An armed man outside a steep pyramid, in a dark. desolate landscape

"One of the most potent pieces of macabre imagination ever written" — H.P. Lovecraft

Of the Night Land...

A vision of the far-future Earth

William Hope Hodgson's fiction

A very short introduction

A Sequel To The Time Machine?

The Science-Fictional Underpinning of The Night Land

by

The Night Land is typically assumed to be either a work of fantasy, or one of horror. I will argue that it is Science Fiction.


THE NIGHT LAND is typically thought of as a work of horrific fantasy. The motivation for this classification appears to be threefold:

  1. The book involves human beings surviving after "the sun had died".
    • the sun will not die for billions of years, a period of time far longer than any species has ever survived on the earth.
    • it is concluded that the work is a fantasy.
  2. The book assumes human beings have an immaterial part much like the Christian soul, and invokes reincarnation as a central moral principal.
    • the "soul", and reincarnation, are considered superstition.
    • it is concluded that the work is religious or mystical in nature.
  3. The book is written in an awful cod-archaic dialect,
    • a feature it unquestionably shares with much poor fantasy.

In justice I can do nothing to undermine the third assumption, but I will address the first in this essay, and the second in a later one.

"The Sun Had Died": Kelvin's Theory of Stellar Age

With regard to the lifetime of the Sun, The Night Land is squarely based on the best science of its time.

In 1862 Lord Kelvin calculated the lifetime of the Sun as 30 million years.

He estimated the lifetime of the sun, and by implication the earth, as follows. He calculated the gravitational energy of an object with a mass equal to the sun's mass and a radius equal to the sun's radius and divided the result by the rate at which the sun radiates away energy. This calculation yielded a lifetime of only 30 million years.

The Night Land, and its model, The Time Machine, are predicated on this astrophysics, which remained current at the time they were written: the Sun has a total life span of about 30 million years, and is assumed to be perhaps half-way through that span now. Consequentially, in our timeline we have put the Darkening, the point when the Sun ceases to give out light visible to human eyes, at 16 million AD.

Given this Cosmology, the words X wrote are not unbelievable:

... the histories of that great Redoubt dealt not with odd thousands of years; but with very millions; aye, away back into what they of that Age conceived to be the early days of the earth, when the sun, maybe, still gloomed dully in the night sky of the world. But of all that went before, nothing, save as myths, and matters to be taken most cautiously, and believed not by men of sanity and proved wisdom.

Compare this to the penultimate chapter of The Time Machine:

So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens. Then I stopped once more, for the crawling multitude of crabs had disappeared, and the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless. And now it was flecked with white. A bitter cold assailed me. Rare white flakes ever and again came eddying down. To the north-eastward, the glare of snow lay under the starlight of the sable sky and I could see an undulating crest of hillocks pinkish white. There were fringes of ice along the sea margin, with drifting masses further out; but the main expanse of that salt ocean, all bloody under the eternal sunset, was still unfrozen.

The physical evolution of the earth-sun system follows the same pattern in both books. The Sun grows bigger, redder, duller: the Earth's rotation slows, until finally it is synchronous with the year and the sun hangs forever in one spot in the sky. But The Night Land presumes human survival up to and beyond the latest time reached by the Traveller — beyond the beach, the crabs, the swollen, flopping thing.

Chronologically this is not absurd. Today, we know that human survival to eras when the Sun shows appreciable physical changes is not likely, because the appropriate time interval is billions of years. But for human beings to survive thirty millon years is only a thousand times longer than the span of history and prehistory known in Hodgson's time, and it was not insane to imagine that humanity might survive that long.

The Geology of the Night Land

The survival of life and of humanity after the death of the Sun is firmly grounded in a sensible and carefully worked-out geophysics. Knowing that the planet's surface would freeze, Hodgson placed his Night Land in a great fissure in the Earth's crust — constantly warmed by volcanic fires. (He added that the Sun might still warm the Earth to some extent even though it did not produce visible light.)

(It is amusing to reflect that, though Hodgson could hardly have been expected to know it, such fissures are expected to rive the earth (along with volcanoes millions of years old and tens of miles high) when continental drift eventually stops homogenising the earth's crust. Mars, where the mantle is solid and continental drift has ceased, provides us with contemporary examples of this — in the twelve-mile deep Valles Marineris and the sixteen-mile-high Mons Olympus.)

Other Science Fictional Themes Prefigured by The Night Land

It is worthwhile surveying the other ways in which the pattern of human life within the Redoubt, and the mechanisms by which the Redoubt sustains itself, have a rationalistic, rather than a supernatural, underpinning.

First, the Redoubt is itself a mega-arcology, seven miles high, five miles square, containing thirteen hundred separate human cities and a population of "millions". (A reasonable estimate for the population of such an arcology would be half a billion.)

