James De Mille (1833-1880) was a professor at Dalhousie University and the author of A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. The novel is a pre-Orwellian dystopia partly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s Ms. Found in a Bottle.
The immediate context of the story is that a group of wealthy European gentlemen sailing in a yacht towards the Mediterranean stumble across a fantastical account of a man named Adam More’s travels among a strange people called the kosekins. Each member on board the yacht has a definite place in society, a doctor, a lord, a businessman, etc and they comment on the account from time to time.
What Adam describes is a civilization that worships death instead of life and the horror and hardships of being a stranger there. Yet, for all its dystopian qualities he ultimately becomes the king of this nation, proving that he is a better kosekin than the kosekins themselves.
The anti-climax of the novel comes when the gentlemen simply get tired of reading the account:
“Here Featherstone stopped, yawned, and laid down the manuscript. /”That’s enough for to-day,” said he; “I’m tired, and can’t read any more. It’s time for supper.” ”
I make some note that this was written before George Orwell’s 1984 to show how it connects with a tradition that is decidedly other than Thomas More’s (1478-1535) Utopia, Francis Bacon’s (1561-1626) New Atlantis, or Tommaso Campanella’s (1568-1639) City of the Sun. Utopias are about the future, but dystopias belong to the present. This is why 1984 is called 1984, because Orwell finished writing it in 1948. De Mille, like Orwell, wrote about the present, but unlike Orwell, did not feel like he had to place his commentary in some future state. There is something definitely important about the shift from some strange land to some strange future as the setting for these kinds of social commentaries that I can’t quite put my finger on just yet, but I suspect it says a great deal about the changing political landscape that these two authors found themselves in. It gives me cause to question if in our modern world the imperial fascination with, and demand to subdue foreign lands, has not simply become sublimated into the strangest land of all, our common future.
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