Uncanny Valley Digest: Stanisław Lem’s “Let Us Save The Universe”

lemsavetheuniverseLast night’s Stanisław Lem discussion was a joyride in a cosmic salvage craft! (In Polish, the “ł” is pronounced as a soft “wa,” between “L” and “W” on the English speaking palate.) Lem’s most well-traveled character, Ijon Tichy, delivers a wry and corrective missive to humanity.  “Let Us Save The Universe,” was first published in 1971. The English translation was published in the December 14, 1981 issue of The New Yorker. In it, Tichy laments the “growth of cosmic tourism,” and all the litter in its wake. He culminates in a call to action to clean up the solar system, with Lem-ish levity.

The asteroid belt is littered and defaced. Eros is graffitied with lovers’ names and “arrow-pierced hearts in the worst taste.” Ceres is plastered with 3D family photos like a Fotomat of Mt. Rushmores. Juno has been chipped and eroded away by vandals and souvenir hunters.

stanislawlemBoth stars in Centaurus are growing dim because they’re orbited by so much litter. One large planet in the system has a Saturn-like ring of “beer bottles and lemonade containers…tin cans, eggshells, and old newspapers. “There are places where you cannot see the stars for all the rubbish.” There’s also the problem of inconsiderate tourists expectorating into space. “Individuals who fall sick during a voyage seem to consider outer space their personal toilet.” That gunk freezes! Instant micro meteorites, quite dangerous. Also, “Alcoholism is a special problem.”

Oxygen supply lines are delayed across the 6 light years between Beluria and Palindronia. “People who go there to sightsee are forced to freeze themselves and wait.”

You get the point. The first third of the story reads, and I’m memory-quoting Chris here, “like a crotchety old man at the park complaining about all the people ruining his peace and quiet.”


The rest of the story is a tongue-in-cheek monsters compendium of plants, insects, and animals, that have mutated to lure, capture, and devour hapless human tourists. Like bottombiter chair ants, “that group together and mimic wicker furniture,” until a weary tourist comes along and instinctively plops into a random wicker chair, never to rise again.

There is a plant, the furiol, that attracts loud, misbehaving, destructive children, who love to kick and crush it because it cracks like an egg. It releases spores that get into their systems and infect the children.

“The child develops into an apparently normal individual, but before long an incurable malignant process sets in: card playing, drunkenness, and debauchery are the successive stages, followed by either death or a great career.”


That part’s funny enough, but he follows up by saying, in response to those who want to eradicate this plant, “Those who say this do not stop to think that children should be taught, instead, not to kick objects on foreign planets.”

There is a bird, hunted and eaten to the brink of extinction, called the scribblemock. It mimics humans much like a parrot does, but in writing. “Some people deliberately infuriate the bird by taunting it with spelling errors.”

Discussion ensued:

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Yes, that’s a Lord Of The Rings, Black Orc Porter

David: “Welcome to the Cosmic Confluence on Channel 28 Cable Access.”
Nowell: Yeahhh.
David: I found it a little bit impenetrable.
Meg: It correlates with increasing cultural awareness of pollution as a problem.
Suhail: It reminds me of Sharing Air.
Chris: Ecological talk of species mimicry betrays a gentle paranoia, of all these beasties that lure people in and devour them.
Meg: There’s another Tichy story with an electronic bard that spouts some really excellent poetry.
Nikita: Another famous one – The 14th Journey Of Tichy. There was an Azerbaijani-Russian collaboration animated movie of it.
David: The litter. Here’s the result of all that golden age sci fi going-out-into-the-great-beyond, colonizing space, and owning the universe stuff. So here’s all your junk and bullshit strewn everywhere. It’s an early cynical response to golden age sci fi, like, going out there isn’t going to be as great as we think.
Meg: It’s a big deal when a sci fi story gets published in the New Yorker. How much is it characteristic of Lem or how much is it New Yorker’ed? Because it’s very quaint in tone, with the sketches, with a Thurber-y, New-Yorker tone.
Chris: He was considered one of the most intellectual of sci fi writers. Not cynical so much as world weary and penetrating.
solarislemmovieNikita: Solaris is a masterpiece.
Chris: The only other Polish author I’ve read in depth is Sapkowski’s Witcher books (fantasy, recommended).
A recommendation of The Clockwork Man, by William Jablonsky.
Meg: In Poland or Eastern Europe, is sci fi literary? Seems like yes.
Nikita: Sci fi was taken very very seriously. “using Aesopian language to get past the censors.”
Suhail: Like the coded indictment of Cold War Russia in The Master And Margarita, by Bulgakov.
We went on a Bulgakov tangent about that masterpiece. Meg reads The Master And Margarita every couple of years; loves it. Nikita and Meg suggested strongly The Heart Of A Dog, also by Bulgakov.
Chris: Lem has 36 writing credits on IMDb. A Tichy series, 14 episodes. TV shorts. TV Movies. The most recent is a sci fi film in Hungary called, “His Master’s Voice.” Sounds like a ton of films to be explored.
Had a great free association from Meg that lead to Alfred Jarry being an influence on Lem. And David noticing that a character in Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? steals that name. “It’s Al Jarry, a B-movie actor from Indiana who plays Mercer in the Mercerism simulations.”
Chris: And Mercerizing is the industrial process of polishing threads of fabric for textiles. Just as the thread connecting these subjects has been made more lustrous.
Nice one, Chris!
Nikita: Clearly, Tichy is blaming humans for polluting what we assumed to be infinite spaces, but they’re not.
Meg: An extension of the fallacy that humans are at the top of the food chain.
Nikita: Things are in disrepair. There’s litter everywhere. Alcoholism is rampant. It’s a total reflection of the deteriorating soviet block social state of affairs (1971-81).

“Some people believe it is all right if humans eat creatures from other planets, but when the reverse takes place they raise a hue and cry, call for military assistance, demand punitive expeditions, etc.”

The story ends on a call to action, for us to enforce the laws and clean things up: “let us save the universe.” Sardonic; and all right in the middle of the environmental movement! (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962. Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970)
David: Now that we’ve had at it, I take back what I said about it being impenetrable.
Suhail: I also read it as a random flight of fancy at first, until Chris pointed out that these creatures are all evolved to devour humans because of cosmic tourism.

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Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 9.52.14 PMNikita suggested an animated Russian film from 1981 called “The Mystery of the Third Planet.” We shared around the YouTube link, to watch it later.

On that note, join us next week, for our discussion of We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Stealing Worlds, by Karl Schroeder

stealingworldsschroederA spunky burglar is on the run for her life after helping her now-murdered father rob a corrupt ecological securities firm. Schroeder’s virtual worlds detective caper, set in the near future, is a young adult primer on the implications of blockchain and AI in our corporate futures.

This didactic novel is strong on ideas, and makes up for that strength in character development and VR setting descriptions. One of our favorite ideas in Stealing Worlds is the advent of philosophies about AI design. Face it, our current economic systems are exploitive and increasingly destructive. As we automate our economic systems they become more aggressive, faster, less humane. Chris put it best when he said, “The money tree is the only tree that when you shake it, the fruits and nuts fall upwards.”

The Automated CEO
In Stealing Worlds, synthetic sentiences have not only taken over manufacturing and accounting jobs, but corporate boards. By automating and blockchaining the decision matrixes of a corporate board, theoretically you can filter out greedy and corrupt decision-making. It’s a simplistic view of morality, but Schroeder’s on the case.

blockchainAIThe main flaw, highlighted by Meg: “Okay, here’s this terrible state of affairs caused by the misuse of powerful technology. And the solution is…even more technology that’s even more powerful, and it can’t be hacked! I’m skeptical.” In this context, the solution is often worse than the problem.

Epistemology Acting Up Again?
Of course, the new technology does get hacked. Unwilling to fault the idealized blockchain, the problem is in its sensory apparatus. Even though the blockchains remain incorruptible, the sensors are hacked – the uncountable multitude of minuscule sensors that provide all the big data to the blockchain-girded AIs. Giving a blockchain AI phony data is a great way to control its decision making.

The book glosses over just how many millions of tiny sensors are needed to generate sufficient data to formulate these blockchain AIs. Every tree, every person, creature, piece of fruit, quantity of water, soil sample, etc. Any aspect of the material world that can be monitored by sensor generates data. Talk about microplastic litter, on a new massive global scale. (What is blockchain anyway? A type of software ledger that can verify and ensure an original digital phenomenon. With infinite identical digital reproduction, how can you tell which file is the original? For example, blockchain is used to generate bitcoins, which cannot be copied. They exist in a finite, global quantity, and that is why the work as money.)  It’s funny that the sensors are hacked, corrupting the data which the perfect blockchain AIs unwittingly absorb. It’s like the state of journalism, ha!

This is a classic replay of the flaw of technological romance, the insistence that the newest, most promising, most powerful technology is of course immune to human greed and corruption. It’ll fix everything this time, we’re sure of it!

chardevSetting and Characterization
Meg noted, despite Schroeder being a futurist with a degree in Foresight Studies, “he had a hard time describing virtual places.” Many agreed, there was an unconvincing and random quality to the VR interfaces. Everyone agreed that the Peruvian rainforest segment was beautifully described. Maybe that was not a mistake, since by the end of the book, the aim is to sort of re-diefy nature.

Also, the romance and sex in the book was so trite it was barely there. Nikita pointed out that Schroeder was raised in a Canadian Mennonite community. This was during the portion of our discussion about the book’s unidimensional characterizations. Regarding the protagonist, Sura, Meg said, “I never worried about her. Too much like a video game figure. But at least video game characters get to die.” Ha! Chris said, “She didn’t have an arc, a hero’s journey.” Dave added, “No – she has a payoff, namely the meaning of her parental loss.”

Schroeder doesn’t do women, doesn’t do sexy, but the ideas hold it together. Gill’s last word, “You never get a sense of what makes these characters tick. But it was worth the ride.”

Waving compass character cartoon styleThe Character of Compass
Compass is a friend of Sura’s who turns out to have a selective type of amnesia. Compass remembers who she is in the present, but she can not remember how she got here. She is unable to recollect her own past to conjure a continuous identity, so she lingers in different VR character frames to keep herself sane. In Chris’s words: “prosthetic personality disorder.”

A Special Announcement
During our end-of-discussion chat, Meg shared some delightful news: she’s had a story accepted for publication by Analogue Science Fiction Magazine!!! It’s a 10,000 word novella (of which they only print 2 per issue) called “Flashmob.” Watch for it. WAY TO GO, MEG! Too cool! 😀

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Join us next week for our discussion of Stanislaw Lem’s “Let Us Save The Universe.”

Thank you for reading! Reading rules!

P.S. The notes!

p.88 – is it the end of drudgery, or a new running wheel for capitalism’s rats?

p.89 – good rant on the new economy. Shoveling garbage IRL becomes an in-game resource. People are getting paid in virtu for proxy tasks in situ. It’s like spending real world money on Warcraft gold. Virtual worlds are only instantiated if they have an economy. That’s a threadbare “world.”

p.82 – the Cahokian Elder and the orchard forests of the past.

p.89 – the thundering roar of forest sounds in the days before humans, and lumber.

p.89 – another rant that puts me in the mind of  “Everybody Knows” by Don Henly (also, covered by Concrete Blonde in the 90s!). The “black people standing around” line gave me pause. In the Henly song, the lyric is: “old black Joe’s still picking cotton. Everybody knows.”

p.91 – geography bows under the weight of the gaze

p.106 – luck talk/monopoly. The illusion of the self-made man.

p.113 Proudly Eagle Owned! carshare service. A blockchain AI corporation with no human members. requires lots of sensors.

p.120-1 – All that ‘splainin’ and I still don’t get it. How is this different than using USD to buy Warcraft tokens.

p.122 – oracles? I am not gripped. Who understands this?

p.130 – my eyes are glazing over

p.167 – parallel Americas: poverty-stricken and wealthy, clean and surveilled or filthy and private?

p.169-70 – How the wealthy cope with privacy loss. “Whitelisting” your face in the recognition databases.

p.169 “Who really runs the show?”
This question, this premise, the axiomatic belief itself that a “who” clandestinely wields world-controlling power. There is the kernal of God and conspiracy theorist in that simplistic framing of the question.
CONSIDER THIS: The show runs us. Even if humans “built” it.
So many forces at play, so many instances of greed and stupidity, as well as genius and generosity, so many people out for themselves and their ilk that no one runs the show, because everyone’s is. Think of Caesar’s assassination. Everybody was in on it, and almost none of them agreed with each other on any other points but the knives’.

p.177-8 – nice touch. the case for total surveillance. Pf. So, how to preserve privacy in this total immersion surveillance?

p.178 – Andrew Yang outlines some of this in real life terms in The War On Normal People

p.179 – an idea similar to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock

p.183 – the most important thing about AI is not what it thinks, but what it thinks it is.

p.190 – totally, the “solution” is as bad as the problem.

p.199 – the virtues of blockchain avocado tracing.

p.212 – the human heart, at it again.

p.260 – actants and deodands: AIs acting on behalf of externalities and non-human life. We’ve tagged every plant, animal, and square foot of soil in this stand of forest. Nevermind the litter. Now, using an interface we’ve written, the big data from those sensors can manifest as an interactive AI.

p.264 – so it’s basically like a mushroom trip in nature, but instead of mushrooms to talk to the forest spirits, you use sensors that represent every living thing in the forest and talk to the AI that is amalgamated from that sensor data. How’s the bear doing? How are the moles doing? How’s the fungal soil layer doing? It’s all somewhere in there.

p.264 – “There are more organizational principles at work in just this one forest than humanity has invented in ten thousand years”

p.265 – the mycelial mind

p.271 – Phil Dick homage line: “They are that which is still there, even when you stop believing in them.”

p.272 – An AI with a unique worldview, not borrowing a human worldview.

p.287 – The interface is the mask.

