Lord Dunsany's The Pleasures of a Futurescope


If Lord Dunsany (Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) were not known for his strange prose-poetry, his "Where the Tides Ebb and Flow", or for his deep mythos of Pegāna—in other words his fantasy that was and is still uniquely flavored—and, say, was centrally known for this, meaning The Pleasures of a Futurescope, then it is hard to think that we would remember him quite so readily as innovative and still, though largely undervalued, resonating down all these years. This is not to say that Futurescope is not without its charms and its purpose; and this is not to overlook the fact that Futurescope, as an unpublished book, is potentially incomplete or was waiting for rewrites to come down the mark, more flesh to be added to its bones, but compared to some of his shorter and stranger fictions, it feels lacking. Intriguing, not without promise, but lacking.

The story is a simple one. A man, apparently with lots of leisure time and a fair amount of money, borrows a device called the futurescope sometime in 1950s Britain. The device allows you to move about, to view different times (all apparently in the future), and to even pick up sounds. You can expand the "luminous disk", the viewing field, to light up a largish region, or narrow it down for finer detail, and apparently you can look not only top down but from a more normal POV. The device, in part, allows for whatever perfection the narrator requires, and sadly is devoid of proper tension that might have made its use a bit more interesting. Why not deny the use of sound, so visual clues have to be used to solve mysteries. Why not have the device only work for short periods of time, so gaps have to be worked around? Why not have it only work for one area so that things outside of a given circle are unknown? In fact, the obvious power of such a device, that it scan forward and backwards in time and therefore could lead to a narrative out of chronological order in which nervous moments are skipped to the end, and more detail is gotten later, is overlooked because the narrator likes to see things play out in their own time. As it is, it is just a device that allows the narrator to see into another time, a byproduct of a style of adventure writing that holds that any glimpses into the fantastic has to be explained, much like Burroughs use of communication wires in the second book of the Pellucidar series.

Using this near-perfect viewer, the narrator spends time watching the horrible pace of progress, as all the nature is conquered and beaten by modernity before the ultimate ending, nuclear war, washes over and wipes it all back to year zero. In the desolate aftermath, the narrator finds a survivor. Rather than watch this lonely survivor and his struggles, the futurescope is fast forwarded for a few hundred years into a new "stone age". Those readers of Daniel Quinn might remark disfavorably on this storyline, seeing as Quinn has stated that the "blast them back to the stone age" is a stupid statement, meaning the world would be worse off, however; the overall Quinnian idea that the stone age is not all bad is more or less the thesis of this novel. Rather than dwell, too much, on the barbaric bestiality of humanity, Dunsany builds up, instead, a much more pastoral picture. The wildlife is affluent, the sky is beautiful, the people are healthy, if sparse, and their lives are filled up with those activities we might consider recreation (hiking, fishing, hunting, storytelling). And here we come to the crux of the novel, that life in this new stone age, with its lack and even something of a ban against technology, is a better-than-ok lifestyle. Death should be omnipresent, medicine is nowhere and predators now hunt man again, and yet the novel never dwells upon these negatives. At best we get a rousing but practically sterile couple of fights against some wolves and a game of "capture the girl" played out with some gypsies and a "Wild Man".

The novel has an odd sense of antagonism, by the way, at least one where the badguys have one or two points, while still being generally tolerable by most novel's viewpoints. The Wild Man is an enemy because he does not wear clothes, is unkempt, and does not seem to understand property. The gypsies are an enemy because they embrace metal and steal women from time to time. Only our core two families of neolithic humans are treated as getting it right. The narrator does have a sense of naivity, though, which might account for some of the issues. He is only slightly aware how many things work. He spends some time worrying about getting in trouble for not paying a television tax on the futurescope (he ends up doing so, except with slight protest). He eschews scientific and historical study and instead opts for pure entertainment. It might be said that the only reason the core family (and their nearby neighbors) are treated as correct is because the narrator first started watching them. Like any good audience, he falls for the central characters and responds to others as others respond to them.

The novel suffers because of how many shortcuts it takes to make a central point (namely that technology is outgrowing our abilities to control it and that is not good) and discards any sort of plot device that might cloud this. Not only can the futurescope transmit sound, but conviently the survivors talk in perfect 1950s english. They are given names like Joe and Bert and Liza. Their attitudes towards sex and fighting are fairly Victorian. Disease stays away. Storms stay away. Just about everything bad is labeled as either a wolf or a human. Dunsany's point is made by not letting any resemblance to a counterpoint crop up. Dunsany does not blame the pre-fall humans for their crimes, he merely holds that they were unable to prevent it from occurring. Nuclear holocaust is inevitable with the way we live. In this regard, the humans living their affluent life in deerskins and eating meat they kill and grains they harvest are pratically heroic by solving the progress game: do not play it.

As Joshi hints at in the introduction, a part of the novel's theme is held in the short story (what we would call flash fiction nowadays) "The Prayer of the Flowers". When the flowers lament about the encroaching technology, Pan (the masculine aspect of nature in Dunsany's writings) responds that it will not last for long. Human's dominion of this planet will be lost. Other stories from Fifty-One Tales also resonate heavily with this novel, that man is more free when in connection to nature, that nature only looks like it is losing. Both have moments of high, almost insufferable, levels of preachiness, but both capture something of the beauty of our loss.

The Pleasures of a Futurescope is missing the style and form that made that collection sizzle, though. We are left with a straightforward tale that spends more time worrying about damsels in distress than about the nature of man or man's existence, and in which an old retiree worrying about paying the proper tax on the futurescope is played with the same force of language as a family fighting off neo-wolves. We are left with a lot of bad artifacts of the style of adventure fiction—time and space become warped as needed by the story, all the guys act like gung-ho British pilots from World War II, women show their strength by keeping a stiff upper lip during their abuse by the bad guys, and all obstacles are overcome largely by a positive attitude—but find the one positive side, the unabashed feeling of adventure against larger than life entities, dialed down a notch. As said, there are nice slices of charm floating around in this very British story about how the fall of civilization is a good thing, and it makes for good, simple escapism, but it needs oomph or it needs a sense of poetry, and only has bits of both.

Available, now, directly through Hippocampus Press and elsewhere, this book is mostly recommended to those who want ironically apocalyptic literature, some more samples of that first-half twentieth century pulp fiction, or who have read a good amount of Dunsany and would like to see some more. The original price of $30+ would be a bit much, but the current pricing of around the $10-$15 mark is a lot more on the target. It is a handsome little book, and the binding is mostly tight. How does the value stack up? Well, if you are a huge Dunsany fan, then it is a good deal. If you are only a mild Dunsany fan, you might want to flip a coin. This edition is fairly unique, mind you, so there is that. If you do not like the simpler, more romantic adventures of Burroughs and such, then you might want to skip. For my money, I am going to give the book an Eh with the caveat that I found it interesting and have no complaints about buying it, I just wish it did more with itself.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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