Apocalypse 1896: Gabriel Tarde and the Fortunate Catastrophe

Gabriel Tarde’s The Underground Man (1896)

Cave1In the decades before the First World War, End of the World visions were influenced by major scientific discoveries of the 19th century. People became aware that the sun, the earth, and the human species itself were moving on a historical trajectory, one that would come to an end naturally, without any need for some divine entity to drop the curtain. The astronomer Camille Flammarion explored different natural scenarios for the End of the World in his 1893 novel La fin du monde, while H.G. Wells’ pathbreaking The Time Machine (1895) described the evolutionary deterioration of humanity and the gradual extinction of all life on earth under a dying sun.

But French sociologist Gabriel Tarde would have none of this cosmic fatalism. In his brief, bizarre 1896 novel, Fragment d’histoire future (published in 1905 in English under the title The Underground Man, with an introduction by none other than H.G. Wells), the extinction of the sun is the best thing that ever happens to us. Living deep underground, cut off entirely from nature, surviving humans have a perfect society where they go about nearly naked in the geothermal warmth, eat synthetic food, and devote all their efforts to happiness and aesthetic achievement.

The Underground Man, written like many other novels of the era as the report of a future historian, is an early example of the fortunate catastrophe. By wiping out almost all of humanity, the disaster clears the way for a fresh start. As the narrator states in the first sentence of the book:

It was towards the end of the twentieth century of the prehistoric era, formerly called the Christian, that took place, as is well known, the unexpected catastrophe with which the present epoch began, that fortunate disaster which compelled the overflowing flood of civilisation to disappear for the benefit of mankind.

The unexpected catastrophe is the extinction of the sun, which suddenly begins to flicker like a failing light bulb. The timing is unfortunate, because human society has reached a zenith. Here Tarde describes one of those 19th century visions of the future that are so odd to read from our 21st century vantage point.

A “great Asiatic-American-European confederacy” has brought about “the delights of universal and henceforth inviolable peace.” This peace follows more than a century of war, during which eugenic selection committees exempted the better sort of young men from military service, while the less worthy were sent forth as cannon fodder.

After a series of wars with some awkward technology — iron-clad balloons and assault locomotives “flung, at full speed, against one another” — eugenic selection has done its work and humans are now “incomparably” beautiful. After subduing the black “barbarous tribes incapable of assimilation” in Africa and Australia (as you might expect, this book is blatantly racist), the world is at peace. Nature has been conquered, and the supply of energy is limitless: “The waterfalls, the winds and the tides had become the slaves of man.” And everyone speaks Greek and reads Homer and Sophocles.

But then the lights begin to go out, and nature is ready to undo all human achievement. During one disastrous winter, “all Norway, Russia, Siberia – froze to death in single night.” Things are looking grim, when a new leader, Miltiades rallies the survivors. He urges them to fight their fate, and move civilization underground:

Nothing is simpler. For ordinary drinking purposes we first of all shall have melted ice… As for food, is not chemistry also capable of manufacturing butter, albumen, and milk from no matter what?… Is it not highly probable that before long, if it takes up the matter, it will succeed in satisfying, both on the score of quantity and expense, the desires of the most refined gastronomy?

Our destiny as humans is to survive. It’s “impossible and idiotic” to think that “nine-tenths, the ninety-nine hundredths, perhaps, of the solar systems, would idly revolve like senseless and gigantic mill-wheels, a useless encumbrance of space.” Miltiades cannot accept that life is so insignificant:

Can we suppose that life, thought, and love, are the exclusive privilege of an infinite minority of solar systems still possessed of light and heat, and deny to the immense majority of gloomy stars every manifestation of life and animation, the very highest reason for their existence?

The rest of the book describes life in the underground utopia. To a modern reader, it sounds like the kind of hell-hole that could only be cooked up by a fin de siècle French sociologist. It’s hard to believe that Tarde’s description of this ideal society is not an ironic one, but, as far as I can tell, it isn’t.

