Sunday, June 13, 2010

Book Review: Tomorrow's Eve

Tomorrow's Eve

Give me my girl robot!

Tomorrow's Eve by Villiers de L'Isle Adam. Translated by Robert Martin Adams. University of Illinois Press (Urbana), 2001. 222 pages. $16.20.

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I have just finished the novel L'Eve future by the man whose full name, believe it or not, is Count Jean Marie Mathias Philippe Auguste Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, an impoverished nobleman and romanticist who lived at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth. I had read essays on this novel before reading the novel itself, and had assumed, after reading them, that the novel itself would be tiresome and laborious. Nothing prepared me for its powerful imaginative vision. I am overwhelmed.

The plot of the book is quite simple; indeed, it barely has a plot: almost the entire book is taken up with two people having a conversation. The protagonist is Thomas Edison, who was Villiers's contemporary. But this Edison has little relation to the real man (as Villiers assures us in a brief foreword); he is a mythical figure, an inventor whose mastery of science has reached such heights that it is is indistinguishable from alchemy or magic, so that as he describes his marvelous inventions, only a fraction of which are known to the world at large, his words weave back and forth between science fictional speculation and occult fantasy. In Edison's magical workshop, the phonograph is perfected, able to capture a full opera with total clarity and play it back from hidden remote speakers. The telephone just as perfectly transmits messages instantaneously from city to city. Fantastic creations are spread pell-mell throughout the workshop: an electric beam that can kill in an instant, a device that measures the heat of distant stars, a spark that can be sent into space to gather information from celestial bodies and bring it back again. Everywhere, batteries release sparks, hidden speakers deliver disembodied voices, and secret compartments reveal anything Edison wishes for. And below the workshop, deep in a frozen underground cavern full of weaving mechanical flowers and maniacally laughing birds, is Edison's greatest creation--the android Hadaly, a mechanical woman operated remotely through out-of-body experience by a prophetess kept in perpetual suspended animation by Edison's masterful powers of hypnosis.  Sweet.

As the scene opens, this scientific wizard sits in his cluttered wonderland and muses that faith would be unnecessary if only he, with his phonograph, had been there in the Garden to record the conversations of Adam and Eve with God. Just as he is musing on his greatest masterpiece, the android, he receives a visitor, Lord Ewald, who years ago had lifted Edison out of poverty and made possible all his inventions and achievements. Ewald suffers a terrible dilemma: he finds himself helplessly in love with a woman, Alicia Clary, gifted with the most striking beauty of both form and voice; she is so beautiful, in fact, that she can only be compared to the "Venus de Milo." But in spite of her exceptional good looks and great talents for acting and singing, Alicia is a decidedly base and shallow person, so that Ewald finds himself in great distress, wishing he could have the body of the woman and leave the soul behind. Miserable in Alicia's company yet unable to part from her, Ewald has come to visit Edison for the last time before committing suicide.

Miss Alicia Clary, sans arms

To prevent the death of his benefactor, Edison proposes to transform Hadaly the android into the perfect likeness of Alicia Clary, and to place within her one of his perfected phonographs recording hours and hours of all the noble sentiments and affectionate gestures Ewald wishes the real Alicia possessed. Edison guarantees that the android will be so perfect as to fool anyone, including Ewald himself, and that, containing the noble soul (or at least its imitation) lacking in the real woman, the android will be, if anything, better and more real than the real thing.

