Reading Bitter Bierce: The Science Fiction Stories, Part 2

“For the Ahkoond”

If you’re one of those sticklers who think satire must have some kind of call or plan for reform, you might not find this Ambrose Bierce story fitting the bill. However, Bierce calls it a satire in a footnote he inserted when he included it in his Collected Works in 1909.Bierce LOA

On the surface, given the number of gadgets he mentions and invents, you might think this is his most science fictional work and shows something of his friend Robert Duncan Milne’s influence.

You would be wrong, though. “Moxon’s Master” and “The Damned Thing”, discussed in my last posting, seriously explore one central speculative idea to reach some surprising or wonderful conclusion. That’s a very classic science fiction technique.

“For the Ahkoond” is Bierce in mocking mode. But what is he mocking?

The story purports to be a report, made in the year 4591, of a trip by the narrator

“to explore the unknown region lying to the eastward of the Ultimate Hills, the range which that learned archaeologist, Simeon Tucker, affirms to be identical with the ‘Rocky Mountains’ of the ancients”.

The narrator, via an “aerial isochronophone”, is to make a daily report back to “his gracious Majesty the Ahkoond of Citrusia”. The story was written in 1888, and, in a footnote from the 1909 reprinting, Bierce notes that the device is now called a wireless telegraph. One suspects bar room conversations with Milne made Bierce attuned to the idea.

It’s not the only plausible (or plausible sounding) gadget. There’s an electric rifle too. Our narrator leaves Sanf Rachisco, aka San Francisco, and travels to the top of the Rockies via a magnetic tube.

Bierce’s story descends the mountains with tongue firmly in-cheek to arrive at a colorful, very improbable hodgepodge of geology and paleontology.

The narrator passes through a zone of giant ferns, sees several non-American fauna like mastodons, lions, tigers, and hippos. There are pterodactyls flying about and ichthyosaurs in the lakes.

Examining some chatter marks and striations carved into the bedrock by glaciers, our narrator takes out his handy petrochronologue and announces ice carved up these rocks “as recently as the year 1945”.

Later, around a stagnant lagoon in a “vast sea of mud”, he concludes he is in the area populated by the Galoots, who had their capitol in Denver as recently as 1920. Alas, a “glacial period not exceeding one hundred and twenty-five years in duration” wiped them out.

Traveling north, through a great depression, in a land now below sea level and not yet having rebounded from the recent glaciation, he arrives at once was the Mississippi Valley. Now it’s been scoured down to bedrock from a series of “terrific cyclones” that started in 1860.

Sustaining himself on Dr. Blobob’s Condensed Life-pills, he moves on through the former land of the now dead Pukes as history has dubbed the Valley dwellers. To the north, at “the famous ancient city of Buffalo”, he enters the land of the Smugwumps, a “hardy and intelligent race”. However, increasingly cold winters and hot summers — as confirmed by the narrator’s archaethermograph — killed them all off, at least the ones who didn’t go to California, by 1943.

… these heroic and devoted people struggled on, believing that they were becoming acclimated faster than the climate was becoming insupportable. Those called away on business were even afflicted with nostalgia, and with a fatal infatuation returned to grill or freeze, according to the season of their arrival. Finally there was no summer at all, though the last flash of heat slew several millions and set most of their cities afire, and winter reigned eternal.

There you go: Ambrose Bierce as an early author of climate change science fiction!

South of Smugwumpia, in the land bordered by the Wintry Sea and the Fiery Gulf, the narrator’s ethnograph tells him that, in that area in the twentieth century, “Whites were called Crackers and the Blacks known as Coons” and they existed “in about equal numbers of about equal moral worth”.

The account is wrapped up with noting how the awful climate in this area enabled yellow fever to kill everyone off by 1946. If only they had listened to the Californians who invited them to move west.

All those daily reports are a wasted effort. The Ahkoond had changed his dinner hour, so the narrator was talking “into the ears of an empty stomach.” (“Ahkoond”, says S. T. Joshi’s note, is derived from a popular comic poem, “A Threnody” by George Thomas Lanigan. The land he rules, “Citrusia”, refers to California’s citrus crops.)

In his praise of Milne’s techno-centric science fiction, Bierce betrays no sense of being against science or technology. I suspect Bierce’s allusions to geology, glaciology, and paleontology probably owe something to exposure to the work of Jean Louis Rodolphus Agassiz and, more likely since they were closer to Bierce’s time, paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.

Bierce’s target is not only the foibles of living in Buffalo or mosquito infested areas prone to yellow fever, but the pretenses of historians to accurately recreate the past.

Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary defines “history” as “An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

A book it strongly reminded me of is David MacAulay’s Motel of the Mysteries from 1979. In that book, a combination of art and words, an archaeologist from the fifth millennium AD (coincidentally the approximate time of Bierce’s story) humorously misinterprets our world based on the ruins of a hotel room circa 1985.

“Ashes of the Beacon”

Many stories where people from the future view the ruins of our civilization are warnings against our hubris or reminders that we are nothing special or warnings of our particular wickedness and its upcoming punishment.

I can think of a couple examples of this right off: Norman Spinrad’s “The Lost Continent” where future Africans tour the ruins of New York City and, from England, Richard Jefferies After London, but a look at the Science Fiction Encyclopedia‘s “Ruins and Futurity” will show the theme has a long history.