Crucially, the Redoubt is not sustained by supernatural forces: it is built of metal and protected by a sophisticated technology. Its power supply is geoelectric — and if, in his treatment of the Earth Current, Hodgson does verge on mysticism, one may reflect on how he had the wit to understand that fossil fuels would have long been exhausted. It feeds its millions from a realistically scaled series of underground agricultural fields, the largest buried nearly a hundred miles down.

I do not know of a previous example of such a building in SF, and I believe that Hodgson deserves the credit for inventing the concept.

Secondly, the Redoubt is protected by what is no more or less than a Force Field. The "Air Clog", as Hodgson terms it, is a circle round the Redoubt which forms a first ring of defence, and which encloses territory which is apparently out of bounds to any of the inhabitants of the Night Land. The Air Clog is generated by the Circle, a thin tube full of light lit by the Earth Current, which bounds the Redoubt at about a mile distance.

There was ... all around the base of the Pyramid, which was five and one-quarter miles every way, a great circle of light, which was set up by the Earth-Current, and burned within a transparent tube; or had that appearance. And it bounded the Pyramid for a clear mile upon every side, and burned for ever; and none of the monsters had power ever to pass across, because of what we did call The Air Clog that it did make, as an invisible Wall of Safety.

(Oddly, Hodgson says nothing of the effort or loss of life that the maintenance of this Circle would require.)

As far as I know, this is the first time that the concept of a "force field" comes up in SF, though Bulwer-Lytton's "vril" may prefigure some aspects of it.

Thirdly, the general understanding that the people of the Redoubt have of their surroundings is scentific, not mystical. They do not consider the entities that surround them to be supernatural: they investigate them in a systematic and intelligent way — through distant observation, through careful recording, and through occasional human exploration. This is not the behaviour of those who think themselves surrounded by gods and demons.

Human Evolution in THE NIGHT LAND

Fourthly, and more generally, the people of the Redoubt live in an entirely artificial environment, and seem to be biologically adapted to it. Within the context of the story, this is no doubt a consequence of the fact that the natural environment they evolved for has vanished: human genes within the Night Land are represented only by a multitude of semi-human monsters. It is interesting, however, in that it shows Hodgson grappling with ideas of future human evolution in an intelligent and self-consistent way.

Hodgson diagrams the biology of Redoubt Man with care. We learn that the people of the Redoubt are vegetarians: that X and Naani "never thought" to kill animals for food on their journey; that in fact the food in the Night Land is variously toxic to human beings. We learn that the air within the Redoubt is differentially pressurised, and that the people of the Redoubt have split into different races, depending on the height they live at and their adaptation to pressure — a development the rulers of the Redoubt take measures to counteract.

Paradoxically, the sojurn of humanity within the Redoubt may have led to the longest period of peace and plenty in human history. The human population is in "Millions" — a conservative estimate for the population of the one thousand three hundred and twenty Cities and of the Underground Fields would be at least 500 million — and has remained at that level for millions of years. War between human beings appears to have become unthinkable: but this security has not led to any sort of weakness or decadence. The Redoubt's polity is no doubt stabilised by the constant, visible, threat of the Night Land, and, perhaps for the same reason, its people seem to be tough, both mentally and physically. (The athletic prowess of the dreamer is obviously a self-idealisation of Hodgson, the maniacal body-builder: but he does not seem to be exceptional among the inhabitants of The Redoubt.)

In parallel with this, Hodgson gives us some hints about "human" evolution outside the Redoubt. Some of the things out there have human genes — "fathered of bestial humans, and mothered of monsters" — but they seem to be hybridised with Outside entities to various degrees.

These creatures are not really human. But Hodgson does, interestingly, have one race of true humans living outside the Redoubt: these are the Humped Men, who live in a rich and fertile lowland to the north of the Night Land. It is clearly signalled that these men, though warlike and hostile, are human, and are perhaps of 100% ancestral human stock.

Hodgson's understanding of Evolution is of course very much at fault. He considered it a directed process which produced a more and more "spirtual" entity, quintessentially human. I will try to explain how he linked morality, evolution, and his theory of Monsters, in the second essay in this series.

THE NIGHT LAND is a Work of Science Fiction

In the mean time, I will reiterate my claim that The Night Land is Science Fiction. It should not be necessary to point out that The Night Land remains science fiction even if the premises on which its SF idea is built are destroyed, for science fiction does not change to fantasy simply because it is based on science which later turns out to be inaccurate.


Sharks of the Ether

A second essay will [now does] deal with Hodgson's attempts to build a coherent theory of immortality, reincarnation, and the human "soul" within a science-fictional framework.

© 2001 by Andy Robertson.

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