The Devolutionist (5)
March 21, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the fifth installment of our serialization of Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist. New installments will appear each Thursday for eighteen weeks.
“The Devolutionist” (Argosy All-Story Weekly, July 1921) is the third occult-science-fiction Dr. Kinney story; the others are “The Lord of Death” (June 1919), “The Queen of Life” (August 1919), and “The Emancipatrix” (September 1921). Having learned how to visit other worlds telepathically, without leaving Earth — by means of Venusian technology — Dr. Kinney and his companions enter the minds and share the sensations of the inhabitants of a human-like civilization on other planets. In this story, they visit a double planet: Hafen is the abode of capitalists, Holl of workers. A nearby planet of “cooperative democrats” is in trouble, so Kinney & co. step in.
Cobbler and one-reeler writer Homer Eon Flint (1888–1924) published a number of pulp science fiction stories — including “The Planeteer” (1918; one of the earliest examples of cosmic sci-fi) and The Blind Spot (1921, with Austin Hall) — during the genre’s Radium Age. Everett Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years calls Flint “in many ways the outstanding writer of s-f in the Munsey pulp magazines.” Flint died in a crash near Oakland, Calif., after supposedly stealing a taxi at gunpoint in order to use it in a bank hold-up.
The first thing that met the doctor’s gaze, when his mind entered that of his distant agent, was a clock. It was a very ordinary sort of an instrument, such as one sees in schools and offices; it had two hands, and a pendulum of the usual size and length.
However, this pendulum was swinging at a very rapid rate; nearly twice as fast, judged the doctor, as that of his own chronometer. And its dial was divided into twenty-five equal parts, instead of twelve, each of these parts being further divided into five equal portions. At the moment, these two hands indicated what would have been called, on the earth, about half past three.
Before the doctor could speculate on this, his unknown agent shifted his gaze to a newspaper on a desk before him. Apparently he was thinking of something entirely different; for he absently turned the pages, one by one, his subconscious mind taking it all in.
And the doctor saw that the paper was called simply The Hourly Journal; that it was of very nearly the size of most sheets; and that it consisted of about ten pages. The front and back pages, only, contained news items; the remainder were packed solid with advertisements. Not one of these were striking enough for the doctor to remember; he said they were exactly like large-size professional “cards,” except that they applied to every business, from candy to bridges. As for the news items, each was short, unsensational, with the simplest kind of head-lines. More the doctor had no chance to observe.
Abruptly the agent stowed the paper away, and looked up. Presumably he was seated in some sort of a theater. Directly ahead was the familiar white rectangle of a photoplay-house screen. And all about him were heads and shoulders, seemingly belonging to young folks, of about high-school age. Even to “low necks” for the girls and white collars for the boys, they were identically like people of the Earth.
In fact, if it had not been for that clock the doctor would have concluded that there was some mistake, and have ended the experiment. For some time he learned little; the place was filled with a confused murmur. His agent, however, took no part in the conversation that produced this effect; once or twice he yawned.
Suddenly the buzz came to a stop; and next moment a tall figure stepped upon the platform in front of the screen.
“Class,” began this person immediately, “to-day we will summarize what we have learned during the past week about the solar system of which our planet is one element.”
And as he spoke the doctor saw that there had been no mistake. For, although the agent’s subconscious mind had served to translate what was said into language understandable by the doctor, yet his eyes plainly told him that the professor’s lips were saying something else.
There was no doubt about it. For all that the doctor could tell by watching the speaker’s mouth, he might have been talking in Eskimo. But his meaning was quite as clear as though he had said it in English.
“We will begin with a picture of the sun herself.” As the words were spoken, a motion-picture film was projected on the screen. The doctor instantly noted the natural colors, stereoscopic effect, and marvelous clearness, such as branded this exhibition as not of the earth. But the professor was saying:
“The sun controls, besides this world, no less than thirty others”— and the doctor knew, as well as other people know their ABC’s, that the earth’s planetary family consists of only eight —“no less than thirty others, of which eight are now without life.” The speaker turned toward a student on the far left. “Tell us how many of the thirty are still too hot to support life, Miss Ballens.”
The girl did not get to her feet. “Ten,” was her answer.
“Which leaves, of course, twelve besides our own planet which now possess life in one form or another. Mr. Ernol, can you give us some idea of conditions on any one of these?”
To the doctor’s immense satisfaction, the brain whose loan he was enjoying responded to the question. “On Saloni, the vertebrates have not yet appeared. None but the lowest forms of life have been found.”
“Is this planet larger or smaller than ours, Mr. Ernol?”
“Larger. It will be a matter of millions of centuries before such beings as humans are evolved there.”
“How do we know these facts?”
As though it were a signal, the entire class, with one accord, uttered a single word: “Runled!”
And the doctor found his agent’s eyes turned, together with those of every other student in the room, toward the portrait of a highly intellectual-looking man; it hung in the most conspicuous spot on the wall.
“We must never forget,” continued the man on the platform, “that, but for the explorations of this man and his space-boat, some eighty years ago, we should know very little. Can any one tell me why his explorations have never been repeated?”
Two hands went up. The professor nodded to a girl seated next to the young fellow whom the doctor now knew as “Ernol.” This girl spoke very clearly: “Because the expedition was extremely costly, and the commission has never been willing to appropriate enough to duplicate the work.”
