J.J. Connington: Nordenholt’s Million

This was a book I instantly knew I’d be saving for Halloween Bingo after I’d read its back cover blurb. And it proved chillingly topical for our times — it sort of describes the combined effect of Brexit (and Trump in the U.S.), venture capitalism, and a rampant, out-of-control biological pest coming together.  (As a minor but significant tangent, also throw in religious fundamentalism.)

In the book’s case the pest is a bacterium that destroys the chemical compounds in which plants ingest nitrogen; in other words, it’s a killer with the capability of destroying the world’s entire food reserve (not just plant-based — animals directly or indirectly (via their prey) feed off plants, too, after all) in the space of less than a year. In the crisis brought about by the bacterium’s spread, a businessman / venture capitalist “relieves” the inept government of the reins of power — first behind the scenes, ultimately overtly — and puts in place a scheme where 90% of the British population (and 99+ % of the world’s population) are condemned to starve, while the remaining 10% of Brits — all of them, of course carefully selected — are put to use in creating a new, utopian society, which alone is in possession of nitrogenated soil and can grow plants.  (When religious fundamentalism takes hold in that community of the “select few”, the leader of the cult is first publicly unmasked as a fraud and then, literally only seconds later, shot dead in full view of the crowd he has amassed.)

I was shocked to see that this book was published in 1923; after having read the first chapters, I’d have expected at the very least that Connington had seen Hitler’s “Enabling Law” and use of the press for propaganda purposes in action, but no … and yet, he foretells them with a frightening degree of accuracy, only on the basis of the British system (which, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the book does include adjourning parliament to avoid inconvenient questions. And yes, at the moment when the crisis hits, the future dictator is an MP himself, too … by way of a sort of lateral activity, with the ultimate aim of furthering his venture capitalist interests). The way in which Connington pretty much foretells everything we saw with Hitler, and everything we’re now seeing with the combined effects of Trump, Brexit, a venture capital-based economic system AND the pandemic is scary to the nth degree … I’m glad he only ever put his ideas into this book and didn’t, himself, set about putting them into practice.

Connnington was, incidentally, a chemist by training, so he clearly knew what he was writing about as far as the scientific elements are concerned.  In fact, he was even prescient enough to foresee the use of nuclear energy — it’s the energy on which his future, utopian cities are ultimately run.  (They also consist of buildings made of other materials than stone or concrete, not unlike the building materials that are actually used today.)

If, in the final analysis, I only ended up rating the book 3 1/2 stars after all, this is based on essentially three reasons, and all of them only truly materialize in the final part(s) of the book — though some of these issues already start cropping up about halfway through:

(1) In terms of social clichés and perceptions, Connington was, alas, very much a man of his times.  There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the book contains some glaringly racist passages (and it’s not unconscious racism, either — he clearly meant every word); and, similarly, his take on women and women’s role in society is … well, let’s say, at the very least problematic.  There’s a distinct element of misogyny; even if it’s not quite as blatant as the racism (and he may even have believed he was doing something “advanced” in expressly giving one particular woman more of an active voice / role in building that utopian society).

(2) Connington, like a fair number of his contemporaries, was in favor of euthanasia — which is a fact I only know because I’ve read Martin Edwards’s two books about Golden Age crime fiction; but even if I hadn’t known this going in, it would have been hard to miss here.  However terrifying the first half of the book, the more the narrative progresses, the more it becomes clear that the author himself doesn’t, fundamentally, seem to see anything wrong with starting from a “clean slate”, as it were, of hand-picked superior human material (although even he does seem to balk at the more horrific aspects of achieving such a “clean slate”).  I haven’t read anything else by Connington yet — except for one mystery short story, that is — and I’m willing to grant that, had he foreseen the extent to which the Nazis took their particular version of a “clean slate”, he, too, would have been horrified.  (He died shortly after WWII; maybe some of his final literary output can provide some guidance as to his thinking once the world had begun to learn about the unspeakable horrors wreaked by the Nazis.)  Still, it’s an unnecessarily jarring feature.

(3) The utopian society ultimately emerging from all the turmoil is presented only in the sketchiest of terms, in great contrast to the description of the destruction of the world as it had been known until then.  Granted, this wasn’t Connington’s focus, but the ending of the book still feels rushed; and I found it hard to envision how, even after the discovery of nuclear energy (for which not one but several scientists knowingly and selflessly sacrifice their own lives … really, Mr. Connington??), the whole thing is supposed to have worked out … especially without the least further social turmoil.  As Connington himself shows, human society doesn’t work like that — and it’s not just the “dumb, gullible masses” (whoever they are) who won’t be pacified by the “bread and games” approach forever.

Still, I am glad that I have read this book — and there were times when, in the first half especially, I very much felt like quoting huge passages verbatim and yelling at people: “Listen to this — and this is from a book published in 1923, for crying out loud!”

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