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Thursday
Jan242008

The Riddle of the Sands

When fiction decides to prognosticate about reality, the future of mankind and so forth, it usually does so in the guise of either some apocalyptic vision or natural progression of technology.  There are names for these types of books, the latter normally being dubbed science fiction (an odd couple, to say the least, but less bumptious than “technological fiction”), and the former treading near the subcategories of religious literature or prophecy.  Prophecy: knowing the future before it happens and having the good sense to enlighten the less clairvoyant.  When fiction prophesies and its artifices become newspaper headlines, then one speaks of a visionary.  This is rare, however, among artistic writers because the future is hardly their medium: they are interested either in the past (Romantics come to mind) or the present (like Modernists, those happiest of citizens).  The future is left to the wizards of machines and moons, starships and inexplicable forces of cosmic calamity.  Just writing that last sentence tells me why the future should probably remain undisturbed and given a generous head start.
 
Occasionally, a talented writer with primarily artistic ends in mind will gaze into a crystal ball, or perhaps an empty bottle or ashtray, and see something he knows will occur.  It may be good or bad, but it cannot be that he will leave his job, his wife, or his homeland, because these actions will only become his future if and when he so wishes.  No, he sees something greater than he is, something that will affect not only his small microcosm of existence but also the lives and fates of many others.  This is how a blind Argentine dreamed up a global library and a wealthy overeducated Dane wallowed presciently in the selfish neurosis of postwar Europe.  Dreams and desires certainly have a lot to do with what you see, and they can be delusive; but they can also allow you to catch a glimpse of something others might not even recognize.   
 
You may have not heard of Erskine Childers, but you have appreciated his labors for more than a century.  He is often credited with establishing this genre of popular fiction, and his 1903 work (his only novel amidst a dozen military histories) still gets published and read and praised.  The novel has also been featured on lists of this kind of literature, which may sound like Armageddon and Extraterrestrial Wars rolled into one large adamantine asteroid, but was actually the product of an era in which British global power began to endure sizable losses.  An earlier, even more seminal work by another Irishman is also included, because it allegedly showcases the frightening prospects of foreign supremacy and, to be twenty–first century about it, retrocolonization (a term of which your search engine is unaware but which may indeed become a headline in the next decade or so).  It was at this time that Childers, an avid sailor during school and university holidays, conceived of a most fantastic fear: the Germans attacking Britain from the North Sea.            

Our hero is not Childers, but Carruthers, a bored young diplomat who is invited by an old chum called Davies on a yachting and duck hunting trip around the Baltic.  Of course Davies does not actually have a yacht; he does have, however, another purpose to the ambitious tour in his small boat (named after a song by this composer) and the two Britons are soon embroiled in a plot to foil, it seems, all of Prussia.  In a slow narrative typical of a prolific nineteenth–century man of letters where clues and red herrings are revealed in equal quantity and very gradually, Carruthers comes to see why making maps of the East Frisian Islands for the British Navy may avert some kind of invasion.  There is also a shady German named Dollmann, his lovely daughter, and the distinct possibility of a double agent abetting the Germans in their insidious scheme.  

For reasons I am in no position to investigate, the book has been universally lauded by those in the sailing industry as being spot–on about all things nautical.  The warnings of the novel were also apparently just as accurate, since in response the British government is reputed to have established new naval outposts all along its shoreline and no invasion of any kind was ever documented.  Thus The Riddle of the Sands has that rare quality among prophecies of having been considered and acted upon before hazardous consequences could transpire (and we may ponder that eternal conundrum as to whether a prophecy can only be given validity if it is fulfilled).  We might call Childers a prophet in his own country if he were not actually from another country, one that elected him to its Parliament and executed him by its firing squads, then elected his son fifty years later as its fourth President.  A remarkable end to a man who peered into the future of Europe but could not possibly have imagined his own.

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