Friday, November 15, 2013

"The Coming of the Ice" (1926) by G. Peyton Wertenbaker, with Notes and Commentary

"The Coming of the Ice"

© 1926


G. Peyton Wertenbaker

It is strange to be alone, and so cold. To be the last man on earth....

The snow drives silently about me, ceaselessly, drearily. And I am isolated in this tiny white, indistinguishable corner of a blurred world, surely the loneliest creature in the universe. How many thousands of years is it since I last knew the true companionship? For a long time I have been lonely, but there were people, creatures of flesh and blood. Now they are gone. Now I have not even the stars to keep me company, for they are all lost in an infinity of snow and twilight here below.

If only I could know how long it has been since first I was imprisoned upon the earth. It cannot matter now. And yet some vague dissatisfaction, some faint instinct, asks over and over in my throbbing ears: What year? What year?

It was in the year 1930 that the great thing began in my life. There was then a very great man who performed operations on his fellows to compose their vitals—we called such men surgeons. John Granden wore the title "Sir" before his name, in indication of nobility by birth according to the prevailing standards in England. But surgery was only a hobby of Sir John's, if I must be precise, for, while he had achieved an enormous reputation as a surgeon, he always felt that his real work lay in the experimental end of his profession. He was, in a way, a dreamer, but a dreamer who could make his dreams come true.

I was a very close friend of Sir John's. In fact, we shared the same apartments in London. I have never forgotten that day when he first mentioned to me his momentous discovery. I had just come in from a long sleigh-ride in the country with Alice, and I was seated drowsily in the window-seat, writing idly in my mind a description of the wind and the snow and the grey twilight of the evening. It is strange, is it not, that my tale should begin and end with the snow and the twilight.

Sir John opened suddenly a door at one end of the room and came hurrying across to another door. He looked at me, grinning rather like a triumphant maniac.

"It's coming!" he cried, without pausing, "I've almost got it!" I smiled at him: he looked very ludicrous at that moment.

"What have you got?" I asked.

"Good Lord, man, the Secret—the Secret!" And then he was gone again, the door closing upon his victorious cry, "The Secret!"

I was, of course, amused. But I was also very much interested. I knew Sir John well enough to realize that, however amazing his appearance might be, there would be nothing absurd about his "Secret"—whatever it was. But it was useless to speculate. I could only hope for enlightenment at dinner. So I immersed myself in one of the surgeon's volumes from his fine Library of Imagination, and waited.

I think the book was one of Mr. H. G. Wells', probably "The Sleeper Awakes," or some other of his brilliant fantasies and predictions, for I was in a mood conducive to belief in almost anything when, later, we sat down together across the table. I only wish I could give some idea of the atmosphere that permeated our apartments, the reality it lent to whatever was vast and amazing and strange. You could then, whoever you are, understand a little the ease with which I accepted Sir John's new discovery.

He began to explain it to me at once, as though he could keep it to himself no longer.

"Did you think I had gone mad, Dennell?" he asked. "I quite wonder that I haven't. Why, I have been studying for many years—for most of my life—on this problem. And, suddenly, I have solved it! Or, rather, I am afraid I have solved another one much greater."

"Tell me about it, but for God's sake don't be technical."

"Right," he said. Then he paused. "Dennell, it's magnificent! It will change everything that is in the world." His eyes held mine suddenly with the fatality of a hypnotist's. "Dennell, it is the Secret of Eternal Life," he said.

"Good Lord, Sir John!" I cried, half inclined to laugh.

"I mean it," he said. "You know I have spent most of my life studying the processes of birth, trying to find out precisely what went on in the whole history of conception."

"You have found out?"

"No, that is just what amuses me. I have discovered something else without knowing yet what causes either process.

"I don't want to be technical, and I know very little of what actually takes place myself. But I can try to give you some idea of it."

It is thousands, perhaps millions of years since Sir John explained to me. What little I understood at the time I may have forgotten, yet I try to reproduce what I can of his theory.

"In my study of the processes of birth," he began, "I discovered the rudiments of an action which takes place in the bodies of both men and women. There are certain properties in the foods we eat that remain in the body for the reproduction of life, two distinct Essences, so to speak, of which one is retained by the woman, another by the man. It is the union of these two properties that, of course, creates the child (1).

"Now, I made a slight mistake one day in experimenting with a guinea-pig, and I re-arranged certain organs which I need not describe so that I thought I had completely messed up the poor creature's abdomen. It lived, however, and I laid it aside. It was some years later that I happened to notice it again. It had not given birth to any young, but I was amazed to note that it had apparently grown no older: it seemed precisely in the same state of growth in which I had left it.

