One of the common misconceptions about science fiction is that it is a prophetic medium, specifically attempting to predict the future. How many people were disappointed when the year 1984 turned out to be less than Orwellian? How many relieved? And how many gleefully said that Orwell had got it wrong? Similarly 2001 or any amount of dates referred to in SF novels and short stories over the years. (Philip K. Dick, for example, set many of his novels in the 1990s).
Dates in SF can, of course, be somewhat arbitrary and ‘fifty years in the future’ can appear to be a long time, but the relentless march of time can and does render the arbitrary date redundant all too soon. The late 20th and early 21st centuries as envisioned by writers in the 1950s and 1960s have (usually thankfully) not come to pass, although standard SF devices such as the videophone, robots, the Star Trek style communicator and interactive holograms are with us in one form or another, but, as yet, lunar and Martian colonies, interstellar travel and hovercars have failed to materialise.
This doesn’t mean that SF got it wrong, rather than the common currency of SF – the literary language, if you will – has been just that… common currency.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
H.G Wells managed accurate prophesy on occasion – The Land Ironclads, for one – as did Jules Verne – 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas – and Norman Spinrad’s seminal 1960s novel Bug Jack Barron is arguably more relevant than ever with it messianic TV personality anti-hero. But science fiction writers are not necessarily futurologists and in general write not about the actual future but the most interesting futures in which to set and tell their stories.
Some writers, however, have hit the mark more accurately than others.
Milo Fowler might not be a writer who’s name springs immediately to mind, and, in truth, is probably one of the forgotten men of early SF, but he did produce one remarkable work in his 1920 novel, The City of Endless Night.
Written in the immediate wake of the Great War, The City of Endless Night predicted not only the resurgence of a militaristic Germany but also the rise of Nazism and many of the abhorrent practices of the Third Reich, the eruption of the Second World War (here lasting for nearly a century) and the attempted overthrow of religion by the Nazi state.
Of course, Hastings never uses the word Nazi since that particular word had yet to exist and his novel is set in the far(ish) future of 2041 when a bowed but unbeaten German state has retreated into the vast, fortified and enclosed city of Berlin – the titular City of Endless Night.
When an American chemist – Lyman de Forest – finds himself trapped in Berlin through a series of dramatic circumstances, he finds a strange, almost alien world where human beings are bred to be soldiers, workers, intellectuals where the role of women is reduced to a combination of madonna and whore and where a constant state of defensive warfare exists against the outside World State.
As a dystopian future future The City of Endless Night was hugely influential on that other great dystopia – Metropolis – and it’s easy to see why, since the dismal city of Metropolis with its drone workers and decadent elite is not a million miles removed from Hastings vision of an enclosed, sunless, Berlin.
As a novel, The City of Endless Night is not without its flaws. Chance and improbable coincidence play a great part in the initial set up. Investigating poisoned mines, de Forest finds himself abandoned and trapped but, fortunately, discovers that he is the doppleganger of a dead German chemist he finds there and so is able to assume the dead man’s identity. What follows is a picaresque and episodic journey through Berlin as he uncovers the warped society that exists in this sunless world.
On the other hand, The City of Endless Night is less to do with narrative in a modern sense and more to do with an imaginative exploration of dystopian society. In some respects de Forest might have as easily been a Gulliveresque shipwrecked sailor and, in its episodic nature and reliance upon reportage, The City of Endless Night owes a great debt to Jonathan Swift.
So, through our narrator’s eyes we are able to see Berlin in all its dismal, regimented glory. The workers in the mines and factories, the level of the ‘free’ women, the decadence of the ruling classes and the Teutonic mutation of Christianity for its own ends.
There is a story here as well, not simply a series of set-pieces – a story of how de Forest finds love and, ultimately, manages to escape into the outside world, bringing the brutal German regime to its knees – but such narrative concerns are sublimated for much of the novel’s length in favour of the picaresque journey.
All in all, as a work of early SF, as an examination of a truly alien culture, as a work of prophetic fiction, The City of Endless Night is a remarkable novel and one well worth reading as an example of prophetic SF and a fascinating dystopia far removed from the pulp sensibilities that science fiction would fall under in the coming decades.