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading Group

Uncanny Valley: Science Fiction Summer Reading

Grab your gear, reader, summer’s on! Join us for another sunbaked expedition into the Uncanny Valley, with your intrepid hosts, David Gill and Suhail Rafidi.

Where & When? (IRL and Online)
Wednesday night discussions, 7:00 PM Pacific (6/17, 6/24, 7/1, 7/8, 7/15)
For those reading along at home, you can tune in live via Zoom link, which is emailed out the day of the discussion. Contact myself or David for the link. As usual, I will post the discussion after the event.

What Are We Reading?
Three novels, a novella, and a short story covering 5 authors: Karl Schroeder, Stanislaw Lem, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip K. Dick, and Martha Wells. Get your copy from your local library, bookstore, online store, or friend’s shelf. The Stanislaw Lem story is available at the New Yorker archives, but requires a free subscription.

The Meetings
June 17:
Stealing Worlds (2019) – Karl Schroeder
June 24: “Let Us Save The Universe” (1971) (In English in the New Yorker in, 1981) – Stanisław Lem.
July 1: We (1924) – Yevgeny Zamyatin
July 8: We Can Build You (1962, published 1972) – Philip K. Dick
July 15: All Systems Red (2017) – Martha Wells


Karl Schroeder’s 12th novel is a virtual worlds detective caper set in the near future. A young adult primer on the implications of blockchain and AI in our corporate futures. For some background, listen to Schroeder’s interview on The Bitcoin Podcast #288.

lemsavetheuniverseStanisław Lem’s short story “Let Us Save The Universe,” was first published in 1971. The English translation was published in the December 14, 1981 issue of The New Yorker. A call to action to clean up the solar system, with Lem-ish levity.

zamyatinweLike many thought-provoking Russian novels of its time, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 authoritarian dystopia, We, was first published in translation outside of Russia. I’m pleased to announce that we’ll have Russian scholar Nikita Alligre joining us for this discussion. He’ll give us some sweet sweet literary background on Zamyatin and the circle of writers he ran with. This looks to be a groovy session.

wecanbuildyouPKDAs we are hosted by the Internet’s first and foremost Total Dick-Head, we’re definitely going to Phil up this summer! We’re tapping David’s expertise this season, and reading PKD’s We Can Build You, written in 1962 and not published until 1972. This book stands as a conceptual prequel to Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

marthawellsallsystemsredMartha Wells kicked off her Murderbot Diaries with this well received adventure novella. Weighing in at just under 100 pages, it is reputed to be a potent and accessible gateway drug into her subsequent novels.

Now crack a book, and let’s DO THIS! See you soon.

With The Total Dick Head Himself!

Keep track on our Facebook Page:

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

Uncanny Valley Digest: Rachel Pollack’s Burning Sky

Our Burning Sky discussion left no question answered! This is my favorite story of the summer so far. It grapples with potent, ambiguous questions about the inevitability of violence and grievance as a justification for force. It’s also a superhero/sexual awakening story. Find your kink, for goodness sake; there’s all sorts. In fact there are two parallel story lines in this short story: 1) a recent divorcee with a nubile narcissistic lover, and 2) a journalist who stumbles upon a vigilante hideout and is taken to task for her intrusion.

In many respects the story is style over content, and there’s a literary, modernist echo to this prose. Dave didn’t like it because it needed so much deciphering. For some reason it wasn’t okay for the author to just tell us what was going on. Lots of detective work on the reader’s part, and frankly there is no tidy finish. Dave predicted that the mood of ambiguity and uncertainty were going to largely remain unresolved, and he was right. It creates a mood and leaves it there. Personally, not Dave’s style preference.

But Pollack is also a poet, comic book writer, and industry-recognized tarot specialist, so in context her approach packs ample content into the style, and deciphering the substance from the images is part of the process.

By some standards, it isn’t even science fiction. No fictional technology at all, just sheer, sensuous Free Skin body suits. It’s value lies deeper than that, more literary I think, and the superhero vigilante element lets it posture into the sci-fi frame.

The story’s real power to me, is the questions it raises about boundaries, force, and the abuse of power across the sexes. Lots of weird things about Louise’s need to get Maggie off, to preserve an undefeated record, and a genuine wish to get Maggie in touch with her self, the pleasure center, the deep orgasmic grounding. At the same time Julia is contenting with being abducted and subjugated by the Free Skins after violating their privacy and photographing their hideout. The idea that it is an initiation is almost secondary.

P. 965 “In the ritual hall Julia spends days hanging from copper, then brass, then silver manacles…”
The abusive/bondage/power play/rape initiation into the Free Skin, but as a form of consequence for her stalking them, for getting too close.

P. 966 The “rapist prick” scene, when Louise takes Maggie out on a rowboat and says “I’m not taking this boat back to shore until you come and I can feel it all over my fingers.”

Suhail: Yeah, to hell with that. On one hand Louise only wants you to get off, to activate your potential. On the other hand, Louise only wants it for narcissistic reasons. “Louise” must make you come, so it becomes rape.

Then the discovery in the Maggie/Louise timeline that Maggie is turned on by latex and skin suits, when she sees the skin diver in the lake and gets flush. Her kink finally discovered, she is delighted to get off at last. Good I’m glad she gets to come.

Interesting thematic note that the central image of the Julia/Free Skin story line is the skin suits, and that is the central image in Maggie’s story line, the image that gets her off, frees her to her self, activates her potential.

Sunset dances, from Christiana Gaudet
Good sex at last!

After the journalist Julia is initiated into the Free Skins against her will she is released to be a vigilante like them, a superhero slave gimp.
P.967 “With no one to command her she forgets to eat and one day passes out while photographing a police parade in the South Bronx.”
She’s a trauma survivor, but also a Free Skin? In remembering the initiation, “She wonders how she could have submitted to such strange and wretched slavery.”
Julia is summoned to don her Free Skin uniform and take out a corrupt judge. She panics, refuses, and hides the suit. The suit disappears and is replaced with a suicide knife. Julia stews in the guilt of denying the Free Skins.

In Maggie’s quest away from “the City of Civilized Sex,” she discusses a lot of the people in the kink community and what brought them there. Again the themes return of the porous nature of the boundaries between people’s psyches, and the way in which a stronger more aggressive psyche can alter the contours of a less powerful or aggressive psyche. And she dissects what brought people to these communities.

P. 967 “After a while they all began to strike me as rather odd, not just for their missionary zeal, but for their hunger for community.” In taking this deeper, in her next paragraph, the character Maggie narrates: “…or if each new arrival, thrilled at finding a town where she’d expected only a swamp, confused gratitude with eroticism…”

There’s the rub. They want community more than orgasms.

“confused gratitude for eroticism.”
Dave: It takes a psychological problem and makes it a sexual one.

Julia and Maggie sort of switch places. Maggie is freed for discovering the skin suit gets her off. Julia loses her Free Skin and the old hideout becomes a button factory.

We talked about the modernist style ambiguities and stylistic obfuscations in the language. The fact the the story does force you to do some figuring and inferring. Almost like a murder mystery, but not invested in wrapping it up. The Free Skin is also “wretched slavery,” so what is the question?

Dave: But it’s pretty bleak though. It thrives on your uncertainty. At least with a murder mystery you know there’s an answer. In this you can tell right away there will be no answer. But in this genre it I suppose communicates things that you can’t get at in a simple murder mystery.

And there’s the rub: a hunger for community, confusing gratitude for eroticism. This moment in the story backs up Dave’s Freudian observation that these characters are sexualizing a psychological problem. Maggie’s frozen clitoris is her need for fulfillment, actualization. Sometimes sex is part of the process of addressing a psychological problem.

Dave: It avoids the simplicity of men-are-bad, women-are-good social solutions. Power itself is the problem, not who’s wielding it.

David: It’s the the Id and Superego at cross purposes. “You wanna be free?” “Then you gotta be a slave.”

A slave to what? Well, at the end of the story, Julia gets her Free Skin back, but only after she attempts suicide. It gets very Abrahamic. She actually has to heft the dagger and commence the self-sacrifice before the salvation is delievered in the guise of the Free Skin suit grrls taking her back into their fold. They “dress her in the Free Skin she abandoned for an illusion of freedom.” Implying that choosing to avoid your duty is not freedom.

From The Raziel Tarot by Robert M. Place and Rachel PollackP.968 “Sex exists to lay traps for fantasies.”
Suhail: This is the thesis of the entire story, what the story is all about. It’s a good story. It is my favorite this summer so far.

David: But that also speaks to the quality of our list as a whole. Chris dropped out because the list didn’t have any oomph, this story no more than the previous. It style was too complex, intentionally ornamental in a way. It’s like the guy who buys a Harley after someone makes fun of the size of his dick.

Suhail: Like the shock value first sentence about her clitoris being a magnet, or a compass.

David: But that doesn’t follow through. It’s a clever, shocking first sentence more than anything else. It doesn’t end up being a metaphor or actually being the case. No development.

Suhail: It would be nice to read novels again. This short format (5,000 words and under) has it’s limits. We don’t get to see what the author can really do.

David: It’s not really even sci-fi. It’s the literary answer to sci-fi. What is it, 1989, right? This prose is very motivated by the indictment that sci-fi was just pulp writing and not substantial literature. This style heavy heady modernist approach.

Suhail: Yeah, modernist. It’s cultural criticism fiction. Slap a superhero/kink patrol body suit into it and viola, sci-fi! HA! It’s funny how we’re really managed to zero in on the grad school fiction this summer. HA! But this story is still my favorite so far. I feel it brings up things that Tiptree, Jr. addressed, murky questions about exploitation, boundaries, psychological manipulation, power. These are complex, fluid, and uncomfortable notions. Frankly, men seem to write less about conflicted states of empowerment and sex identity, and they’re potent subjects.

We waxed poetic about fun, engaging, stories, like Reiko’s Universe Box, it’s accessibility and airiness, and solid delivery. Tune in next time for our update of “Remnants of the Virago Crypto-System” by Geoffry Maloney.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!


Burning Sky by Rachel Pollack (1989)

"Violence cannot destroy the body of the Goddess, for Her body is the world itself." - Rachel Pollack“Burning Sky” (1989) by Rachel Pollack (4489 words)


Sometimes I think of my clitoris as a magnet, pulling me along to uncover new deposits of ore in the fantasy mines. Or maybe a compass, like the kind kids used to get in Woolworths, with a blue-black needle in a plastic case, and flowery letters marking the directions.

Two years ago, more by accident than design, I left the City of Civilized Sex. I still remember its grand traditions: orgasms in the service of loving relationships, healthy recreation with knowledgeable partners, a pinch of perversion to bring out the flavor. I remember them with a curious nostalgia. I think of them as I march through the wilderness, with only my compass to guide me.


Julia. Tall, with fingers that snake round the knobs and levers of her camera. Julia’s skin is creamy, her neck is long and smooth, her eyebrows arch almost to a point. There was once a woman who drowned at sea, dreaming of Julia’s eyes. Sometimes her hair is short and spiky, sometimes long and straight, streaming out to one side in the wind off Second Avenue. Sometimes her hair is red, with thick curls. Once a month she goes to a woman who dyes her eyelashes black. They darken further with each treatment.

Julia’s camera is covered in black rubber. The shutter is a soft rubber button.

The Free Women. Bands of women who roam the world’s cities at night, protecting women from rapists, social security investigators, police, and other forms of men. Suits of supple blue plastic cover their bodies from head to toe. Only the faces remain bare. Free Skin, they call it. The thin plastic coats the body like dark glistening nail polish.

Julia discovers the Free Women late one summer night when she can’t sleep. She has broken up with a lover and can’t sleep, so she goes out walking, wearing jeans and a white silk shirt and high red boots, and carrying her camera over one shoulder. On a wide street, by a locked park, with a drunk curled asleep before the gate, a man with a scarred face has cornered a girl, about fourteen. He flicks his knife at her, back and forth, like a lizard tongue. Suddenly they are there, yanking him away from the girl, surrounding him, crouched down with moon and streetlights running like water over their blue muscles. The man jerks forward. Spread fingers slide sideways. The attacker drops his knife to put his hand over his throat. Blood runs through the fingers. He falls against the gate. The women walk away. Julia follows.

Julia discovers the Free Women one night on the way home from an assignment. Tired as she is, she walks rather than take a taxi home to an empty apartment. She has just broken up with a lover, the third in less than two years. Julia doesn’t understand what happens in these relationships. She begins them with such hopes, and then a month, two months, and she’s lost interest, faking excitement when her girlfriend plans for the future. Recklessly, Julia walks down the West Side, a woman alone with an expensive camera. She sees them across the street, three women walking shoulder to shoulder, their blue boots (she thinks) gliding in step, their blue gloves (she thinks) swinging in rhythm, their blue hoods (she thinks) washed in light. Julia takes the cap off her lens and follows them, conscious of the jerkiness in her stride, the hardness in her hips.

She follows them to a grimy factory building on West 21st Street. As they press buttons on an electronic light Julia memorizes the combination. For hours she waits, in a doorway smelling of piss, thinking now and then that the women are watching her, that they have arranged for her to stand there in that filth, a punishment for following them. Finally they leave and Julia lets herself inside. She discovers a single huge room, with lacquered posts hanging with manacles, racks of black handled daggers along the walls, and in the middle of the floor a mosaic maze, coils of deep blue, with the center, the prize, a four pronged spiral made of pure gold. On the wall opposite the knives hang rows of blue suits, so thin they flutter slightly in the breeze from the closing door.

Over the next weeks Julia rushes through her assignments to get back to the hall of the Free Women. She spends days crouched across the street, waiting for the thirty seconds when she can photograph them entering or leaving. She spends more and more time inside, taking the suits in her hands, walking the maze. In the center she hears a loud fluttering of wings.