"From that I built up. I re-examined the guinea-pig, and observed it carefully. I need not detail my studies. But in the end I found that my 'mistake' had in reality been a momentous discovery. I found that I had only to close certain organs, to re-arrange certain ducts, and to open certain dormant organs, and, mirabile dictu, the whole process of reproduction was changed.

"You have heard, of course, that our bodies are continually changing, hour by hour, minute by minute, so that every few years we have been literally reborn. Some such principle as this seems to operate in reproduction, except that, instead of the old body being replaced by the new, and in its form, approximately, the new body is created apart from it. It is the creation of children that causes us to die, it would seem, because if this activity is, so to speak, dammed up or turned aside into new channels, the reproduction operates on the old body, renewing it continually (2). It is very obscure and very absurd, is it not? But the most absurd part of it is that it is true. Whatever the true explanation may be, the fact remains that the operation can be done, that it actually prolongs life indefinitely, and that I alone know the secret."

Sir John told me a very great deal more, but, after all, I think it amounted to little more than this. It would be impossible for me to express the great hold his discovery took upon my mind the moment he recounted it. From the very first, under the spell of his personality, I believed, and I knew he was speaking the truth. And it opened up before me new vistas. I began to see myself become suddenly eternal, never again to know the fear of death. I could see myself storing up, century after century, an amplitude of wisdom and experience that would make me truly a god.

"Sir John!" I cried, long before he was finished. "You must perform that operation on me!"

"But, Dennell, you are too hasty. You must not put yourself so rashly into my hands."

"You have perfected the operation, haven't you?"

"That is true," he said.

"You must try it out on somebody, must you not?"

"Yes, of course. And yet—somehow, Dennell, I am afraid. I cannot help feeling that man is not yet prepared for such a vast thing. There are sacrifices. One must give up love and all sensual pleasure. This operation not only takes away the mere fact of reproduction, but it deprives one of all the things that go with sex, all love, all sense of beauty, all feeling for poetry and the arts. It leaves only the few emotions, selfish emotions, that are necessary to self-preservation. Do you not see? One becomes an intellect, nothing more—a cold apotheosis of reason. And I, for one, cannot face such a thing calmly." (3)

"But, Sir John, like many fears, it is largely horrible in the foresight. After you have changed your nature you cannot regret it. What you are would be as horrible an idea to you afterwards as the thought of what you will be seems now."

"True, true. I know it. But it is hard to face, nevertheless."

"I am not afraid to face it."

"You do not understand it, Dennell, I am afraid. And I wonder whether you or I or any of us on this earth are ready for such a step. After all, to make a race deathless, one should be sure it is a perfect race." (4)

"Sir John," I said, "it is not you who have to face this, nor any one else in the world till you are ready. But I am firmly resolved, and I demand it of you as my friend."

Well, we argued much further, but in the end I won. Sir John promised to perform the operation three days later.

... But do you perceive now what I had forgotten during all that discussion, the one thing I had thought I could never forget so long as I lived, not even for an instant? It was my love for Alice—I had forgotten that! (5)

I cannot write here all the infinity of emotions I experienced later, when, with Alice in my arms, it suddenly came upon me what I had done. Ages ago—I have forgotten how to feel. I could name now a thousand feelings I used to have, but I can no longer even understand them. For only the heart can understand the heart, and the intellect only the intellect.

With Alice in my arms, I told the whole story. It was she who, with her quick instinct, grasped what I had never noticed (6).

"But Carl!" she cried, "Don't you see?—It will mean that we can never be married!" And, for the first time, I understood. If only I could re-capture some conception of that love! I have always known, since the last shred of comprehension slipped from me, that I lost something very wonderful when I lost love. But what does it matter? I lost Alice too, and I could not have known love again without her.

We were very sad and very tragic that night. For hours and hours we argued the question over. But I felt somewhat that I was inextricably caught in my fate, that I could not retreat now from my resolve. I was perhaps, very school-boyish, but I felt that it would be cowardice to back out now. But it was Alice again who perceived a final aspect of the matter.

"Carl," she said to me, her lips very close to mine, "it need not come between our love. After all, ours would be a poor sort of love if it were not more of the mind than of the flesh. We shall remain lovers, but we shall forget mere carnal desire. I shall submit to that operation too!" (7)

And I could not shake her from her resolve. I would speak of danger that I could not let her face. But, after the fashion of women, she disarmed me with the accusation that I did not love her, that I did not want her love, that I was trying to escape from love. What answer had I for that, but that I loved her and would do anything in the world not to lose her?

I have wondered sometimes since whether we might have known the love of the mind. Is love something entirely of the flesh, something created by an ironic God merely to propagate His race? Or can there be love without emotion, love without passion—love between two cold intellects? (8) I do not know. I did not ask then. I accepted anything that would make our way more easy.