“The commission’s judgment is, of course, sound,” commented the professor calmly. Then he signaled for a change in the picture, which had been showing, in rapid succession, glimpses of world after world. The new picture was more leisurely.
“The planet Alma. Can any one explain why it is of special interest to us?”
For a moment there was no comment, and the doctor found himself studying a “panorama” of some exceedingly striking people. There was quite a crowd; and the doctor was amazed to note how much like the Venusians they were. Without exception they were delicately built, with thin, shriveled legs; all were seated, none standing, in cigar-shaped aircraft of a type entirely new to the doctor.
“The people of Alma,” spoke up a boy out of sight of Ernol, “are especially interesting to us because they are, so far as is known, the most highly developed beings in existence.”
“In what way are they like us?”
“They are vertebrates, mammals, primates, just as we are.”
“And how do they differ from us?”
“They are ‘cooperative democrats’; that is, they do not compete with each other for a living, but work together in all things, in complete equality. In this way they have become so wonderfully advanced that —”
The professor interrupted. “We will not go into that.” The scene shifted from people to things: a large, complicated-looking column of some sort was being shown. “What does this tell us?”
“It tells us,” spoke up some one, “that Alma is entirely surrounded and covered by a great roof, which stands several miles above the surface.” [Footnote: Compare with Venus. It would seem that, whenever a planet reached a certain age, its people will always take steps to preserve its atmosphere; that is, provided their civilization is high enough.]
“What is the purpose of this roof?”
“To keep in the air and moisture, which all other planets are steadily losing. Alma is a much older planet than ours, which is why her people are so far advanced.”
Next came “close-ups” of some inhabitants. At once the doctor saw that these were not Venusians; they had facial expressions as sour and cynical as the typical Venusian’s had been pleasant and wise.
“You will note,” commented the professor very quietly, “that these people are far from happy.”
The class seemed to take it for granted; but the doctor’s trained ears instantly caught a false note in the speaker’s voice. Was the man sure of his statement?
At the same time the doctor became aware of a certain dullness in the vision he was borrowing. Also, the speaking became much less distinct. It occurred to him that the boy might be drowsy; and an unmistakable nodding shortly made this certain.
“As we see from these photographs,” droned the voice on the platform, “happiness does not exist on Alma. And if not there, where else can we expect to find it? Certainly not among the less developed planets.
“So we must conclude that ours is the only world where the people are truly happy. We must thank the commission for the peculiar distinction which we enjoy. Ours is the only civilization which guarantees happiness to all; these pictures prove it for us.”
At that instant young Ernol lifted his head with a jerk. “How do we know,” he demanded, “that these photographs were not very cunningly selected to give us a wrong idea? Perhaps they lie, professor!”
Instantly consternation reigned. The professor fairly froze in his tracks, while every eye in the room was turned in amazement upon the lad.
“What!” exclaimed the speaker sternly. “Where did you get such an extraordinary notion, Mr. Ernol?”
The boy had sat up straight, looking about uncertainly. He got unsteadily to his feet. “Why —” he stammered helplessly. “Why, I haven’t any idea —What have I been saying, sir?”
The professor checked a hasty answer. He said quietly: “Do you mean to say you are unaware that you spoke just now?”
“Yes, sir. I mean —” The boy was badly puzzled. “To be frank, sir, I was almost asleep. I studied about Alma years ago. I know I said something, but as to what it was —”
“That will do.” The professor made a sign, and Ernol sat down, tremendously embarrassed. “The class will understand that people, when talking in their sleep, usually say things which are the exact opposite of what they know to be true.”
The man wet his lips, as though with satisfaction at the neatness of his wording. He added in a generous tone: “I will not reprimand Mr. Ernol, because his previous work indicates, as he says, that Alma is an old topic to him. I only wish that he stood as well in certain other studies!”
A ripple of laughter ran over the class, and again the puzzled youth was the target for the combined stares of the students. He slipped down deep into his seat.
“That will do for to-day,” said the teacher, glancing at the clock. “Tomorrow we will begin the study of the other suns of the universe — what we commonly call stars.
“However, before you go”— his voice took on a certain ominousness —“let me remind you that it is the custom not to question the sources of our information. We take them for granted. In fact, it is more than a custom; the regulations require that any student who is not satisfied with the sincerity of our public school system shall be suspended for the first objection, and for the second shall forfeit all educational rights whatever.
“You will readily see for yourselves, then, that it will not be wise for any of you to repeat what Mr. Ernol unconsciously let slip. And of course none of you will be so unkind as to remind him of what he said.”
The students rose thoughtfully to their feet, and Ernol passed out with the rest. He had no idea what it was all about, nor the slightest suspicion that his eyes and ears had been used.
But the doctor had learned something of enormous value. He had learned that, when his agent was in a semiconscious state, his — the doctor’s — conscious mind could influence the agent.
It was not Ernol, but the doctor, who had made the slip!
* “He had learned that, when his agent was in a semiconscious state, his — the doctor’s — conscious mind could influence the agent.” — Hello, Being John Malkovich.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.”
HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels (both original and reissued) on HiLobrow, and to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. The following titles can be read in serial form via HiLobrow.com and/or purchased in gorgeous paperback form online or via your local independent bookstore: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. Also serialized on HiLobrow: W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet”, Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist, Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon — 2419 A.D., Jack London’s “The Red One”. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”