Review: City of Endless Night, Milo Hastings, 1920.
Yes, I was walking in Utopia, a nightmare at the end of man’s long dream – Utopia – Black Utopia – City of Endless Night – diabolically compounded of the three elements of civilization in which the Germans had always been supreme – imperialism, science and socialism.
It’s the year 2151. The German state, after sweeping through Eurasia and the Middle East in the Second World War which began in 1988, has been pushed back to the Armoured City of Berlin. The Ray, a weapon that calcifies bones, keeps the armies of the World State at bay. Aerial bombing cannot harm the vast underground fortress, the Black Utopia, which holds 300 million Germans.
But one man, Lyman de Forrest, a student of German culture and language from Chicago, penetrates its upper depths, impersonates one of its chemists, and learns its secrets. But should he destroy it with his knowledge? Or attempt to bring it into the larger family of the World State?
Hastings’ novel is an astonishing novel on several levels.
It stands, with the possible exception of Jack London’s The Iron Heel (a novel I have not read) as the first of the great 20th century dystopias. It anticipates elements of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984, and it stands the equal, in terms of the plausibility of its speculations, with the latter two. Its underground city of regimented workers also brings to mind Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from 1927.
First serialized as “Children of Kultur” in True Story Magazine from May through November 1919, it was also prophetic in spotting major themes of the German state under the Nazis.
So why was it forgotten?
It wasn’t, exactly. In February 1941, Murray Teigh Bloom in Saturday Review of Literature mentioned Hastings as a “prophet for modern Germany” though his description isn’t completely accurate of the 1920 novel I read.
Hyperion Press issued the novel again in 1974 with an introduction by science fiction critic and historian Sam Moskowitz. (Unfortunately, Dover Books didn’t spring for an afterword or introduction by any sf scholar.) He placed it in the ranks of Zamyatin’s novel as well as Victor Rousseau’s 1917 Messiah of the Cylinder, and H. G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes. I don’t know about Rousseau’s novel, but Hastings work is far superior to Wells’ novel both in readability for modern audiences as well as prescience.
Hasting adopts the device of many utopian works, the traveler to a strange society who notes his observations and conversations with the locals, and uses it for a dystopian narrative. Lyman de Forrest, who adopts the guise of a low rank German chemist, Karl Armstadt, after the latter is killed when de Forrest has Berlin’s potash mines bombed with gas (this too convenient match between the two men’s appearance and chemical training is the book’s weakest point), is even more removed from the sensibilities of the Armoured City of Berlin than Huxley’s Savage is from the world After Ford.
Orwell and Zamyatin have their rebels born into the dystopian societies depicted. Armstadt also finds rebels waiting for him in Berlin.
There is, perhaps, no influence of Hastings on Orwell and Huxley – and it’s even less likely a 1920 American novel would have been in a form for Zamyatin to read, but there are similarities.
The German state registers citizens with names and numbers which brings to mind the abstract names of Zamyatin’s work. 1984 has its Two Minutes of Hate sessions. The young chemistry students Armstadt visits are allowed to practice the two vital emotions of hate and rage. Carefully staged entertainments, often of war, are staged for Berliners. There is some surveillance of the laborer class, the proletarian base of what the Holy House of Hohenzollern, headed by Kaiser Eitel I of divine blood, calls “autocratic socialism”.
And the novel looks backward to the Great War, not even formally concluded yet by the Treaty of Versailles when this novel first appeared. There is mention of Prussianism; German synthetic food; aerial bombardments; the Ray , which is one of those death rays that were casually accepted as a real technological reality in the early 20th century; mass propaganda; the social change wrought by men absent in war and women taking their place in industrial production. There even seems to be a fear that, should the German soldier again be leashed upon the world again, his barbarism will surely incite utter annihilation by the World State. That seems a reference at the German atrocities in the Great War, their extent and character was exaggerated by the Allied propaganda but some still did occur.
Hastings future history already has the nascent World State, the League of Nations, killed by “American obstructionists” said to be of the same party as a dead American hero who must be the unnamed Woodrow Wilson.
