WITHIN AN ACE OF THE END OF THE WORLD (1900) – Written by Robert Barr. No doubt about it, Barr was obsessed with the notion of humanity possibly bringing on its own demise through ill-considered scientific tampering. Recently Balladeer’s Blog reviewed another of his stories, The Doom of London, which mined the same creative territory.
This time around the tale is set in the “present” and the near future of 1903. In 1900 a scientist named Bonsel treats a crowd of VIPs to a lavish banquet, after which he announces that all of the food consumed was created artificially. This was done through his new process of drawing nitrogen from the atmosphere and combining it with other chemicals.
Thus the Great Food Corporation is launched, with many of the banquet’s attendees being its initial investors. The company thrives until 1903, when the Guildhall Banquet degenerates into a chaotic bacchanal and partial riot. Soon this “Guildhall Syndrome” spreads, with the most beastly aspects of human nature on display everywhere it manifests.
John Rule, a British gentleman put off by the poor taste of it all, probes deeper and determines that the scandalous orgies and accompanying violence have been caused by an atmospheric imbalance. That imbalance was caused by the Great Food Corporation’s siphoning off of too much nitrogen from Earth’s atmosphere.
The result has been a widespread variation on “rapture of the deep” crossed with oxygen intoxication. The syndrome is spreading at a rapid pace and our hero John Rule can’t get any of the powers that be to take appropriate action before they, too, fall victim to the epidemic of irrational and menacing behavior.
Rule, in typical Stiff Upper Lip fashion, soldiers on, expanding his air-tight laboratory into an improvised shelter. He and seven of his friends hole up in the air-tight structure, which he engineered to maintain the proper nitrogen content in the air supply.
Around them, the world quickly goes to Hell in the proverbial handbasket. The powers that be have all succumbed to the breathable insanity and a flash-chain of wars wipes out the human race.
In the aftermath, John Rule and his seven sourpusses (I’m kidding!) learn that a similar group of foresighted people survived in a similar shelter at Vassar. The atmosphere repairs itself now that the Great Food Corporation is no longer around to practice its dangerous activities.
In closing the narrative wants us to believe that the pitifully few survivors form a sufficient gene pool to re-launch the human race. As a snobbish touch Barr tells us it’s an improved human race now that so many less-deserving sorts died in the global wars.
Within an Ace of the End of the World is short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome, making it almost as enjoyable as The Doom of London, which was also marked by the author’s approval of vast swathes of humanity getting wiped out.
Barr’s distinctive style and ghoulish obsession with End Times storylines almost makes me wish someone would do an anthology series based on his assortment of apocalyptic tales. +++
FOR EIGHT ADDITIONAL EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE
FOR TEN MORE EXAMPLES OF ANCIENT SCIENCE FICTION CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2014/03/03/ten-neglected-examples-of-ancient-science-fiction/
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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