Villiers was a part of the French Symbolist movement, related to Romanticism, and it shows throughout the work. The fantastic conversation between Edison and Ewald, which occupies the bulk of the book, in which Edison shows off his fantastic creations, describes in minute and imaginative detail the inner workings of the android, and describes scientific achievements laced with hints of occultism, proves both complex and maddeningly paradoxical. The great mystery of the book--how exactly Hadaly works--though it is elaborated upon at great length, is never clear. One moment, Hadaly is merely a glorified doll with a phonograph and a "central cylinder" inside dictating pre-recorded conversations and movements which Ewald will be able to choose by manipulating push-buttons hidden in her jewelry. But as she converses with both Ewald and Edison, Hadaly appears to be a fully independent and intelligent being, able to speak and act on her own. Then Edison indicates that Hadaly is operated remotely through a combination of electricity and telepathy by a woman kept in a mystical state by a combination of hypnosis and catatonia, and then there is a suggestion that Hadaly is in fact a sort of incarnation of a spirit descended into the world for the purpose either of leading Ewald to a higher plane, or else, perhaps, damning him to hell--and this spirit may or may not be the same person as the aforementioned catatonic telepath. The book seethes with the sense that a higher, fantastical world is ready any moment to burst in on the mundane world; this sense reaches its climax in a goosebump-raising speech of Hadaly to Ewald at the climax, in which she describes her true nature...or perhaps plays an elaborate ruse. It is tantalizingly unclear whether Hadaly merely contains a sophisticated recording of one woman, or of two, or whether she in fact contains the soul of a woman, or merely its imprint, or whether she is something else entirely, or whether she is one thing with the potential to be another. Yet for all this mystery and paradox the book manages to hold together.

Thomas Edison and Hadaly the android share
a touching moment of intimate conversation. 

As translator Robert Martin Adams describes in his introduction, Villiers knew next to nothing of science, and the descriptions of Edison's devices and the android's inner workings are really just gibberish. But what gibberish! All the talk of the precise movements of metal nerves and crystal balls full of quicksilver and gold cylinders and everything else is so elaborate as to sound entirely convincing. As Edison proves to Ewald through his elaborations, increasingly fantastic from one chapter to the next, on how his android works and on how he will complete it to exactly resemble Alicia, it becomes easy to believe the the thing is real, that a functioning and convincing automaton really could be constructed in this way. It can't, of course, but Villiers deserves credit for so effectively producing this suspension of disbelief.

When I first heard of this novel, I had wondered whether Villiers was familiar with "The Sand-Man" by the German Romanticist, E. T. A. Hoffmann, which is the earliest science fiction story I know of containing the motif of the lifelike female robot. I can now say happily that he was indeed, for he quotes "The Sand-Man" in Tomorrow's Eve, though, strangely, Adams does not mention it in the introduction.  Also probably a source for Villiers is the legend about Rene Descartes, who is supposed to have built a lifelike automaton to replace his dead daughter, an ill-fated machine tossed from a ship by superstitious sailors.  (This story, in turn, might be based on another legend in which St. Thomas Aquinas fearfully smashes an android constructed by St. Albertus Magnus.)  One way or the other, the idea running throughout of a strict separation between body and soul, and of Ewald's desire to replace the boorish soul of his beloved with a purer one, probably owes something to Descartes.

In a certain sense, the novel is a kind of anti-"Sand-Man."  In "The Sand-Man," and even moreso in the story "Automata," Hoffmann expresses horror at machines that imitate life.  In "Automata," he describes in detail the sensation of revulsion we now call the "Uncanny Valley," which a person feels when observing an android that is not quite wooden enough to be a mere puppet and not quite natural enough to be a convincing human being.  In "The Sand-Man," the protagonist is a melancholy poet led astray from his true love and seduced by a clockwork woman created by an evil alchemist.  In Tomorrow's Eve, this dilemma is almost reversed:  the melancholy hero, Ewald, has been led astray by the great beauty of a real woman who is too mundane in spirit to satisfy his poet's soul, so he needs a clockwork woman to embody the ideal he longs for.  The girl robot of "The Sand-Man" leads its ill-fated hero to suicide; the girl robot of Tomorrow's Eve is the only thing that can save its hero from suicide.  Of course, that is not to say that the horror of the situation is lost on Villiers, but he revels in it rather than shrinking from it.