Hastings keeps his plot moving with surprising twists. Armstadt’s moral inclinations and plans create complications as he meets “one righteous man”, Zimmern, Berlin’s Chief Eugenicist. (Hastings’ maternal grandfather was a noted abolitionist preacher, and Hastings is found of biblical allusions.) Like the Old Testament God contemplating Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, Armstadt has to decide whether he wants to destroy Berlin or reform it by opening it to the outer world.
But none of that accounts for the remarkableness of the novel. That lays in the strange society Hastings envisions, envisions and makes plausible, a society that prefigures the Third Reich.
The Armoured City of Berlin is a society based on eugenics, a strange mixture of proletarian atheism and aristocratic religion. Hastings makes his eugenic speculations plausible in the details of administration and results and political consequences. He also lays out not only a map for how Berlin works but how it arose from the 1920 world.
Hastings was a man of wide ranging interests, most of which he wrote about: urban planning, nutrition, physical fitness, and chickens.
Yes, chickens. Oddly enough, he was an early inventor of techniques, particularly egg incubation, to raise poultry on an industrial level. Yet, he also wrote The Dollar Hen in 1911, a book still read by those interested in raising free range chickens.
This attention to agriculture and the artificial selection of breeding, i.e. eugenics, leads Hastings to plausible specificity on how Berlin’s genetic state works to create lines of soldiers, laborers, intellectuals, doctors, actor-models, and the Royal Family. Armstadt learns what happens with those Berliners who do not meet the personality, mental, and physical standards for their intended class. In this Black Utopia, “civilization has gone to seed” with over specialization. German eugenics have created a state that works as intended, but it is not, fears Zimmern, a state that can survive. It is not as adaptable, Zimmern says, as the “mongrel races” of the World State. Nor, as Armstadt knows from his previous life as de Forrest, is it even as scientifically advanced.
Armstadt is particularly horrified to see the distortions in family life, sex, and male-female relations. Except to those of the Royal Family, conventional family life and marriage are forbidden. Male laborers are not even allowed near women, interest in sex drummed out of them by the same genetic principles that make domestic animals more docile than their wild ancestors. Only exceptional laborers are allowed to breed.
Men of the intellectual class are assigned paternity duty with a small roster of acceptable women – women they will not see again and to produce children they will not be involved with. The sexual urges and money of the men of the intellectual class is spent on the Free Level of Berlin.
This is one of the most vivid parts of the novel, and the women Armstadt meets there will propel major parts of the plot. One in particular, Marguerite, is the heart of the rebel movement. But most are women with no other support living in state sponsored prostitution, locked in competitive struggle with each other for the payment of men.
One even preys upon Armstadt’s oh-so-male desire to rescue an unfortunate woman. When her schemes and lies are unveiled, she asks him why he loved when he thought her innocent but despises her when he finds she is clever.
Armstadt’s relationship with Marguerite is complicated by a morality which is conventional for 1920s. He is the repulsed by the insinuation that he should enter into a sexual ménage a trois with her and Zimmern. He’s somewhat thick in not seeing, as the reader will quickly surmise, Zimmern and Marguerite’s true relationship.
Hastings also presents, in a closed circuit of obedience, a realistic of depiction where a state where power flows from the laborers up to the Kaiser (labor strikes are quite different in this world) and then back down. The Kaiser is Emperor, servant, and tyrant. Armstadt is surprised by this, but Hellern, a dissident who manages the state’s propaganda and publishing, tells him this is simply Napoleon’s principle of being able to demand anything “if you tell men they are equal you can do as you please with them”. Something of a similar principle also existed in Stalin’s reign.
The Armoured City of Berlin practices no genocide. Jews have been driven out by the overwhelming reliance on sophisticated piggeries. (In fact, the whole idea of the underground and Armoured City of Berlin came to Kaiser Wilhelm III when his armored swineries survived a bombing. But there are elements in the novel that bring the Nazis of Hasting’s future to mind.
The five stages of human evolution culminate in the “Blond Brute” of Berlin. In something that sounds like Christian Identity, Jesus is declared to be of “Teutonic Blond” and not of a “servile Jewish” strain. Anything good in human civilization was produced by Germans or those with German blood in other countries.
But, at its bottom, the most startling thing about Hastings’ novel is that it reminds us of a political truth that was not startling in Hastings time but made repellent and unthinkable post-Nazi Germany.
