The Man From Tomorrow by Stanton A. Coblentz
In Robert Silverberg’s masterful 1968 novel The Masks of Time —just one of three novels that the author released that year, during one of his superhumanly productive periods — the Earth of 1998 is visited by a man name Vornan-19, who has arrived from the year 2999, and whose advent leads to all manner of upheaval and complications. But this, of course, was hardly the first time that an author had written about a visitor from the far future. Take, for example, a novel that had come out a full 35 years earlier, San Francisco-born writer/poet Stanton A. Coblentz’s The Man From Tomorrow. Although nowhere near as serious-minded as the Silverberg book, this novel, Coblentz’s 8th, released when he was 39, yet uses a man from Earth’s future to make trenchant commentary on what is going on here today. This reader had previously enjoyed the author’s first novel, The Sunken World (1928), his 5th, Into Plutonian Depths (1931), and his 14th, the 1945 fantasy masterpiece When the Birds Fly South, and I am now happy to report that The Man From Tomorrow has made Coblentz a very solid 4 for 4 with me.
The Man From Tomorrow first saw the light of day in the Spring/Summer 1933 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly, the same pulp magazine that The Sunken World had appeared in five years earlier. It then sank into virtual oblivion for a good 80 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction happily chose to resurrect the novel for a new generation of readers in 2013. (And by the way, allow me to express some mystification right here at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database categorizing this work as a “novella,” when it is a full 185 pages long, and lengthier than Into Plutonian Depths, which the ISFDB deems a “novel.” Go figure.)
The book is narrated by a NYC-based physics professor, Ellery Howard, who’s visited one day by a shabbily dressed man named James Richard Cloud, who claims to have come up with an invention, after 35 years of unremitting toil, that will go far in “revolutionizing human life.” Howard and his young assistant, Dr. Horn, are persuaded to visit Cloud’s lodgings to witness a unique demonstration. As it turns out, Cloud is no crackpot after all, and his Dimension Machine, as he calls it, actually does allow him to view the distant past or the far future! Howard and Horn are astonished to notice various Grecian, Egyptian and Assyrian antiques strewn carelessly about the inventor’s seedy apartment. “Oh, those … they’re nothing at all,” Cloud tells them. Just “debris of the ages … which happened to get entangled in my Dimension Machine.” But during the latter part of the demonstration, there is a mechanical snafu of sorts, and a living piece of debris is deposited onto Cloud’s laboratory floor. It is a man, barely alive after his rough transition, who tells them, upon awakening, that he is John Wormwood, a scientist who had been snatched from his International Hyperspace Observatory, a full 300 years in our future! Unfortunately, Cloud’s revolutionary device has become wrecked during the demonstration, and Wormwood, it would seem, is now stranded 300 years in his past!
During the bulk of Coblentz’s book, we witness how the arrogant Wormwood tries to adjust to life here, causing trouble, embarrassment and misunderstandings wherever he goes. We see him ensconced at the Faculty Club of Howard’s university, where he is lodged for free. We witness him rather ickily fall in love with Dr. Horn’s fiancée Alice, gain work as a writer of magazine articles comparing the 20th to the 23rd century, get into repeated trouble with the law, drive his patron Howard to the brink of a nervous breakdown, confer with various scholars at the university, go on a cross-country tour by railroad, and cause a prison riot. And all the while, Wormwood, aka The Man From Tomorrow, complains, grumbles, fulminates, boasts and comments on his plight, stranded as he is with the backwards people of the 20th century…
Now, as compared to The Masks of Time, Coblentz’s book is not nearly as weighty in tone, but still markedly less humorous than another book that I’d recently read dealing with a visitor from the far future (roughly, the year 8000, in this case), E. V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man (1923). Vornan-19 had popped out of thin air from 1,000 years in our future; Wormwood (who’d be born in the year 2195) a “mere” 300. Curiously, whereas Vornan-19 was hailed as a messiah of sorts, and his future provenance accepted almost immediately, Wormwood finds it virtually impossible to convince the public at large of his claims, with many deeming him some kind of eccentric lunatic, or at best an object of idle curiosity and news fodder. And while Vornan-19 had sported some futuristic gadgetry in the form of a self-protective deflector shield, Wormwood prefers his handy pocket pistol, which emits paralyzing “inter-molecular G-rays.” And oh … one other clear difference between these two characters: While Vornan-19 is shown to be sexually rapacious and distinctly bisexual in nature, Wormwood strikes the reader as being monogamous and decidedly heterosexual, as well as rather old-fashioned and chivalrous in manner. He is often shown pining away for his scientist fiancée Maranna, who is apparently lost to him, while the attentions he later lavishes upon Alice might be similar to those offered by an 18th century Romantic poet!
