(Notes edited by John McGivering. We are grateful to Alastair Wilson for various suggestions and comments)
|notes on the text|
At first sight, Kipling’s attitude to public recognition is not altogether straightforward. He had a ‘horror’ of intrusions on his personal life, of reporters, of the regular bus-loads of sightseers who came peering into his garden at Rottingdean, even into his house. This feeling was so strong in him that in one of his science fiction stories, “As Easy as A.B.C.”, he went so far as to depict a future state of society in which invasion of privacy is a uniquely serious legal offence At the same time he joined clubs, went in for speech-making and ... could not have gone a better way about becoming a public figure if he had tried.Norman Page (p. 65) quotes a contemporary reviewer in the Athenæum who describes the tale as: 'Perhaps the finest short story of the future that has ever been written', while Bonamy Dobrée (p. 115) in his chapter on "The Reactionary", calls it 'a major attack on democracy.' [See also the article by Fred Lerner on "Kipling as a Science Fiction Writer" in this Guide.]
It is not a Utopia: there is no suggestion that this is what Rudyard would have wished to come about; nor is it like George Orwell's 1984, a forecast of horror; it is a mere statement of what might occur when the technocrats should have made the progress which - to a seeing eye in 1907, they seemed likely to make. Broadcasting techniques were foreseen with uncanny accuracy and the transmission of energy by radio is carried to much greater length in his fantasy than has yet been achieved in real life, with the consequence that an international Utility Company of radio technicians, the `Aerial Board of Control', has imperceptibly taken over the administration of the planet. The sovereign states have withered away and political ideologies exist only as picturesque survivals or atavistic patches of superstition. The solution is `as easy as A.B.C.' Power must pass to the organization that directs traffic through the world-wide radio network.Angus Wilson (pp. 249-250) sees this as one of the best science fiction stories of all time:
On the passing of politics, Kipling speaks clearly enough in his own voice. How gladly will the men of the future abandon the follies of Democracy, the slogans, the street processions, the mob-oratory, the ancient corruptions, the corroding sentimentalities, in return for a system that secures privacy for private persons and adequate public services. 'Transportation is Civilization', and if the `A.B.C.' takes responsibility for the 'traffic and all that that implies', politics can be forgotten ...The future is not, in Kipling's view, a pleasant world to live in, but beset with neuroses, and doomed to extinction by a birth-rate dwindling towards zero.
It is hard to convey, in summary, the power and tension of these dramatic events, which are, of course, heightened by Kipling's pessimistic view of humanity that lies behind it. But the real subtlety of the story comes not from the narrative alone but from two other aspects.And J M S Tompkins (pp.95-6) echoes the same thought:
In the first place, the very story itself contradicts the proposition of the technological paradise it purports to portray. For it is only in this moment of breakdown, in this unexpected visit of the pestilence of disagreement and conflict in this perfect world, that Kipling's creative imagination can work upon it. It may be said that this is an objection to the technological paradise, the world of human will subjected voluntarily to expertise, which, though it may be implicit in the story, is not in Kipling's consciousness. But this is not so. For Kipling puts into the mouths of his benevolent world rulers strangely ambiguous remarks which suggest most clearly that they and he are sadly disillusioned with the vacuous, "perfect" creature world they rule.
Dragomiroff, the Russian, says: 'We have cut the birth rate out - right out! ... Oh! that is quite well! I am rich - you are rich - we are all rich and happy because we are so few and live so long. Only I think Almighty God He will remember what the Planet was like in the times of the Crowds and the Plagues. Perhaps He will send us heroes. Eh, Pirolo?' And the Italian answers: 'Perhaps He has sent them already.'
And later when the ray is first used (benevolently, of course, bringing only a very temporary deafness and blindness to the raging crowd) we are given a hint of something missing, when Dragomiroff, the very wise old man, cries out in fear: 'I have never seen Death.'
In his fear of the anarchy of crowd tyranny, of the breakdown of order, never so intense as in these Lloyd George years of growing social welfarism, Kipling invents a future utopia in which pain and conflict and diversity have been abolished, but he records his recognition of his sense of inestimable loss, for without them, as he knows, his fiction is unimaginable.
It is a world where men take no risks, and do not willingly assume public responsibility; the memory of the of the disorders of the preceding Democratic Age — the age of Crowds and the Plague — has led them to place their individual peace and privacy before all things, and their scientific control of the environment has enabled them to do so. Such a world may be easy to live in, but it is not good. To those who are so rich and happy and live so long, old Dragomiroff speculates, God may send nerves; and it is clear from the behaviour of the Mothers at Chicago, and of Dragomiroff himself, that He has already done so. The basic energy of life is failing in a world where men do not struggle and suffer to their full scope ... Everything in the tale is double-edged, and there is no conclusion, but it is not Kipling;s blueprint for the future.This Editor suspects that the people of Chicago may have echoed King Gama’s song in Act 3 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light opera Princess Ida:
Oh, don’t the days seem lank and longSee Gilmour, Chapter 14 (“In Defence of Privilege”) for a penetrating examination of Kipling’s views on politics: 'The years before the First World War exhibit many of Kipling’s virtues and nearly all his unpleasantness. It was his decade for hating.'(Page 212).
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong,
And isn’t your life extremely flat
With nothing whatever to grumble at !