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Friday, 18 May 2018

Pimping Trollope


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PimpingTrollope sounds like a term of abuse, but there you go. It took me ages to work out what would best serve as the opening chapter to the new book. The problem was how to make ‘academic’ interesting – in particular the opening pages that Amazon allows the idly curious to check before buying. Still don’t know if I’ve made the right call. . .


Booming laughter filled the room. A moment later it stopped, and Anthony Trollope collapsed on the floor suffering from a paralytic stroke. A month later he died. The book that made him laugh so violently was F. Anstey's Vice Versa, a work of comedy and speculative fiction about a small boy who swapped bodies with his father.
Trollope’s book, The Fixed Period, was published the same year as Vice Versa, although, as far as we know, no one has yet died laughing while reading it—nor did his publisher who sold less than 900 copies.
It was Trollope’s one foray into speculative fiction, and although a shrewd and profound analysis of euthanasia, was limited by Trollope’s inability to imagine a future (1980) not dominated by steam and landed power.  It does though explain the title of this book, Trollope: Power, Politics and Society 1847–1980
Early speculative fiction is filled with astounding things. Jules Verne would predict air conditioning, automobiles, the internet and television, helicopters, submarines, and jukeboxes; H. G. Wells, inner city decline and suburban flight, sexual permissiveness and the E. U. In contrast, Trollope struggled. The future he envisioned remains dominated by the British Empire and landed power. His forays into technology are woeful, provoking the occasional wry smile or a shake of the head.
The Fixed Period contains references to steam tricycles with electric lamps, steel climbing arms for mountaineers, and cricket dominated by catapults and steam-bowlers. The latter is carefully described: "Then the steam-bowler was ridden into place by the attendant engineer and Jack began his work as . . . he carefully placed the ball and peeped down to get its bearing." Such a steam-bowler was an exhibit in the Great Exhibition of 1851. It hadn't been taken up by 1882, so it is hard to see why Trollope thought this machine would dominate cricket in 1980. It must have made some impression on him, if he remembered it thirty years later. Even so, Trollope did anticipate cricketers needing more adequate protection against faster balls: " . . . so completely enveloped was he in his India-rubber guards, and so wonderful was the machine upon his head by which his brain and features were to be protected."
These are far from the only examples of futuristic technology that appear in The Fixed Period. In Trollope's 1980, men wear weather-watches and communicate via "hair telephones" that have a broadcasting range of ten miles. Speeches are recorded by a "reporting-telephone apparatus." These transfer words from mouth to paper and conveys them to the world's printing presses within the hour. In 1980 the violin is "nearly obsolete" and society has forsaken the "old fashioned' piano" in favour of Mausometons or "the more perfect Melpomenon."
Trollope was no prophet in terms of geopolitics, either. The Prime Minister in 1980 is Sir William Gladstone, great-grandson of the original. Victorian technology rules the waves in the form of "250 ton steam-swivellers"—gunboats on a massive scale and used in ways familiar to Lord Palmerston. Likewise, Trollope's vision of a future British army would have been recognised by Jane Austen: “ . . . a company of a celebrated English regiment with its attendant officers, who by their red coats and long swords will no doubt add to the cheerfulness of your social gatherings."
In foreign affairs Trollope is more adventurous with mixed results. By 1980, Arizona, Idaho, and other American states to the west have formed a new Union; Britain and France fight for control of the seas against the united fleets of Russia and America; and in the 1940s great battles "ravished" India's north-western frontier. Africa remains both "dark" and colonised, and there are references to "the cannibals of New Zealand."
What makes The Fixed Period a significant and underrated piece of speculative literature is not its vision of the future, but a central theme that resonates more and more strongly in our own ageing societies. "The Fixed Period" refers to the age at which euthanasia becomes legally enforceable.

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