Summer Review Competition: Congratulations to our winner!

Congratulations to Mike Reeves-McMillan, who has been judged the winner of our Summer Review Competition. Mike reviewed Sir Julius Vogel’s Anno Domini 2000, widely considered New Zealand’s first science fiction novel.

David Larsen, judging the competition, described the winning review as follows:

“Entertainingly written, with the reviewer’s taste and preferences nicely foregrounded so readers can judge their likely level of agreement, and with a lot of interesting discussion of the book’s ideas. I would have liked slightly more on the actual story than “utopian; awful”, but the deep engagement with Vogel’s ideas makes it easy to accept that this is someone who’s given the book a decent chance, and concluded that the story really isn’t where the action is.”

Thank you to Mike, David and all those who entered the competition. Here’s Mike’s winning review.

Anno Domini 2000: Or Woman’s Destiny, by Sir Julius Vogel

Rating: 3 stars

I read this primarily because it’s a significant historical text, the first New Zealand science fiction novel, written by a former Premier of NZ after whom the prestigious Sir Julius Vogel Awards for speculative fiction are named. It’s also an early feminist novel, which is something I have an interest in.

I was told the book itself was bad, and it is. The author makes most of the typical new-writer mistakes. All his characters (even, arguably, the villain) are Mary Sues, paragons of virtue and accomplishment, brave, good-looking, popular, intelligent, and wealthy. Here’s a sample description: “She was dear to all who had the privilege of knowing her. The fascination she exercised was as powerful as it was unstudied. Her success in no degree changed her kindly, sympathetic nature. She always was, and always would be, unselfish and unexacting.”

He constantly tells instead of showing (as in the extract I just quoted). He infodumps – for an entire chapter, at one point. He’s longwinded and tendentious, even more than was usual in the 19th century. Remarkably for a politician, though not unusually for a utopian novelist, he appears not to know how human minds actually work; everyone is remarkably lacking in self-interest, greed or power-hunger, especially those who have a lot of money and power. There are plot holes and continuity errors. He several times describes things as indescribable. It’s pretty much the perfect storm of bad writing, apart from the fact that he could spell and punctuate and knew what the words he was using meant. At its very best, it’s pulp, and it doesn’t reach that level often.

The ideas, though, are interesting. At the end of the epilogue, Vogel says, “It is perhaps desirable to explain that three leading features have been kept in view in the production of the foregoing anticipation of the future.” (That’s how he writes. It’s awful.) Firstly, he was writing “to show that a recognised dominance of either sex is unnecessary, and that men and women may take part in the affairs of the world on terms of equality…” He does this by the simple expedient of showing a government full of women which works extremely well. By an odd coincidence, in 2004, only a few years after this book was set, New Zealand had women in all of the following positions: Prime Minister, Governor-General, Attorney General, Chief Justice, and CEO of the largest public corporation.

His second purpose was to depict the dominions of Great Britain (New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa and a home-ruled Ireland) joined into “a powerful and beneficent empire” – so attractive that Egypt and Belgium join it too, rather randomly, and later so do some of the states of the US.

His third purpose was to suggest what amounts to a universal basic income, an idea which is now under serious consideration in several places as automation continues to eat jobs. Apart from the opening prologue and another long infodump later, this idea doesn’t really come into the novel at all, and it has no significance to the plot whatsoever, but it’s clearly something he believes in strongly, since out of the three ideas he spends the longest time talking about this one in his epilogue.

I found some of his other predictions interesting, as well. He spends a whole chapter infodumping about the invention of heavier-than-air flying craft which can fly easily and safely at 100 miles an hour. At every desk in the federal parliament (which moves periodically between the countries of the empire) is a “hand telegraph” for the member to communicate with people outside. Waves, tides and wind provide energy which is converted to electricity or compressed air to power labour-saving devices.

There’s a written constitution, and free speech, except that it’s forbidden to even discuss several specific articles of the constitution: that the Empire should continue to be an Empire, that the current royal family should continue to rule it, and that none of the dominions should leave it. This becomes a plot point.

The Empire is protectionist, because free trade just sets cheap labour from outside against the labour of those inside. There’s a considerable estate tax (nevertheless, there seem to be plenty of people who have inherited a large amount of wealth). The Empire believes in “making the prosperity of its own people [its] first object,” which I actually think is a good political idea that could do with more exploration in our own time.

The Americans don’t believe in standing armies or fleets, because they can spend as much as they want any time they choose to fight and are the world’s greatest organisers. This doesn’t stop them from getting soundly trounced by the Empire after they invade Canada on a pretext because the President is annoyed with the Emperor for not marrying her daughter. (His main reason is that the young woman has red hair. He’s a ginger bigot.)

I wasn’t aware that Antarctica hadn’t been discovered in Vogel’s day. He refers to “a large island, easily accessible, which received the name of Antarctica,” but from the geographical description it’s clearly not the Antarctica we know. “From causes satisfactorily explained by scientists” (blatant technobabble for “because I want it to be this way,” not that it has any significance to the plot whatsoever), the temperature close to the Pole itself is “comparatively mild”. The island is inhabited by people who speak a language close to Maori, described as “a docile, peaceful, intelligent people” (noble savages, in other words). This is the only mention of Maori, or any other native people, in the entire book.

Vogel was setting out to do two things in this book: to communicate some of his ideas and speculations about the future, and to tell a story. He’s much more successful at the first than he is at the second. So, as a historical text, very interesting. As a novel, painfully bad. Let’s compromise on three stars here.

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