Bierce frames this story as another academic history from the future, here 4930, but that’s where the similarity to “For the Ahkoond” stops. There are few fancy gadgets here or misperceptions about history. Bierce lets loose on a lot of revered American ideals and institutions and also presents a future history of apocalyptic, convulsive change precipitated by small events. In short, what plot there is comes from a lot of backs breaking from one too many straws.

The story first saw print in Bierce’s Collected Works in 1909, but that form was a much altered fix-up of several earlier efforts:

  1. “The Fall of the Republic: An Article from a ‘Court Journal’ of the Thirty-first Century” from 1888.
  2. “The Ashes of the Beacon: Written in 3940: An Historical Monograph” from 1905.
  3. “The Jury in Ancient America: An Historical Sketch Written in the Year of Grace 3687, translated by Ambrose Bierce” from 1905.
  4. “Insurance in Ancient America: Translated from the Work of the Future Historian” from 1906.

Bierce doesn’t like juries, democracy, anarchists, capitalists, labor unions, tariffs, railroads, and insurance companies. He’s not afraid to allude to actual cases to make his arguments, and, as you would expect given his time as a treasury agent and dealing with railroad barons, corruption in high places maddens him.

His complaints are familiar enough if seldom expressed with such vituperative elegance by anyone else. In modern times, you could find a fair number of people who agree with him

Most would not agree with his arguments against women’s suffrage or the mass employment of women, but he rightly predicted some negative economic consequences — even if we’ve decided they were worth it.

More time bound is Bierce’s complaint about women getting de facto license to commit murder. Almost four pages out of the story’s 35 pages are taken up with this complaint, so I’m not going to summarize it. I’m not sure what set Bierce off on this topic. It may have been the Laura D. Fair 1870 murder trial in San Francisco, but he implies the problem was growing at the turn of the 20th century.

Bierce works in a future history between indictments of his time.

In 1920, anarchists kill 22,000 people in St. Louis. New York City falls to anarchists. The riot seems to have been caused by a man, after years of what we use to call wage-and-price spirals, pays $7.50 for a sheep’s kidney. Of major American cities, only Chicago and San Francisco, the latter due to Chinese defenders, escape mob violence.

At an unspecified date, an executive of a insurance company is bitten by a dog. He kicks it in anger. Dog-hater Bierce says “In ancient America the dog was a sacred animal, worshipped by all sorts and conditions of tribesmen.” The executive is beaten to death and mob go on a rampage against insurance company until “not one person connected with any form of insurance remained alive.”

In 1931, another minor incident sets off chaos.  An inn-keeper denies half a day’s vacation to a cook. A general nationwide strike is declared. “… hundreds were slain and incalculable amounts of property wrecked and destroyed.”

Between 1920 and 1995, American suffers from mobs, massacres, assassinations and proscriptions, and “incessant effacement and redrawing of boundaries of states”.

In 1995, the “last army of law and order” dies in “the lava beds of California.” The Three Presidents in Cincinnati, New Orleans, and Duluth are driven out of their capitols.

At some point in the future, war breaks out with Japan and several ports are destroyed.

This is satire in the full sense. Bierce admonishes us. He usually presents plans for reform, but few are detailed or convincing. That is especially true of his admonition that capital and labor play nice and put aside their own selfish interests. He proposes no alternative to insurance companies.

And he seems to know his suggestions, such as they are, are doomed.

The story ends with the appearance of a “tall, pale man clad in a long robe, bare-headed, his hair falling lightly upon his shoulders, his eyes full of compassion, and with such majesty of face and mien that all were awed to silence ere he spoke”.

His suggestion, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” is met with cries of “Lynch him!”.

If his countrymen don’t listen to Christ, they’re not going to listen to Ambrose Bierce.

Previous Installments in This Series

Reading Bitter Bierce

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The War Years, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce: An Intermission

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Lovecraft Connection

Reading Bitter Bierce: Another Lovecraft Connection

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 1

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 2

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 3

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 4

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 5

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 6

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 7

Reading Bitter Bierce: The Weird Stories, Part 8

Reading Bitter Bierce: Was He a Proto-Fortean?


More Bierce related material is indexed at the Bierce page.

6 thoughts on “Reading Bitter Bierce: The Science Fiction Stories, Part 2

    • marzaat November 8, 2019 / 12:10 pm

      I may have read that story, but I have no memory of it. I once had a goal of reading all of Heinlien’s stuff but got sidetracked. I own Assignment in Eternity and some of the stories sound familiar. I’ll have to check my booklog to see if I read it.

      • jameswharris November 8, 2019 / 6:32 pm

        I read most of Heinlein’s 1940s stories back in the 1960s. I’ve read some of these stories again over the years, but I haven’t gotten into them like I did his stories from the 1950s. However, I feel the need to reread Heinlein’s 1940s work. The more I learn about the Golden Age of SF the more I realize it was very different and I can’t judge it by later science fiction

      • marzaat November 8, 2019 / 7:11 pm

        I see from my notes that I have read that Heinlein story. However, it was in one of those periods I was questioning the utility of keeping notes on my reading.

        And this is what happened — I read a story and have no record of my thoughts on it.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.