As he had in The Sunken World, with its Atlantean setting, and Into Plutonian Depths, with its otherworldly backdrop, Coblentz here uses his novel as a means of making unflattering remarks about modern-day life on Earth, with Wormwood acting as his stand-in mouthpiece. Thus, we hear what The Man From Tomorrow thinks of 20th century meals (a vegetarian, he is repulsed by most of the fare presented to him), clothes (he finds them unbearably confining, especially the formal evening wear that he is forced to don for a gala reception), cars (he finds them noisy and cramping), private homes (he says they’re intolerably suffocating, with their nonremovable walls, and prefers to sleep on the roof!), male-female relations (as inferred, he is a hopelessly old-fashioned romantic, to the point of embarrassment), literature (he pooh-poohs most of the great authors in Howard’s library, saying that most of them are unknown in the 23rd century), pets (he is surprisingly humane on this score, at one point entering into an altercation with a man for muzzling his dog), architecture (he considers Park Avenue a slum, with not “a sign or trace of beauty, or of an open space, or even of a restful spot for the eyes”), jewelry (he pities those who “didn’t know any better than to waste their time on baubles”), and the amassing of money (he couldn’t care less about it, deeming the ability to “make some distinctive contribution to the public welfare … as the ultimate mark of success”).
As Coblentz’s novel proceeds, we also discover what Wormwood has to say about the NYC subways (he considers the “unozonized” trains pestilential, and almost passes out after his short ride; “It’s like being in jail,” he declares … “once you get in, there’s no way out till your sentence is up!”), indoor college classes (he cannot understand how any student can properly learn away from a natural setting), organized religion (he is shocked by a pastor’s flock’s “blank obedience to a dogma”), dancing (suitable for the youngsters and for courting, but otherwise useless; “excellent for persons who wish to shine by means of their feet rather than by their heads”), working for a living (“The trouble with remunerative work is that it is so often useless. It benefits only one’s self; it is apt to be of small advantage to others”), modern-day writers (“Everyone knows that some of our most popular writers haven’t anything to say, and don’t know how to say it”), travel (he finds his cross-country train ride sickening, and the tourists whom he is vacationing with empty-headed fools), and capital punishment (“no man, no matter how guilty, should be submitted to such torture”). Curiously, although our 20th century really has little to commend of itself to The Man From Tomorrow, there is one area in which he finds the present day preferable to that of his future age: the field of ecology. Our 20th century, it seems, is far less polluted and environmentally ravaged than Wormwood’s 23rd. But, as he warns Howard, vis-à-vis the advantages of our 20th century wildlands, “…my heart grows heavy when I realize how little you appreciate them, and how little you will protect them from the greed and the numbers and the locust-like ravages of your own citizens…” So yes, as a critique of life in the mid-20th century, The Man From Tomorrow must be deemed very much a success.
Now, lest you be thinking that John Wormwood sounds like an exasperating and arrogant prig, well, of course he is! And yet, there is something touching about this visitor’s plight, marooned in a period that he variously calls the Anthill Age, the Neurotic Age, and the Era of Decadence; a period of history that has not yet attained to his own time’s Reign of Sanitation, or Moral Awakening (as regards the sanctity of all living things). His depth of feeling toward Alice, as uncomfortable as it makes us feel, is at bottom honest and sympathy inducing, and his dedication to the few friends he makes here quite laudable. He is surely a more likeable creature than Vornan-19, despite his annoying ways. Author Coblentz depicts him realistically and imaginatively, dropping in curious grace notes here and there to help define the character (for example, Wormwood’s mystification as to the term “refreshments”). And regarding Coblentz as an author, his writing style here is as readable as ever, although he is surprisingly guilty of several ungrammatical turns of phrase (“…the attention of fresh passers-by, who knew nothing of the events of a few moments ago, were gravitating toward us…”; “We merely stared at him, as though he was speaking in some unknown tongue…”). But these quibbles aside, this is a pretty wonderful book, and another sterling example of Radium Age sci-fi at its most thoughtful.
So yes, a very solid 4 for 4 for me, as regards this undersung author. I now find myself wishing to experience a few other Coblentz titles from this same era, such as his 3rd, After 12,000 Years (1929), and his 9th, In Caverns Below (1935). Wish me luck as I endeavor to find some nice editions for a reasonable price…