Theodore Savage: An absolutely splendid post-apocalyptic work

Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTheodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsTheodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton

By the time WW1 ended in 1918, London-born Cicely Hamilton had already earned a name for herself as an advocate for both women’s rights and marriage equality. As one of Britain’s most vocal suffragettes, she’d campaigned for the right of women to vote; as a renowned playwright, she’d written socially biting works for the stage, and indeed, her suffrage dramas How the Vote Was Won (1909) and A Pageant of Great Women (1910) were both highly successful. But during the Great War, Hamilton also served in France, both in a nursing unit and in a revue for the entertainment of the troops, and her wartime experiences soon resulted in her penning her one and only science fiction novel, entitled Theodore Savage.

A wonderfully well written and emotionally affecting work that falls squarely in the post-apocalyptic subgenre, the novel was originally released in 1922, when Hamilton was 50, as a hardcover book from England’s Leonard Parsons publishing company, and bearing the subtitle A Story of the Past or the Future. Six years later, it was rereleased as a Jonathan Cape hardcover, with its name changed to Lest Ye Die, and, that same year, as a Scribners hardcover, with its name changed to Lest Ye Die: A Story From the Past or of the Future. (Why all the name changes? Don’t ask me!) The book would then sadly go OOPs (out of prints) for a full 85 years, until the wonderful folks at HiLo Books chose to resurrect it, in 2013, as part of their Radium Age Science Fiction Series. (I have previously written here of a few other books from this important series, namely Edward Shanks’ postapocalyptic novel from 1920, The People of the Ruins, as well as E.V. Odle’s whimsical work of 1923, The Clockwork Man.) Yes, it was this HiLo edition that I was fortunate enough to lay my hands on, and wow, am I ever glad I did! Simply put, this is a stunningly superb novel that will surely make any reader feel regret for the fact that Hamilton never tried her hand in a similar vein again. Rather, after the book’s release, she went on to become a journalist, writing articles on such matters as birth control and other women’s issues, until her passing in 1952, at age 80. And so, Theodore Savage remains her only work in the sci-fi arena, but what a contribution it is!

Lest Ye Die by Cicely HamiltonThe book introduces us to the titular character, a 30-ish office clerk in London’s Distribution Office; a government worker of no particular smarts or ambitions. An easygoing everyman, Savage, when we first encounter him, seems to have nothing more on his mind than collecting art prints and courting his boss’ daughter, Phillida Rathbone, a stylish young woman who soon consents to be his fiancée. Not even the vague rumors of war looming on the horizon are sufficient to disturb the placidity of Theodore’s existence. But sadly enough, those rumors do indeed prove to be borne out, and England and all of Europe are soon plunged into yet another conflict. The happy couple is separated when Theodore is sent up north to York, and it is in that ancient city that Theodore first sees the war come to his native land. As the bombings commence upon British soil, whole populations are displaced, food supplies grow short, communications are broken, and the people are quickly stripped of their civilized veneer. Theodore is detailed to an army unit guarding a precious food supply; a unit that is quickly overrun by the starving desperate hordes, leaving Savage beaten, battered and alone, but still somehow alive. And so, his years as a wanderer begin, as the world as we know it quickly devolves to an almost prehistoric level of barbarism.

After months of solo wandering and grubbing for food in a half-starved state, Theodore gains a companion on the road, an empty-headed ex-factory worker named Ada Cartwright, aged 23. Desperate to avoid the bands of starving marauders who are now ubiquitous, the two set up a camp in a secluded valley in what may or may not be Wales. Their platonic relationship eventually becomes a sexual one, even though Theodore eventually resorts to beating the lazy, vacuous, clingy woman as a means of getting her to be more helpful around the camp. When Ada inevitably becomes pregnant, Theodore is compelled to explore the countryside in search of a doctor or midwife (he being no, uh, Doc Savage himself), and is soon taken captive by the men of a nearby village. These villagers, after ascertaining that Savage has no knowledge of the technical and mechanical sciences that have now become taboo, allow the pregnant couple to erect a hut in their vicinity, and so, Theodore’s next chapter begins. He takes an oath before he is allowed to join this village, swearing his fidelity to them and, most importantly, that he will never speak or even think of the “hidden mysteries” that had led mankind to its destruction. But as the years go by, and Savage grows increasingly savage, he cannot forbear to dwell upon the olden days, and all the wonders that have been lost, and to search the horizons for the sight of a plane, or a hint of salvation…

Now, unlike the pre-Industrial society that England has reverted to by the year 2174, in the Shanks novel, following a long period of war, the society that Hamilton presents to us has practically reverted to the level of the Dark Ages. In Shanks’ novel, the Englishmen whom we encounter are making attempts to keep their dilapidated trains going, although they have forgotten most of the scientific background requisite for keeping their gadgetry functional. In Hamilton’s book, the slipping away of science-based knowledge is deliberate and intentional, as an extreme method of averting future conflicts. As Theodore’s scientist friend Markham had observed early in the story, “You can’t combine the practice of science and the art of war; in the end it’s one or the other.” And Hamilton does a wonderfully convincing job of depicting this primitive and willfully ignorant society, as Theodore and Ada try valiantly to adapt to it.

