sually change-the-world socialist stories of the sort I read from the late 1800’s, such as In the Days of the Comet or The Sleeper awakes, the break between rich and poor, privileged and oppressed is generally specific, antiseptic, and clear-cut. The poor are good, the rich bad. Usually there is a happy sort of ending (or a expected continuance of the system, as with The Time Machine). In the end, things get solved pretty neatly.
There is also an expectation that our fore-authors wrote nice and clear fiction, without too much grime and grit.
Hate to tell ya, but Ceasar’s Column blows that all away.
So a sheep-rancher (is that what they are called?) from Africa comes to a future New York, a place of high buildings (with cool, clear air being pumped down from higher altitudes). And yes, there are airships bobbing about, and everyone on the ground takes little commuter trains, walks, or hails horse-drawn carriages. So it’s that sort of future. Fine. And yes, income inequities exists, like ours times a hundred. The poor are just hanging on by their gritty, ragged fingernails and the bloated rich laugh down at them. Christianity’s message has been perverted by social and economic Darwinism (or Ayn Randism). But when the main character saves a ragged man from being horsewhipped, it turns out he’s just saved one of the head men of the coming revolution. And now we’re off for the ride.
Don’t get this wrong – nothing is going to be solved here. The world is not going to be saved. Everyone realizes (unlike the angry anti-government folks barking at the moon today) that if you upset a social order, you will have gigantic dieoffs as food and power supplies shut down. “You die, she dies, everyone dies” to quote a favorite movie. And the poor don’t care. With millions of them armed and ready to take to the streets, it will be like the French Revolution on steroids. The streets will be awash in blood, women will be raped to death in back alleys by mobs, cities will burn, and everyone will die. But as one worker notes, “Do you suppose that if heaven were blown to pieces hell would be any worse off?” Which is a point the current powers-in-place don’t really understand, I suppose.
Outside of some breathless romantic silliness that clearly dates this book more than a century old (including, I warn, poetry), once the ball drops, the horror begins. Forget everything you thought was amazing about King and other horror writers. Forget about prepper novels and A country boy will survive bullshit. This is about mobs and killings and the rich (and middle class, because the bloodlust is up) being thrown off roofs for amusement. And in the end, when you really realize what the title of this book refers to, well, there is an image that will stay in your mind forever.
So yes, I started reading this for amusement, just one of those casual jaunts into the past. But what I found was a novel as chilling and blood-spattered as anything you can find on the shelves today.
If you dare, here it is – you can have it for free complements of Project Gutenberg.
You’ve been warned.