There is no need to draw out the tale. Already my hand wavers, and my time grows short. Soon there will be no more of me, no more of my tale—no more of Mankind. There will be only the snow, and the ice, and the cold ...

Three days later I entered John's Hospital with Alice on my arm. All my affairs—and they were few 
enough—were in order. I had insisted that Alice wait until I had come safely through the operation, before she submitted to it. I had been carefully starved for two days, and I was lost in an unreal world of white walls and white clothes and white lights, drunk with my dreams of the future. When I was wheeled into the operating room on the long, hard table, for a moment it shone with brilliant distinctness, a neat, methodical white chamber, tall and more or less circular. Then I was beneath the glare of soft white lights, and the room faded into a misty vagueness from which little steel rays flashed and quivered from silvery cold instruments. For a moment our hands, Sir John's and mine, gripped, and we were saying good-bye—for a little while—in the way men say these things. Then I felt the warm touch of Alice's lips upon mine, and I felt sudden painful things I cannot describe, that I could not have described then. For a moment I felt that I must rise and cry out that I could not do it. But the feeling passed, and I was passive.

Something was pressed about my mouth and nose, something with an ethereal smell. Staring eyes swam about me from behind their white masks. I struggled instinctively, but in vain—I was held securely. Infinitesimal points of light began to wave back and forth on a pitch-black background; a great hollow buzzing echoed in my head. My head seemed suddenly to have become all throat, a great, cavernous, empty throat in which sounds and lights were mingled together, in a swift rhythm, approaching, receding eternally. Then, I think, there were dreams. But I have forgotten them....

I began to emerge from the effect of the ether. Everything was dim, but I could perceive Alice beside me, and Sir John.

"Bravely done!" Sir John was saying, and Alice, too, was saying something, but I cannot remember what. For a long while we talked, I speaking the nonsense of those who are coming out from under ether, they teasing me a little solemnly. But after a little while I became aware of the fact that they were about to leave. Suddenly, God knows why, I knew that they must not leave. Something cried in the back of my head that they must stay—one cannot explain these things, except by after events. I began to press them to remain, but they smiled and said they must get their dinner. I commanded them not to go; but they spoke kindly and said they would be back before long. I think I even wept a little, like a child, but Sir John said something to the nurse, who began to reason with me firmly, and then they were gone, and somehow I was asleep....

When I awoke again, my head was fairly clear, but there was an abominable reek of ether all about me. The moment I opened my eyes, I felt that something had happened. I asked for Sir John and for Alice. I saw a swift, curious look that I could not interpret come over the face of the nurse, then she was calm again, her countenance impassive. She reassured me in quick meaningless phrases, and told me to sleep. But I could not sleep: I was absolutely sure that something had happened to them, to my friend and to the woman I loved. Yet all my insistence profited me nothing, for the nurses were a silent lot. Finally, I think, they must have given me a sleeping potion of some sort, for I fell asleep again.

For two endless, chaotic days, I saw nothing of either of them, Alice or Sir John. I became more and more agitated, the nurse more and more taciturn. She would only say that they had gone away for a day or two.

And then, on the third day, I found out. They thought I was asleep. The night nurse had just come in to relieve the other.

"Has he been asking about them again?" she asked.

"Yes, poor fellow. I have hardly managed to keep him quiet."

"We will have to keep it from him until he is recovered fully." There was a long pause, and I could hardly control my labored breathing.

"How sudden it was!" one of them said. "To be killed like that—" I heard no more, for I leapt suddenly up in bed, crying out.

"Quick! For God's sake, tell me what has happened!" I jumped to the floor and seized one of them by the collar. She was horrified. I shook her with a superhuman strength.

"Tell me!" I shouted, "Tell me—Or I'll—!" She told me—what else could she do.

"They were killed in an accident," she gasped, "in a taxi—a collision—the Strand—!" (9) And at that moment a crowd of nurses and attendants arrived, called by the other frantic woman, and they put me to bed again.

I have no memory of the next few days. I was in delirium, and I was never told what I said during my ravings. Nor can I express the feelings I was saturated with when at last I regained my mind again. Between my old emotions and any attempt to put them into words, or even to remember them, lies always that insurmountable wall of my Change. I cannot understand what I must have felt, I cannot express it.
I only know that for weeks I was sunk in a misery beyond any misery I had ever imagined before. The only two friends I had on earth were gone to me. I was left alone. And, for the first time, I began to see before me all these endless years that would be the same, dull, lonely.

