As Easy as A.B.C.

(Notes edited by John McGivering. We are grateful to Alastair Wilson for various suggestions and comments)


First published in various Sunday papers in the United States on 25 February and 12 March 1912 and in the London Magazine of March and April the same year with illustrations by F. Gardner. Collected in A Diversity of Creatures (1917); it is accompanied by “MacDonough’s Song”, the last verse of which is included in the text of the story in all printings. The full text of twenty-nine lines appeared in A Diversity of Creatures in 1917.

The story is also collected in the Sussex Edition Volume IX page 3; the Burwash Edition Volume IX; Scribner’s Edition Volume XXVI, and A Kipling Pageant, Doubleday, Doran & Co,. Inc, New York, 1939.

The story

We are in the year 2065, 65 years after “With the Night Mail” (Actions and Reactions), in a world dominated by the ‘Aerial Board of Control’ (the ‘A.B.C.’ of the title), a ‘semi-elected semi-nominated’ body. Technology has moved on, and there is an array of sophisticated machines and weapons based on electricity and radio. Men are living longer, living standards are high, and the population is diminishing. It is a world divided into enclaves, fiercely guarding their privacy, indeed the insistence on privacy and a hatred of crowds, are dominant principles of human society. Democracy, the rule of the masses, is seen as an outmoded and repugnant idea.

When the story opens, the people of Northern Illinois have cut off all communications as a distress signal. A movement of dissidents has grown up, asking to be free to assemble together, and make public speeches, and demanding the right to ‘popular government’ through some sort of democratic process. Most of the inhabitants detest these ideas, and there is a danger of serious violence.

The representatives of the ABC arrive with a fleet of powerful aircraft, assess the situation, take the dissidents prisoner, and carry them back to London – the world capital – where they are handed over to an impresario who proposes to put them on the stage for the entertainment of the public.
Meryl Macdonald records (p.166) that the crew of a British airship, R 34, had A Diversity of Creatures on board when they made their double crossings of the Atlantic in 1919, and were astonished at its technical accuracy. They all signed it and gave it to Kipling – it is now on show at Bateman’s.

Critical comments
Kingsley Amis argues that the story reflects Kipling’s own desperate need for privacy (page 77), forgetting perhaps that he is looking at a work of fiction, where the views of the characters do not necessarily reflect the views of the author, however similar they may be:

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.]
But Charles Carrington points out (pp. 374-5) that:

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.

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.

Angus Wilson (pp. 249-250) sees this as one of the best science fiction stories of all time:

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.

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.

And J M S Tompkins (pp.95-6) echoes the same thought:

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 long
When all goes right and nothing goes wrong,
And isn’t your life extremely flat
With nothing whatever to grumble at !

See 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).

Kipling and Science Fiction

In the view of many modern writers of Science Fiction, Kipling was a pioneer of the genre. Seed Fred :Lerner’s essay A Master of Our Art.

See also:

The Finest Story in the World
A Matter of Fact
The Ship that Found Herself
the Army of a Dream
With the  Night Mail
Cold Iron
A Doctor of Medicine
The Knife and the Naked Chalk
In the Same Boat
The Eye of Allah



[J H McG]

©John McGivering 2008 All rights reserved