Reviewed by Simon Thomas
My heart would normally sink at any blurb which began ‘The year is 2151.’ I am perfectly willing to concede that the fault is with me rather than with the genre, but science-fiction has never appealed, and I’m happy to leave galaxies far, far away to others of a more accepting nature. And yet – and yet – you find me reviewing City of Endless Night by Milo Hastings. It wasn’t the year 2151 which caught my eye – it was the year 1920. That is, the year in which this novel was first published (now reissued by Hesperus with this distinctive cover). My love of the 1920s overcame my distrust of sci-fi, and my curiosity got the better of me.
Things start off a little as I’d feared. I like novels which are set more or less where and when the author is living – which is why I’d rather read a novel about India (say) by an Indian than one by a Brit, or a Victorian novel by someone who lived through that era than by someone who has buried themselves in some archives. Part of this is because anybody writing about an environment unfamiliar to them – whether real or fictional in and of itself – will feel they have to give an elaborate introduction to its particular or peculiar details. Once the scene is set, interesting things like character and event can take centre stage.
So we do have to experience a bit of history, which I’ll summarise as quickly as I can. There has been a Second World War (prescient on the part of Hastings, although he places it in the 1980s) in which Germany fought the entire world and lost – so the rest of the world is now united, with the exception of one black spot on the map: Berlin. And Berlin has become the ‘city of endless night’.
Ants have a royal house, they have a highly specialized and fixed system of caste, a completely socialized state – yes, a utopia – even as Berlin was a utopia, with the light of the sun and the light of the soul, the soul of the wild free man, forever shut out. 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.
There are many underground levels, some devoted to workers, some to scientists, some to women who may bear children, some to women who, er, don’t get quite that far along the process, and one very special one for the royal family. Of course, what this Berlin needs is an intrepid outsider to document it – and he comes in the form of an American scientist.
The outside world hasn’t forgotten about Berlin – indeed, it expends a lot of energy bombing its impenetrable roof – and they are still trying to find a way in. The scientist manages to do so, in an invasion (of sorts) which ends up killing a few folk on the chemists’ level. The narrator – praise be! – happens to closely resemble one of the chemists on duty. It’s not the only coincidence we have to buy, in this premise to the novel. Hastings must have blushed a little when giving the narrator the line ‘I recalled my excellent command of the German language’…
Luckily, he remains undetected. And he discovers that every citizen has an identity file. His gives the following information:
I, Karl Armstadt, twenty-seven years of age, was the fourteenth child of my mother and was born when she was forty-two years of age. According to the record I was the ninety-seventh child of my father and born when he was fifty-four.
Childbearing is, you see, not an especially romantic process in Berlin, 2151. As the narrator wryly reflects, ‘There was no further record of my plentiful fraternity, but I took heart that the mere fact of their numerical abundance would make unlikely any great show of brotherly interest, a presumption which proved quite correct.’
All this simply sets the stage for ‘Armstadt’s’ life in Berlin – and yet it has taken the majority of my review. He wonders at the various mechanisms of life underground, and (understandably) is surprised by how eugenics has moved so swiftly in less than two centuries – for they have enormously muscular men on one level, prodigiously fertile women on another, and so forth. It’s eugenics of a psychological brainwashing variety, it turns out, rather than solely genetics. It also – indeed, the whole scheme of this world – is further evidence that dystopias always seem to depict places where personal freedom is taken away. I wonder if anybody has ever written about the dystopia that would result if personal freedom were unlimited?
‘Armstadt’ finds a remarkable number of secret allies who wish to see the status quo overturned, and the ending of the novel is weaker and less thought-through than the rest – but even with Hastings’ monumental reliance on coincidence and luck, this feels quite a taut and involving read. There’s even a romance storyline thrown into the mix, albeit one which relies on wooing in haste. Perhaps experienced readers of the genre will wrinkle their noses at both Hastings’ excesses and his limitations, but for the uninitiated, City of Endless Night is very good. It might be over the top to call this the missing link between The Time Machine and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but the similarities with both are very noticeable – particularly the latter, showing (since published in 1920) how ahead of its time the novel was. Basically – if you think you don’t like sci-fi, and can get through a section which reads a bit like a tourist’s guide to 2151, then you’ll find an awful lot to like in City of Endless Night.
Simon is Reprints Editor of Shiny New Books
Milo M. Hastings, City of Endless Night (Hesperus, London, 2014) 978-1843915058, paperback 256 pp.