On Thursday, November 19th, the Classics of Science Fiction Book Club met and discussed Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage: A Story of the Past or the Future. Hamilton’s 1922 classic could be thought of as an alternative historical narrative about the conditions of London post World War I, if WWI were as physically horrifying and destructive long term as it was in the short term. In Theodore Savage, the entire landscape of England (which for the protagonist and most everyone with whom we interact in this book, is the entire world) is devastated at the hands of technological warfare. Systematic aerial bombing, biological weapons, gassing, and other “science-derived” technological horrors are unleashed on the general public. The result is mass displacement, the total devastation of every city, and with them the entire infrastructure of civilization.
Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton
The story follows Theodore Savage, born with a silver spoon into the upper class of British society, working as a clerk mostly for something to do, as he distractedly hears through those around him (including his fiance, her father, and his coworkers) about the possibility of an impending war. When war finally breaks out, and the fervor of patriotism consumes his country, Theodore is mostly aloof, at least until he begins to feel the effects of war directly. Shortly after the war begins, so too does the bombing, and in the resulting fallout, large groups of people (including Theodore) are forced to roam and ravage what is left of their country in search of some sense of safety or familiarity, be it in the form of food, shelter, or companionship. Eventually, Theodore manages to find all three, when a distressed women named Ada, following the lead of others leaving an area in haste, attaches herself to him. The two eventually find an abandoned cottage which they make their home, at which point they begin to reconstruct a distorted version of the lives they once knew.
Our discussion group was a bit smaller than usual, but had the typical number of attendees (a few) for the early 20th century science fiction we’ve read over the last three years. Admittedly, the language in the texts from that era is often clunky when compared to late 20th century writing. The themes explored and specific events that explicate said themes can range from stale, to heavy-handed, to outright offensive (specifically to our post-modern sentimentality), and in the case of Theodore Savage, all of us in attendance agreed the book presents these challenges. Additionally, the subject matter is dark and heavy, which makes sense, but isn’t everyone’s favorite to read. On top of all of these obstacles, Cicely Hamilton is a woman, which unfortunately tends to bring less people out to our meetings (unless we’re reading Le Guin).
Five out of six of our attendees enjoyed the book and found it entertaining, provocative, and otherwise interesting. One found it tedious and was understandably frustrated by the repetitive nature of the language and narrative (for example, people are referred to as animals or animal-like over two dozen times, which is a lot for a 170pg book)–double kudos for reading it all the way through and coming to the discussion. This garnered some very interesting conversation as we explored the different ways in which Hamilton handled (or perhaps mis-handled) the delicate themes of post-war London and early 20th century British society.
Though I say this often, I think it’s worth stating that Theodore Savage is from what is my favorite era of English SF. I enjoy novels written during the literary transition from late Victorian to Modernism. I also find the between wars era to be particularly interesting. Writing during that era tangibly explicates the complexity of transition and often feels disjointed in a way that makes finding solid ground elusive. The result, for me, is a challenging yet rewarding reading experience as I, alongside the characters, try to navigate the world in which they are living. Despite its wealth of obstacles, I think Theodore Savage is well worth the effort and a compelling exploration of an equally compelling era.
Join us on Tuesday, December 15th for a discussion of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Worlds of Exile and Illusion, a collection of the first three novels of the Hainish series.