She tells herself she will write an exposé, an article for the Sunday Times. But she puts off calling the paper or her agent. She puts off writing any notes. Instead she enlarges her photos more than lifesize, covering the walls of her apartment, until she can almost imagine the women are there with her, or that the maze fills the floor of her kitchen.

And then one day Julia comes home—she’s gone out for food, she’s forgotten to keep any food in the house—and she finds the photos slashed, the negatives ruined, and all the lenses gone from her cameras.

Julia runs. She leaves her clothes, her cameras, her portfolios. She takes whatever cash lies in the house and heads into the street. Downtown she takes a room above a condemned bank and blacks out all the windows.

Let me tell you how I came to leave the City-state [earlier it was just “City”] of Civilized Sex. It happened at the shore. Not the ocean, but the other side of Long Island, the Sound connecting New York and Connecticut. I’d gone there with my girlfriend Louise, who at nineteen had seduced more women than I had ever known.

Louise and I had gotten together a few months after my husband Ralph had left me. On our last day as a couple Ralph informed me how lucky I was not to have birthed any children. The judge, he said, would certainly have awarded them to him. He went on to explain that it was no coincidence, our lack of children, since any heroic sperm that attempted to mount an expedition in search of my hidden eggs (Raiders of the Lost Ovum) would have frozen in “that refrigerator cunt of yours.” Ralph liked to mix metaphors. When he got angry his speech reminded me of elaborate cocktails, like Singapore Slings.

I can’t really blame Ralph. Not only did I never learn to fake orgasms properly (I would start thrusting and moaning and then think of something and forget the gasps and shrieks) but even in fights I tended to get distracted when I should have wept or screamed or thrown things.

Like the day Ralph left. I’m sure I should have cried or stared numbly at the wall. Instead I made myself a tuna sandwich and thought of sperms in fur coats, shivering on tiny wooden rafts as they tried to maneuver round the icebergs that blocked their way to the frozen eggs. I don’t blame Ralph for leaving.

Anyway, he went, and I met Louise window shopping in a pet store. That same night we went to bed and I expected to discover that my sexual indifference had indicated a need for female flesh. Nothing happened. Louise cast her best spells, she swirled her magician’s cloak in more and more elaborate passes, but the rabbit stayed hidden in the hat.

I became depressed, and Louise, exhausted, assured me that in all her varied experiences (she began to recite the range of ages and nationalities of women she’d converted) she’d never failed to find the proper button. It would just take time. I didn’t tell her Ralph had said much the same thing. I wondered if I’d have to move to my parents’ house upstate to avoid safaris searching for my orgasms like Tarzan on his way to the elephants’ graveyard.


Julia runs out of money. She disguises herself in clothes bought from a uniform store on Canal St. and goes uptown to an editor who owes her a check. As she leaves the building she sees, across the street, in the doorway of a church, a black raincoat over blue skin. Julia jumps in a taxi. She goes to Penn Station, turning around constantly in her taxi to make sure no blue hooded women sit in the cars behind her. At the station she runs down the stairs, pushing past commuters to the Long Island Railroad where she searches the computer screens for the train to East Hampton.

On track 20 she hears a fluttering of wings and she smells the sea, and for a moment she thinks she’s already arrived. And then she sees a trenchcoat lying on the floor. Another is falling beside her. A flash of light bounces off the train, as if the sun has found a crack through Penn Station and the roof of the tunnel. She tries running for the doors. Blue hands grab her wrists. Blueness covers her face.


No. No, it happens along Sixth Avenue. Sixth Avenue at lunchtime, among the push carts selling souvlaki and sushi, egg rolls and yoghurt, tofu and pretzels. Julia’s pants are torn, the wind dries the sweat on her chest, she’s been running for hours, her toes are bleeding, no cabs will stop for her. She turns a corner and tumbles into a class of twelve-year-old girls. The girls are eating hot dogs and drinking Pepsi Cola. They wear uniforms, pleated skirts and lace up shoes, brown jackets and narrow ties. The girls surround Julia. They push her down when she tries to stand up. Somewhere up the street a radio plays a woman singing “Are you lonesome tonight?” The girls tear off Julia’s clothes. They pinch and slap her face, her breasts. Grease streaks her thighs. The girls are whistling, yelping, stamping their feet. Now come the wings, the smell of the sea. The girls step back, their uniforms crisp, their ties straight. They part like drapes opening to the morning. A woman in blue steps into the circle, bright shining as the sun. Spread fingertips slide down Julia’s body, from the mouth down the neck and along the breasts, the belly, the thighs. Wherever the woman touches, the welts disappear. She lifts Julia in her arms. Slowly she walks down the street, while the crowd moves aside and the whole city falls silent, even the horns. Julia hears the cry of gulls searching for food.


Over the weeks Louise changed from bluff to hearty to understanding to peevish as her first failure became more and more imminent. She suggested I see a doctor. I told her I’d been and she got me to admit the doctor had been a man. She lugged me to a woman’s clinic where the whole staff consisted of former lovers of hers. While Louise went in to consult the healer on duty I sat in the waiting room.

I got into conversation with a tall skinny woman wearing a buckskin jacket, a gold shirt, and motorcycle boots. She showed me the French bayonet she carried in a sheath in her hip pocket, explaining it would “gut the next prick” that laid a hand on her or one of her sisters. I asked her if she’d undergone any training in knifeware. Not necessary, she told me. Pricks train. The Goddess would direct her aim. The Goddess, she said, lived in the right side of the brain. That’s why the government (99% pricks) wanted to burn lefthanded women.

“Janie’s a little strongminded” Louise told me as she led me down a corridor to see Doctor Catherine. The corridor’s yellow striped wallpaper had started to peel in several places, revealing a layer of newspaper underneath.

“Did you sleep with her?” I asked.

“Only a couple of times. Did she show you her bayonet?” I nodded. “She kept it under the pillow in case the police broke in to arrest us for Goddessworship. That’s what she calls women screwing.”

I didn’t listen very closely to Catherine, who didn’t like the name “Doctor.” I wanted to think about pricks training for their life’s work. They probably do it in gym class, I decided. While the girls try backward somersaults and leap sideways over wooden horses the boys practise erections, and later, in advanced classes, learn to charge rubber simulations of female genitals. At the end of each lesson the instructor reminds them not to speak of this in front of their girlfriends.

Catherine didn’t find my G spot or raise my Mary Rose (I strongly identified with Henry Vlll’s sunken flagship and all its chests of gold. I cried when they raised it, all crusted in barnacles and brine. That left only one of us hidden in the murk.). She did give me some crushed herbs for tea and a bag of tree bark to chew on while I lay in the bathtub. Louise raged at me whenever I neglected my treatment. “You can’t let yourself get negative,” she shouted. “You’ve got to believe.”

In the ritual hall Julia spends days hanging from copper, then brass, then silver manacles. Six, no, nine of the women weave in and out of sight, sometimes whispering to each other, sometimes laughing, sometimes standing before Julia and silently mouthing words in a foreign language. Across from her the blue suits rustle against each other.

Julia learns to catch bits of food thrown at her from across the room. Twice, no, three times a day one of the women brings her water in a stone bowl. A gold snake coils at the bottom. Sometimes the woman holds the bowl in front of her, and Julia has to bow her head and lap up as much as she can. Or the woman moves the bowl away just as Julia begins to drink. Or throws the water in her face. At other times she gently tilts the bowl for Julia. Once, as Julia drinks, she discovers that a live snake has replaced the metal one. The head rises above the water and Julia’s own head snaps back so hard she would bang it against the wall if a blue hand wasn’t there to cushion her.

They shave her head. No, they comb and perfume her hair. They rub her with oils and smooth the lines in her face and neck, slapping her only when she tries to bite or lick the cool fingertips sliding down her face.

Once or several times a day they take her down from the wall and force her to run the maze. The women surround the tiled circle, hitting the floor with sticks and trilling louder and louder until Julia misses a step or even falls, just outside the gold spiral. When she’s failed they yank her out of the maze and hold her arms out like wings as they press the tips of her breasts into champagne glasses filled with tiny sharp emeralds.

On the day Julia completes the maze the women dress her in shapeless black overalls and heavy boots. They smuggle her out of the country to an island where a house of white stone stands on top of a hill covered in pine trees. The women strip Julia. With their sticks they drive her up a rock path. The door opens and a cool wind flows from the darkness.

A woman steps out. Instead of blue her suit gleams a deep red. It covers the whole body, including the face, except for the eyes, the nostrils, the mouth. Her muscles move like a river running over stone. Her name is Burning Sky, and she was born in Crete six thousand years ago. When she walks the air flows behind her like the sundered halves of a very thin veil.


One night, after a fight, Louise kicked the wall and ran from the house. The next morning, the doorbell woke me at 6:00. Frightened, I looked out the window before I would open the door. There stood Louise in a rough zipper jacket and black turtleneck sweater. She saw me and waved a pair of rubber boots. Afraid she planned to kick me I didn’t want to let her in but I couldn’t think of how to disconnect the doorbell. She’d begun to shout, too. “For heaven’s sake, Maggie, open the fucking door.” Any moment the police would show up.

While I buttered toast and boiled water Louise announced our plans for the morning. We were going fishing. Dress warm, she said, and gave me the spare boots she’d brought for me. I had to wear two pairs of socks, and my feet still slid around.

In her pickup truck I tried to sleep, despite Louise’s cheerful whistle. But when we got all our gear and bodies in a rowboat out in the Sound, it turned out that Louise didn’t plan to fish at all. “Now, goddamnit,” she said, “you can’t whine and get away from me. I’m not taking this boat back to shore until you come and I can feel it all over my fingers.”

“What?” I said, ruining her powerful speech. Her meaning became clearer as she began to crawl towards me. She scared me but she made me want to laugh too. It reminded me of the time Ralph had locked us in a motel room with a bottle of wine, a bag of marijuana, and a pink nightgown. At least motel rooms are comfortable. Maybe Louise considered rowboats romantic.

I decided I better hold my face straight. “You rapist prick!” I shouted, and tried to grab an oar to threaten her but couldn’t work it loose from the lock. I snatched the fish knife and held it with both hands in front of my belly. “Keep away from me,” I warned.

“Put that down.” Louise said. “You’ll hurt yourself.”

“I’ll hurt you, you prick.”

“Don’t call me that. You don’t know how to use that.”

“The Goddess will show me.”

Apparently this all became too much for her. “Shit,” she said, and turned around to grasp the oars for the pull to shore. I sat slumped over and shivering. My hands clenched around the knife.


In a ceremonial hall hung with purple silk and gold shields the women tattoo a four-pronged spiral in the hollow of Julia’s neck. They present her with a blue suit. With four others she returns to New York on a cruise ship secretly owned by the Free Women. They wear disguises, like the Phantom, when he would venture out as Mister Walker, wrapped in a trench coat and slouch hat, to rescue his beloved Diana from Nazi kidnappers.

Despite the women’s clever tricks someone on the boat recognizes them. A television anchorwoman, or maybe a rightwing politician. This woman once served Burning Sky, but disobeyed her leader on some assignment. Now she comes to their suite of cabins and begs the Free Women to readmit her. They play with her, attaching small intricately carved stone clips all over her skin. She suffers silently, only to have them announce she had forgotten how to break through the wall. They can do nothing for her. She goes away, later becomes Prime Minister.

When we got back to the rental dock Louise began to lug the boat onto the wooden platform. “If you want to go home,” she said “give me a hand.” I took hold of the rope to tie it to the iron post that would hold it fast when the hurricane came.

At that moment a woman came out of the water. Dressed in a black wet suit with long shiny flippers and a dark mask that completely hid her face, she stood for a moment rotating her shoulders and tilting her head up to the sun. Her spear gun pointed at the ground.

My heart began throwing blood wildly around my body: my vagina contracted like someone running for her life. “Will you come on?” Louise said.

I stammered something at her. Louise had never heard me stammer before. “What the hell is the matter with you?” she said. Then her eyes followed the invisible cable connecting me and my beautiful skin diver. She looked back and forth between us a couple of times while a wolfgrin took over her face. “Sonofabitch,” she said, and laughed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know,” I said, and Louise got to see another first. I blushed.

It was certainly a day for firsts. That evening, in the sloppy cavernous apartment Louise had inherited from her grandfather, she took out her collection of “toys”: whips, handcuffs, masks, chains, nipple clips, leather capes, rubber gloves, and one whalebone corset, c. 1835. No wet-suits, but it didn’t really matter. I hope none of Ralph’s sperm remained camped inside me anymore. The spring thaw came that night, and the flood would have washed the courageous little creatures away forever.


The Free Women order Julia to go alone to her apartment and renew her professional contacts. At first she finds it hard to function without her instructors. She hates going out “naked,” as she thinks of her ordinary clothes. With no one to command her she forgets to eat and one day passes out while photographing a police parade in the South Bronx.

Gradually the dream fades. Julia stops dressing up in her Free Skin at night, she goes on holiday with a woman reporter who asks about the tattoo on Julia’s neck. Julia tells her she got it to infiltrate a group of terrorists. When the woman falls asleep Julia cries in the shower and thanks the Virgin Mary for her deliverance. She wonders how she ever could have submitted to such strange and wretched slavery.

An order comes. Something simple, maybe embarrassing a judge who suspended the sentence of a man who raped his five-year-old daughter. Something with a clear moral imperative.

Julia takes off from work to decide what to do. In a cabin in the woods she tries on her Free Skin and lies in bed, remembering Burning Sky’s face, and the way her fingers looked extended into the air. She remembers lying with the other women in a huge bed, how they slid in and out of each other, while their bodies melted inside their blue suits. She remembers hanging from silver manacles, remembers dancing to the heart of the labyrinth.

