The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

Careful what you wish for…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Guy Martin isn’t happy. It’s 1925, and he seems to be settled in a job as a bank clerk which gives him little satisfaction, either intellectually or financially. Thanks to a scholarship he’s educated a little above his class, but has failed to rid himself completely of the Cockney accent that gives away his humble origins. As a result, he feels he doesn’t really fit in socially anywhere except for the Socialist Club, which he has joined, not so much out of a love for the poor and disadvantaged, but for the access to people who don’t judge him by his class. But, of course, they do, especially the middle-class young woman on whom he has set his heart, whose egalitarian instincts don’t stretch to romantic liaisons with the hoi-polloi. It is in this mood of disillusionment about society that he finds himself suddenly transported to the 22nd century, where he finds that all humanity’s needs have been met by increased mechanisation and people are free to pursue whatever course in life they choose…

Jaeger was writing this in 1926 in response to the rash of Utopian fiction that was prevalent in that period. Her own introduction tells us that, to a degree, she buys into the idea of the socialist utopia, at least in so far as that she believes that soon, given the will, society will have the means to provide decent living conditions to all citizens, and that mechanisation will free people from the drudgery and exhaustion of repetitive and uninspiring work. However, she sets out to speculate what, in that event, would happen to humanity – how would we develop, individually and as a society? And she suggests that the Utopias that assume that, freed from poverty, suddenly all people will become good and kind and devote themselves to art and culture are perhaps not taking account of human nature.

While reading, I felt this owed more than a little to Wells’ The Time Machine and it also reminded me a little of Huxley’s later Brave New World, so I was glad to read in the short but very interesting and informative introduction by Dr Mo Moulton of the University of Birmingham that she sees this as a link in that chain too. She also says it alludes directly to Bellamy’s classic Utopian novel, Looking Backward, one I haven’t yet read but really must since it gets referenced so often.

However, I felt this had a more human feel than Wells’ far distant future, where humanity had evolved almost beyond recognition. Jaeger’s people are still very much like us – they smoke and drink and speak English, play sports, argue, marry, etc. (Though not necessarily in that order.) This makes them far easier to understand and empathise with than Wells’ Eloi. Also, by beginning the book in 1925 and letting us see the class and economic divisions of her own time, she avoids the odd kind of nostalgia that some dystopias indulge in, as if the past was somehow a lost idyll to which we should try to return. Jaeger’s depiction is nicely balanced – both her present and her future have good and bad in them, with the clear suggestion that economic and social changes will change our problems rather than rid us of them entirely.

At first, Guy is entranced by this new world. He finds himself living with the doctor who has, in some unexplained way, brought him to this time, and is introduced to the doctor’s nephew, John Wayland, who will be his initial guide to the society. Dr Wayland and John are both intellectuals, choosing to spend their days on scientific and artistic pursuits, and indulging in philosophical debate with their friends. But soon Guy begins to discover that this society is just as divided as in his own time. Many people don’t have either the capacity or the desire for an intellectual life. They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits. The intellectuals treat them kindly enough, but with an amused contempt at their antics. Guy finds himself again standing uncomfortably on the dividing line between two classes, and gradually begins to wonder if the advances of the last two hundred years have made things better or worse.

Muriel Jaeger

Despite its age, I found that this book is addressing questions which are perhaps even more urgent today. With increasing automation, we will soon have to decide what we as a society will do with vastly increased leisure time. While it’s easy to think that would be a great thing, as usual it will be the least skilled and least intellectually inclined people who will be affected most. Will we step up to the plate and find ways to give people a fulfilling purpose, or will we simply throw millions, billions, of people out of work and leave them with nothing to strive for? Jaeger doesn’t give answers but, although in her future people have not been left in material poverty, reading between the lines her society seems to be becoming depopulated – not in a healthy, planned way, but more as a response to the lack of purpose and hope; and with intellect as the new currency, there is still a major divide between rich and poor.

