Revelations of the Dead-alive (aka London and Its Eccentricities in the Year 2023), by John Banim

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“After a hundred years of deliberation,” said a dry old gentleman who sat by me, and in reply to a remark, a half shrink, rather, of mine— “the English ladies of 1922 razed to the ground what the English ladies of 1822 set up against the skies. It was a late vindication of their sex’s character.” “Pardon me,” I replied, only half comprehending how this could have chanced, “but I was never inclined to agree with the objections to the fine nakedness of that fine statue. Much sarcasm and many witty things were squibbed off against it: national decorum was outraged, the critics said, and national modesty assaulted, by the coup-de-ceil. But I fear there was false taste, or worse affectation in all this; certainly it would prove us the merest simpletons, or else the very best or very worst connoisseurs, inasmuch as the statue had been admired by the whole civilized world, until it fell under the more rigid or discerning eye of our British critics; and, further, had never been known to cause much national depravity. Did the society for suppressing vice prosecute, sir?” I asked. The old gentleman snappishly answered, “no.” “Then,” said I, “let us say no more about the abstract question of immorality; and I only remark, that I should think just as well of the virtue that looked on a brass or marble figure without any predominant indulgence of sensual association. It is to be feared, that the modesty which is foremost to appear alarmed and fidgety, is not always the true modesty. Moreover, are we to stay away from Somerset House, altogether? I once saw a sleeping Bacchanal and other things there, just as naked as this was; for that matter, ‘the taking down,’ by Rubens, is a sin against maids and matrons; and asking your excuse for the unseemly abruptness of the transition, sir, the two little men who strike the chimes at St. Dunstan’s are almost as impudently undressed as any specimen of good sculpture in the world.”

I have started looking at fiction set in 2023, and found a few sf novels set next yer and written in the last few decades; and then came across this curious work, published in 1824, written by the Irish writer John Banim and largely set 199 years in the future. (Strictly, he specifies 198 years and a quarter, but he also specifies 1824 and 2023 as his anchor points, so he must be starting from the end of 1824 and ending up at the beginning of 2023.)

The narrator puts himself into a fasting-induced trance, aided by ingesting mystical clay supplied by a friendly Otomac tribe (in present-day Venezuela). He is transported to London in 2023, where the first thing he notices is that the “Bronze Colossus”, which we know as the Wellington Monument at Hyde Park Corner, is no longer there. (Not quite the first thing actually; on his way in from his materialisation point on Putney Bridge, he notices that Fulham has completely disappeared and been replaced by a common, though Kensington has got much bigger.)

Most of the book concerns sardonic observations by the artistic community of 2023 London, telling our narrator that he (and therefore his contemporaries) have totally misunderstood the painters, writers, sculptors and actors of their day, and that the tastes of the future will run completely contrary to those of the early nineteenth century. It is a bit tedious (even a contemporary reviewer thought so) and reminded me of the way the Book of Mormon, which was written about the same time, presents supposedly ancient rebuttals to theological debates which were of interest only in 1820s America and not before or since.

I did find some points of interest even in this section. A comment was made that actors of the 1820s were overpaid: “Some of them were allowed a salary beyond that of a judge of the land, and of the first personages in other countries; beyond that of the president of the United States, for example.” The President of the United States then had a salary of $25,000, $800,000 in today’s money (the current President gets half of that). There are indeed actors today who earn more, but not very many. In Banim’s 2023, actors’ salaries are capped by law at £12 per week (£1550 per week in our money, or £80k annually, which could be worse.)

It’s also intriguing that the one contemporary painting that Banim singles out for unalloyed praise is one that survives today in the bowels of the Tate Gallery in very poor condition: The Raising of Lazarus, by Benjamin Robert Haydon.

There are various other cultural developments in Banim’s 2023. You know the way wig-makers in 1824 display their wigs on the busts of classical figures like Caesar or Demosthenes? Well, in 2023, get this, they use busts of contemporary political and cultural figures as well. Crazy times, eh?! MPs and peers sort out their differences in public boxing matches. The courts deliver blatantly perverse judgements. There is a fashion for holding mock public funeral processions for people who have not died, or perhaps who never lived. It’s not, actually, all that exciting.

Given that high politics and technology were not Banim’s main interest, it’s intriguing to see what innovations he does allow for his 2023, which is otherwise 1824 with less Fulham and more Kensington (and more parliamentary boxing). We are told that in the 1830s, Britain once again intervened in Spain, with Russia then mounting a successful invasion of the undefended east coast and demolishing the Tower of London. Napoleon, who it turned out was not dead after all, came out of hiding and joined forces with the Duke of Wellington to throw the Russians out, and then retired to comfortable obscurity in Yorkshire. Meanwhile an Orange rebellion in Ireland was quashed by the militant women of Dublin, in return for which a grateful Britain granted Catholic Emancipation. At that point Banim’s imagination runs out, and he changes the subject.

He has a few robotic gadgets – when the narrator first sits down for a meal, he is astounded by the automatic cutlery that cuts up his food and feeds it to him; and walking around the streets, automated brooms sweep the pavements and automatic hurdy-gurdies replace the need for beggars to play them. Mr Drudge, the narrator’s friend in the future, speculates about armies of automata, but it’s clear that technology is not there yet. Meanwhile in central London, freight waggons are drawn by camels rather than by horses.

Most startling of all, Mr Drudge and another friend, Mr Angle, reveal at the end of the book that in the last three years, English balloon-ships have successfully colonised the Moon, to the envy of Alexander V of Russia and Ferdinand XII of Austria, who are now about to go to war in space in a dispute over their own claims on lunar territory; the colonised lunar inhabitants having no say, of course, and Britain still being Top Nation.

“Ti’s a pretty little planet, only very bare in timber,” said Mr. Angle: “and the manners and minds of the poorer inhabitants unsettled, predatory, and, according to our scale, necessarily immoral and benighted. When I was last there, however, the prevalence of Bible societies, and the general adoption of Mr. Owen’s villages in our colony, seemed to promise a speedy amelioration.”

“Indeed so congenial and attractive are the soil and atmosphere, that the constant emigration thither has seriously thinned the motherplanet; we have scarcely left among us a conscientious dealer, a just judge, a handsome woman, who is not vain, a virtuous wife, an humble priest, a sincere patriot, or a disinterested friend; almost all have gone to the moon, long since,” said Mr. Drudge.

And – with apologies for the massive spoiler, but you weren’t really ever going to read this, were you? – just as we are getting into the details of future war and lunar colonisation, and the balloon-ship artillery starts firing, our narrator wakes up and he is back in 1824 again, leaving his pregnant wife abandoned in the future. One feels that Banim had just run out of things to say.

You can if you like buy it from Amazon, but the Bodleian Library has scanned the whole book here.

So that’s it – a look at 2023 from almost 200 years in the past. I’ll hope to work my way through a few more recent looks at 2023 before the end of the year:

  • The Carnival of Immortals, by Enki Bilal (1980)
  • Islands in the Net, by Bruce Sterling (1988)
  • The Turing Option, by Harry Harrson and Marvin Minsky (1992)
  • Killing Time, by Caleb Carr (2000)
  • The Free Lunch, by Spider Robinson (2001)

I’m not counting anything written in the last twenty years.

One thought on “Revelations of the Dead-alive (aka London and Its Eccentricities in the Year 2023), by John Banim

  1. It’s probably just unfortunate that I find it hilarious that the one thing he nearly got right was the Habsburg (the present next in line being a Ferdinand).

    I wonder if the writers intention not being future gazing means you learn more about the actual details of then, than you would for a writer who was aiming for a future vision.

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