An early-20th-century time-travel dystopia whose vision of 2118 resonates eerily with our own century.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Gertrude Barrows Bennett wrote pulp genre fiction under the pseudonym Francis Stevens. This novel, first published in serial form in 1919, has been reprinted from time to time as readers and scholars revisit past visions of the future, fantasy and science fiction by women, and forgotten influences on more famous genre writers. In 1918, a lawyer down on his luck, his wealthy and burly Irish buddy, and the buddy’s fetching younger sister spill a vial of strange gray dust that catapults them forward through time, first to a mystic realm between worlds and then through a moonlike door into a possible future. In Stevens’ 2118, isolationism has been taken to a totalitarian extreme. The city-state of Philadelphia no longer has any communication with the rest of the world, and its citizens have numbers instead of names, all except for the Servants of Penn (government officials) and the Superlatives (rulers), who go by their titles—things like Virtue, Mercy, Strongest, and Loveliest. These officials attain their positions through nepotism and graft, and their characters are generally the exact opposite of their titles: Pity is pitiless, Virtue is corrupt, and so forth. That part will feel familiar to readers from the strange, alternate-reality version of 2019 that we appear to be inhabiting—although, as with most visions of the future, the story probably says more about the moment when it was written than the period in which it’s set. The novel has the workmanlike prose, forward-sweeping plot, and stereotyped characters of well-crafted popular fiction of the period.
As dated as it is prescient, this novel will appeal both to historians and to readers who enjoy a fast-paced, imaginative yarn.