Human societies are not, ultimately, based on culture. They are based on blood, or, more precisely the personalities, physiques, and IQ of those in the culture. Those factors, in turn, are determined by natural selection over a long period of time and a variety of environments selecting for different things. Those factors can be modified by artificial selection. The corollary is displayed in the novel: culture plays its part in determining what human traits will be passed on because they are valued.
The Armoured City of Berlin has built themselves the desired culture with the tools of genetics. But Armstadt sees where the ultimate application of science and management has taken this society. The brute laborers may not, as Zimmern fears, be able to survive in any other kind of society. The women Armstadt meets come across often as victims to this logical order. Even if not sympathetic because of their ugliness or coldness or personalities that repel Armstadt, he knows they are inevitable products of a state of citizens bred for the main trait of the Germans, obedience.
Additional Thoughts with Spoilers
Both Brave New World and this novel feature dystopias (though, of course, that begs the question whether Huxley’s novel is a dystopia – after all most are happy and it’s a stable order) based around some aspect of industrialization. Huxley’s world reveres the mass production techniques of Henry Ford so much they use his life as a starting point for their chronology.
Hastings’ novel alludes to efficiency expert Frederick Taylor though in a reverse way. When Armstadt comes up with a more efficient way to process protium ore, the basis for Berlin’s power, laborers are displaced because of lower work requirements. They go on strike because their hours are cut. Armstadt is told the laborers hate changes to routine and fear, if they don’t work so much, they will gain weight and be, as the culture of the laborers has it, slackers. So Armstadt adds extra and unnecessary processing steps to maintain worker hours and caloric expenditure.
Like Gertrude Atherton’s The White Morning, this novel imagines a revolt against the faults, imagined or otherwise, of Germany or, to American eyes at the time of World War One, Prussian society. (Atherton, unlike Hastings, actually lived in Germany for a time.) Atherton’s novel imagines a women’s revolt to end World War One. Of the four named Berlin dissidents in the book, only one is a woman, Marguerite.
In depicting Marguerite, Hastings uses a familiar technique – familiar to us at least after almost a hundred years of other dystopian works: the relic from our world that puzzles or inspires the rebels. Here Marguerite has been given by Hellern, who, in his position, has access to contraband books, a copy of our Bible. In another of Hastings’ biblical allusions, at novel’s end, when Armstadt has returned to the World State and again assumed his de Forrest identity and Berlin has surrendered, Marguerite says “Babylon has fallen.”
This novel first appeared in the pages of True Story Magazine published by Bernarr Macfadden. Coincidentally, Macfadden was the subject of an article, “Fake Forteana”, in the May 2017 issue of Fortean Times.
Macfadden was a physical fitness enthusiast who started Physical Culture in 1899. He had the usual attendant food fetishes and also advocated pulling hair out as a cure for male pattern baldness. (Given photos of him, it seems to have worked – at least for him.) Macfadden was also an advocate of the health benefits of sex and talked about sex frankly for the time. For this he was dubbed “Body Love Macfadden”.
After readers kept sending him letters about how he had transformed their lives, he turned the letters, with a lot of rewriting, into stories for other publications he created: True Detective, True Romances, True Confessions amongst others, and a profitable publishing genre was born.
He also dabbled in magazines publishing fantastic literature like Dream World and Ghost Stories and various action pulps. In fact, Sam Moskowitz claimed Macfadden ushered in the golden age of science fiction by forcing Hugo Gernsback’s into bankruptcy and then taking over Amazing Stories over. Others dispute this.
Macfadden and Hastings shared an interest in nutrition and health, so it’s not surprising that one of Hastings’ other forays into science fiction, Clutch of the War-God, appeared in Macfadden’s Physical Culture. I suspect the relatively frank sexual discussion, for the time, of the Free Level and eugenics in this novel also made it compatible for a Macfadden publication. It’s believed that Hastings may have written other things for Macfadden, presumably under a pseudonym. (“Fake Forteana” traces certain Fortean type stories to wholesale inventions by various writers publishing pseudonymously in True Story.)
Macfadden and Hastings seemed to have been rather skeptical of many aspects of modern industrial civilization and that ambivalence shows through here when looking at the epitome of such, in Hastings’ eyes, in the Armoured City of Berlin.