Julia returns to the city and locks the blue suit in a metal cabinet. The day of her assignment passes. She falls into a fever, attended by her reporter friend. When she recovers and the woman has left, Julia opens the cabinet. Her Free Skin has vanished. In its place lies a Chinese woman’s dagger, five hundred years old, with an ivory handle bearing the same spiral sign that marks Julia’s neck. Terrified, she waits for retribution. Weeks pass.


And so I left the City of Civilized Sex in one great rush on the back of a skindiver. Now that she’d preserved her record Louise lost interest very quickly, but at least she gave me some leads to “your kind of trick,” as she delicately put it. I didn’t know whether she meant the lovers or the activities.

I discovered not only a large reservoir of women devoted to farfetched sexual practices, but several organizations, complete with buttons, slogans, jackets, and conflicting manifestoes. After a while they all began to strike me as rather odd, not just for their missionary zeal, but their hunger for community. Had I left the City only to emigrate to another nation-state?

It wasn’t so much the social as the sexual conformity that disturbed me. Everyone seemed to agree ahead of time on what would excite them. I began to wonder if all those people in the Land of Leather really liked the same sort of collar (black with silver studs) or if each new arrival, thrilled at finding a town where she’d expected only a swamp, confused gratitude with eroticism, and gave up her dreams of finding leather clothes and objects of exactly the right color, cut and texture.

As my imagination began to show me its tastes I became more and more specific with the women who tried to satisfy me. That first night with Louise she could have tied me up with a piece of filthy clothesline and I wouldn’t have complained. A few months later I was demanding the right ropes (green and gold curtain pulls with the tassel removed) tied only in particular knots taken from the Boy Scout Handbook.

And even that phase didn’t last. For, in fact, it’s not actions that I’m hunting. No matter how well you do them they can only approximate reality. City dwellers believe that fantasies exist to intensify arousal. Out here in the Territories the exiles should know better. I want to stand on a tree stump and yell through the forest, “Stop trying to build new settlements. Stop trying to clear the trees and put up walls and lay down sewers.” I want them to understand. Sex exists to lay traps for fantasies.


Julia’s life becomes as pale and blank as cheap paper. She goes to bars and picks up women. They all go away angry when they get back to Julia’s apartment and Julia just sits on the bed, or else goes to the darkroom and doesn’t come out. Julia returns to the ritual hall. She finds it replaced by a button factory.

She drives out to the beach on a hard sunny day in December. Ignoring the cold wind she strips naked and walks toward the water, both hands gripping the Chinese dagger. She raises it to the sun to watch the light glint off the blade. But then she notices flashes beyond the knife. Small spots on the horizon. As she watches, they grow larger, become blue sails, then a row of boats coming out of the deep. Each one contains a single woman. The sails rise out of their shoulders like wings. They call to each other like birds, their voices piercing the wind. When they land they detach their skins from the boat masts and the plastic snaps back against their bodies.

Julia falls down in the wet sand. A wild roaring in the Earth drowns out the sea as the six women lift her to her feet (six is the number of love, with Julia they become seven, the number of victory). They wash the mud and loneliness from her and dress her in the Free Skin she abandoned for an illusion of freedom.

The only true happiness lies in obedience to loving authority.
Charles Moulton, speaking as Queen Hippolyte of Paradise Island to her daughter, Princess Di,
Wonder Woman Comics, c. 1950

Uncanny Valley Digest: The Triumph of Mechanics by Karl Stobl

Stobl was influenced by Edgar Allen Poe. He started a fantasy magazine predating Weird Tales by two years. This story was written in 1907, before both world wars. It was not translated into English until 2016, primarily because Stobl was relegated to the literary dustbin for joining the Nazi party prior to WWII, becoming a high official in the Nazi writing and propaganda campaigns. We read this story so you don’t have to.

David: He’s a full on Nazi. This guy likes his shirts brown.

Group: HA!

David: Is there anything Nazi about the story? I don’t think so.

BunniculaChris: Well, there’s a gesture toward the inferior beings reproducing too much.

David: Where’s the sci-fi?

Chris: The self-reproducing mechanism. Earliest instance of a “grey-goo” problem, that disassembles everything into itself, and can build nothing else. A rabbit that has a litter of six overnight.

Here’s looking at you…

Nowell: I feel like this is a mild recapitulation of Frankenstein, though a little more sinister, where the scientist says, “You’d better grant me my wishes or else.” No one understands me, the brilliant scientist, everyone laughs at me until… they feel the wrath of my hideous revenge.

David: It’s still sci-fi if there’s a punchline.

Chris: It’s not really a punchline, more the creepiness of rabbits.

David: At least this is the first story we’ve read this summer that has a character, and scenes.

Nowell: I love the line, “I don’t think you know what a billion is,” and the images of a snow covered city, which is actually rabbits. A fun little vignette. Though let’s be honest, Hopkins is a total asshole. 🙂

Suhail: At least it’s not an essay, like the last two. Another grad school story.

David: Interesting that it, like Rokeya’s story, has been ignored by the canon, but for totally different politically (in)correct reasons.

Suhail: The concept reminds me of that Dick story, do you remember it, Dave? The one with the ant swarm, where the shoes are reproducing like bunnies…

David: That’s “The Short Happy Life Of The Brown Oxford”

Suhail: Yes! That one.

Chris: It reads better as a thought experiment. I think it’s a joke.

Click to enlarge.David: The science fiction and bureaucracy interact and have a Brazil-like effect (the 1985 Terry Gilliam film.)

Chris: It is Brazil-like.

The industrial rivalry. Of course, the mad scientist is a creative American who’s figured this trick out, and he’s playing fast and lose with German expectations.

Chris: An O. Henry story, with rabbits.

David: What do you mean?

Chris: There’s a twist. The story is meant to set up the twist.

David: It’s a fleshed out story. From academic perspective, it’s approaching or prefiguring the pulps.

But, again, not fun to read. We read this one so you won’t have to. Join us next week, when we’ll discuss Rachel Pollack’s “Burning Sky”

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!

The Triumph Of Mechanics by Karl Hans Stobl (1907)

“The Triumph Of Mechanics” (1907) – Karl Hans Stobl (3751 words)
Posted here to facilitate our upcoming discussion.


The town’s toy industry had grown considerably in the last few years. All civilized countries placed orders upon orders, eager to own mechanical toys — multicolored, marvelously precise: the Punchinello puppets banging drums, the indefatigable fencers, the madly fast automobiles, the proud war vessels propelled by veritable steam engines. Through some forceful entreat, one could export the toys to unsophisticated lands — though the demand was not as imperious. One could often find— deep in the forests and out in the deserts of Africa — little indigenous children playing with what remained of those remarkable products. A famous explorer even confessed to having been fooled in the jungle, at the edge of the Malagarassi, by a very peculiar monkey: the beast sat in a palm tree, and the explorer had convinced himself he had discovered another simian species, when he glimpsed his country’s trade mark, D.R.P.[1] N. 105307, which destroyed his hopes. But the independent press soon placed this story in the usual category (as far as explorers of Africa were concerned) of imaginary ravings, and condemned it as one more conspiracy conceived by the abhorred colonial policy.

The automated rabbits from the firm Stricker & Vorderteil were by far in greatest demand. These small animals, exact replicas of the natural creatures, were capable, when their spring was fully wound up, to hop around like their living models, in five or six circles.

A mechanical engineer of universal genius, an American, of course, whose inventions seemed to fall from the heavens directly onto his lap, had designed the humble inanimate beasts specifically for the company. Unfortunately, the moment when the firm’s performance and celebrity peaked, everything collapsed like a house of cards. With the impertinence of the man who believes himself indispensible, Hopkins requested to be paid double, work half hours, and have access to a personal laboratory and a vacation property out of town. Stricker was inclined to accept, but Vorderteil opposed this decision in the strongest possible terms: “We can’t do that, if only for the sake of management’s principles; otherwise, in six months’ time Hopkins will come up with some new whim.”

Stricker agreed. The American, a grin hovering about his face, listened to his boss’s decision and responded by handing over his notice.  The slight consternation and discontent caused by this reaction vanished when the owners realized all the crucial secrets of fabrication were safe and the enterprise risked nothing.

“What if,” said the anxious Stricker, “Hopkins creates a competing firm?”

“Leave it to me,” said Vorderteil in a soothing tone, as he was, through a few discreet dealings, acquainted with the town’s mayor. The defector would receive no permission to start his business.

Meanwhile, Hopkins worked as if nothing had happened. He continued to supervise the factory’s production, changing a few small-scale details, as if he intended to work for Stricker and Vorderteil forever. One could say he invented as easily as he drew breath. During these last weeks, important orders of rabbits came in, and the firm was forced to increase its means of production, to fabricate those legions of small animals. Hopkins, wearing his customary smile, left at the end of his notice, doffed his impeccable top hat and bowed low to his former employers. He remained worryingly quiet about his future projects, and what Stricker’s fretful nature had correctly intuited turned out to be true. Through his discreet dealings with the Mayor’s office, Vorderteil learned that Hopkins had bought a vacant lot and had filed a building permit, to build a new factory.

“Guess,” Vorderteil cried, “what he’s going to fabricate?”

“I have no idea,” Stricker answered, and this time he really had no clue.

“Toys made of glazed colored glass. That’s what he wants to do. Glazed colored glass! Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Stricker had never heard of such a thing, but he deemed Hopkins capable of anything, even of making glazed colored glass toys, which is why he blanched, nodded, shrugged his shoulders, and hunched over, thus losing three centimeters in height.

Vorderteil yelled: “Glazed glass. And colored! Nonsense!”

“Calm down. It’s probably a mistake. Maybe Hopkins meant to say ‘gasified air.’ I think I heard something about it.”

At these words, Vorderteil banged his fist on the table, so forcefully the huge Shannon recorder placed over his head oscillated. He cried:

“This is a serious matter. Don’t be facetious, now that everything we worked for is crumbling around our ears. When Hopkins says glazed glass, he thinks glazed glass, and, if I understand well, he gave an overview of his project, from which it would appear that he has discovered a process to solidify air, a method that allows submitting air to very high temperatures, giving it all the properties of glass, except for fragility.”

“That would be an industrial revolution, and he is very obliging, given that he intends to use this breakthrough technology to make toys. Who knows where he’ll stop?”

“Very obliging, yes. But what if, all of a sudden, children were given dice, skittles, puppets, locomotives made of colored glass that never break, and the toys are completely safe? Maybe he will even make automated rabbits, oh!”

Vorderteil threw himself back so violently in his armchair that the huge Shannon recorder fell on his head. While papers flittered around him, he bounded to his feet.

That must be avoided at all costs, and if you, Mister Stricker, indulge in incomprehensible nonchalance, I myself must thank God for having connections that will help me foil Hopkins’s nefarious plan.”

The following weeks, many discussions took place through the usual discreet channels, between the Mayor and Vorderteil. It ensued that these secret dealings caused a firm refusal of all the requests, appeals and revisions filed by Hopkins. To the point that Stricker, crushed by his associate’s repeated victories, saw himself shrink about two centimeters in height every day.

After the seventeenth rejection of Hopkins’s request, a peculiar din resounded before the City Hall’s door, and the American, flanked by two enormous mastiffs, entered the anti-chamber, which was made narrow by thick folders, all sorts of carefully kept clutter, and rolled-up sheets of paper containing building plans.

Secretaries and clerks took refuge in the adjacent rooms, while the doors moaned under the weight of the mastiffs that were leaning into the panels. Thanks to the two monsters, whose heads reached up to his shoulders, Hopkins was able to get into the Mayor’s office. Here he stood, Hopkins, facing the Mayor, hat in hand, while the mastiffs, giving in to their instinct, sniffed the cabinets all around the room, upending vases and unabashedly leaving the marks of their huge paws on the delicate patterns of the rug, and the Mayor tried to find something to say:

“Don’t you know that dogs are not allowed inside?” he ended up yelling.

“Of course I know,” Hopkins answered, smiling. “Dogs must stay outside.”

“So how dare you introduce your tykes here!”

“These? But they’re not dogs.”

“Oh, yes? What are they then?”

“They’re machines, Mr. Mayor.”

And Hopkins called one of the mastiffs closer, and unscrewed its head so that it was possible to glimpse the gearwheels inside; he also explained how the animals moved their limbs, and sniffed, particularly insisting on the clever mechanism that allowed the dogs to wag their tails.

“What in the Hell is this for — ?” asked the Mayor, an almost imploring expression on his nonplussed face, while the cogs, wheels, springs, and electrical batteries spun frenetically.

Hopkins switched his dogs’ mechanisms off and riposted through another question:

“Why wouldn’t you let me build my factory?”

“For that, you should address the Civil Engineering Office, in order to learn whether it is possible to obtain a building permit.”

“I have already put the same question to the Civil Engineering Office. There, I was told to address the Police Office.”

“Well, then, and — ?”

“From there, I was sent to the Technical Assistance Office.”

“Well, then, and — ?”

“There, they wanted me to go to the Civil Engineering Office again, but at this point I decided to address you directly.”

The Mayor, seeing himself abandoned by all his auxiliary offices, resigned himself to replying.

“We didn’t respond favorably to your request because the legal requirements were not met.”

“But everything’s perfect, and if you don’t believe me, I shall do whatever it takes to obtain your agreement, one way or another.”

Under the dogs’ lackluster stare, which seemed as threatening as the glint in their master’s eyes, the Mayor dared not to contradict his interlocutor. The three creatures that fenced the Mayor inside a magical circle resembled receptacles of accumulated force waiting for a switch-on to explode into action, unleashing destruction.

In a wavering voice, he asked: “And now, what do you intend to do?”

“Oh, I can choose one among hundreds of possibilities … like … rabbits, for example.”

