Review of Lord of the World (1907)


Robert Hugh Benson (writer).

Read in 2022.

In the early 21st century, a hundred years of communist rule have produced a material utopia in the Western world. Beside ubiquitous air travel, a network of high-speed rail connects the cities and “huge electric placards” make for instant mass media. Secular welfare politics have ended hunger and inequity while technological development continues apace. Euthanasia is voluntary and administered with the utmost skill and respect, so that any remaining incurable disease will cause minimal suffering. The only true worry is the encroachment of a militaristic Eastern bloc.

In this world, people no longer want religion. Christianity has collapsed back into Catholicism, which, at least in Italy, has traded the real estate of its churches for a larger share of Rome around the Vatican. Even in this backward-looking enclave, belief in the supernatural is failing. Secularization accelerates further when a brilliant US senator enters negotiations with the East. Perhaps that American can deliver a millennium of peace. Oops, no, he’s the Antichrist.

Top-drawer Christian SF. Benson was able to picture the world a century hence with as much prescience and imagination as H. G. Wells, and better character writing. Being an atheist myself, I find it hilarious that Benson considered this world a dystopia! He helped create the subgenre. Certainly, there are downsides to his future, such as the closing of the universities under communist rule; that didn’t quite happen in the USSR or Mao’s China, and it would be disastrous. Benson is clear, however, that he finds the big downside in another place entirely:

The alliance of Psychology and Materialism did indeed seem, looked at from one angle, to account for everything; it needed a robust supernatural perception to understand their practical inadequacy.

The conservative Tories of the UK, renamed the Individualists, are tied up with the remaining Christians. The novel is thus political, but less political and surprisingly less narcissistic than The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). The majority of Christian writing about the apocalypse of Revelation (ca. 95 CE), whether it’s cast as SF or not, is based on a stronger sense of superiority, which is then justified by the fiat of fiction. That smugness and that false justification are both present in Lord of the World, but they are so carefully complicated—right up to the end—that even an atheist can read the novel as an SFF thriller and have a good time doing it. For example, before the primary protagonist of the novel becomes the new and secret Pope, the Pope institutes the death penalty in Rome, and it’s really not clear whether that is supposed to be morally correct in the context of a fiction where morality is ultimately objective.

Some of the residual smugness is Benson’s own. He had notoriously defected from Anglicanism to Catholicism, hence the centrality of Catholicism and the emphasis on cloak-and-dagger secrecy in his dieselpunk plot. Needless to say, there are many failed predictions: No computers, the ridiculous conceit that the imperial dynasties of China and Japan have merged, and so forth. Mabel Brand, the token female character, is better than the Pimpernel’s Lady Blakeney, but not by much. The Antichrist is a more disappointing figure, handled with the vagueness of “The Assignation” (1834) instead of the detailed humanism of Quo Vadis (1895), which styles Nero the “lord of the world”. Benson’s vagueness I assume is defensive. I guess that because he was himself a priest and accustomed to a life without any proof of the gods, Benson refrained from the excesses of supernatural fiat in a manner that is now rare in fictional eschatology. It does him credit.

References here: Metropolis (1925), “How the Whip Came Back” (1970), The Book of Eli (2010), The Hunger Games (2012).

text fiction