Friday, July 12, 2013

Late 1800s Political Science Fiction

Cross-posted to the Late Enlightenment.

Here's an interesting old science fiction book: Better Days: Or, a Millionaire of To-morrow, by Thomas and Anna Fitch. This should rank with Bellamy's Looking Backward. Set in the authors' near future of the 1890s, in it a wealthy industrialist develops bombs powerful enough to level cities, that can be launched accurately from zeppelins or boats. To be clear, this is a utopian work - although it involves an early prediction of the nuclear age, the authors assume it would necessitate a global detente. The authors correctly understood some of the political ramifications: that these weapons would have to be regarded in a special category and their manufacture restricted by international agreement so that they did not proliferate; and so he also predicts a version of the League of Nations. What he failed to predict was how this would be accomplished; by a cartel of countries who openly have such weapons, and a secondary cartel of those who everyone knows has them but don't openly declare them. The book features various heads of state realizing and announcing that they must cease prosecuting wars and allow all their territories to return to home rule to avoid their own capitals being destroyed by other states or even small groups of revolutionaries who make the explosive agent ("potentite"). If it's that easy, it would seem his international non-proliferation police wouldn't be able to do their jobs. U-235 is harder to make than potentite and we still seem to be nervous about Iran. We should be glad it was nuclear weapons and not potentite! (Or microwaved sand as Nick Bostrom speculated.)

Above: Coronado is the north-pointing peninsula at top, and the islands are to the south.

Of local San Diego interest: the initial tests for the various heads of state are carried out from Coronado, long before it was selected as a naval airfield. Unfortunately the Coronado Islands are destroyed in the demonstration. (Although last time I looked out the window of Hillcrest Hospital I could see them just fine; so for this and other reasons, this is alternate history now I guess.) The authors were possibly more interesting than the book; the husband seems himself like a character made up for historical fiction. Thomas Fitch was an attorney and politician who served in the legislatures of no less than four of the states and territories of the time (California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona), which explains why his knowledge of the Western U.S. of the time was more than the caricature we often see from contemporary writers on the East Coast. In his legal career he also represented Brigham Young and Wyatt Earp. He proofread Mark Twain's manuscripts and hung out with Leland Stanford. Finally and most significantly, as an orator, he was credited with keeping California in the Union. Even if you can't forgive his book's inconsistencies and failed predictions, I think he did okay.

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