Entry updated 7 March 2022. Tagged: Theme.
If Louis-Sébastien Mercier's Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (1771) can be set to one side, because its protagonist travels forward in time (see Time Travel) in order to view the ruins of Versailles, the first published narrative set in the future in which a tourist of that future period investigates the ruins of a city like London seems to be Thomas Lyttelton's posthumous Poems, by a Young Nobleman ...; Particularly the State of England, and The once flourishing City of London. In a Letter from an American Traveller, Dated from the Ruinous Portico of St Paul's, in the Year 2199 ... (coll 1780 chap). It was not a model which excited a very vital response, though a number of narrative poems did make passing reference to future ruins as part of a general expression of cultural and political apprehension as the wars with Napoleonic France worsened (see Ruins and Futurity for a fuller account).
In 1829, however, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) published a review of James Mill's Essays on Government (March 1829 Edinburgh Review) in which he envisioned a London where, "in two or three hundred years, a few lean and half-naked fishermen ... may wash their nets amidst the relics of her gigantic docks"; a decade later, even more resonantly, he published a review of Leopold Von Ranke's The Ecclesiastical and Political History of the Popes During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (October 1840 Edinburgh Review) which closed with a warning to his fellow Whigs that monuments of the superseded past, like the Roman Catholic Church, had endured for ages and were unlikely to vanish overnight; and that emblems of rational progress in the world, like the various Protestant churches, might prove evanescent. Indeed, he concluded, the Catholic Church "may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's".
This complex image of relative decline, combined with the representation of a New Zealander (generally conceived of as Maori) brooding over dead London, is significant in its own right, as New Zealand was often described as the home of a successor to the British Empire. Macaulay's focus on the tourist of the future, the representative of a new empire and a new order, seem to have hit a nerve in an England whose more classically educated citizens were highly conscious of the fate of Rome; the British Empire, just now entering its planetary stage, was in this perspective a clear successor to that paradigm city and empire, and Macaulay's New Zealander tag became an exceedingly usable metaphor for the fragility of imperial sway, for the apprehension that the colonized would eventually become the colonizer, and for the insecurity of the commercial enterprises necessary for the British Empire to flourish; Anthony Trollope's posthumous nonfiction study, The New Zealander (written 1855-1856; 1972), presents arguments as to how to stave off this fate. Indeed, almost thirty years of incessant use of the trope preceded Gustave Doré's famous frontispiece to London: A Pilgrimage (1872) by Blanchard Jerrold (1826-1884). In Doré's iconic engraving, the New Zealander is pictured gazing across the stagnant Thames at the Babylonic/Roman ruins of the great city; a total lack of mercantile shipping signifies a fatal dearth of imperial commerce. This rendering fixed Macaulay's image for good, and clearly inspired William Delisle Hay's The Doom of the Great City, Being the Narrative of a Survivor, written A.D. 1942 (1880 chap), whose New Zealander protagonist is direly smug about London's destruction (this may be the first prose fiction to combine a description of London's violent destruction, as opposed to the more usual inevitable decline on the model of Rome, with a Last Man walk through the ruins); and early readers of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness (February-April 1899 Blackwood's Magazine; in Youth: A Narrative; and Two Other Stories, coll 1902; 1925) would almost certainly have noted the implications of its crepuscular Thames setting.
The image of the New Zealander contemplating the ruins soon became significant for British sf: the trope of contemplation, where past and future are held in one gaze, is a central component in the Ruins and Futurity topos, and is central to a late-nineteenth-century form, the Scientific Romance; a little later, the powerful Hitler Wins novel, Loss of Eden: A Cautionary Tale (1940; vt If Hitler Comes: A Cautionary Tale 1941) by Douglas Brown and Christopher Serpell, begins with a scene that specifically dramatizes the image. It has also been mutedly significant for sf in general, though American sf writers tend to locate the trope in a Dying Earth venue; it has frequently been referenced by visual artists. A twenty-first-century example is the cover art for China Miéville's The Tain (2002 chap) by Les Edwards working as Edward Miller. The similarly iconic imagery, within a year or so of its erection in 1886, of the Statue of Liberty mired in the stagnant Hudson with ruined New York visible in the background – see for example J A Mitchell's cover and illustrations for his novel The Last American (1889 chap; exp 1902) – demonstrates the power of the Macaulay/Doré version of the old nightmare of the transience of empire. Archaeological fiction in general – in which ruins of our contemporary world, having survived into the future, are bemusedly examined – often echoes the Macaulay/Doré image; one example out of many is Gene Wolfe's Seven American Nights (in Orbit 20, anth 1978, ed Damon Knight; 1989 chap dos), where the visitor to the Ruined Earth of America is not only contemplative, but duly and earnestly sketches what he gazes upon, as did the New Zealander before him. For it is not enough that ruins merely be contemplated: they need to be recorded, so that the lessons of Time can sink in (see again Ruins and Futurity). [JC]
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