This book wasn’t on my original reading list to lightly survey the evolution of SF, but while browsing the free public domain Kindle books on Amazon, I got carried away downloading, picking up Connecticut Yankee and a number of others, adding this one and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World into the reading schedule. A couple of more almost made it into the mix, too, as well as some critical non-fiction by Einstein and Darwin that I’ve never read in their entirety. They’ve all made it into the TRQ (To Read Queue) for the future, a list that only ever seems to grow.
But that’s all beside the point. Putting aside vague recollections of the two different Disney adaptations and obvious inspiration for Army of Darkness, I dove into this one.
To find, once again, the story within a story motif.
A shorter introduction this time to get us into the real story, but again, I could have lived without it. I suppose, if it was good enough for Swift and Shelley, Mr. Twain is in good company.
The whole story does seem to rest on one thing: that the people of the early middle age (the early 6th century) in which the narrator finds himself were simpler, meaning stupider, than a modern man of the early 19th century (noting that the narrator was an old man in the framing story and is writing of his youth). This is something that probably would have been accepted as fact in Mr. Twain’s day, because clearly the human race had advanced and improved itself. Not quite such a given from the early 21st century. Not that we necessarily know any better about ancient and vanished cultures, but we have had an extra century and a quarter of discovery and analysis with ever-improving technology than the archaeologists and anthropologists of the late 19th century.
The attitude, however, is so strong in the narrator, at least after his initial brush with death, that he consistently comes across as arrogant, clearly knowing better about everything than the simpletons of the 6th century, including how pathetic and unsustainable their own society is.
Still, set this aside and I’d like to say you’ve got a fairly fun adventure through the ancient mythical realm of Camelot and its surroundings, as seen by an outsider.
The narrator does have the advantage of knowing something about the modern technology he comes from, or some parts of it anyway. Once he saves his life by the prediction of an eclipse, he sets about making some changes to Camelot and the world around him.
Big changes. World shaking changes.
Though I find it strange that the first thing you want in a new country is a patent office, then a school, then a newspaper, especially considering the likely number of people in Camelot, not to mention the freemen and serfs, who can read.
This starts to lead me in the direction of satire, and there’s plenty of social commentary not so hidden in the text. On the surface of things, the story often reads as a sneer at early medieval society (although a lot of what Mr. Twain uses is far closer to the late middle ages), but explores the roots of what might be seen as the current (in Mr. Twain’s day) system of taxation. Indeed, a lot of the taxes and tithes noted have direct parallels in income taxes, land taxes, transfer taxes, and so on. But at least the church isn’t guaranteed to just take a ten percent of everything you produce anymore.
There are plenty of other things to list, but I’ll just hit some highlights:
- The author’s dislike of monarchy is explicitly apparent through the narrator, and yet that narrator slides into the upper class with no difficulty, and enjoys himself while he’s at it, though he’s constantly working behind the scenes to destroy the aristocracy and everything that surrounds it.
- Along with hatred of taxes, there’s plenty of commentary on the nobility and monarchy, but you don’t see the narrator giving up his position and joining the lives of the so-called freemen. Well, you do, but it’s temporary and to educate King Arthur. He may even profess to be doing everything he can to improve the lot of the common man.
- The Roman Catholic Church is not high on the narrator’s list of liked institutions as he lays at its feet the divine right of kings, invention of the aristocracy, the letter of law being more important than its spirit, and how the common folk should just do as they’re told. Religion is necessary but a church is not. Especially not this church.
- The narrator observes, an interesting, almost offhand comment, that the French Revolution was a tiny and symbolic payback for a thousand years of oppression.
- Nationalism is better and far more reasonable and right than personal loyalty to a king or institution.
- Slavery, which in Mr. Twain’s mind is a far more recent thing than in the minds of those who might read the book today, is a far greater consideration. The narrator is wholeheartedly against it, and it crops up again and again throughout the book, not just in reference to actual slaves, but the freemen of the time who really weren’t.
