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FictionSatellite TechnologySpaceClimbingScientific ResearchWalter Benjamin

"WHAT is it?"

So begins, with delicious confusion, the first chapter of "The Great Romance" (Bison Books/University of Nebraska: 170 pp., $17.95), as the narrator emerges from a centuries-long slumber into a weird, telepathically perfected world. The same question could apply to this slim, oddly proportioned book, a hybrid of utopian and space exploration narratives that reaches out to grasp the reader's hand, unexpectedly and vigorously, from the equally remote milieu of late 19th century New Zealand.

A pseudonymous production attributed to "The Inhabitant," the work is dedicated to Keats (an excuse to shoehorn two lugubrious poems of unknown provenance), and, for good measure, kicks off with an all-caps declaration of insane gusto:

I

WILL

TELL YOU

A TALE WILDER

THAN POET EVER DREAMED!

YEA, STRANGER THAN

THE VISION OF

THE MADDEST

PROPHET!

So: What is it?

The setup appears simple enough: In 1950 -- seven decades from the tale's actual composition -- the engineering wizard John Hope volunteers to take a "sleeping draught"-cum-elixir of life prepared by his friend, John Malcolm Weir. (Hope also has a middle name; alas, the author gives us three different versions.) When he awakes, a sleek denizen of the future explains to him that the calendar stands at 2143, a time when people "can read well each other's thoughts, conversing for hours, without a word." (Today we can detect a secret precedent to Orwellian thoughtcrime in the fact that Hope is advised to "Think nothing you would be ashamed to put into words and acts . . . for, though your friends may be now on the other side of the world, they may afterwards catch the imprint of your thoughts.")

Later, this first host greets him with the words/thought: "Ah, I see what you are thinking of!" Some of the book's otherworldly texture stems from the frequent rendering of communication as a silent transaction -- like turning the volume down on an action movie.

Hope quickly falls in love with one of these exceptional specimens, Edith Weir (a however-many-generation descendant of his great friend), and he gets involved with an all-male interplanetary voyaging party that includes the telekinetically inclined Moxton, who is also related to a friend from 1950. Intent on "bringing another planet under the sway of human intellect" -- colonization, in softer phrasing -- the men steer their craft past the moon and toward Venus.

The spaceship, the Star Climber, is immediately and unforgettably evoked: "Fancy a humming bird five hundred feet long of burnished silver steel." Its complicated maneuverings provide the main source of tension in a story otherwise free of overt conflict. The description of Venus and its (fictional) satellite, and of the abundant extraterrestrial flora and fauna, is one of the chief delights of "The Great Romance." From the surface of Venus' moon, they can observe the huge mother planet "hanging above us, as though it might suddenly fall and crush us into oblivion . . . covering a third of the sky." In the waters of the planet proper, there are Darwin-friendly "fish with fins like hands . . . on which we did not doubt they could walk when in a shallower water." Later the party comes across a "land of frogs and toads" and a region in which "the reign of the fungus" dominates. Certain interactions between voyagers and the new vegetation have a barely suppressed sexual component:

"One large flower-like thing, like a thick-lipped convolvulus, had attracted us, and Moxton thrust his stick into it. Its anthers closed immediately on it, then its thick leaves folded down with a wonderful grip."

The native humanoids ("Venuses") encountered are both disorienting and appealing ("fine bodies covered with a down -- neither of bird nor animal -- soft and dark"), and the note of imprecision is both mysterious and a little daffy:

"Strange beings! how shall I describe them? with no likeness to humanity except that they stood on two legs; with arms yet not arms; faces human, yet how unlike!"

The first contact between Hope and what he calls the "Venuses" is touchy-feely, not to mention totally eroticized: "[T]he huge limb descended; it touched my hands with a soft motion; then I stroked that extended arm. . . . " He is full of inchoate affection for them, so much that it makes him giddy, "danc[ing] around them like an unmitigated lunatic."

It is hard to disagree with editor Dominic Alessio's suggestion that Hope's meeting with the Venuses is a science-fiction translation of the "more enigmatic and unique attitudes expressed by Pakeha (European) settlers toward the Maori people of New Zealand," an attitude relatively more respectful than Britain's other colonial adventures of the time.

Hope (his name occasionally conflated with the "infinite yearning" the book describes) is an affable narrator, albeit one prone to hyperbole and distraction. From the very first page, he is mired in confusion. His relaying of the basic setup gets interrupted right off the bat by his memory of a satirical cartoon that appeared in Punch; shortly thereafter, what should be a straightforward description of his futuristic host's wardrobe gets sidetracked: "His garments were the garments of a man; but -- what -- I must confess my thoughts did wander wild."

That "what" throws us off the scent, and indeed much of the book's charm comes from such stumbling. The Inhabitant's voice is sometimes expansive and affable, other times cryptic, never settling into a consistent style. Most readers will find it flawed, but restlessness itself becomes a kind of method, one that works well enough in the short run. Most of "The Great Romance" is told from Hope's point of view, but in Volume 2, a third-person narration sets in, an abrupt shift that would irk us in a more polished work.

Perverse by design or accident, the Inhabitant conveys an improbably gripping scene of mortal danger (in Volume 2) in a series of rhetorical questions, including this humdinger:

"Vast was the speed of the Star Climber, but might not some erratic fragment have a speed still vastly greater -- hurled from the bosom of a monstrous volcano, whose pent-up pressure had consolidated diamonds, like mountains, and whose terrific discharge should leave the shattered ruby masses like an avalanche of loosened rock, and hurl outward fragments, large as little worlds, flying with all the speed of the parent orb, and all the mighty volcanic impetus superadded?"

In his introduction, Alessio tantalizingly suggests that "The Great Romance," serialized in two short volumes in 1881, might have influenced Edward Bellamy's seminal 1888 novel "Looking Backward" (as well as his 1889 story "To Whom This May Come").

The numerous resonances in Bellamy's book (for instance, "Both narrators fall in love with women named Edith") could be homage or cryptomnesia, but any connection is strained by the fact that the American Bellamy never visited New Zealand and likely could not have come across "The Great Romance" directly.

What is it, finally? A subterranean influence on the SF genre or just a tree that fell in a depopulated forest? So obscure is "The Great Romance" that only Volume 1 was known to exist until the 1990s, when Volume 2 was found in a library. When we reach the end of this second installment, it is clear that the story isn't over.

Whether Volume 3 was ever completed -- or even begun -- "The Great Romance" exerts an otherworldly attraction on the reader today, who is like Hope in thrall to the Venuses. The unfinished masterpiece is as strong a myth as literature holds; we read incomplete or abandoned texts -- Musil's "The Man Without Qualities," Cao Xueqin's "The Story of the Stone," the note-ruins of Walter Benjamin's "The Arcades Project" -- not only for what's there, but for what's not. Incompletion becomes a species of perfection.

"Would Weir never cease to fall?" the Inhabitant asks, and leaves us hanging. It is like we have woken from a dream -- a dream of a book already painted with the vagueness and inconsistencies and cold logic of dreams. ("Is it a reality, or but a dream . . . ?" wonders Hope aboard the Star Climber, miles and centuries from home. "I wandered into the land of dreams," he says of his tour of Venus.) But maybe the text is the dreamer, slumbering for over a century on an Antipodean shelf, and we are the people from Porlock.

Ed Park's Astral Weeks column appears monthly at latimes.com/books. He is an editor of the Believer and the author of the novel "Personal Days." He blogs at The Dizzies.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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