Well written, thought-provoking, and a rather more human look at utopian society than we often get. I thoroughly enjoyed this and, as so often, am at a loss to know why this would have been “forgotten”, since it seems to me as good as many of the ones which have been granted classic status. (I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that all the “classics” were written by men… 😉 )

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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38 thoughts on “The Question Mark by Muriel Jaeger

  1. I really like the sound of this, and your comparison to Brave New World makes it even more appealing. Isn’t it interesting how some books, like this one, fall through the cracks while others go on to be really celebrated?

    • Yes, it’s baffling to me. I’m enjoying a lot of the forgotten authors more than some of the celebrated ones. Maybe it’s just due to how aggressively publishers marketed the books or something, but it’s the same with modern fiction – often the ones I enjoy most hardly make a splash while a lot of the bestsellers are pretty poor…

  2. What an interesting approach to speculative fiction, FictionFan! And you’re right; there isn’t a lot of this sort of fiction by women, so it’s really interesting to see that, too. I’m especially interested in what you said about the focus of the story – the actual humans and their interactions. I think that helps the reader connect a little better with a story.

    • I’ve always thought of sci-fi and speculative fiction as an almost exclusively male preserve until the last few decades, but maybe there are lots of “forgotten” females out there from the Victorian and early 20th century era. I’m so glad the BL is doing such a great job of bringing these books back into the mainstream. And whether it was do with her femaleness or not, this book definitely engaged me more in the characters than a lot of the male writers do, who tend to sacrifice the humanity and concentrate more on the science or the ideas. Good stuff!

  3. “They are called the normals and, while all their physical needs are met, they are left somewhat purposeless, their empty lives filled with childlike emotions and pursuits.” This statement gave me the shivers as I thought about aspects of society today. Sounds like a great book!

    • Yes, I think she makes a really valid point – for many people work is the thing that gives them satisfaction and self-worth, and what happens when we take that away? Already we have a generation of people who stay in full-time education for nearly a decade longer than my generation mostly did, and maturing far later. Good thing or bad? I’m not sure…

  4. Excellent review and, once again, it’s going to have to go on my wishlist. *sigh* 🙄

    I really like the covers the British Library is putting on their new releases.

    • Thank you! 😀 I love this range of covers for the sci-fi books as much as I love the vintage crime covers – the BL is doing some great work these days bringing back so many really good “forgotten” books. This one is well worth a place on your list…

  5. This sounds fascinating. The BL seem to be re-releasing some good stuff over all just now, so to be honest, I would probably read anything published by them if I could get hold of it. Sadly though, , I think you are probably on to something re the fact this has gone off the radar somewhat because it was written by a woman.

    • I feel incredibly lucky to have got on their reviewer list – they seem to be having their own Golden Age and I’m delighted they’re extending out from crime into sci-fi and horror. Just wish I could fit them all in! Yes, I’ve always thought of science fiction and speculative fiction as being almost exclusively a male preserve until just a few decades ago, but maybe there are lots of “forgotten” women out there – I’m intrigued to see what else the BL comes up with. The next one I have from them is from a Scottish (male) sci-fi writer – I didn’t even know such a thing existed before Iain M Banks!

  6. This sounds as if it straddles the sometimes unbridgeable chasm between a novel of ideas and one in which you want to invest in the characters. I do hope so, because if that’s the case I’lk definitely keep an eye out for it.

    • Yes, I definitely felt more involved in the characters in this than in a lot of science and speculative fiction, which often gets bogged down in the ideas at the expense of the humanity. Plenty of ideas in this too, but the emphasis is on the people…

  7. This sounds so interesting, and being written by a women makes it more appealing to me, than the other ‘classics’. I’m afraid I haven’t read any of the books you mention, so feel quite a dunce but maybe I could start here?

