By John Jacob Astor
After beginning the process of straightening the earth’s axis and thus making it a paradise, three enterprising men seek adventure by constructing a spacecraft powered by apergy.
They explore Jupiter, a primordial land filled with strange beasts. After hunting and living off the land for a week, they discover a strange mystery. Something is chopping up the beasts they hunt before they can run the animals to ground. Whatever is beating them to the punch has incredibly sharp knives, slicing through the leg of a mastodon as if it were nothing.
After solving that mystery, the men leave for Saturn. They discover an even stranger landscape, filled with dragons and vanishing mushrooms. Oh, and spirits. Saturn is what the Old Testament called Sheol; this is where spirits go to await the final judgment at the last day. The men are taught spiritual truths and allowed to go home and enlighten all of mankind.
This book has a plodding plot and stale, cardboard characters. One man is a good doctor, one a scientist, one a two-fisted pulp-style hero with a pining desire to return home to his fiancée. Honestly, he would fit right in Twilight, he got so moody. Yet, I found myself drawn in by the pure imagination of the settings. Astor wrote this book in 1897 (before he died on the Titanic, because, you know, it’s hard to write novels after you die), well before the genre of science fiction had settled down. Literature was a different creature then. Astor was an inventor, creating such things as bicycle brakes and the pneumatic walkway. That talent shines in this book, as he goes on at length describing how all these fantastic machines work in the grand future of the year 2000.
He paints vivid pictures. As the men land on Jupiter, they hear a marvelous singing. They discover that plants here attract birds and insects by sound rather than by smell. It’s a fascinating concept. Astor’s imagination keeps pace the rest of the book, revealing marvel after marvel.
It’s easy to tell this book was not intended for modern audiences, though. Aside from plot and characterization differences, Astor assumes a large amount of biblical knowledge. When one of the men has a wish granted by a spirit on Saturn, he remarks afterward, “I asked for an egg and got a stone.” The book is filled with biblical allusions like that one that Astor never explains. On the other hand, he goes to great lengths to explain an illustration from Romeo and Juliet.
And about those biblical allusions… From the standpoint of a twenty-first century conservative Christian, I was fascinated reading them. The main characters of the story assume that any historical data in the Bible is accurate. They have a different view of the “why” behind the narratives, but the bare facts they let remain. For instance, they have no doubt that Jesus truly walked on water. However, they claim he used apergy (a sort of reverse-gravity) to do it.
The view of the afterlife as presented is also interesting. After death, those who “know God” (Jesus is rarely mentioned outside the historical context) will go to Saturn, where they will continue to develop. They long only to serve, and can see only the good in things. Meanwhile, those who wasted their time on earth and refused to repent will go to Callisto, the tenth planet, where they will also continue to develop, though they can see only the bad in things. One spirit remarks that if such a damned soul were to come to Saturn, they would still suffer hell, because they could not recognize the good things around them. I wonder if this was a common thought, or C. S. Lewis was familiar with this particular work.
This book is amazing from a historical standpoint. I enjoyed reading it, though it was certainly more work to get through than a modern novel. However, if you’re not into the history of the genre, I would not suggest reading it. The imagination employed is second to none; the characters and the plot could sure use a lot of improvement, though!
There is a preview of the book available at the link at the title, above.