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January/February 2020
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Man's Mortality, by Michael Arlen (1933)

Michael Arlen was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian in Bulgaria in 1895 and moved to England as a young child. He took up a literary career under the Arlen byline, which later become his legal name, having enormous success with his scandalous 1924 novel The Green Hat.

Man's Mortality (1933) is set in 1987, when most of the world is ruled by the Pax Aeronautica, which enforces world peace and prosperity via control of airship travel. (The resemblance to the A. B. C. of Kipling's "With the Night Mail" is noticeable.) The novel opens, however, with some idealistic airmen learning about the vicious methods the Pax uses, including introducing plagues to recalcitrant areas. Some airmen defect and join the reclusive scientist David Knox, who is resisting the Pax monopoly on technology (and its repression of advances in that area), and who has already made some spectacular inventions.

So we expect heroic resistance to the Pax Aeronautica, and indeed that eventuates, in a way. Knox and his allies take advantage of some unrest to start a war, and their new tech—super fast airships and better weapons—gives them a chance. But Knox is eccentric and cruel. Before long we must ask if the war and chaos and killing his efforts reintroduce to the world are worth the extra freedom? But Knox actually has a further plan, hinted at by the title, and, ambiguously, the novel suggests possibly that he wants to make way for supermen. An uneasy thing to read in a book from 1933! The novel doesn't quite work, but it is at times madly interesting.

Rich Horton

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