Tarde’s narrator argues that the catastrophe has done humans a favor, by forcing them to become utterly independent of nature. With this independence, it is possible to realize “the most intense social life that has ever been seen.” “Aesthetic activity” has triumphed over “utilitarian activity.”

Wieliczka,_Solné_doly,_vrstvy_soli There is no need for clothing or an army of “clothiers, milliners, tailors, and drapery establishments,” so women go about in metallic coats that make their “refined and delicate charms… appear as though moulded in metal, rather than completely screened from view.” Underground cities distinguish themselves by their “artistic marvels,” “philosophic conceptions,” and “poetic dreams.” Everyone is “born a sculptor or musician, philosopher or poet, and speaks the most correct language with the purest accent.”

But this realization of individual potential in fact requires a high degree of conformity to social rules. Among the most serious crimes is “a practice which apparently was very common and indulged in ad libitum by our forefathers” — sex. The size of the subterranean population has to be clearly kept within limits. The underground people are shocked to contemplate that “it could ever have been permissible to the first comer without due authorisation to expose society to the arrival of a new hungry and wailing member.”

Despite their supposedly amazing chemical know-how, nobody managed to invent birth control. Therefore, sex is severely limited. First offenders are warned, while second offenders are tossed into a “lake of petroleum.” Only a lucky few, those who have produced some aesthetic masterpiece, are licensed to have children. For the rest, if they can’t stand purely platonic relationships, there is another option – throw themselves onto the frozen slopes of an extinct volcano while doing the deed:

They have scarcely time to regard the azure sky—a magnificent spectacle, so they say—and the twilight hues of the still dying sun or the vast and unstudied disorder of the stars; then locked in each other’s arms they fall dead upon the ice! The summit of their favourite volcano is completely crowned with their corpses which are admirably preserved always in twos, stark and livid, a living image still of love and agony, of despair and frenzy, but more often of ecstatic repose.

Cave2Perhaps the strangest claim by the book’s narrator is that humans have achieved their greatest success in the natural sciences after completely cutting themselves off from nature. Like Beethoven, “who only wrote his finest symphonies when he had lost his hearing,” astronomers who have never seen the sky now “solve problems whose mere statement would have provoked an incredulous smile in their predecessors,” discovering new planets purely by analysis.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take Tarde’s narrator. There is humor, but is this picture of a future society an ironic one? H.G. Wells, in his introduction, sees Tarde as “half mockingly, half approvingly” establishing a “new conception of human intercourse.” Whether Tarde was serious or not, this book is yet another reminder that our most well-worn post-apocalyptic plots originated in the science fiction of the 19th century.

Read a free copy of Underground Man at Project Gutenberg.

Read more entries in my post-apocalyptic science fiction series, and my other science fiction reviews.

Image credits: Images of Onandaga Cave, Missouri, by Michael White. Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland, by Aktron via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

2 thoughts on “Apocalypse 1896: Gabriel Tarde and the Fortunate Catastrophe”

  1. The fact that nobody has invented birth control killed me in this too. It is always quite hilarious to see to which ends beyond one’s own time a mind can stretch, and to which ends it is utterly incapable of imagining.

    Another one that struck me in this book was how Tarde said women had been given the vote, of course, it’s only natural, but voted via their husbands and/or fathers. Amazing that he could imagine a world where women could vote, but not one where men didn’t control that vote in some way.

    Also, did you catch how the coats were made of asbestos? That cracked me up. So everyone is going to die of cancer then? Of course, that was back when nobody knew that stuff wasn’t good for you.

    1. The asbestos coats, the completely synthetic food – people writing early SF seemed really believe that some day we would completely transcend the need for any natural materials.

      As bad as it is, it’s also fascinating. It’s imaginative and a total failure of the imagination at the same time – a book that’s supposed to be about people realizing their individual potential, where at least half the population isn’t granted the freedom to do that.

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