a drooping flower herself – was catering to contemporary taste.)

In any case, Trenmore's casually bought an odd-looking relic, a rock-crystal vial full of grey dust said to have been "gathered from the rocks at the gates of Purgatory by the poet Dante". Someone else wanted it but missed the auction, and being Irish and stubborn Trenmore refused to sell, especially once the threats started coming out. Naturally everyone gets curious, and one by one they accidentally inhale the stuff, and vanish.

They arrive first in a liminal fantasy-realm, where castles grow from ruins at night and empty suits of armour ride the roads. But they quickly pass on to find themselves, as they think, back in Philadelphia – where they're promptly arrested for not wearing compulsory identity number badges, and quickly get involved in dystopian politics. The safety valve to prevent a proletarian uprising is the periodic contests – for example, if you are Quickest, you get to be in charge of the police force (because that's obviously relevant). Both unsuccessful contestants and former office-holders are gruesomely executed (indeed, that appears to be the penalty for almost anything), so there aren't a great many challengers, and it quickly becomes apparent that the contests are also thoroughly rigged. And everyone goes in fear of the Great Bell, which one day may be struck by the Sword of Penn and end the world…

Of course it's all the fault of those darn pacifists, as someone finally learns from local history:

The country had been largely militarized; but this new European outbreak swung the pacifists back into the saddle. You know the delirious possibilities which may spring from the brain of a full-fledged pacifist.

It's an odd world, similar enough to the writer's present day (streetcars, shooting galleries, "movie" [sic] theatres) that our heroes can be fooled at first, and Drayton fancies he recognises the furnishings of an hotel – though this is meant to be happening two hundred years in the future. (The author was born in 1884, so would surely have remembered streets without motor cars; it seems to me a failure of imagination to think that there would be so little progress.)

But the reason this is regarded as a prototype in science fiction is in the coda, in which we supposedly learn what was happening: this is not just time travel but an alternate world, not necessarily intended as the future of our own – which would be fine if that were as far as it went. But alas it goes further, verging into the dispiriting "it was all a dream" of much early fantasy: the person who claims to know something about the whole business explicitly regards the alternate as not "the future", but a world created as our heroes fell into it and destroyed as they left, and indeed "that moral tone seems to have been a distinct reflection of your own". For me that rather smacks of the exploitationist attitude, that "they" are not really people like "us" so it's fine to take any advantage you can from them, and sits poorly with what's otherwise an enjoyable adventure story.

I was pointed at this by Shimmin Beg. Freely available from Project Gutenberg Australia.

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