    • I can’t think of a speculative fiction classic of this era by a female author except for the ultra-feminist Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and really this is a far better book than that one. Definitely not necessary to have read any of the other books – this one stands totally on its own merits and would actually be a great introduction to the whole early 20th century dystopian/utopian thing – I enjoyed this considerably more than Brave New World or We, for instance, both of which are maybe better on the ideas but not nearly as good on the characterisation and humanity aspects…

  8. Sorry, FF, but you haven’t convinced me I need to read this one!! I can readily see you enjoyed it, and the fact that it’s written by a woman is interesting, but I just don’t want to read something that depressing right now. People with nothing to do, no purpose in living, nothing to strive for … gosh, that sounds rather dreadful!

    • I must admit it’s one of the things that worries me most about the future. We seem determined to replace vast numbers of people with machines and the remaining jobs are becoming so skilled that they’re simply not feasible for a lot of people, however much we pretend training is the answer. It’s not politically correct any more to talk about different levels of intelligence, but happily it was back when this book was written, and I do feel she makes a very valid point…

  9. ooh! Excellent study and I particularly appreciated…”.am at a loss to know why this would have been “forgotten”, since it seems to me as good as many of the ones which have been granted classic status. (I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that all the “classics” were written by men… 😉 ).. Yes, why is that?

    • Haha – yes, it’s an amazing coincidence, isn’t it? For some reason, science fiction and speculative fiction always seem to have been very male dominated until the last few decades, more than any other genre I can think of. Presumably because us girlies are too silly to understand difficult subjects like science… 😉

  10. This does sound good but I really cannot handle utopian or dystopian fiction right now! If we ever get out of this mess we’re in maybe I’ll change my mind *sigh* I’m so impressed with all that the BL are doing to bring back these forgotten authors, maybe its a publishing golden age even if its not in any other sense!

    • Ha! It’s odd that it’s often quite hard to decide when a utopia is a dystopia and vice versa – I’m sure that says something profound about human nature, but I’m not sure what… 😉 Yes, I could happily spend all my time just reading all these books the BL is bringing back – now that they’ve added sci-fi and horror to their crime list, I’m in vintage heaven… 😀

  11. Whoa, this sounds interesting! That divide between “intellectuals” and “normals” sounds not far off from how things exist today, with those who consider themselves more educated or thoughtful looking down on the working class.

    • Yes, I felt it was closer to current society than most early dystopian stuff too. I fear what will happen if the divide keeps widening between the self-styled intellectual elite and the vast world of “normals” – and like the narrator of this, I’m not totally sure which class I want to be part of…

      • It is an interesting divide, especially now that post-secondary education seems both more expected and yet more unattainable as it puts people so deeply in debt. (At least, in North America.)

        • In much of the UK too, although in Scotland we heavily subsidise tuition fees for Scottish students with a huge proportion paying no fees at all. Kids still build up huge debts just to pay to live though.

  12. The thought of having no purpose is horrible, but it’s a reality for so many people already who have less choices than others. The division between Normals and Intellectuals is an interesting idea, it’s usually money or family background.

    • I know, and getting worse all the time. I don’t really want to go back to a time when people worked twelve hour days and died of exhaustion when they were fifty but I’m not sure endless leisure is such a good thing either, especially for young people. Yes, though I do feel there is a growing divide between those who have a university education and those who don’t already, with the former tending to sneer at and ignore the latter. In America and the UK anyway – hence Trump and Brexit…

  13. This is such a fascinating genre, I which I read more of these books. Also, utopia and dystopia are almost interchangeable in my mind, because one person’s paradise is another person’s hell 🙂

    Funny that, all the classics are written by men. Even female classics don’t seem to get the same attention, now why is that? HMMMMMM

    • It’s too hard to fit them everything in – I’m reading so much vintage stuff I’m losing track of new releases. *sighs* Yes, I’ve never come across a utopia I’d like to live in – I rather like our messy old good/bad world pretty much as it is – most of the time – except when I hate it! 😂

      Haha – its especially the case in sci-fi for some reason. I expect we women are just too silly and empty-headed to really understand them, so how could any woman possibly have written a good one… 😉

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