Yet I recovered. I could feel each day the growth of a strange new vigor in my limbs, a vast force that was something tangibly expressive to eternal life. Slowly my anguish began to die. After a week more, I began to understand how my emotions were leaving me, how love and beauty and everything of which poetry was made—how all this was going. I could not bear the thought at first. I would look at the golden sunlight and the blue shadow of the wind, and I would say,
God! How beautiful!" And the words would echo meaninglessly in my ears. Or I would remember Alice's face, that face I had once loved so inextinguishably, and I would weep and clutch my forehead, and clench my fists, crying,
O God, how can I live without her!" Yet there would be a little strange fancy in my head at the same moment, saying,
Who is this Alice? You know no such person." And truly I would wonder whether she had ever existed (10).

So, slowly, the old emotions were shed away from me, and I began to joy in a corresponding growth of my mental perceptions. I began to toy idly with mathematical formulae I had forgotten years ago, in the same fashion that a poet toys with a word and its shades of meaning. I would look at everything with new, seeing eyes, new perception, and I would understand things I had never understood before, because formerly my emotions had always occupied me more than my thoughts.

And so the weeks went by, until, one day, I was well.

What, after all, is the use of this chronicle? Surely there will never be men to read it. I have heard them say that the snow will never go. I will be buried, it will be buried with me; and it will be the end of us both. Yet, somehow, it eases my weary soul a little to write....

Need I say that I lived, thereafter, many thousands of thousands of years, until this day? I cannot detail that life. It is a long round of new, fantastic impressions, coming dream-like, one after another, melting into each other. In looking back, as in looking back upon dreams, I seem to recall only a few isolated periods clearly; and it seems that my imagination must have filled in the swift movement between episodes. I think now, of necessity, in terms of centuries and millenniums, rather than days and months.... The snow blows terribly about my little fire, and I know it will soon gather courage to quench us both ...

Years passed, at first with a sort of clear wonder. I watched things that took place everywhere in the world. I studied. The other students were much amazed to see me, a man of thirty odd, coming back to college.

"But Judas, Dennell, you've already got your Ph.D! What more do you want?" So they would all ask me. And I would reply;

"I want an M.D. and an F.R.C.S." I didn't tell them that I wanted degrees in Law, too, and in Biology and Chemistry, in Architecture and Engineering, in Psychology and Philosophy. Even so, I believe they thought me mad. But poor fools! I would think. They can hardly realize that I have all of eternity before me to study.

I went to school for many decades. I would pass from University to University, leisurely gathering all the fruits of every subject I took up, revelling in study as no student revelled ever before. There was no need of hurry in my life, no fear of death too soon. There was a magnificence of vigor in my body, and a magnificence of vision and clarity in my brain. I felt myself a super-man. I had only to go on storing up wisdom until the day should come when all knowledge of the world was mine, and then I could command the world. I had no need for hurry. O vast life! How I gloried in my eternity! And how little good it has ever done me, by the irony of God.

For several centuries, changing my name and passing from place to place, I continued my studies. I had no consciousness of monotony, for, to the intellect, monotony cannot exist: it was one of those emotions I had left behind. One day, however, in the year 2132, a great discovery was made by a man called Zarentzov. It had to do with the curvature of space, quite changing the conceptions that we had all followed since Einstein. I had long ago mastered the last detail of Einstein's theory, as had, in time, the rest of the world. I threw myself immediately into the study of this new, epoch-making conception.

To my amazement, it all seemed to me curiously dim and elusive. I could not quite grasp what Zarentzov was trying to formulate.

"Why," I cried, "the thing is a monstrous fraud!" I went to the professor of Physics in the University I then attended, and I told him it was a fraud, a huge book of mere nonsense. He looked at me rather pityingly.

"I am afraid, Modevski," he said, addressing me by the name I was at the time using, "I am afraid you do not understand it, that is all. When your mind has broadened, you will. You should apply yourself more carefully to your Physics." But that angered me, for I had mastered my Physics before he was ever born. I challenged him to explain the theory. And he did! He put it, obviously, in the clearest language he could. Yet I understood nothing. I stared at him dumbly, until he shook his head impatiently, saying that it was useless, that if I could not grasp it I would simply have to keep on studying. I was stunned. I wandered away in a daze.

For do you see what happened? During all those years I had studied ceaselessly, and my mind had been clear and quick as the day I first had left the hospital. But all that time I had been able only to remain what I was—an extraordinarily intelligent man of the twentieth century. And the rest of the race had been progressing! It had been swiftly gathering knowledge and power and ability all that time, faster and faster, while I had been only remaining still. And now here was Zarentzov and the teachers of the Universities, and, probably, a hundred intelligent men, who had all outstripped me! I was being left behind (11).