“Ra — rabbits?”

“Yes … I can set a billion mechanical rabbits on the town.”

There, the Mayor burst into laughter. “A billion! And … mechanical … ah ah.”

“I’m under the impression you have no idea what a billion is, and you don’t know a thing about the perfection of mechanics, not to mention the effects of inanimate objects to which one lends movement …”

But the Mayor, who couldn’t control his fits of laughter, kept saying, “Ra — rabbits. Au-tomated … ra — rabbits. Ha ha.”

“Then you take responsibility for it?”

“But of course … of course.”

“All right,” said Hopkins, and he tipped his hat by way of a farewell.

He turned on his dogs’ switches, and followed by the monsters, exited, an amiable smile at the corner of his mouth. It took the Mayor two hours to recover, and only after all the heads of departments succeeded in restraining their serious cases of the giggles, he went home, a vague air of satisfaction about him. Exhausted by his unusual exertions, he couldn’t wait to tell his wife about the joke. In front of the door, he saw in a corner, shyly nestled against the wall, looking miserable, a cute little white rabbit produced according to the renowned process of the Stricker & Vorderteil firm. Amused by the thought that Hopkins had already placed a little white rabbit by his door, the Mayor extended a hand to seize the small beast, but the rabbit hopped away, quickly escaping him. Still intent on the idea of pursuit, the Mayor saw with satisfaction that not far down the street, a few rascals had trapped the animal. The story told by the Mayor was sheer pleasure to his wife as her thrifty nature immediately envisaged the opportunity of procuring children’s toys at no cost. When little Edwige appeared clutching a little white rabbit she had found on the porch, the Mayor’s wife laughed joyously. She burst out laughing again when Richard brought in a rabbit, which settled in on the kitchen table, and again when Fritz and Anna emerged from the dark depths of the cave, each carrying a rabbit.

These animals with dull glass eyes hopped to-and-fro in a frenzy: one had to stack them up into a corner, from which they escaped, causing the children to become noisily nervous. But when Cook, pale in the face, reported that one of the creatures had all of a sudden leaped into a marmalade jar, the mother’s hilarity gave place to the housewife’s carefulness. During the afternoon, the rabbits multiplied in a worrisome manner. They seemed to lurk in every corner, erupt from the cracks in the floorboards; they sat on all the moldings and doorframes; sprang blindly everywhere, so that the general amusement quickly ceased, while a murmur of disapprobation filled the house.

The Mayor, fleeing from the nuisance, went to his club through a twilight peppered with hopping white smudges. There he met friends who, as perplexed as he, had convened to discuss the phenomenon, while rabbits, in ever increasing numbers, came to disrupt the men’s reflections. From time to time, Joseph, the club’s barman, swept the animals out of the rooms, but the next minute, the things shot up from every corner, leaping at one another, their glass eyes red and bulging. Upon the reading table, the creatures devilled the sacred placement of the newspapers. The gentlemen traded furious glances, deeply disturbed by this aggravating intrusion, and left as soon as it appeared that Joseph and his broom were unable to get rid of the vermin.

That same evening, the Mayor felt a hard lump under his bedclothes, and, when he anxiously groped for it, his hand came up filled with a rabbit that stared at him stupidly. Cursing, he threw the thing, but the animal contented itself with uttering a weak high-pitched scream, like a struck instrument, and then resumed hopping. At this proof of resilience, the Mayor flipped his lid, and the effects of his anger troubled his sleep as his dreams teemed with rabbits. Written in letters that reached the sky, the terrible word “UNDESTRUCTIBLE” loomed in the midst of a crowd of rabbits, which went up and down the sign, as agile as the proverbial enchanted cats. The red eyes converged on the same point, the Mayor, who lay paralyzed in bed.

When he decided to wash away the sweat caused by the nightmare, the man found the top of his washing stand invaded by rabbits, and one of them, with its fur thin and dull, twitched pitifully at the bottom of his pitcher. With a satisfying malignant pleasure, he hurled the creature to the floor, but the rabbit slowly straightened and resumed hopping with the usual enthusiasm.

In the streets, the passersby could not take a step without stumbling upon one of the little monsters, which survived the most incredible torments applied by urchins, and even the passage of the heaviest trucks.  Rabbits on the steps of the City Hall. Rabbits in every corridor. Perching on the highest folders, they glanced down at the poor Major, who passed among his employees fighting against more rabbits, to enter his office. Thirteen rabbits welcomed him from his desk, causing the papers to rustle and scattering them in splendid disarray. The Mayor let himself fall into his armchair, invoking all the destroying powers. He cried out in anguish when his hands landed on soft fur. It seemed to him that over the vacuous muzzles hovered an expression resembling a smile. Thanks to the multiplication, the smile seemed to amplify, growing stronger, and finally the Mayor had the impression of seeing Hopkins’s grin repeated a hundred thousand times.

Mustering all his energy, the Mayor called Vorderteil. Aghast, they gazed at each other for some time, until the Mayor recovered a shade of dignity.

“This Mr. Hopkins …” he began.

“Yes, this Mr. Hopkins,” Vorderteil said.

“A billion automated rabbits …”

“Indestructible … Indestructible,” Vorderteil confirmed.

“It’s horrible … A billion automated ra — ” The Mayor had to brush away a rabbit that had brusquely leaped onto his shoulder and wanted to climb his head. “Damned mechanics!” he cried, on the brink of tears.

“Yes, yes, but I don’t understand …”

“What is it that you don’t understand?”

“My factory has never produced so many rabbits before.”

“Where do they come from then?”

Vorderteil was unable to answer as he found himself inundated by the red ink a rabbit had just spilled. His elegant black trousers were ruined. The Mayor laughed convulsively.

Then Vorderteil said, “I think Hopkins has hoarded all the latest orders. That man is the Devil incarnate … and he’s out to get us … but …”

And, ignoring the red tide that continued to spill out between them, he whispered: “But I’m thinking of something even more terrible …”


“Have you noticed that two generations of rabbits have presented themselves?”

Yes. It was true. Among the twenty-three rabbits that frolicked on the Mayor’s desk, a few seemed to be smaller, more delicate … younger than the others. Even though all of them hopped about, eyeing the world with the same fixed, stupid gaze, smiling the same hideous smile.

“You see, when Hopkins was still working for us, he alluded to some revolutionary process, something … a kind of natural reproduction of mechanical rabbits, which he called ‘asexual reproduction.’ We made fun of him at the time, but now, apparently, he is using this process. It’s clear now: he’s using it to terrorize us. Yes. These rabbits are admirable replica of life. They’re reproducing, and tonight we’ll see the third generation. Tomorrow morning, we’ll welcome the fifth, and the day after tomorrow, we will sail toward the two billion beasts …”

This conversation met a quick and strange conclusion, which also ended the discreet dealings between the two men. Seized by the irrepressible desire to avoid going insane, and maybe a combination of rage and desperation, the Mayor grabbed by the neck the author of this disaster, spun him around and had him thrown out. Unfortunately, this violent act brought no resolution to the problem of the rampant rabbits. When they had appeared, the town was amused, and then enraged, but now the general sentiment was horror, and disgust. White beasties hopped among the dishes on the tables. They could only be destroyed with axes and fire. With the magistrate’s authorization, bonfires were lit on the streets, and rabbits were brought in buckets, aprons, and hutches. But despite these measures, the number of rabbits increased by the hour until the town’s population gave up. The fires consumed, a reek of burned fur stank up the air. Without anything to keep them at bay, the rabbits destroyed every trade, jammed the traffic, invaded all activities, and even insinuated themselves into the secret of amorous passions.

But it happened that in a region nearby, in Switzerland, a woman gave birth to a stillborn child. The terror experienced by the mother had caused this premature birth, and the child had on its face a mark in the shape of a rabbit. Indignation erupted, and the City Hall was almost assailed by a rioting, armed crowd. In this crucial moment, the Mayor remembered Napoleon III, who succeeded in calming the miserable masses with raucous parties. Fighting an internal disquiet with external actions seemed the right solution, even more so since he had glimpsed the fifth generation of monsters in his own house. So he ordered festivities of the greatest splendor commemorating the poet Schiller. Like a captain casting a last glance from the mast of his floundering ship, the Mayor contemplated his town from the highest spot of the City Hall. Even though the month was September, the rooftops, the streets and parks seemed to disappear under layers of snow, but this peculiar blanket twitched, decomposed and recomposed. It was only the billion rabbits — as promised. Like an old man, the Mayor stepped down from the tower, slipping over the soft backs of a few thousand rabbits, and, as soon as he reached the ground floor, he heard the report of a policeman he’d sent to Hopkins’s home. The man was nowhere to be found, which did not surprise the Mayor in the slightest.

That evening, the townspeople gathered for the commemoration, after braving the mountains of rabbits filling the streets, particularly the crossroads, where the beasties superposed in double and triple layers. Even inside, it was difficult to move about as the rabbits leaped among the revelers’ legs, occupied the chairs and filed up and down the galleries, like a bas-relief conceived by a mad sculptor.

An eminent professor who had considerably contributed to the town’s intellectual life delivered a speech, and when he extracted a rabbit from his suit pocket to toss it away, the gesture seemed to punctuate his words in a customary manner.  A more lugubrious impression occurred when the trumpets released a discordant tune, caused by the rabbits obstructing the instruments. Only the young dramatic singer Beate Vogl created a harmonious atmosphere when she sang a lied in Schiller’s honor. Until a terrible scream broke the crystalline sounds as the singer extracted a rabbit from her cleavage. A rabbit, yes, with nine more newborn rabbits hanging from it. The turmoil had reached a peak when a powerful voice rose above the din.

Hopkins stood on stage, beside the unconscious singer. He waved his impeccable top hat and bowed to the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I beg you to please pay attention to what I have to say.  The painful events visited on you these last days could have been avoided if the authorities had been able to grasp the meaning of the word ‘billion,’ also showing greater consideration for the accomplishments of modern technology. I desire nothing more than putting an end to these disagreements. The rabbits will disappear as soon as my request is accepted.  Although, if my projects should meet more obstacles, then, and only then, would I, against my desire, rest assured, make your situation a little worse.”

Smiling, Hopkins, fished a squirming rabbit out of his pocket, and held it up by the ears. “So far, you’ve seen an innocuous species of rabbit, but, tomorrow at midday, you’ll encounter a new variety: the rabbit that can eat.”

With these words, he presented the animal with a bunch of clover.

The silent crowd watched in consternation as the animal’s muzzle twitched and turned toward the vegetable to swallow it with mechanical delight.

Everyone pictured an army of indestructible, voracious rabbits devouring everything in sight. Dread crushed the assembly. Nobody dared utter a sound.

That night, an extraordinary meeting of the City Council was called, and, come morning, an employee was dispatched to the American’s house with an invitation to the Mayor’s office. This time, Hopkins was at home.

The inventor, upon hearing the decision that gave him permission to build his factory, listened gravely to the question he surely expected.

The Mayor, tired and pensive, his face expressing a deep doubt, said:

“Tell me now.” His hand caressed his forehead as if wanting to dispel an oppressive impression. “I get most of your science. There’s something, though, I don’t understand. It’s the fact that, thanks to your savoir-faire in mechanics, by mastering the process of life, you have created rabbits that can eat. How is it possible? The rabbit you showed us …”

Hopkins gave a smile that was more bitter than usual, and tipped his impeccable top hat. “Well, that one … ‚” he said. “That rabbit, Mayor, the one I showed you, was, quite exceptionally, a real, living rabbit.”


Uncanny Valley Digest: Sultana’s Dream By Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Our Sultana’s Dream discussion clinked like porcelain at a tea party! The story had the same essay quality and social critique agenda of The Star, but in a firmly feminist perspective. Everyone present appreciated the story for it’s intentions and for it’s technological whimsy, but it was not exactly “fun to read.”

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, (also Begum Rokeya) was a British Indian citizen. She was a Bengali Muslim educator and feminist social activist. Pioneer of education on the Indian subcontienent. A heroine of Bengali and greater Indo Pak Bangla culture. Her life was all pre-partition India, so in modern terms her homeland during her lifetime was the Indo-Pak-Bangla subcontient. She advocated for total gender equality, and education of girls and women was the first necessity to establish equality.

Suhail: It was cool. It was imaginative. BUT, another essay story. Ho hum. I liked the way she thought out the technological solutions to basic needs problems. She sticks to the basics and gets thorough: unlimited clean water, unlimited solar energy, no violent weather, no need for rain (or mud). Homes are more secure. Clean transportation technology is exclusively aerial, making streets and railroads obsolete. Garden and plant technology has made even streets and

What do you do when you miss your train of thought?

David: The flying cars. It’s right out of Ralph 124C41, plus.

Suhail: There is a parable-like oversimplification of men and women, but even here again she sticks to basics. I don’t think that anyone would disagree with her that on the whole men are more violent than women, but to imply that only men are violent is too convenient. BUT, the beauty of it being a simple inversion is that any criticism we can apply to the way the women run things is merely a valid criticism of the way the men are already doing it.

Wait in the station for the next one.

Chris: Heh, nice.

Nowell: Interesting narrative, especially for the time. Love the floating personal airship thing, seems like something out of anime, very steampunk. Intrigued as to what the whole “sacred” discussion was about, with certain men relegated to the zenana being “sacred” by relation. Didn’t have time to research, maybe someone else can provide some insight. I didn’t read the intro from the anthology, did it say things about any backlash or was the tale kept secret for many years? At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it has a very pointed, angry criticism of the men in India. And if I had to wager a guess, rightfully so!

Ryan: Colorful, silly, cute short story during a time of woman’s suffrage. A political statement at a time o the precipice of great change in gender dynamics. Her tone is utterly defiant of men for thier foolishness and oppression. It’s the inverse of Indian culture of the time. The imagination was embracing a science consciousness, one of peace and harmony in a world without men.

