Presently, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) is scarcely acknowledged as a pioneer of imaginative fiction. His contributions have escaped attention from the so-called “retro” awards, and his reputation seems too unsettling for contemporary genre editors. After years of chasing down 1950s SF novels, “Golden Age” stories from the 1940s and H.G. Wells titles, it was only after finding a Kipling quotation at the end of Poul Anderson’s The Day of Their Return did I suspect that the Victorian writer had strong ties to the genre.
There are explicit references to Kipling throughout Anderson’s oeuvre, with the Minnesotan author seemingly growing his appreciation for the Englishman with experience. A little digging revealed that SF luminaries Neil Gaiman, John Brunner and Jorge Luis Borges have also acknowledged his influence. My speculation is that the more one reads Kipling, the less fitting the broad criticisms: “jingo imperialist” (Orwell), unapologetic colonialist, and so on.
The 1992 collection The Science Fiction Stories of Rudyard Kipling, curated by Brunner, is composed of pieces from various times in Kipling’s career. All feature novel scientific ideas, often in combination with supernatural tropes.
- “A Matter of Fact” (1892) describes a attack on a ship by a pair of giant sea monsters, as witnessed by three journalists from different countries. Critics have mostly focused on the story’s lampooning of journalism, but I found the insights into animal behavior interesting.
- “The Ship That Found Herself” (1895) speculates on a new, almost entirely mechanical steamer attaining a kind of self-awareness through its sheer complexity. Not much going on in the story beyond this idea.
- “.007” (1897) gives personalities to railroad engines in the Northeastern United States. This one read like a 19th Century version of Thomas the Train Engine.
- “Wireless” (1902) is a multilayered story about radio communication, the fabric of time and the influence of writers from the past. The story is absurd at a superficial level, but a closer look at it reveals the grey area between new scientific ideas and superstition. Obviously, the field of wireless signaling has flourished since this story, while mesmerism and trances have gone the way of witchcraft; here, they’re at an intersection.
- “In the Same Boat” (1911) is a story about two psychiatry patients–both are haunted by nightmares and unsuccessfully treated with pills–who meet on a train and grow to help each other. Since the two are a man and a woman of similar social class, a romance of sorts does develop. What’s interesting is the discovered source of their conditions, and Kipling’s use of an audacious medical idea still gestating in the field of psychoanalysis.
- “The Eye of Allah” (1926) discusses the ongoing conflict between scientific progress and religious tradition. The science in this case is a 13th Century microscope, but the religion is not Islam, but Catholicism. The idea that a hierarchy decides when “the time is right” to start seeing the world in a new way is a very rich theme in SF. I was reminded of the Walter Miller classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, but there are many genre novels built around the institutional suppression of progress.
- “Unprofessional” (1930) tells the story of scientific advancement by unorthodox (or, “unprofessional”) means. A group of friends is able to pursue a new medical idea after one of them comes into an inheritance. This idea is the exploitation of multi-day “tidal” rhythms in physiology, to the benefit of mice and cancer patients. However, this leap of insight fails for lack of systematic testing. Despite the theory of biorhythms, as described in this story, falling into the realm of pseudoscience, the study of 24-hour circadian rhythms is thriving (netting a Nobel Prize in 2017).
The most interesting stories in this collection, however, are two novelettes sharing a future of air transport and corporate power.
“With the Night Mail” (1905)
If nothing else, this story demonstrates a SF writer’s ability to take a nascent technology and build an entire future out of it. Published in McClure’s slightly less than two years after the Wright brothers managed the first-ever powered aircraft flight, “With the Night Mail” depicts a world brought together by air travel. Large vessels carry mail, passengers and material using a lighter-than-air substance called “Fleury’s gas,” navigated by crew who watch the skies through a durable transparent “colloid.” Pilots are updated to worldwide conditions from the government with “Notices to Airmen,” the successor publication to the Notice to Mariners of Kipling’s time.
This story is packed with inventions and speculative technical jargon, a futuristic version of “The Ship That Found Herself” and “.007”. What makes “With the Night Mail” so much more interesting is Kipling’s description of international cooperation and communication.
“With the Night Mail” can be challenging to read, because Kipling wrote it for a fictional audience: those in the year 2000 who would be familiar with ubiquitous air travel and global freight. The narrator is a journalist on board “Postal Packet 162,” an airship that regularly carries mail between England and Quebec. The route is regulated well enough that the captain has nostalgia for the more challenging early days of flight:
“Our planet’s overlighted if anything,” says Captain Purnall at the wheel, as Cardiff-Bristol slides under. “I remember the old days of common white verticals that ‘ud show two or three hundred feet up in a mist, if you knew where to look for ’em. In really fluffy weather they might as well have been under your hat. One could get lost coming home then, an’ have some fun. Now, it’s like driving down Piccadilly.”