But even more than "The Sand-Man," I think it may be useful to compare this book to Hoffmann's "Golden Flower-Pot."  Considered by some to be Hoffmann's best, it's a dense tale expressing a basic Romantic idea, that a fantastic world better, higher, and purer than this one exists just out of reach, accessible in a way through stories and poetry.  Hoffmann displays this idea by bifurcating his characters:  the protagonist is on the one hand Registrator Heerbrand, an ordinary fellow involved in ordinary things and in love with a pretty and respectable young woman, Vernonica.  But he is at the same time the poet Anselmus, whose beloved is Serpentina, the shape-shifting green snake with the kindly blue eyes, daughter of a salamander, and through the magic of poetry they live together in Atlantis even as they walk the dusty streets of Dresden.  By splitting two characters into four, "The Golden Flower-Pot" achieves a reconciliation between the mundane world and the fantastic one; its protagonists can live comfortably in both.  In Tomorrow's Eve, however, this is impossible:  the mundane world is intolerable, and the fantastic world can only be reached if the mundane, and with it, the human faculty of reason, is rejected.  Hadaly offers to become even more than a real woman for Ewald; she can become an incarnate spirit from the beyond, a fully realized Ideal, but only if he abandons reason--which will tell him Hadaly is only a machine--and likewise abandons all human companionship and takes her away to his mist-shrouded English castle to live out his days in solitude.  There can be no reconciliation because a mere breath of Mundania destroys all glimpses of the other world...assuming, of course, that this other world isn't really just a clever illusion like the android.  Villiers clearly enjoys the Faustian character of it all.

When you boil it all down and strip away the authorial genius (and exceptionally competent translation), I can't help thinking that all we really have here is the story of a man who's found his way to the last refuge of disappointed lovers--misogyny.  Indeed, Ewald says as much himself:  at one point he tells Edison that his disgust with Alicia has led him to a disgust with all women.  Although it's impossible to say how much of the novel's sophistry really represents Villiers's own thinking, Adams informs us of an incident in his life that likely shaped the book, in which Villiers fell in love and promptly drove the poor woman off with his excesses of emotion and poetry-reading.  Adams suggests Villiers's perception of his beloved informs his depiction of Alicia.

Most disturbing is the passage in which Edison explains why he decided to create an android in the first place.  He tells the story of a man--a good man, we're assured--who on a night of well-earned celebration has too much to drink, stays out too late, makes a number of foolish decisions, and dallies with a chorus girl before stumbling home to receive a dignified rebuke from his wife.  Even after being sobered by both the wearing off of the alcohol and the chastisement, he returns to the chorus girl a number of times until the affair destroys his career, family, and life.  Villiers, or at least Villiers's Edison, places all the blame for this on the chorus girl.  I found that unconvincing; it takes two to tango, after all, and though the chorus girl is certainly an underhanded little seductress, the man is anything but guiltless.  Edison explains that the girl had enhanced her decided lack of natural beauty with various artificial means--makeup and false teeth and other augmentations--and then, in a moment during which I completely lost the argument, announces that he conceived of the idea of putting a stop to such tragic love affairs by producing wholly artificial women.  As for how that is supposed to work, exactly, your guess is as good as mine.  Apparently, the artificial women are supposed to distract men when they're tempted by real women, or something.  There's an expression of disgust here at artificial beauty enhancements that gives the impression the android is meant to be wholly ironical; the woman of worldly and pedestrian values, such as Alica, is like a machine on the inside, and so many other women, with their makeups and whatever, are like machines on the outside, so why not create a woman who's machine through and through?  It's a nasty satire, certainly.

Whether or not any of these complaints against modern women have weight, there's a real sense of masculine narcissism pervading Ewald and Edison's conversation.  The relationship between Ewald and Alicia is all about Ewald.  Although, when she appears, she really is as dull and silly as Ewald describes, his dislike for her contains too much contempt and self-interest to sympathize with; he even explains that he has stayed with her for so long partly in the hopes of changing her and making her into a sort of reflection of himself.  He claims, more than once, that he cannot love Alicia only for her looks, that he's the sort of man who insists on loving a woman in her entirety, body and soul, but then he turns around and accepts the offer of an android that mimics Alicia's body without the soul, which makes no sense to me.

What we have here is a rich work of early science fiction from the 1880s.  Villiers was respected in his day--if never widely famous--for his sharp satire and clever poetry.  The translation by Robert Martin-Adams is beautiful to read, and the book's historical importance makes it worth picking up.  Recommended for fans of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century imaginative fiction, as well as fans of steampunk.
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