Suhail: I like the alternate history of the wise Queen’s legacy and the keen way in which Lady Principal won the war – by blinding the enemy with sunlight cells.  Trouble is, and it belies the flaw of a lot of Utopia stories, What made that the final war? It’s a “mannish” flaw, women won the final war with an ultimate weapon, and for some reason no one ever begrudged them anything again. Unlikely. What happens when the losing country develops their own sun cell bombs? That decisive overwhelming military victory is the precondition for all of this utopia. But that is a flaw in most utopia stories: “If we just use my for of dictatorship, everything will be fine.” Socially, I like the way she’s reversing the roles for a commentary and satire, especially at her historical moment for the feminist movement.

Ryan: It was a dream, which I find interesting having written Asleep In Green. And because it was a dream it’s allowed to be anything the author wants, to flying cars and solar power have a grounding. Also important to mention these hadn’t been invented yet, which makes it sci-fi.

Tasty BBQ wins the evening.

Chris: It’s not superstitious, just a little ‘stitious.

Suhail: Heh, nice.

David: From an academic perspecive, it’s fascinating to grad students.

Chris: Our list is interesting as artifacts in sci-fi development. But they’re not that fun to read.

Suhail: She thought this out. It’s cool, and many aspects of it are likely, if we accept the premise that women are without sin simply by virture of being women. But no, Suhail, it posits that even sin in women, among women, would be rectified in a peaceful and fruitful way instead of (as with men) in an aggressive and punishing way.

David: This would be good for Lena’s race and gender class. Like Wells, it’s designed to move the needle of public opinion.

Chris: She just flipped one switch, reversing the gender roles. It’s not some explicit political magic.

David: A bit of both. It’s not colonial oppression that she’s bothered by (because she doesn’t mention it, at all), it’s the lack of women’s equality.

Women’s rights march on Fifth Avenue in New York City, 1976. Courtesy of Bob Adelman

Tune in next time when we cover Karl Hans Stobl’s “The Triumph of Mechanics.”
Thank you for reading. Reading rules!


Margin notes:
P.1 A walk in the garden. A utopia story. Crowds, but no men.
P.2 Purdah and the purdahnishin. The Muslim practice of full social segregation of women and men. Women wear full body clothing and veils, they live in zenanas, separate partitions of the house from men. The near total seclusion of men from women.
P.2 Park and Garden technology. Grass is a cushion. Carpets of moss and flowers. These are streets! Street flower technology that can not be harmed by being stepped on.
P.2 Men in society are equivalent to wild animals in a marketplace.
P.3 Animal/parable response. A lion is stronger than a man, but does not dominate men. Strength is not a sufficient condition.
P.3 The female new world order. 2 hour work days in the lab. Because men used to smoke and bullshit for 6 hours of their workday anyhow.
P.4 Disease is cured. Solar ovens. Solar power cells for all energy! How did it become this way? The back story begins.
P.4 The good queen. The two women’s universities. The solar power, and water harvesting balloons. Weather control. All invented by women while men were building their military arsenals.
P.5 The men called the women’s abundant energy and clean water “a sentimental nightmare.” The men ended up in the zenanas. They were not overpowered by arms.
P.5 Do not reply with words, reply with deeds if you get the opportunity.
P.5 A refugee crisis leads to way. The war wipes out all men over age 16. The surviving boys are kept in the zenanas. The women decided NOT to fight in their mens’ stead. Use your brains, ladies! says the Queen.
P.6 The women agree that they would rather commit suicide than be enslaved. So they will try one wild hope first. The boys are hidden away in the mardanas (renamed zenanas). Lady Principal with 2,000 ladies marches out and use the solar cells to blind, panic, and fry the opposing forces. Then they concentrate the solar cells even more and destroy all of the enemies weapons and munitions.
P.6 How lucky. What happens when the vanquished aggressors develop their own solar battery nukes?
P.6 None of the women commit crimes. And if they do they need only be chastised. And the young boys who grew into the mardana system became excellent fathers and good cooks.
P.7 All aerial travel. No roads or railroads. Nice! Mechanical farming. We don’t need burly men for manual labor, either. All necessities are easily cared for and seen to.
P.7 Bare bones religion: “Love and Truth.” Liars are exiled unless they repent sincerely.
P.8 A quick assembly hydrogen bubble helicopter air-car. It’s how everyone gets around without roads.
P.8 Men are less moral. Women prize knowledge of the gifts of nature. A different value system.

Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1905)

“Sultana’s Dream” (1905) by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (3986 words)
First published in The Indian Ladies’ Magazine, Madras, 1905

One evening I was lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood. I am not sure whether I dozed off or not. But, as far as I remember, I was wide awake. I saw the moonlit sky sparkling with thousands of diamond-like stars, very distinctly.

All on a sudden a lady stood before me; how she came in, I do not know. I took her for my friend, Sister Sara.

‘Good morning,’ said Sister Sara. I smiled inwardly as I knew it was not morning, but starry night. However, I replied to her, saying, ‘How do you do?’

‘I am all right, thank you. Will you please come out and have a look at our garden?’

I looked again at the moon through the open window, and thought there was no harm in going out at that time. The men-servants outside were fast asleep just then, and I could have a pleasant walk with Sister Sara.

I used to have my walks with Sister Sara, when we were at Darjeeling. Many a time did we walk hand in hand and talk light-heartedly in the botanical gardens there. I fancied, Sister Sara had probably come to take me to some such garden and I readily accepted her offer and went out with her.

When walking I found to my surprise that it was a fine morning. The town was fully awake and the streets alive with bustling crowds. I was feeling very shy, thinking I was walking in the street in broad daylight, but there was not a single man visible.

Some of the passers-by made jokes at me. Though I could not understand their language, yet I felt sure they were joking. I asked my friend, ‘What do they say?’

‘The women say that you look very mannish.’

‘Mannish?’ said I, ‘What do they mean by that?’

‘They mean that you are shy and timid like men.’

‘Shy and timid like men?’ It was really a joke. I became very nervous, when I found that my companion was not Sister Sara, but a stranger. Oh, what a fool had I been to mistake this lady for my dear old friend, Sister Sara.

She felt my fingers tremble in her hand, as we were walking hand in hand.

‘What is the matter, dear?’ she said affectionately. ‘I feel somewhat awkward,’ I said in a rather apologizing tone, ‘as being a purdahnishin woman I am not accustomed to walking about unveiled.’

‘You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here.’

By and by I was enjoying the scenery. Really it was very grand. I mistook a patch of green grass for a velvet cushion. Feeling as if I were walking on a soft carpet, I looked down and found the path covered with moss and flowers.

‘How nice it is,’ said I.

‘Do you like it?’ asked Sister Sara. (I continued calling her ‘Sister Sara,’ and she kept calling me by my name).

‘Yes, very much; but I do not like to tread on the tender and sweet flowers.’

‘Never mind, dear Sultana; your treading will not harm them; they are street flowers.’

‘The whole place looks like a garden,’ said I admiringly. ‘You have arranged every plant so skillfully.’

‘Your Calcutta could become a nicer garden than this if only your countrymen wanted to make it so.’

‘They would think it useless to give so much attention to horticulture, while they have so many other things to do.’

‘They could not find a better excuse,’ said she with smile.

I became very curious to know where the men were. I met more than a hundred women while walking there, but not a single man.

‘Where are the men?’ I asked her.

‘In their proper places, where they ought to be.’

‘Pray let me know what you mean by “their proper places”.’

‘O, I see my mistake, you cannot know our customs, as you were never here before. We shut our men indoors.’

‘Just as we are kept in the zenana?’

‘Exactly so.’

‘How funny,’ I burst into a laugh. Sister Sara laughed too.

‘But dear Sultana, how unfair it is to shut in the harmless women and let loose the men.’

‘Why? It is not safe for us to come out of the zenana, as we are naturally weak.’

‘Yes, it is not safe so long as there are men about the streets, nor is it so when a wild animal enters a marketplace.’

‘Of course not.’

‘Suppose, some lunatics escape from the asylum and begin to do all sorts of mischief to men, horses and other creatures; in that case what will your countrymen do?’

‘They will try to capture them and put them back into their asylum.’

‘Thank you! And you do not think it wise to keep sane people inside an asylum and let loose the insane?’

‘Of course not!’ said I laughing lightly.

‘As a matter of fact, in your country this very thing is done! Men, who do or at least are capable of doing no end of mischief, are let loose and the innocent women, shut up in the zenana! How can you trust those untrained men out of doors?’

‘We have no hand or voice in the management of our social affairs. In India man is lord and master, he has taken to himself all powers and privileges and shut up the women in the zenana.’

‘Why do you allow yourselves to be shut up?’

‘Because it cannot be helped as they are stronger than women.’

‘A lion is stronger than a man, but it does not enable him to dominate the human race. You have neglected the duty you owe to yourselves and you have lost your natural rights by shutting your eyes to your own interests.’

‘But my dear Sister Sara, if we do everything by ourselves, what will the men do then?’

‘They should not do anything, excuse me; they are fit for nothing. Only catch them and put them into the zenana.’

‘But would it be very easy to catch and put them inside the four walls?’ said I. ‘And even if this were done, would all their business – political and commercial – also go with them into the zenana?’

Sister Sara made no reply. She only smiled sweetly. Perhaps she thought it useless to argue with one who was no better than a frog in a well.

By this time we reached Sister Sara’s house. It was situated in a beautiful heart-shaped garden. It was a bungalow with a corrugated iron roof. It was cooler and nicer than any of our rich buildings. I cannot describe how neat and how nicely furnished and how tastefully decorated it was.

We sat side by side. She brought out of the parlour a piece of embroidery work and began putting on a fresh design.

‘Do you know knitting and needle work?’

‘Yes; we have nothing else to do in our zenana.’

‘But we do not trust our zenana members with embroidery!’ she said laughing, ‘as a man has not patience enough to pass thread through a needlehole even!’

‘Have you done all this work yourself?’ I asked her pointing to the various pieces of embroidered teapoy cloths.


‘How can you find time to do all these? You have to do the office work as well? Have you not?’

‘Yes. I do not stick to the laboratory all day long. I finish my work in two hours.’

‘In two hours! How do you manage? In our land the officers, – magistrates, for instance – work seven hours daily.’

‘I have seen some of them doing their work. Do you think they work all the seven hours?’

‘Certainly they do!’

‘ No, dear Sultana, they do not. They dawdle away their time in smoking. Some smoke two or three choroots during the office time. They talk much about their work, but do little. Suppose one choroot takes half an hour to burn off, and a man smokes twelve choroots daily; then you see, he wastes six hours every day in sheer smoking.’

We talked on various subjects, and I learned that they were not subject to any kind of epidemic disease, nor did they suffer from mosquito bites as we do. I was very much astonished to hear that in Ladyland no one died in youth except by rare accident.

‘Will you care to see our kitchen?’ she asked me.

‘With pleasure,’ said I, and we went to see it. Of course the men had been asked to clear off when I was going there. The kitchen was situated in a beautiful vegetable garden. Every creeper, every tomato plant was itself an ornament. I found no smoke, nor any chimney either in the kitchen — it was clean and bright; the windows were decorated with flower gardens. There was no sign of coal or fire.

‘How do you cook?’ I asked.

‘With solar heat,’ she said, at the same time showing me the pipe, through which passed the concentrated sunlight and heat. And she cooked something then and there to show me the process.

‘How did you manage to gather and store up the sun-heat?’ I asked her in amazement.

‘Let me tell you a little of our past history then. Thirty years ago, when our present Queen was thirteen years old, she inherited the throne. She was Queen in name only, the Prime Minister really ruling the country.

‘Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls’ schools were founded and supported by the government. Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.’

‘How the tables are turned,’ I interposed with a laugh.

‘But the seclusion is the same,’ she said. ‘In a few years we had separate universities, where no men were admitted.’

‘In the capital, where our Queen lives, there are two universities. One of these invented a wonderful balloon, to which they attached a number of pipes. By means of this captive balloon which they managed to keep afloat above the cloud-land, they could draw as much water from the atmosphere as they pleased. As the water was incessantly being drawn by the university people no cloud gathered and the ingenious Lady Principal stopped rain and storms thereby.’

‘Really! Now I understand why there is no mud here!’ said I. But I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited. However, she went on, ‘When the other university came to know of this, they became exceedingly jealous and tried to do something more extraordinary still. They invented an instrument by which they could collect as much sun-heat as they wanted. And they kept the heat stored up to be distributed among others as required.

‘While the women were engaged in scientific research, the men of this country were busy increasing their military power. When they came to know that the female universities were able to draw water from the atmosphere and collect heat from the sun, they only laughed at the members of the universities and called the whole thing “a sentimental nightmare”!’

‘Your achievements are very wonderful indeed! But tell me, how you managed to put the men of your country into the zenana. Did you entrap them first?’


‘It is not likely that they would surrender their free and open air life of their own accord and confine themselves within the four walls of the zenana! They must have been overpowered.’

‘Yes, they have been!’

‘By whom? By some lady-warriors, I suppose?’

‘No, not by arms.’

‘Yes, it cannot be so. Men’s arms are stronger than women’s. Then?’

‘By brain.’

‘Even their brains are bigger and heavier than women’s. Are they not?’

‘Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet man can enchain elephants and employ them, according to their own wishes.’

‘Well said, but tell me please, how it all actually happened. I am dying to know it!’

‘Women’s brains are somewhat quicker than men’s. Ten years ago, when the military officers called our scientific discoveries “a sentimental nightmare,” some of the young ladies wanted to say something in reply to those remarks. But both the Lady Principals restrained them and said, they should reply not by word, but by deed, if ever they got the opportunity. And they had not long to wait for that opportunity.’

