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 TALE WILDER
THAN POET EVER DREAMED!
YEA, STRANGER THAN
THE VISION OF
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: