Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Underrated and Overlooked Utopian Classic: "A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder"

File:Strange manuscript.jpg
"A Strange Manuscript Found
in a Copper Cylinder" by
James De Mille
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Adam More tells of his discovery of a utopia (or in his eyes, a dystopia) via a manuscript he seals in a copper cylinder. His journey begins when More gets separated from his merchant’s ship with his friend, Agnew. Using their rowboat, the two men drift until they find a desolate island with devilish people as inhabitants. Upon first glance, More cannot stomach the Natives and only goes ashore at Agnew's insistence. The Natives are described by More as being less civilized and uglier than Aborigines, which he believes to be the most uncivilized human beings. More's prejudicial fears are well-founded, as Agnew is killed by the Natives.
However, More escapes the island and uses the boat to take an adventure through a cave that is reminiscent of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. Eventually, More finds another strange land of foreigners, but he is convinced that these people aren't dangerous from the landmarks he sees as civilized, like roads, buildings and ships. When he meets these strangers, his biased perspective of aliens is fully actualized: the first Natives have black skin and are unkempt (thus, their appearance drove More's distrust), but the second set of Natives have white skin and are what More describes as 'regular'. More's encounter with the first set of Natives he meets illustrates Ursula K. LeGuin's point in her article "American SF and the Other" when she speaks of aliens in sf becoming the Other, be it Galactic aliens, “sexual aliens, class aliens, or cultural aliens.” (LeGuin). Because More does not identify with the first Natives, he thinks them murderous Others from the onset. Upon meeting the second Natives, he is assured of their innate kindness as they more closely resembled what he associates with “regular” and civilized human beings.

His view of the Natives, whom he later calls Kosekins, changes when he learns of their value system that is basically an invert of what he is used to back home in England. To start, Kosekins revere death and hate the burden of living, thus they go on numerous hunts (in which women are included) and basically throw themselves at the feet of the large animals they pursue so as to die an honorable and public death. Secondly, Kosekins detest wealth and aspire to poverty, viewing possessions as burdens. The poorest man in the nation of Kosek has the most influence and respect, while the richest man has the least respect (capitalism is seen as evil). In accordance with their scorn of wealth, Kosekins are very self-sacrificing; they are always to bestow gifts on one another (to get rid of their possessions/wealth), and when one nation surrenders to another, it is considered a great honor and the greatest possible instance of self-sacrifice. That is not to say that Kosekins do not know of violence or war, but their reasons for war or violence differ from the traditional reasons, as Kosekins fight when they receive too many gifts from one person. When one is sick, all is done to nurse them back to health, so that they may die in a more honorable way, yet when someone is sick, every Kosekin trips over themselves to nurse the patient (as that is self-sacrificing to care for someone else). Requited love among two human beings is not a good thing in the Kosekin culture, because “love is self-surrender, and utter self-abnegation. Love gives all away, and cannot possibly receive anything in return. A requital of love would mean selfishness.” Thus, the most self-sacrificing thing a Kosekin can do for the person they love is to arrange their marriage to another. The most deterring fact about Kosekins that More cannot get past is their sacrificial rituals. When their comrades are wounded in battle, even from non-mortal wounds, they kill their fallen brethren with a knife to the heart, and it is their duty to do so. Not only do they kill their own, but they eat them as well, and it is for that purpose that More and another foreigner of Kosek, Almah are in Kosek, to be guests of honor at the next festival of cannibalism. While More might see killing a fellow man and eating them as villainous acts, the Kosek see it as bringing great honor to their fellow man. Almah tells More that he would not deny a man that seeks life, the idea of it would go against all that he believed in. Such is the Kosekins thoughts on denying a man death.

File:Ball's Pyramid North.jpg
"Balls Pyramid" 13 Miles South of
Lord Howe Island
Picture by Fanny Schertzer
Source: Wikimedia Commons
More’s friend in Kosek, the Kohen, explains to him why death is such a large part of their culture: “[To love death] is human nature. We cannot help it; and it is what distinguishes us from animals.” The Kohen goes further with his comparison of civilized Kosekins and animals, “Animals fear death; animals love to accumulate such things as they prize; animals, when they love, go in pairs, and remain with one another” (169). All of the things that the Kosekins believe to be against human nature are things that only lowly animals practice, like pairing, keeping possessions, and fearing death.
That is part of why the Kohen cannot understand More’s point of view when More tells him that his culture fears death and loves life. The Kohen tries his best to dissect More’s perspective by asking “If you really fear death, what possible thing is there left to love or hope for?” To which More replies, “Long life, and riches, and requited love”. After the Kohen’s thoughts on those three unmoral life pursuits, More’s reasoning sounds selfish, na├»ve, and unattainable.
Author James De Mille uses the inverted civilization of the Kosekins to satire the foundations of the world’s “civilized” populations, much in the fashion of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. At first, reading about the Kosek love of death and their desire for poverty seems absurd, but their reasoning behind it makes sense against the backdrop of humanity’s selfish pursuits for money, love, and a long life. Kosekins live in both a utopian society and a dystopian one, because while their 180 degree way of life is admirable in a backwards way, their love of death (and cannibalism) creates too wide of a gulf to reconcile their beliefs with More’s, or with mine. 

De Mille, James. A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1888. Print.

LeGuin, Kroeber, Ursula. “America SF & The Other”. Science Fiction Studies 2.3 (1975). Print. 

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