Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Heads of Cerberus-Part Two

The Heads of Cerberus is a book rich in insight. I have already written much about Francis Stevens--maybe too much--so other than the following miscellany, I would simply urge you to read the book, for it might tell us something about where we're going.

One of the heroes of The Heads of Cerberus is Terence "Terry" Trenmore, a big, brawling Irish Catholic like Colin O'Hara before him. I wonder now if Gertrude Barrows was from an Irish Catholic family and if she based her heroes on her father. (Or her brother. Both Colin and Terry have spirited sisters who are along for the adventure. Maybe that was Gertrude putting herself into her stories.)

The story takes place in the Philadelphia of 1918 and in the Philadelphia of 2118. In going from the present to the future, the main characters pass through a strange, dreamlike landscape called Ulithia. During World War II, the U.S. Navy built an enormous base at an atoll it called Ulithi. There is almost certainly no connection between these two names, but what are we supposed to make of something like this? (1)

In going from Ulithia to the world of 2118, the main characters pass through a "moon gate." Upon arriving in the future Philadelphia, they look back to see a blank brick wall behind them. That reminds me of the Star Trek episode "All Our Yesterdays" in which Kirk is accused of witchcraft in an Earth-like past, while Spock and McCoy freeze to death in a prehistoric ice age.

In 1952, the same year in which Polaris reprinted The Heads of Cerberus, Taylor Caldwell published her own dystopian novel, The Devil's Advocate. Like Stevens' book, this one is set in Philadelphia. It is satirical to a point but also far more serious--and far longer--than The Heads of Cerberus. Note that both titles refer to the underworld.

Shortly after I read The Heads of Cerberus, I also read a comic book story called "The Medallion" from The Twilight Zone #57, July 1974. There is more than a passing resemblance between the two tales. Both are set in Philadelphia and both involve an artifact from the estate of a deceased man that allows the owner to travel through time. Both artifacts were also previously owned by statesmen of Florence.

In The Heads of Cerberus, the people of the future don't have names but are numbered instead, just as in We, The Prisoner, THX-1138, and Logan's Run.

Also, as in those four works, the people of the future Philadelphia know nothing of the outside world. Their world is a city. We of course recognize that ignorance among the populace is essential for the proper functioning of a statist regime. Today you can see that in North Korea, Iran, and certain political parties here in the United States.

The government of the future Philadelphia--oppressive, arbitrary, dictatorial--describes itself to its underclasses as "this blessed and democratic institution, the bulwark of your liberties!" (p. 129) Times have not changed: politicians still tell the same lies.

The other hero, Robert Drayton, explains the historical events leading up to the current state of affairs: "After the close of the World Wars . . . . communism had its way of Europe. Class war, which spells chaos, ensued." (p. 153) This was written in 1918 mind you.

Another character, a servant of the state, suggests that the current order is based on complete stasis and describes "the City of Philadelphia as having reached a state of perfection." (p. 115). Just this week, I spoke to a Venezuelan lawyer and a refugee from her own country. She warned me never to vote for a socialist. (Don't worry, I thought.) She went on to say that socialists want to make everything perfect, but it's never perfect. (I know that, too, but it's good to know I'm not the only one who knows it.)

Finally, Robert Drayton wonders: "Had the backbone of this people been entirely softened in the vinegar of even two centuries of oppression? And these were his own people, or their descendants--his fellow Americans! That hurt." (p. 119) Yeah, it hurts. What hurts more is that it has taken only half that time to get to a spineless and fearful American people, ripe to impose tyranny upon itself.

(1) Postscript (May 7, 2015): It may be that the name Ulithia was meant to play off the name Utopia, from Thomas More's book of 1516. I'm no expert in Greek and Latin roots, but utopia supposedly means no place. The Greek root eu- mean well or good, hence eugenics or well-born. So utopia could also be eutopia. In any case, if u- means no or not and lith means stone, then Ulithia could be a place of no stones. In the book, Ulithia is a ruined place, but "no stones" doesn't really make sense to me. Likewise, Eulithia--good stones--doesn't make any sense, either. But I wonder if it could be--by substitution of rock for stone--a Christian reference. Even then, I don't know what it could mean.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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