Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder

I've also recently read James De Mille's 'A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder'. Claiming to be a castaway's account of a trip to a lost civilisation at the South Pole, it is also a clever satire (as most of these tales are; consider Butler's 'Erewhon'), on Western Civilisation. In this lost world, the locals are kind, considerate, selfless and completely in love with death, so much so that sacrifice and cannibalism are considered the highest honours. Only a few radicals believe that selfishness, greed and exploitation are the true, noble aims of life.
Written in 1888, it makes a heavy nod at Edgar Allen Poe, but, though coming after Verne, apparently still anticipates much that was written by Burroughs, Haggard and Doyle (this Antarctica features dinosaurs and Moas as well as cannibals and pyramids). As if in apology for its sentimental aspects, De Mille frames the whole tale by having the manuscript read aloud by a motley group of dilettantes on an aristocrat's yacht. One of their number insists on critiquing the manuscript as if it was a fiction, pointing out its sensationalism and absurdity, while the others supply the science behind its authenticity.
All of this is admirable and entertaining. Sadly the hero, the English sailor Adam More, is a pessimistic, often cowardly, and very often overly submissive fool, making it very hard to care for his adventures, even with the framing critique highlighting his double standards. Indeed, De Mille is trying to give us a rip-roaring adventure, a healthy dose of anthropology, biology and linguistics, and a sly, self-conscious black comedy that highlights the dangers of a first person narrative; all at the same time. It is incredibly ambitious, and were he to have achieved all his aims, he would be regarded as one of the best writers of his generation. Suffice to say he is not. However, there is no doubt of his importance in the development of the science fiction genre, and for that alone, this is worth a read.

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