He points to the pillars of light where the cloud-breakers bore through the cloud-floor. We see nothing of England’s outlines: only a white pavement pierced in all directions by these manholes of variously colored fire–Holy Island’s white and red–St. Bee’s interrupted white, and so on for as long as the eye can reach. Blessed be the Sargent, Athens, and the Dubois brothers, who invented the cloud-breakers of the world whereby we travel in security!
So not only has England’s weather been conquered, but the traditional borders have started to lose their distinction: between land and sea, and between the cities Bristol and Cardiff (in Wales). The Atlantic Ocean and North America are less tamed, and the story describes the dramatic rescue of the crew from a listing French ship that has broken down over the sea from faulty German parts. There’s often room for nationalism in a Kipling story, even one of post-conflict futurism.
The heroic adventure is seasoned with the description of an international non-governmental organization–really, a technology company–called the Aerial Board of Control, or A.B.C. This group schedules flights and adjudicates trade routes, as described in this ominously prescient passage:
She [ a “Mark Boat” vessel serving traffic control ] is responsibly only to the Aerial Board of Control–the A.B.C. of which Tim speaks so flippantly. But that semi-elected, semi-nominated body of both sexes, controls this planet. “Transportation is Civilization,” our motto runs. Theoretically, we do what we please so long as we do not interfere with the traffic and all it implies. Practically, the A.B.C. confirms or annuls all international arrangements, and, to judge from its last report, finds our tolerant, humorous, lazy little planet only too ready to shift the whole burden of public administration on its shoulders.
Kipling built the next story–his most famous piece of SF–out of this paragraph, which he quoted in its original 1912 magazine publication.
“As Easy As A.B.C.” (1912)
99 years after “As Easy As A.B.C.” was published in London Magazine, the photograph of a “Tech Titans” dinner was released, showing President Obama joined by Silicon Valley elites of the highest order. Given the popularity of both the White House and consumer-friendly technology companies at the time, this toast (to the future?) seems to be the moment when the corporate-government marriage went fully mainstream. This terrible article plays the who’s who game with every guest diner, but here are the highlights:
- Steve Jobs of Apple sits to Obama’s left, although at this time he is seriously ill. Apple eventually becomes the largest publicly-held company in the world, by market capitalization.
- Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is partially visible on the right edge.
- Directly across from Obama are Larry Ellison of Oracle and Reed Hastings of Netflix.
- Eric Schmidt, then-CEO of Google, is visible on the left edge. In 2015, Google was restructured into a conglomerate entity named Alphabet, Inc.
That last paragraph of “With the Night Mail” I quoted was also used to begin the original version of “As Easy As A.B.C.”, describing an organization still defined by its original charter but infinitely more powerful after 105 years. It has been largely successful in pacifying the rival nations through political restructuring and the suppression of populist uprisings.
The story describes, with dark humor and peculiar ambiguity, the means by which A.B.C. asserts control over the terrestrial plebiscites. An airship containing am international coterie of officer/managers is headed to Chicago to investigate signs of trouble in Northern Illinois. The narrator is the official reporter, and begins the story by voicing his frustration at the lack of popular interest in his organization.
ISN’T it almost time that our Planet took some interest in the proceedings of the Aerial Board of Control? One knows that easy communications nowadays, and lack of privacy in the past, have killed all curiosity among mankind, but as the Board’s Official Reporter I am bound to tell my tale.
The A.B.C. promotes this kind of forgetting, however, and would rather have people leave the troublesome history of the 20th and 21st Centuries behind. For example, the people of Chicago, like their overhead masters, have long condemned racism. The city memorializes the victims of racism with a large (and explicitly named, be warned) statue of a lynching victim, which it unveils every Thanksgiving. The ceremony, accompanied by a anthem of liberty, is unsettling to the management:
‘Chicago?” said Takahira. “That’s the little place where there is Salati’s Statue of the N—- in Flames. A fine bit of old work.”
“When did you see it?” asked De Forest quickly. “They only unveil it once a year.”
“I know. At Thanksgiving. It was then,” said Takahira, with a shudder. “And they sang MacDonough’s Song, too.”
“Whew!” De Forest whistled. “I did not know that! I wish you’d told me before.
MacDonough’s Song may have had its uses when it was composed, but it was an infernal legacy for any man to leave behind.”
“It’s protective instinct, my dear fellows,’ said Pirolo, rolling a cigarette. “The Planet, she has had her dose of popular government. She suffers from inherited agoraphobia. She has no – ah – use for crowds.”
We’re assured that the A.B.C. is not on a mission to actively stamp out political ideas, democratic or socialist, but to rectify civil intrusions–obstacles to planetary traffic, in their mantra–before they grow out of hand. Called into Chicago by the desperate local government, the airship clears a crowd of protesters with a sort of Shock and Awe routine over the city, with blinding lights and deafening noises.
The narrator has a protective helmet closed over his head, so he is unable to detail the experience of the dispersal. However, there are plenty of clues as to what was used.
“Keep still!” Takahira whispered to me. “Blinkers, please, quartermaster.”
