Monday, December 24, 2012

The Future Eve (1886) by August Villiers de L'Isle Adam

A word of warning: The Future Eve is not a novelette that you’re going to find easily. Not in English anyway; from what I can tell, the only available English translation, apart from some rather academic and expensive-looking journals, is in a strange collection called The Frankenstein Omnibus which is almost definitely out of print. So, chances are, you’re probably not going to be reading it, which is a shame. For this reason, I may be a little more lenient with the spoilers this time.

I’ll admit upfront that The Future Eve is not really anything to do with Imperialism or colonialism, but it is choc-full of other points of interest to the nineteenth-century enthusiast. For starters, the author was a fin-de-siecle French bohemian who hung out in cafes writing, drinking (absinthe, presumably), being poor and attempting to get rich society ladies to marry him (a bit like my life, really. Except I'm not French, obviously). The novelette is a sort of take on the Frankenstein theme, and what makes it interesting is its distinctly romantic/decadent spin on the subject.

At the beginning of the story we’re introduced to one Professor X, who sadly is nothing to do with the X-Men, but is in fact a sort of literary stand-in for none other than Thomas Edison. That’s what the intro says, anyway; if it’s true then the general public (in France at least) must have had some pretty weird ideas about the man and his abilities back in the 1880s. We first meet Not-Edison rambling about in his mansion outside a city (presumably New York), being attended to by the disembodied voices of artificial personalities he has somehow created using ‘electricity.’

Not in this book.

One of the great joys of reading literature from this period is the almost mystical reverence that was given to electricity. I guess even this late in the century it was still seen by many people as being wondrous and a little bit mysterious… the kind of ill-understood force that could be capable of almost anything. Think of Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues telling his captives that ‘my electricity is not the same as everyone else’s’ in an attempt to handwave the workings of the Nautilus. Way to fluff your research there, Verne.

Electricity in Victorian novels is always a plot device for creating monsters, bringing people back from the dead or other Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, mostly based on its demonstrated ability to make dead frogs twitch. Makes perfect sense, really. In the 1950’s, its place as a magical monster creator was taken by atomic power, and later by genetic engineering, which are similarly both misunderstood by the public and misused by narrative media. Read this for a bizarre real-life example.

This is exactly what Victorian science was like.

Not-Edison’s devices are described and explained in very strange ways in the novelette. The science isn’t ignored or handwaved away like in Wells, nor is it excruciatingly and accurately thought-through like in Verne. Instead, the author does go into quite a lot of detail; it’s just that none of it makes any bloody sense. There’s lots of talk about telephone wires and reflections, vibrations and currents. Of course, none of these descriptions really address how Not-Edison has achieved artificial intelligence, no matter how long they go on for. But they do bring a wonderfully romantic feeling of science-as-magic to the story.

How did I do it? I'll never tell!

 The scientist receives a visitor: the young and handsome Lord Ewald. But despite being the very picture of virile English manhood, the lord has a problem: he’s desperately lovesick. Despite having a position and profile that would win him the heart of almost any woman he meets, he’s gone and got himself hung up on a girl who’s doing him wrong. Things are so bad that he’s considering suicide.

The girl, one Alicia Cleary, is so beautiful that she’s regularly compared to the Venus of the classical world. She is, in a way, attached to Ewald, but he is constantly disappointed by her because the silly chit’s personality is not equal to her beauty.

Ah, yes. It would be neglectful of me not to mention that The Future Eve contains more than a strain of misogyny. In fact, it’s rather famous for it: the misogyny is the main thrust of most of the literary criticism that has been written about it.

Professor X and Ewald talk over the particulars of the situation. Apparently Miss Cleary is so physically perfect that Ewald is willing to die for her, he is so in love. They also agree that her personality is deficient: she doesn’t like opera or sculpture, she’s small-minded and selfish. The two men discuss which aspects of her being are acceptable and which are lamentable, and they both agree how wonderful it could be if they could somehow keep the former while jettisoning the latter.

And then Professor X realizes that, actually, he knows just how such a thing could be achieved.


Yeah, it’s pretty despicable. There’s no getting around that. Ewald, like all romantic/decadent heroes, is so hung up on this girl that nothing else in life really seems to matter. Fair enough, we’ve probably all been there. But the explicit fact that he’s only in love with her beautiful exterior, and cannot stand her personality, makes him utterly shallow. And that the two characters coldly and rationally decide what characteristics are desirable and not desirable in a woman makes them both pretty unlikable. Also, their limits for what’s desirable, personality-wise, are offensively narrow, which I suppose was probably typical for the time.

Eventually, Professor X reveals his plan: he will create an electronic facsimile of the girl, an exact copy: an android (the first use of the term in literature, fanboys!). Ewald is at first horrified, noting that even if the physical likeness was perfect, her store of conversation and actions would necessarily be woefully limited. Professor X mentions that they’ve both observed in the past that a proper society lady is nothing more than a limited number of learned conversations and actions. Shudder.

The two then retreat to Professor X’s gigantic underground cave of electronic wonders, where he explains in fascinating (and horrifically offensive) detail exactly how one would go about making a perfect woman. He ‘proves’ to Ewald that real women aren’t that ‘real’ anyway, because they use make-up and can alter their appearance. It’s this that a man really falls in love with, he says while pointing to a drawer full of cosmetics. An illusion. So really, falling in love with an automaton isn’t that different. Again, the superficiality is staggering.

This section is fascinating, if ghoulish and ethically questionable. Again, the author goes into masses of detail about how the android will be constructed, how she will function and how perfect the likeness will be. And even though he’s despicable, I liked how Ewald’s emotions swing constantly as he see-saws between revulsion and lust at the idea of having his desires granted in this unorthodox way. By the end, I wanted to find out what was coming next as much as the lovesick Lord.

Later, there’s an amazing scene in which Ewald has a surprise meeting with his automated lovedoll that prompts us to think about what it is that we really fall in love with. Ewald is obsessed with an ideal of Alicia; an impossible vision of her that is no more or less real than the automaton is. It’s an interesting idea, and one the author delves into in some detail, only to slightly spoil it with his underlying shades of misogyny, as well as the fact that he cheats by having the android inhabited by the essence of one of Professor X’s artificial personalities through supernatural means, thereby giving it a bona fide soul, as it were.

Large portions of the novella take place in real-time, with the Professor and Ewald having long conversations (while smoking cigars and drinking brandy, of course) that allow the writer to indulge in reflections on morality, science, and emotion. Even if some of the ideas are now repugnant to us, it’s still a good deal more interesting than the flat characters that usually turn up in Victorian speculative fiction. Ewald in particular fascinated me as a man who knowingly and deliberately buys into his delusion in the most literal way over the course of the story.

The Future Eve is not easy to come by in English, but it’s well worth looking out for.

Mmm... gentlemanly.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the insight. I've been searching for that book ever since I stumble on Hadaly in The Empire of Corpses. No wonder it was hard to find. At last, the French I learned is going to be put to use.