And that is what happened. I need not dilate further upon it. By the end of that century I had been left behind by all the students of the world, and I never did understand Zarentzov. Other men came with other theories, and these theories were accepted by the world. But I could not understand them. My intellectual life was at an end. I had nothing more to understand. I knew everything I was capable of knowing, and, thenceforth, I could only play wearily with the old ideas (12).

Many things happened in the world. A time came when the East and West, two mighty unified hemispheres, rose up in arms: the civil war of a planet. I recall only chaotic visions of fire and thunder and hell. It was all incomprehensible to me: like a bizarre dream, things happened, people rushed about, but I never knew what they were doing. I lurked during all that time in a tiny shuddering hole under the city of Yokohama, and by a miracle I survived. And the East won. But it seems to have mattered little who did win, for all the world had become, in all except its few remaining prejudices, a single race, and nothing was changed when it was all rebuilt again, under a single government (13).

I saw the first of the strange creatures who appeared among us in the year 6371, men who were later known to be from the planet Venus (14). But they were repulsed, for they were savages compared with the Earthmen, although they were about equal to the people of my own century, 1900. Those of them who did not perish of the cold after the intense warmth of their world, and those who were not killed by our hands, those few returned silently home again. And I have always regretted that I had not the courage to go with them.

I watched a time when the world reached perfection in mechanics, when men could accomplish anything with a touch of the finger. Strange men, these creatures of the hundredth century, men with huge brains and tiny shriveled bodies, atrophied limbs, and slow, ponderous movements on their little conveyances (15). It was I, with my ancient compunctions, who shuddered when at last they put to death all the perverts, the criminals, and the insane, ridding the world of the scum for which they had no more need. It was then that I was forced to produce my tattered old papers, proving my identity and my story. They knew it was true, in some strange fashion of theirs, and, thereafter, I was kept on exhibition as an archaic survival (16).

I saw the world made immortal through the new invention of a man called Kathol, who used somewhat the same method "legend" decreed had been used upon me (17). I observed the end of speech, of all perceptions except one, when men learned to communicate directly by thought, and to receive directly into the brain all the myriad vibrations of the universe (18).

All these things I saw, and more, until that time when there was no more discovery, but a Perfect World in which there was no need for anything but memory (19). Men ceased to count time at last. Several hundred years after the 154th Dynasty from the Last War, or, as we would have counted in my time, about 200,000 A.D., official records of time were no longer kept carefully. They fell into disuse. Men began to forget years, to forget time at all. Of what significance was time when one was immortal? (20)

After long, long uncounted centuries, a time came when the days grew noticeably colder. Slowly the winters became longer, and the summers diminished to but a month or two. Fierce storms raged endlessly in winter, and in summer sometimes there was severe frost, sometimes there was only frost. In the high places and in the north and the sub-equatorial south, the snow came and would not go.

Men died by the thousands in the higher latitudes. New York became, after awhile, the furthest habitable city north, an arctic city, where warmth seldom penetrated. And great fields of ice began to make their way southward, grinding before them the brittle remains of civilizations, covering over relentlessly all of man's proud work.

Snow appeared in Florida and Italy one summer. In the end, snow was there always. Men left New York, Chicago, Paris, Yokohama, and everywhere they traveled by the millions southward, perishing as they went, pursued by the snow and the cold, and that inevitable field of ice. They were feeble creatures when the Cold first came upon them, but I speak in terms of thousands of years; and they turned every weapon of science to the recovery of their physical power, for they foresaw that the only chance for survival lay in a hard, strong body. As for me, at last I had found a use for my few powers, for my physique was the finest in that world. It was but little comfort, however, for we were all united in our awful fear of that Cold and that grinding field of Ice. All the great cities were deserted. We would catch silent, fearful glimpses of them as we sped on in our machines over the snow—great hungry, haggard skeletons of cities, shrouded in banks of snow, snow that the wind rustled through desolate streets where the cream of human life once had passed in calm security. Yet still the Ice pursued. For men had forgotten about that Last Ice Age when they ceased to reckon time, when they lost sight of the future and steeped themselves in memories. They had not remembered that a time must come when Ice would lie white and smooth over all the earth, when the sun would shine bleakly between unending intervals of dim, twilight snow and sleet (21).

