The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger and Wild Harbour by Ian MacPherson

Review by L.J. Hurst. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

The British Library Classics series began with detective fiction and has extended to Science Fiction. As with the detective stories it has two strands: firstly, collections of golden age short stories (Mike Ashley edits the sf series), and secondly, re-discovered novels. The sf novel series is developing at a slower rate than its crime equivalent, this time we have two novelists and two novels from different decades.

Muriel Jaeger’s The Question Mark was published in 1926. It is the better known of these two classics, as Jaeger is discussed in depth in Brian Stableford’s Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950 (over thirty years old but still the best reference work on this subject). Apart from the attractive cover it comes with a facsimile of the acceptance letter from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and an “Introduction” by Dr Mo Moulton, as well as Muriel Jaeger’s “Author’s Introduction”, in which she says her purpose is to “accept the Bellamy-Morris-Wells world in all essentials – with one exception; I do not and cannot accept its inhabitants”. (Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward has been in the air this year as it is discussed in Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry Of Truth, as one of the utopias to which Nineteen Eighty-Four is a response). The Question Mark is known as a precursor to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as it features an outsider discovering the flaws in a world in which there is no physical want, but in which individual psychological need cannot be satisfied, and in which some atavistic tendencies remain (murderous crimes of passion lead to the palace of euthanasia). More striking is Jaeger’s recognition of different classes based on different abilities, though instead of Huxley’s five (alpha to epsilon) she has only two, “Normals” and “Intellectuals”.

The Question Mark Paperback British Library Science Fiction

The story is simple: Guy Martin, a bank clerk from the early twentieth century awakens to discover that he is in the future, fortunately in the house of a great scientist (one of the Intellectuals) which is shared by members of his extended family. Class is not inherited in this world and neither is intellectual ability. Guy is taken out by some of the normal members of the family to explore the new world, where nearly everyone has a power-box which can heat their home or drive their aerocycle. Guy, whose poverty in his old life made relations with women difficult, should be happy that one of his guides is Ena, who likes him tremendously. There is, though, unlike Brave New World, little sexual activity and it becomes clear that Ena is unhappy because there is too much love making and not enough of being “pals” (slang like this is important to the normals). As Guy has difficulty adjusting to his revival, he keeps his distance and Ena thinks this is him being a pal, though not as much of one as she would wish. Brave New World takes this to a tragic end, but The Question Mark ends with a realistic review of Guy’s old life. Who knows what he could make of the new?

Wild Harbour is a very different work: a tale of a future war and a survivor’s narrative. It is also a detailed account of how to hunt, butcher and hang wild deer. Published in 1936, it is written as a broken diary of the months between May and October 1944, as a couple living in the Highlands, who refuse to be part of an unidentified war that has broken out unexpectedly, take to a cave in the Grampians. 

Wild Harbour British Library Paperback Science Fiction

Wild Harbour comes with even more editorial apparatus than The Question Mark including an “Introduction” by Timothy C Baker, original frontispiece, a large map of the area, and finally a magazine article from September 1940 by Macpherson on how he was running his farm after a year of real war (he makes no mention of his novel). The map is useful in following the activities of the couple, along with the railway line running north to south carrying increasing amounts of traffic to who-knows-where. Hugh and his wife Terry stay within a very small area – its smallness indicated by labels on the map such as “berries” and “Hugh stole turnips”. Contrarily, there are other labels, “battle fought here” and “men fought here”, which reveal that within mere months civilisation has broken down so much that small groups are hunting and killing rivals, with never an appearance of a foreign army let alone aircraft.

Given the limited dramatis personae of Wild Harbour, though, there is another reading possible, and that is satire on ‘crisis scuttlers’ (George Orwell’s phrase). The couple’s cave is unready, their tinned and dried foods run out quickly, and generally their new life is nasty and brutish. Macpherson died in 1944 and this is often described as his last novel, but he was not always dour and downbeat, for example co-writing Letters from a Highland Township in 1939 with his wife Elizabeth, a comedy about local government set in the same area as Wild Harbour

There is more to The Question Mark, too. Mo Moulton’s introduction looks forward from Jaeger and Huxley to Margaret Atwood, picking up Jaeger’s own references to utopias. Guy Martin cannot time travel back to 1926, however, because of the understated but explicit Frankenstein means of his arrival. What if he is only the first?

Copyright Ian MacPherson. All rights reserved.

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