Cicely Hamilton

Cicely Hamilton

Ultimately, after a passage of many decades, Savage is looked upon with awe by his grandsons and fellow tribesmen; a person who actually remembers what life was like before the time of the “Ruin.” As he lets slip the occasional reference to seemingly impossible wonders of his early manhood, his fellows can only gaze at him with confusion and wonder, bringing to mind the character of the 87-year-old John Howard Smith, telling tales to his semibarbaric grandsons in the wasteland of 2073, in Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), as well as Isherwood Williams in the postapocalyptic masterpiece by George R. Stewart, Earth Abides (1949). Similar to those other characters, Savage can’t help dwelling on the past, and finds it impossible to convey his thoughts and feelings to his illiterate kin. And Hamilton, again, does a terrific job at making us feel his frustration and sense of loss.

Hers is a book filled with intelligent speculation and food for thought. In one section, Theodore realizes that the society in which he was born may one day become a thing of myth, and wonders if such things as the Devil and the ancient mythologies might also have had a basis in reality. He later reflects on whether there might possibly be, somewhere in the world, a group of people who are preserving our scientific attainments, and whether these scientists might eventually need to be set aside in their own exclusive caste, a la the priests in ancient Egypt. He wonders if the new savage gods that have evolved amongst the modern-day barbarians might eventually be replaced with a more benevolent deity, as mankind adapts to its new world. It is all wonderfully fascinating stuff, set out clearly and reasonably by Ms. Hamilton.

Theodore Savage by Cicely Hamilton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsAnd oh, what a terrific prose stylist she turns out to be here, giving the reader any number of beautifully written scenes and set pieces. The countdown to the beginning of war, as Theodore huddles with the crowd near Big Ben, and later sits in Markham’s flat (“Do you know where we are now — you and I and all of us? On the crest of the centuries. They’ve carried us a long roll upwards and now here we are —on top! In five more minutes — three hundred little seconds — we shall hear the crest curl over,” Markham movingly reflects); the initial bombardment of York and the subsequent scenes of mass panic; Theodore’s months of solo wandering; his initiation into the tribe … all are sequences of remarkably solid and haunting impact. In one marvelous scene, Savage explores a riverside town not too far from his newly adopted village and observes the wasting and submersion that are rapidly threatening to obliterate it completely. It is almost reminiscent of the submerged landscape depicted in J.G. Ballard’s 1962 masterwork The Drowned World, without Ballard’s hallucinatory quality. As Hamilton notes, “The rigid important little streets had been no more than an episode in the ceaseless life of the wilderness; an episode ending in failure, to be decently buried and forgotten…”

Ultimately, Theodore Savage reveals itself to be a heartfelt plea for sanity, as well as a warning to the world regarding what another world war might bring about. Of course, before her passing in 1952, Hamilton would witness yet another terrible worldwide conflict, and even though it did not result in a general backsliding of civilization into a new Dark Age, it was indeed quite terrible enough. Sadly, cautionary tales about the evils of war never seem to be out of date, and this is one of the best that I’ve yet experienced. I’ve been reading a lot of pulp fiction recently, as you might have noticed, and fun and entertaining as those works can be, nobody would ever confuse them with high art. But Ms. Hamilton’s Theodore Savage does indeed elevate science fiction to the realm of great literature, and it thus gets my very highest recommendation. An important, thoughtful, impassioned, exciting, at times haunting, and marvelously detailed work, it is one that you will not soon forget…

Published in 1922. When war breaks out in Europe — modern, aerial war whose tactics include displacing entire populations — British civilization collapses overnight. The ironically named Theodore Savage, an educated and idle civil servant, must learn to survive by his wits in a new Britain… one where science and technology swiftly come to be regarded with superstitious awe and terror. The book — by a women’s rights activist often remembered today for her polemical plays, tracts and treatises — was first published in 1922.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. What a great-sounding book! Thanks for the wonderfully detailed review. I’ve added it to my to-read list.

  2. Sandy Ferber /

    Oh, my pleasure, Brad. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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