‘How marvelous!’ I heartily clapped my hands. ‘And now the proud gentlemen are dreaming sentimental dreams themselves.’

‘Soon afterwards certain persons came from a neighbouring country and took shelter in ours. They were in trouble having committed some political offense. The king who cared more for power than for good government asked our kind-hearted Queen to hand them over to his officers. She refused, as it was against her principle to turn out refugees. For this refusal the king declared war against our country.

‘Our military officers sprang to their feet at once and marched out to meet the enemy. The enemy however, was too strong for them. Our soldiers fought bravely, no doubt. But in spite of all their bravery the foreign army advanced step by step to invade our country.

‘Nearly all the men had gone out to fight; even a boy of sixteen was not left home. Most of our warriors were killed, the rest driven back and the enemy came within twenty-five miles of the capital.

‘A meeting of a number of wise ladies was held at the Queen’s palace to advise as to what should be done to save the land. Some proposed to fight like soldiers; others objected and said that women were not trained to fight with swords and guns, nor were they accustomed to fighting with any weapons. A third party regretfully remarked that they were hopelessly weak of body.

‘”If you cannot save your country for lack of physical strength,” said the Queen, “try to do so by brain power.”

‘There was a dead silence for a few minutes. Her Royal Highness said again, “I must commit suicide if the land and my honour are lost.”

‘Then the Lady Principal of the second university (who had collected sun-heat), who had been silently thinking during the consultation, remarked that they were all but lost, and there was little hope left for them. There was, however, one plan which she would like to try, and this would be her first and last efforts; if she failed in this, there would be nothing left but to commit suicide. All present solemnly vowed that they would never allow themselves to be enslaved, no matter what happened.

‘The Queen thanked them heartily, and asked the Lady Principal to try her plan. The Lady Principal rose again and said, “before we go out the men must enter the zenanas. I make this prayer for the sake of purdah.” “Yes, of course,” replied Her Royal Highness.

‘On the following day the Queen called upon all men to retire into zenanas for the sake of honour and liberty. Wounded and tired as they were, they took that order rather for a boon! They bowed low and entered the zenanas without uttering a single word of protest. They were sure that there was no hope for this country at all.

‘Then the Lady Principal with her two thousand students marched to the battle field, and arriving there directed all the rays of the concentrated sunlight and heat towards the enemy.

‘The heat and light were too much for them to bear. They all ran away panic-stricken, not knowing in their bewilderment how to counteract that scorching heat. When they fled away leaving their guns and other ammunitions of war, they were burnt down by means of the same sun-heat. Since then no one has tried to invade our country any more.’

‘And since then your countrymen never tried to come out of the zenana?’

‘Yes, they wanted to be free. Some of the police commissioners and district magistrates sent word to the Queen to the effect that the military officers certainly deserved to be imprisoned for their failure; but they never neglected their duty and therefore they should not be punished and they prayed to be restored to their respective offices.

‘Her Royal Highness sent them a circular letter intimating to them that if their services should ever be needed they would be sent for, and that in the meanwhile they should remain where they were. Now that they are accustomed to the purdah system and have ceased to grumble at their seclusion, we call the system “Mardana” instead of “zenana”.’

‘But how do you manage,’ I asked Sister Sara, ‘to do without the police or magistrates in case of theft or murder?’

‘Since the “Mardana” system has been established, there has been no more crime or sin; therefore we do not require a policeman to find out a culprit, nor do we want a magistrate to try a criminal case.’

‘That is very good, indeed. I suppose if there was any dishonest person, you could very easily chastise her. As you gained a decisive victory without shedding a single drop of blood, you could drive off crime and criminals too without much difficulty!’

‘Now, dear Sultana, will you sit here or come to my parlour?’ she asked me.

‘Your kitchen is not inferior to a queen’s boudoir!’ I replied with a pleasant smile, ‘but we must leave it now; for the gentlemen may be cursing me for keeping them away from their duties in the kitchen so long.’ We both laughed heartily.

‘How my friends at home will be amused and amazed, when I go back and tell them that in the far-off Ladyland, ladies rule over the country and control all social matters, while gentlemen are kept in the Mardanas to mind babies, to cook and to do all sorts of domestic work; and that cooking is so easy a thing that it is simply a pleasure to cook!’

‘Yes, tell them about all that you see here.’

‘Please let me know, how you carry on land cultivation and how you plough the land and do other hard manual work.’

‘Our fields are tilled by means of electricity, which supplies motive power for other hard work as well, and we employ it for our aerial conveyances too. We have no rail road nor any paved streets here.’

‘Therefore neither street nor railway accidents occur here,’ said I. ‘Do not you ever suffer from want of rainwater?’ I asked.

‘Never since the “water balloon” has been set up. You see the big balloon and pipes attached thereto. By their aid we can draw as much rainwater as we require. Nor do we ever suffer from flood or thunderstorms. We are all very busy making nature yield as much as she can. We do not find time to quarrel with one another as we never sit idle. Our noble Queen is exceedingly fond of botany; it is her ambition to convert the whole country into one grand garden.’

‘The idea is excellent. What is your chief food?’


‘How do you keep your country cool in hot weather? We regard the rainfall in summer as a blessing from heaven.’

‘When the heat becomes unbearable, we sprinkle the ground with plentiful showers drawn from the artificial fountains. And in cold weather we keep our room warm with sun-heat.’

She showed me her bathroom, the roof of which was removable. She could enjoy a shower bath whenever she liked, by simply removing the roof (which was like the lid of a box) and turning on the tap of the shower pipe.

‘You are a lucky people!’ ejaculated I. ‘You know no want. What is your religion, may I ask?’

‘Our religion is based on Love and Truth. It is our religious duty to love one another and to be absolutely truthful. If any person lies, she or he is….’

‘Punished with death?’

‘No, not with death. We do not take pleasure in killing a creature of God, especially a human being. The liar is asked to leave this land for good and never to come to it again.’

‘Is an offender never forgiven?’

‘Yes, if that person repents sincerely.’

‘Are you not allowed to see any man, except your own relations?’

‘No one except sacred relations.’

‘Our circle of sacred relations is very limited; even first cousins are not sacred.’

‘But ours is very large; a distant cousin is as sacred as a brother.’

‘That is very good. I see purity itself reigns over your land. I should like to see the good Queen, who is so sagacious and far-sighted and who has made all these rules.’

‘All right,’ said Sister Sara.

Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.

My friend lowered the air-car by reversing the action of the machine, and when the car touched the ground the machine was stopped and we got out.

I had seen from the air-car the Queen walking on a garden path with her little daughter (who was four years old) and her maids of honour.

‘Halloo! You here!’ cried the Queen addressing Sister Sara. I was introduced to Her Royal Highness and was received by her cordially without any ceremony.

I was very much delighted to make her acquaintance. In the course of the conversation I had with her, the Queen told me that she had no objection to permitting her subjects to trade with other countries. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘no trade was possible with countries where the women were kept in the zenanas and so unable to come and trade with us. Men, we find, are rather of lower morals and so we do not like dealing with them. We do not covet other people’s land, we do not fight for a piece of diamond though it may be a thousand-fold brighter than the Koh-i-Noor, nor do we grudge a ruler his Peacock Throne. We dive deep into the ocean of knowledge and try to find out the precious gems, which nature has kept in store for us. We enjoy nature’s gifts as much as we can.’

After taking leave of the Queen, I visited the famous universities, and was shown some of their manufactories, laboratories and observatories.

After visiting the above places of interest we got again into the air-car, but as soon as it began moving, I somehow slipped down and the fall startled me out of my dream. And on opening my eyes, I found myself in my own bedroom still lounging in the easy-chair!


The Star by H.G. Wells (1897)

This short story by H.G. Wells is frequently anthologized, and is considered a story that well frames the traditional 20th century science fiction genre. I’m posting this tasty morsel of public domain literature to facilitate our upcoming discussion. Enjoy!


“The Star”
(1897) (4450 words)
by H.G. WellsH.G. Wells, care of Tantor Media

It was on the first day of the New Year that the announcement was made, almost simultaneously from three observatories, that the motion of the planet Neptune, the outermost of all the planets that wheel about the sun, had become very erratic. Ogilvy had already called attention to a suspected retardation in its velocity in December. Such a piece of news was scarcely calculated to interest a world the greater portion of whose inhabitants were unaware of the existence of the planet Neptune, nor outside the astronomical profession did the subsequent discovery of a faint remote speck of light in the region of the perturbed planet cause any very great excitement. Scientific people, however, found the intelligence remarkable enough, even before it became known that the new body was rapidly growing larger and brighter, that its motion was quite different from the orderly progress of the planets, and that the deflection of Neptune and its satellite was becoming now of an unprecedented kind.

Few people without a training in science can realise the huge isolation of the solar system. The sun with its specks of planets, its dust of planetoids, and its impalpable comets, swims in a vacant immensity that almost defeats the imagination. Beyond the orbit of Neptune there is space, vacant so far as human observation has penetrated, without warmth or light or sound, blank emptiness, for twenty million times a million miles. That is the smallest estimate of the distance to be traversed before the very nearest of the stars is attained. And, saving a few comets more unsubstantial than the thinnest flame, no matter had ever to human knowledge crossed this gulf of space, until early in the twentieth century this strange wanderer appeared. A vast mass of matter it was, bulky, heavy, rushing without warning out of the black mystery of the sky into the radiance of the sun. By the second day it was clearly visible to any decent instrument, as a speck with a barely sensible diameter, in the constellation Leo near Regulus. In a little while an opera glass could attain it.

On the third day of the new year the newspaper readers of two hemispheres were made aware for the first time of the real importance of this unusual apparition in the heavens. “A Planetary Collision,” one London paper headed the news, and proclaimed Duchaine’s opinion that this strange new planet would probably collide with Neptune. The leader writers enlarged upon the topic; so that in most of the capitals of the world, on January 3rd, there was an expectation, however vague of some imminent phenomenon in the sky; and as the night followed the sunset round the globe, thousands of men turned their eyes skyward to see–the old familiar stars just as they had always been.

Until it was dawn in London and Pollux setting and the stars overhead grown pale. The Winter’s dawn it was, a sickly filtering accumulation of daylight, and the light of gas and candles shone yellow in the windows to show where people were astir. But the yawning policeman saw the thing, the busy crowds in the markets stopped agape, workmen going to their work betimes, milkmen, the drivers of news-carts, dissipation going home jaded and pale, homeless wanderers, sentinels on their beats, and in the country, labourers trudging afield, poachers slinking home, all over the dusky quickening country it could be seen–and out at sea by seamen watching for the day–a great white star, come suddenly into the westward sky!

Brighter it was than any star in our skies; brighter than the evening star at its brightest. It still glowed out white and large, no mere twinkling spot of light, but a small round clear shining disc, an hour after the day had come. And where science has not reached, men stared and feared, telling one another of the wars and pestilences that are foreshadowed by these fiery signs in the Heavens. Sturdy Boers, dusky Hottentots, Gold Coast Negroes, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, stood in the warmth of the sunrise watching the setting of this strange new star.

And in a hundred observatories there had been suppressed excitement, rising almost to shouting pitch, as the two remote bodies had rushed together; and a hurrying to and fro, to gather photographic apparatus and spectroscope, and this appliance and that, to record this novel astonishing sight, the destruction of a world. For it was a world, a sister planet of our earth, far greater than our earth indeed, that had so suddenly flashed into flaming death. Neptune it was, had been struck, fairly and squarely, by the strange planet from outer space and the heat of the concussion had incontinently turned two solid globes into one vast mass of incandescence. Round the world that day, two hours before the dawn, went the pallid great white star, fading only as it sank westward and the sun mounted above it. Everywhere men marvelled at it, but of all those who saw it none could have marvelled more than those sailors, habitual watchers of the stars, who far away at sea had heard nothing of its advent and saw it now rise like a pigmy moon and climb zenithward and hang overhead and sink westward with the passing of the night.

And when next it rose over Europe everywhere were crowds of watchers on hilly slopes, on house-roofs, in open spaces, staring eastward for the rising of the great new star. It rose with a white glow in front of it, like the glare of a white fire, and those who had seen it come into existence the night before cried out at the sight of it. “It is larger,” they cried. “It is brighter!” And, indeed the moon a quarter full and sinking in the west was in its apparent size beyond comparison, but scarcely in all its breadth had it as much brightness now as the little circle of the strange new star.

“It is brighter!” cried the people clustering in the streets. But in the dim observatories the watchers held their breath and peered at one another it is nearer,” they said. “Nearer!”

And voice after voice repeated, “It is nearer,” and the clicking telegraph took that up, and it trembled along telephone wires, and in a thousand cities grimy compositors fingered the type. “It is nearer.” Men writing in offices, struck with a strange realisation, flung down their pens, men talking in a thousand places suddenly came upon a grotesque possibility in those words, “It is nearer.” It hurried along wakening streets, it was shouted down the frost-stilled ways of quiet villages; men who had read these things from the throbbing tape stood in yellow-lit doorways shouting the news to the passersby. “It is nearer.” Pretty women, flushed and glittering, heard the news told jestingly between the dances, and feigned an intelligent interest they did not feel. “Nearer! Indeed. How curious! How very, very clever people must be to find out things like that!”

Lonely tramps faring through the wintry night murmured those words to comfort themselves–looking skyward. “It has need to be nearer, for the night’s as cold as charity. Don’t seem much warmth from it if it is nearer, all the same.”

“What is a new star to me?” cried the weeping woman kneeling beside her dead.

The schoolboy, rising early for his examination work, puzzled it out for himself–with the great white star shining broad and bright through the frost-flowers of his window. “Centrifugal, centripetal,” he said, with his chin on his fist. “Stop a planet in its flight, rob it of its centrifugal force, what then? Centripetal has it, and down it falls into the sun! And this–!