Slowly the Ice pursued us down the earth, until all the feeble remains of civilization were gathered in Egypt and India and South America. The deserts flowered again, but the frost would come always to bite the tiny crops. For still the Ice came. All the world now, but for a narrow strip about the equator, was one great silent desolate vista of stark ice-plains, ice that brooded above the hidden ruins of cities that had endured for hundreds of thousands of years. It was terrible to imagine the awful solitude and the endless twilight that lay on these places, and the grim snow, sailing in silence over all.... (22)
It surrounded us on all sides, until life remained only in a few scattered clearings all about that equator of the globe, with an eternal fire going to hold away the hungry Ice. Perpetual winter reigned now; and we were becoming terror-stricken beasts that preyed on each other for a life already doomed. Ah, but I, I the archaic survival, I had my revenge then, with my great physique and strong jaws—God! Let me think of something else. Those men who lived upon each other—it was horrible. And I was one.

So inevitably the Ice closed in.... One day the men of our tiny clearing were but a score. We huddled about our dying fire of bones and stray logs. We said nothing. We just sat, in deep, wordless, thoughtless silence. We were the last outpost of Mankind.

I think suddenly something very noble must have transformed these creatures to a semblance of what they had been of old. I saw, in their eyes, the question they sent from one to another, and in every eye I saw that the answer was, Yes. With one accord they rose before my eyes and, ignoring me as a baser creature, they stripped away their load of tattered rags and, one by one, they stalked with their tiny shrivelled limbs into the shivering gale of swirling, gusting snow, and disappeared. And I was alone.... (23)

So am I alone now. I have written this last fantastic history of myself and of Mankind upon a substance that will, I know, outlast even the snow and the Ice—as it has outlasted Mankind that made it. It is the only thing with which I have never parted. For is it not irony that I should be the historian of this race—I, a savage, an "archaic survival?" Why do I write? God knows, but some instinct prompts me, although there will never be men to read (24).

I have been sitting here, waiting, and I have thought often of Sir John and Alice, whom I loved. Can it be that I am feeling again, after all these ages, some tiny portion of that emotion, that great passion I once knew? I see her face before me, the face I have lost from my thoughts for eons, and something is in it that stirs my blood again. Her eyes are half-closed and deep, her lips are parted as though I could crush them with an infinity of wonder and discovery. O God! It is love again, love that I thought was lost! They have often smiled upon me when I spoke of God, and muttered about my foolish, primitive superstitions. But they are gone, and I am left who believe in God, and surely there is purpose in it.

I am cold, I have written. Ah, I am frozen. My breath freezes as it mingles with the air, and I can hardly move my numbed fingers. The Ice is closing over me, and I cannot break it any longer. The storm cries weirdly all about me in the twilight, and I know this is the end. The end of the world. And I—I, the last man....

The last man....

... I am cold—cold....

But is it you, Alice? Is it you?



(1) - There are certain properties in the foods we eat that remain in the body for the reproduction of life, two distinct Essences, so to speak, of which one is retained by the woman, another by the man. It is the union of these two properties that, of course, creates the child.

The importance of nucleic acid, and specifically the structure of DNA, would not be discovered for another generation.  The theory being expressed here is a biochemical version of Henri Bergson's elan vital, from Creative Evolution (1907).  It is of course wrong in detail, though it does generally anticipate the roles of DNA and RNA in the cell.

(2) - "... It is the creation of children that causes us to die, it would seem, because if this activity is, so to speak, dammed up or turned aside into new channels, the reproduction operates on the old body, renewing it continually ..."

This is a restatement of a very old theory, dating back at least a couple of thousand millennia, to the effect that the vital essences are drained off by sexuality in general (and reproduction in particular), and that therefore sexual self-denial would preserve life indefinitely.  It is quite true that frequent childbirth under pre-industrial conditions is likely to shorten a woman's life, and the energetic pursuit of sex for reasons of danger and disease to shorten a man's.  However, the existence disproof of this theory is that the celibate are not, in fact, immortal -- nor are they exceptionally long-lived save by the operations of the aforementioned factors.

(3) - The idea that stopping the sex drive would also stop all other aesthetic, creative and indeed positive emotional impulses is very much a product of Freudian psychological theory, and is almost certainly untrue.  Not ony isn't sex that central to even human psychology, but our affectionate emotions almost certainly derive from primitive mammalian ancestors, and specifically from maternal love and the desire to huddle for mutual warmth and protection.  In many mammals, affection and sex are entirely divorced, and asexually-oriented humans are certainly capable of appreciating art or loving their friends and family:  they lack sex drive, rather than lacking all positive emotions.

(4) - "... And I wonder whether you or I or any of us on this earth are ready for such a step. After all, to make a race deathless, one should be sure it is a perfect race."

This of course assumes that a "deathless" race could not change, or would never have the desire to change arising from purely rational motives.  Both assumptions strike me as dubious, though they well might be true as regards John Granden's specific procedure.

(5) - Mmm, so you've just had it explained to you that Granden's process will not only destroy your potency and your sex drive, but also all aesthetic and affectionate emotions, and it doesn't occur to you that going through this procedure might mess up your marriage plans?  Ah, those stiff-upper-life British types with their utter lack of common sense ...!