“It’s all right – all right!” said Pirolo from behind, and to my horror slipped over my head some sort of rubber helmet that locked with a snap. I could feel thick colloid bosses before my eyes, but I stood in absolute darkness.
“To save the sight,” he explained, and pushed me on to the chart-room divan. “You will see in a minute.”
As he spoke I became aware of a thin thread of almost intolerable light, let down from heaven at an immense distance – one vertical hairs breadth of frozen lightning.
“Those are our flanking ships,” said Arnott at my elbow. “That one is over Galena. Look south – that other one’s over Keithburg. Vincennes is behind us, and north yonder is Winthrop Woods. The Fleet’s in position, sir” – this to De Forest. “As soon as you give the word.”
“Ah no! No!” cried Dragomiroff at my side. I could feel the old man tremble. “I do not know all that you can do, but be kind! I ask you to be a little kind to them below! This is horrible horrible!”
“When a Woman kills a Chicken,
Dynasties and Empires sicken,”
Takahira quoted. “It is too late to be gentle now.”
This does not seem to be the writings of a simple Imperialist. The A.B.C. flagship then touches down in Chicago and chides the mayor for not policing the situation effectively. The mayor and chief-of-police are portrayed as rather ineffectual sycophants, placing a hand on De Forest’s knee while complaining about “too much democracy.”
The trouble in Chicago has been started by a group of political dissidents whose civic crimes include the act of living too close together and promoting popular government. The mayor calls them Serviles, because of their willingness to endure punishment for their cause. Once the Serviles were captured, the main task of the police was to secure them somewhere where other citizens couldn’t find and physically attack them.
The mayor, in finally relaying “the facts of the case,” also manages a perverse understanding of the right to privacy:
[the Mayor] “Our Serviles got to talking – first in their houses and then on the streets, telling men and women how to manage their own affairs. (You can’t teach a Servile not to finger his neighbour’s soul.) That’s invasion of privacy, of course, but in Chicago we’ll suffer anything sooner than make crowds. Nobody took much notice, and so I let ‘em alone. My fault! I was warned there would be trouble, but there hasn’t been a crowd or murder in Illinois for nineteen years.”
“Twenty-two,” said his Chief of Police.
“Likely. Anyway, we’d forgot such things. So, from talking in the houses and on the streets, our Serviles go to calling a meeting at the Old Market yonder.”
The Serviles have evidently stirred up enough unrest that the A.B.C. men resort to additional crowd-control measures. Electrical circuits are activated to paralyze people, the Old Market is destroyed, and other actions are taken, the full effect of which is left vague by the narrator. The most anxious of the company, Dragomiroff, seems to betray widespread mayhem, but the consensus is that swift and decisive action was needed to contain the crisis.
Eventually, the corporate types decide to take the Serviles onboard and leave Illinois. Their lack of repentance, and habit of acting out as individuals, is thought to make for an amusing demonstration back in London.
“As Easy as A.B.C.” is a horror story of compliance and commercialized tyranny. Most of the world under this company’s thumb is perfectly willing to be governed from above, but the world population is in steady decline, and De Forest laments the lack of individuals ready to challenge his place on the Board. The Mayor was also ready to bring dissidents into the government, because there were so few individuals with any interest in running things.
Institutional decay is described in another incident, before the crew reach Chicago. They land in rural Illinois first, and a suspicious farm girl manages to hold them paralyzed with a circuit of their company’s design:
The girl laughed, and laid aside her knitting. An old-fashioned Controller stood at her elbow, which she reversed from time to time, and we could hear the snort and clank of the obedient cultivator half a mile away, behind the guardian woods.
“Come in and sit down,” she said. “I’m only playing a plough. Dad’s gone to Chicago to – Ah! Then it was your call I heard just now!”
She had caught sight of Arnott’s Board uniform, leaped to the switch, and turned it full on.
We were checked, gasping, waist-deep in current this time, three yards from the verandah.
“We only want to know what’s the matter with Illinois,” said De Forest placidly.
“Then hadn’t you better go to Chicago and find out?” she answered. “There’s nothing wrong here. We own ourselves.”
“How can we go anywhere if you won’t loose us?” De Forest went on, while Arnott scowled. Admirals of Fleets are still quite human when their dignity is touched.
I read this as a sign of hope that the corporate reach will never be absolute.
This novelette has been interpreted in several ways, often critically, by scholars anxious to fit it within their perception of the author. It has been described as (no surprise) imperialistic, obsessed with privacy, and hopeless in tone. However, the A.B.C. is never keen on taking over Chicago; it wants to restore civil order an take its leave. The real warning is in the lack of capable hands that could both administer the population and respect individual freedoms. In our time so many of us freely give our personal data to a corporate entity (in exchange for access to so much free stuff), even while fretting about the impact businesses have on the political process. The true reach of the Tech Titans, and the accuracy of Kipling’s dystopic vision, has yet to be revealed.