“Do we come in the way? I wonder–”

The light of that day went the way of its brethren, and with the later watches of the frosty darkness rose the strange star again. And it was now so bright that the waxing moon seemed but a pale yellow ghost of itself, hanging huge in the sunset. In a South African City a great man had married, and the streets were alight to welcome his return with his bride. “Even the skies have illuminated,” said the flatterer. Under Capricorn, two negro lovers, daring the wild beasts and evil spirits, for love of one another, crouched together in a cane brake where the fire-flies hovered. “That is our star,” they whispered, and felt strangely comforted by the sweet brilliance of its light.

The master mathematician sat in his private room and pushed the papers from him. His calculations were already finished. In a small white phial there still remained a little of the drug that had kept him awake and active for four long nights. Each day, serene, explicit, patient as ever, he had given his lecture to his students, and then had come back at once to this momentous calculation. His face was grave, a little drawn and hectic from his drugged activity. For some time he seemed lost in thought. Then he went to the window, and the blind went up with a click. Half way up the sky, over the clustering roofs, chimneys and steeples of the city, hung the star.

He looked at it as one might look into the eyes of a brave enemy. “You may kill me,” he said after a silence. “But I can hold you–and all the universe for that matter–in the grip of this little brain. I would not change. Even now.”

He looked at the little phial. “There will be no need of sleep again,” he said. The next day at noon–punctual to the minute, he entered his lecture theatre, put his hat on the end of the table as his habit was, and carefully selected a large piece of chalk. It was a joke among his students that he could not lecture without that piece of chalk to fumble in his fingers, and once he had been stricken to impotence by their hiding his supply. He came and looked under his grey eyebrows at the rising tiers of young fresh faces, and spoke with his accustomed studied commonness of phrasing. “Circumstances have arisen–circumstances beyond my control,” he said and paused, “which will debar me from completing the course I had designed. It would seem, gentlemen, if I may put the thing clearly and briefly, that–Man has lived in vain.”

The students glanced at one another. Had they heard aright? Mad? Raised eyebrows and grinning lips there were, but one or two faces remained intent upon his calm grey-fringed face. “It will be interesting,” he was saying, “to devote this morning to an exposition, so far as I can make it clear to you, of the calculations that have led me to this conclusion. Let us assume–”

He turned towards the blackboard, meditating a diagram in the way that was usual to him. “What was that about ‘lived in vain?'” whispered one student to another. “Listen,” said the other, nodding towards the lecturer.

And presently they began to understand.

That night the star rose later, for its proper eastward motion had carried it some way across Leo towards Virgo, and its brightness was so great that the sky became a luminous blue as it rose, and every star was hidden in its turn, save only Jupiter near the zenith, Capella, Aldebaran, Sirius and the pointers of the Bear. It was very white and beautiful. In many parts of the world that night a pallid halo encircled it about. It was perceptibly larger; in the clear refractive sky of the tropics it seemed as if it were nearly a quarter the size of the moon. The frost was still on the ground in England, but the world was as brightly lit as if it were midsummer moonlight. One could see to read quite ordinary print by that cold clear light, and in the cities the lamps burnt yellow and wan.

And everywhere the world was awake that night, and throughout Christendom a sombre murmur hung in the keen air over the country side like the belling of bees in the heather, and this murmurous tumult grew to a clangour in the cities. It was the tolling of the bells in a million belfry towers and steeples, summoning the people to sleep no more, to sin no more, but to gather in their churches and pray. And overhead, growing larger and brighter as the earth rolled on its way and the night passed, rose the dazzling star.

And the streets and houses were alight in all the cities, the shipyards glared, and whatever roads led to high country were lit and crowded all night long. And in all the seas about the civilised lands, ships with throbbing engines, and ships with bellying sails, crowded with men and living creatures, were standing out to ocean and the north. For already the warning of the master mathematician had been telegraphed all over the world, and translated into a hundred tongues. The new planet and Neptune, locked in a fiery embrace, were whirling headlong, ever faster and faster towards the sun. Already every second this blazing mass flew a hundred miles, and every second its terrific velocity increased. As it flew now, indeed, it must pass a hundred million of miles wide of the earth and scarcely affect it. But near its destined path, as yet only slightly perturbed, spun the mighty planet Jupiter and his moons sweeping splendid round the sun. Every moment now the attraction between the fiery star and the greatest of the planets grew stronger. And the result of that attraction? Inevitably Jupiter would be deflected from its orbit into an elliptical path, and the burning star, swung by his attraction wide of its sunward rush, would “describe a curved path” and perhaps collide with, and certainly pass very close to, our earth. “Earthquakes, volcanic outbreaks, cyclones, sea waves, floods, and a steady rise in temperature to I know not what limit”–so prophesied the master mathematician.

And overhead, to carry out his words, lonely and cold and livid, blazed the star of the coming doom.

To many who stared at it that night until their eyes ached, it seemed that it was visibly approaching. And that night, too, the weather changed, and the frost that had gripped all Central Europe and France and England softened towards a thaw.

But you must not imagine because I have spoken of people praying through the night and people going aboard ships and people fleeing toward mountainous country that the whole world was already in a terror because of the star. As a matter of fact, use and wont still ruled the world, and save for the talk of idle moments and the splendour of the night, nine human beings out of ten were still busy at their common occupations. In all the cities the shops, save one here and there, opened and closed at their proper hours, the doctor and the undertaker plied their trades, the workers gathered in the factories, soldiers drilled, scholars studied, lovers sought one another, thieves lurked and fled, politicians planned their schemes. The presses of the newspapers roared through the night, and many a priest of this church and that would not open his holy building to further what he considered a foolish panic. The newspapers insisted on the lesson of the year 1000–for then, too, people had anticipated the end. The star was no star–mere gas–a comet; and were it a star it could not possibly strike the earth. There was no precedent for such a thing. Common sense was sturdy everywhere, scornful, jesting, a little inclined to persecute the obdurate fearful. That night, at seven-fifteen by Greenwich time, the star would be at its nearest to Jupiter. Then the world would see the turn things would take. The master mathematician’s grim warnings were treated by many as so much mere elaborate self-advertisement. Common sense at last, a little heated by argument, signified its unalterable convictions by going to bed. So, too, barbarism and savagery, already tired of the novelty, went about their nightly business, and save for a howling dog here and there, the beast world left the star unheeded.

And yet, when at last the watchers in the European States saw the star rise, an hour later it is true, but no larger than it had been the night before, there were still plenty awake to laugh at the master mathematician–to take the danger as if it had passed.

But hereafter the laughter ceased. The star grew–it grew with a terrible steadiness hour after hour, a little larger each hour, a little nearer the midnight zenith, and brighter and brighter, until it had turned night into a second day. Had it come straight to the earth instead of in a curved path, had it lost no velocity to Jupiter, it must have leapt the intervening gulf in a day, but as it was it took five days altogether to come by our planet. The next night it had become a third the size of the moon before it set to English eyes, and the thaw was assured. It rose over America near the size of the moon, but blinding white to look at, and hot; and a breath of hot wind blew now with its rising and gathering strength, and in Virginia, and Brazil, and down the St. Lawrence valley, it shone intermittently through a driving reek of thunder-clouds, flickering violet lightning, and hail unprecedented. In Manitoba was a thaw and devastating floods. And upon all the mountains of the earth the snow and ice began to melt that night, and all the rivers coming out of high country flowed thick and turbid, and soon–in their upper reaches –with swirling trees and the bodies of beasts and men. They rose steadily, steadily in the ghostly brilliance, and came trickling over their banks at last, behind the flying population of their valleys.

And along the coast of Argentina and up the South Atlantic the tides were higher than had ever been in the memory of man, and the storms drove the waters in many cases scores of miles inland, drowning whole cities. And so great grew the heat during the night that the rising of the sun was like the coming of a shadow. The earthquakes began and grew until all down America from the Arctic Circle to Cape Horn, hillsides were sliding, fissures were opening, and houses and walls crumbling to destruction. The whole side of Cotopaxi slipped out in one vast convulsion, and a tumult of lava poured out so high and broad and swift and liquid that in one day it reached the sea.

So the star, with the wan moon in its wake, marched across the Pacific, trailed the thunderstorms like the hem of a robe, and the growing tidal wave that toiled behind it, frothing and eager, poured over island and island and swept them clear of men. Until that wave came at last–in a blinding light and with the breath of a furnace, swift and terrible it came–a wall of water, fifty feet high, roaring hungrily, upon the long coasts of Asia, and swept inland across the plains of China. For a space the star, hotter now and larger and brighter than the sun in its strength, showed with pitiless brilliance the wide and populous country; towns and villages with their pagodas and trees, roads, wide cultivated fields, millions of sleepless people staring in helpless terror at the incandescent sky; and then, low and growing, came the murmur of the flood. And thus it was with millions of men that night–a flight nowhither, with limbs heavy with heat and breath fierce and scant, and the flood like a wall swift and white behind. And then death.

China was lit glowing white, but over Japan and Java and all the islands of Eastern Asia the great star was a ball of dull red fire because of the steam and smoke and ashes the volcanoes were spouting forth to salute its coming. Above was the lava, hot gases and ash, and below the seething floods, and the whole earth swayed and rumbled with the earthquake shocks. Soon the immemorial snows of Thibet and the Himalaya were melting and pouring down by ten million deepening converging channels upon the plains of Burmah and Hindostan. The tangled summits of the Indian jungles were aflame in a thousand places, and below the hurrying waters around the stems were dark objects that still struggled feebly and reflected the blood-red tongues of fire. And in a rudderless confusion a multitude of men and women fled down the broad river-ways to that one last hope of men–the open sea.

Larger grew the star, and larger, hotter, and brighter with a terrible swiftness now. The tropical ocean had lost its phosphorescence, and the whirling steam rose in ghostly wreaths from the black waves that plunged incessantly, speckled with storm-tossed ships.

And then came a wonder. It seemed to those who in Europe watched for the rising of the star that the world must have ceased its rotation. In a thousand open spaces of down and upland the people who had fled thither from the floods and the falling houses and sliding slopes of hill watched for that rising in vain. Hour followed hour through a terrible suspense, and the star rose not. Once again men set their eyes upon the old constellations they had counted lost to them forever. In England it was hot and clear overhead, though the ground quivered perpetually, but in the tropics, Sirius and Capella and Aldebaran showed through a veil of steam. And when at last the great star rose near ten hours late, the sun rose close upon it, and in the centre of its white heart was a disc of black.

Over Asia it was the star had begun to fall behind the movement of the sky, and then suddenly, as it hung over India, its light had been veiled. All the plain of India from the mouth of the Indus to the mouths of the Ganges was a shallow waste of shining water that night, out of which rose temples and palaces, mounds and hills, black with people. Every minaret was a clustering mass of people, who fell one by one into the turbid waters, as heat and terror overcame them. The whole land seemed a-wailing and suddenly there swept a shadow across that furnace of despair, and a breath of cold wind, and a gathering of clouds, out of the cooling air. Men looking up, near blinded, at the star, saw that a black disc was creeping across the light. It was the moon, coming between the star and the earth. And even as men cried to God at this respite, out of the East with a strange inexplicable swiftness sprang the sun. And then star, sun and moon rushed together across the heavens.

So it was that presently, to the European watchers, star and sun rose close upon each other, drove headlong for a space and then slower, and at last came to rest, star and sun merged into one glare of flame at the zenith of the sky. The moon no longer eclipsed the star but was lost to sight in the brilliance of the sky. And though those who were still alive regarded it for the most part with that dull stupidity that hunger, fatigue, heat and despair engender, there were still men who could perceive the meaning of these signs. Star and earth had been at their nearest, had swung about one another, and the star had passed. Already it was receding, swifter and swifter, in the last stage of its headlong journey downward into the sun.

And then the clouds gathered, blotting out the vision of the sky, the thunder and lightning wove a garment round the world; all over the earth was such a downpour of rain as men had never before seen, and where the volcanoes flared red against the cloud canopy there descended torrents of mud. Everywhere the waters were pouring off the land, leaving mud-silted ruins, and the earth littered like a storm-worn beach with all that had floated, and the dead bodies of the men and brutes, its children. For days the water streamed off the land, sweeping away soil and trees and houses in the way, and piling huge dykes and scooping out Titanic gullies over the country side. Those were the days of darkness that followed the star and the heat. All through them, and for many weeks and months, the earthquakes continued.

But the star had passed, and men, hunger-driven and gathering courage only slowly, might creep back to their ruined cities, buried granaries, and sodden fields. Such few ships as had escaped the storms of that time came stunned and shattered and sounding their way cautiously through the new marks and shoals of once familiar ports. And as the storms subsided men perceived that everywhere the days were hotter than of yore, and the sun larger, and the moon, shrunk to a third of its former size, took now fourscore days between its new and new.

But of the new brotherhood that grew presently among men, of the saving of laws and books and machines, of the strange change that had come over Iceland and Greenland and the shores of Baffin’s Bay, so that the sailors coming there presently found them green and gracious, and could scarce believe their eyes, this story does not tell. Nor of the movement of mankind now that the earth was hotter, northward and southward towards the poles of the earth. It concerns itself only with the coming and the passing of the Star.

The Martian astronomers–for there are astronomers on Mars, although they are very different beings from men–were naturally profoundly interested by these things. They saw them from their own standpoint of course. “Considering the mass and temperature of the missile that was flung through our solar system into the sun,” one wrote, “it is astonishing what a little damage the earth, which it missed so narrowly, has sustained. All the familiar continental markings and the masses of the seas remain intact, and indeed the only difference seems to be a shrinkage of the white discoloration (supposed to be frozen water) round either pole.” Which only shows how small the vastest of human catastrophes may seem, at a distance of a few million miles.