(6) - ... And Alice instantly perceives the obvious point which Dennell has missed. 

(7) - Alice loves Dennell perhaps more than he deserves.

(8) - Here we see the limitations of any philosophy of positive affect in the time before the development of game theory.  First pioneered by John von Neumann and outlined first in  On the Theory of Parlor Games (1928) and then in greater scope in a paper, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944) co-written with Oskar Morgenstern, game theory gained wide acceptance in the 1950's.  Its significance is that it shows why, in purely and coldly-logical terms, benevolence and cooperation are wise strategies.  A lot of early science fiction assumes that utterly-rational beings would also be amoral and might be utterly-uncooperative:  it is thanks to game theory that we now know that this is improbable. 

(9) - Truly a diablos ex machina, and one which obviously acts to reduce Dennell's emotional connections with the rest of the human race.

(10) - Dennell is incapable of understanding his old emotionally-tinged memories of Alice, or indeed of anything else which produced postive emotional affect in him.  This is one of the reasons why I wouldn't volunteer for this process:  immortality without emotional pleasure would be personally-meaningless.

(11) - This seems to assume that people are eternally-limited by the assumptions they first learned, which actually makes little sense if one has essentially unlimited wealth (a coldly-rational immortal could easily save enough money to invest in such a way as to become wealthy in half a century) and can continuously study.  A more plausible explanation is that the very regenerative powers of the Granden Process are limiting the ability of Dennell's mind to form new neural connections and specifically to prune old ones.  This would pose especial problems for an immortal, and note that by this point Dennell is something like 200 years old.

(12) - It's a bit surprising, though that in over 200 years of medical progress, nobody has figured out how to duplicate, improve or reverse the Granden Process, even though Dennell knows the Process is possible and could presumably tell other scientists.  This is of course a necessary assumption for the narrative.

(13) - This is something of a Take That to the Yellow Peril theories then very common, and popular in Interwar Era science-fiction.  Wertenbaker (correctly, in my opinion) points out that after centuries of globalization, the very racial differences which frightened the theorists would have long since vanished as the races of Man merged into one.  Even the cultures of East and West have by this time become one, to the point that the change of management is meaningless from Dennell's admittedly-cold point of view.

(14) - Much Interwar Era science-fiction deeply overestimated the difficulty of inter-planetary travel.  It is of course possible that a civilization thousands of years in advance of our time would either be unable or uninterested in the situation on the closest major terrestrial planet to their own, and of course 4500 years is enough time for two whole cycles of civilizations rising and falling.

(15) - The notion of men of the future as giant-brained creatures manipulating the physical world entirely by machinery dates back to the early 20th century, and can also be seen in Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) and. Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" (1931) (which I once reviewed here).  The idea derives from the observation of human evolutionary changes from the other great apes, and is decades older even than "The Coming of the Ice" (which, however, pre-dates my other two examples of its application). 

(16) - The irony here is that Dennell, who has been rendered emotionally-flat by the Granden Process, is emotionally-horrified by the cruelty of the 7th Millennial culture -- because he remembers a kinder and more sentimental civilization.

(17) - At this point humanity has well and truly passed by Dennell, because Kathol has reinvented the Granden Process.  Dennell meant to be a god among men, but is now simply an archaic survival.

(18) - The development of universal human telepathy may have been the last flowering of the culture of the super-intelligent cyborgs, because if the Kathol Process works exactly like the Granden Process, it would logically freeze their further cultural development, probably in no more than a millennium.

(19) - From Dennell's point of view.  Since he has only a very limited understanding of the culture of the telepathic super-intelligent cyborgs, who are far his intellectual superiors, this may be the apparent "perfection" of the human world as viewed by a domestic cat.

(20) - It seems obvious to me that the Perfect World has become highly-decadent -- as the events of the next section strongly imply.

(21) - Notice that the supposed "Perfect World" of ultimate technological development is unable to engage in large-scale climatological engineering?  Or colonize other planets, or even handle a terrestrial migration competently.  And they've forgotten about the last Ice Age, despite the fact that they could simply ask Dennell about it.  As I said, highly-decadent.

(22) - This is more than a mere Ice Age.  It is a Snowball Earth event.  It is quite likely that the actions of the men of the Perfect World, as they lost their records and their science became myth, severely damaged the planetary atmosphere in such a way as to prevent the climate from stablizing at merely Pleistocene levels of temperature.

The last such event was the Marinoan Glaciation, which lasted from 650-635 MYA.  Neither this event, nor its timing, nor the very possibility of Snowball Earth events, were known in the early 20th century when this story was written.