Of course, as I read the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the narrator was screwing with history in every conceivable way to make life better for himself and to rearrange Camelot to suit his vision of how the world should work. Now, this is likely the tack that many people would take plopped in the same situation, once survival had been assured (handy thing, that made up eclipse early in the book, and the narrator’s convenient knowledge of gunpowder is pretty good, too). Patent offices, coinage, newspapers, training schools, gunpowder and other knowledge, even advertising.
This last is blatantly satirical, showing up on knight’s shields throughout the middle of the book with such things as “Use Peterson’s Prophylactic Tooth-Brush—All The Go.” People have been complaining about advertising for a long time, it seems.
The story relies heavily on what will eventually become known as Clarke’s Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. How else to take over a society singlehandedly?
But the arrogance of “Sir Boss” seems to continually ramp up through the story. You’d think that it peaks when showing off while travelling incognito with the king, in what is technically another small kingdom, gets the pair of them sold into slavery, but it doesn’t. This is a nice twist, but doesn’t do anything for the root cause of the problem: believing he’s smarter and knows better than everyone else because he’s from the future. Admittedly, King Arthur being an idiot helped.
When the rescue comes from slavery, it’s by knights on bicycles, knights which, a few pages later, he has no problems blasting out of the saddle with a pair of revolvers suddenly at hand. But the arrogance and know-it-all-ness of Sir Boss never disappears even when he is a slave, and once he’s back in his position as the king’s chief advisor in Camelot, it’s even worse.
The story picks up speed in the last few chapters, as if Mr. Twain realizes he’s already spent a great deal of text and is coming up against some kind of page limit. We jump three years in the future and have a very quick recap of what happened.
One man can remold society in his own image, at least if that man is from the modern world (19th century) and goes far enough into the past that he’s clearly smarter than everyone. In the three years after he gunned down a dozen knights, there are railways, telegraphs, telephones, photos for the newspapers, and an industrial revolution in progress, never mind that he had all kinds of secret schools, factories, and mines before that. There is also no such thing as slavery anymore, everyone is equal in the eyes of the law, and England is well on its way to becoming a republic. Of course, it’s not all good: the king also has a homeopath, tobacco has found a home, and so has baseball, and there seems to be a stock market, or at least you can buy a seat at the Round Table, the most important business location in the land.
Of course the greatest evil of that or any age, the Church, assisted by a convenient civil war, came along while he wasn’t looking and tore everything down Sir Boss had built, declaring him persona non grata while they were at it. And maybe the people weren’t all that re-educated after all.
Well, let’s declare the republic anyway, since the entire aristocracy appears to be dead. The narrator, along with fifty-three assistants and a great deal of late 19th century technology, destroys the remains of the knighthood, butchering 25,000 men in armour to stand the victors, conquerors of England.
To end the story, more or less, a disguised Merlin casts a spell to put Sir Boss asleep until his own time and the whole years-long adventure is swallowed by time and history.
We close out the book with a note supposedly from Mr. Twain, and it’s more or less the and-it-was-all-a-dream cliché, which perhaps may not have been such a cliché in the 1880s.
Close the cover.
Overall rating: 2 stars. Translation: it was okay, I guess. Disappointing, but okay. Well, easy to read, anyway.
The faulty history, compressing the entire middle ages into the sixth century, doesn’t offend me too much. I’m fine with artistic license, and telescoping things can serve to generate extra tension (see Macbeth, for example), and the cliché ending was tough to swallow even remembering when the book was written, but I have a single huge problem with the story.
Absolutely nothing is really a challenge for Sir Boss after the initial danger of execution (which basically came about by being in the wrong place at the wrong time). Nothing. The whole book was a long string of “I’m so clever” situations that only ended because he stopped to be nice to a dying knight after he’d virtually wiped out all of chivalry in England. He was never in any real danger, never had an opponent or met a character who was even a potential match for his incredible knowledge and intellect, and only ever had any issues when he stopped paying attention to the world around him. That didn’t happen very often because he was so much smarter than everyone in the 6th century. And he was more or less a jerk to everyone around him with only the occasional flash of real feeling for anything, and no remorse for the bad things he did in the name of progress.
Even an unsympathetic main character, and Sir Boss really qualifies for me, needs to have obstacles to overcome, and this one didn’t.by