Book Talk: 'Lord of the World' by Robert Hugh Benson - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Lord of the World' by Robert Hugh Benson

Alexander Wallace explores a unique dystopian novel.
Despite the very idea being a horrifying one, we love dystopias. There’s something so grimly fascinating in staring into the abyss of societal terror and feeling it gazing back at us through a security camera. The classics of the genre are old; Nineteen-Eighty Four is from 1949, Brave New World from 1932, Fahrenheit 451 from 1953, and We, typically the oldest acknowledged as such, is from 1921. However, there is at least one example of a dystopian novel older than any of those, one written from a perspective none would have expected.

That book is Lord of the World, published in 1907, was written by Robert Hugh Benson, a Catholic priest from England. It is a book that wears its religious origins on the sleeve of its vestments; it is openly reckoning with the place of the Catholic faith in a world that seems to be rejecting any form of organized religion. It is a theme that comes up again and again and again in science fiction written by devout Christians; over a hundred years later, you can see very similar themes pop up in Cy Kellett’s Ad Limina.

It is a book that is eerie in its technological predictions, some of which became disturbingly true. Benson succeeds in predicting nuclear weapons even earlier than H. G. Wells did in The World Set Free, published 1917, a full ten years after Benson. He also predicted mass air transportation in a world removed only a few years after the Wright Brothers’ ground-breaking flight at Kitty Hawk. Likewise, before the Treaty of Versailles and the creation of the ‘institutional’ international world order, Benson predicts large superstates in a manner reminiscent of Orwell. However, not many of us live underground, as Benson portrays many doing, including the opening scene of the novel.

By modern standards, Benson’s prose is a bit dated; it may take some time to parse out some of his meaning. Similarly, it can be preachy (but that is quite literally the job of a Catholic priest, is it not?); there is much discussion of theology from a perspective that assumes that it is clearly correct. Perhaps most jarringly so is the nature of Senator Felsenburgh, an American politician and visionary whose meteoric political rise takes the world by storm; his followers flock to see him, and he wins support in all world governments.

What makes Lord of the World compelling, even to a secular reader, is the atmosphere. Christianity is a religion that was deeply persecuted in its early years, and that fortress mentality continues to exist in many of its adherents (just ask any fire-and-brimstone pastor). Benson channels that fear, one borne from a world that appeared not to need his (or His) faith anymore, into a grimness that fascinates you regardless of your belief.

Lord of the World is not a perfect novel; it is not even a perfect dystopian novel. It is, however, a sterling glimpse into the mind of someone who used familiar tools for unfamiliar ends. It is not a page-turner in the sense commonly used, but as an artifact of sorts it is very much worth reading.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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