(23) - I would call it a surrender to an inevitability which became inevitable first largely through the arrogant ignorance of the men of the Perfect World, and then through their repeated underestimation of the threat until matters had gone too far for reversal.  This is hardly "nobility," it's more like a tantrum at the unfriendliness of the Universe to the intellectually self-blinded.  But then, Dennell is cold in more than one sense of the word, as indeed were the super-intelligent cyborgs.

(24) - What, no one ever founded successful inter-planetary or inter-stellar colonies in hundreds of millennia?  And remember, the Kathol Process was not discovered until around 200,000 AD, so Mankind had lots of time before they froze their intellectual development.  Though of course it's possible that the other descendants of the men of today are far more alien to Dennell than were the super-intelligent cyborgs.  And of course Dennell has no way to actually contact them at this point:  he's freezing to death somewhere near Earth's Equator.


This is the story of a quest for Transcendence gone horribly right.  John Granden sought immortality because it is an obvious medical goal.  Dennell wanted to become immortal, despite the drawbacks of the process, because he was fascinated by the future and wanted to become a god amongst men.  And he indeed got to live for hundreds of thousands of years, eventually becoming the last man on Earth.

The price of this was literally his humanity.  He lost the ability to have sex, to love, even to experience much in the way of any emotional affect.  His mind -- merely-human despite his flattened emotions -- was unable to adapt much after a mere two centuries of life.  He spent thousands of years hiding his true nature as the world around him grew increasingly alien, and finally became a sort of museum-piece, valued by the posthumans around him largely for his rarity.  And he witnesses the (protracted and depressing) end of the human race on Earth.

This is clearly meant as a cautionary tale.  Had Dennell not undergone the Granden Process, he would have had a normal and perhaps happy life in the 20th century.  Becoming immortal destroyed most of his ability to experience happiness and eventually resulted in him living for hundreds of millennia in  a world more alien to him than the 20th century would have been to an earlier human species.  And there is a strong hint that when humanity as a whole became immortal telepathic super-intelligent cyborgs, they lost their drive, leading to their ultimate extirpation on Earth (and possibly extinction in the Universe).

The nature of Dennell's life strikes me as nightmarish.  He doesn't describe it that way, but then he has trouble experiencing any emotions at all.  Consider this:  he enjoys something like 200 years of actually being able to understand the discoveries of the future.  This is followed by more than 4,000 years of finding himself in an increasingly-alien world which he cannot really understand no matter how hard he tries, surviving mainly because he got very good at survival over that first two centuries.  Then, when he has to reveal his true identity and nature (because Earthly culture has evolved into something so cruel that it would kill him merely for being different) he spends well over 200,000 years as a curiosity, living in a world that is now almost completely incomprehensible to him.  He doesn't even seem to fully-grasp just how decadent the Perfect World has become until it is wiped out by a Snowball Earth event, probably because he only has the vaguest possible notion of how any of it works.

From a modern point of view, it is interesting and a bit puzzling how Earthly humanity manages to reach such a dead-end of development.  By 6371 AD, Earth humans are far more advanced than are the Venusians, who are able (with an essentially 20th century culture) to carry out an (admittedly-unsuccessful) interplanetary invasion of the Earth.  Yet at no point does Dennell mention human expansion beyond the Earth (though it is of course possible that the Venusians are themselves the descendants of human colonists from one of the preceding civilizational cycles, and humanity is now omnipresent in the Solar System and perhaps beyond, which may be why the Earth-humans can't easily expand beyond the Earth). 

Dennell also seems to take the claims of the Perfect World to its own ultimate perfection at face-value, despite the fact that at the time of narration he is completely aware that Earth-humans are extinct or very close to extinction.  Part of this may be that he never really understands much of any culture much beyond the early 3rd millennium.  Part of it may be that Dennell, while well-educated, doesn't seem to have much common sense at all.  (Things might have been different for him had Alice become his fellow-immortal).  And a big part of it is that writers of the Interwar Era had only very vague ideas as to the difficulty or ease of space travel compared to other possible future achievements.

In any case, this story is well-written, evocative, and packs a lot of Big Ideas into a small space while having great emotional impact.  This is an excellent example of early Interwar Era science-fiction.



  1. I notice the assumption that the evolution of intelligence just happens and needs no selective pressures.

    1. Social competition is enough of a selective pressure, though, up to the point of seriously diminishing returns. What we see in the story, though, is a situation where -- a rather intolerant utopia having been attained -- the human race seems to have intellectually deteriorated -- but from such a height that the protagonist fails to grasp what is happening, and has failed to grasp it even when this decadence has doomed the whole species.