“…is it that we have advanced so in these few years? Or that men have retrogressed? No, it is this curse of mechanization that destroys imagination.”
The Last Poet and the Robots (1934) is just plain awful as stories go, and nowhere near the quality of A. Merritt’s earlier stories The Moon Pool (1918) and The People of the Pit (1918). The story is typical of much pulp science fiction of the early 1930s, and displays many of the weaknesses of that literature. Yet though these stories are almost completely lacking in narrative, characterization, conflict, or believability, they make up for it with intriguing and entertaining ideas—if half-baked.
The science is almost always ludicrous and uninformed, but one can see the beginnings of elements we take for granted in the science fiction entertainments of today: death rays, unlimited power sources, bizarre aliens, untrustworthy robots, mad scientists, cosmic disasters, and the like. Reading these stories also provides an interesting depiction of the assumptions and anxieties people of the early 20th century had about their future. These developed in the context of a temporary peace between two devastating world wars.
Perhaps it was the nature of publishing in pulp magazines that affected the quality of the Merritt’s work. H.P. Lovecraft once commented that the style and content of his fiction had been strongly and negatively influenced by pulp magazine publishing over time. Merritt’s 1934 story is very comparable to Lovecraft’s The Challenge from Beyond (1935)—this was the ‘round robin’ story that Lovecraft co-wrote with Merritt and a couple other pulp writers. The grandiosity and absence of any other real character is also reminiscent of Donald Wandrei’s Raiders of the Universes, (1932).
The Last Poet and the Robots—also known as Rhythm Of The Spheres—resembles a fable in structure and owes some of its poetic elements to Lord Dunsany, especially the ending. Briefly: a brilliant Russian poet and scientist and 10 of his handpicked comrades live in an underground ‘Paradise’ that Narodny the poet has fashioned using futuristic technology. They amuse themselves with high culture and creative arts while their fellow humans on the surface succumb to Robot tyranny.
But a threat from outer space arouses Narodny’s bemused interest, and he frees the people of earth from Robot domination so that they can prepare more efficiently for war with the “Wrongness from Space”. He does this by overturning mechanization, seen as a hindrance to the human creative spirit. In the end he returns to his beautiful cavern to watch what ensues.
In his fiction, Merritt is occasionally concerned with “isms” of various kinds—of which there were several in early 20th Century America. In the last post there was discussion of dualism and Manichaeism in The Moon Pool, as manifested in ‘the dweller’ and its physical and spiritual impact on its victims. This is the understanding that good and evil are inextricably mixed, yet always at war with each other. In The Last Poet and the Robots, it is atavism that is on display.
Atavism has slightly different meanings depending on whether the perspective is biological or sociological. Biologically speaking, it refers to the tendency of an organism to revert to an evolutionarily earlier form through genetic mutation or disruption of its normal development. Sociologically, atavism is the tendency of a culture to assume the qualities, perspectives, and habits of mind of an earlier stage in its development. H.P. Lovecraft’s emulation of 18th Century style in some of his writing is a form of atavism.
Merritt has both types of atavism in view. He describes Narodny, his protagonist as
“…indifferent to the whole civilization man had developed and into which he had been born. He had no feeling of kinship to humanity. Outwardly, in body, he belonged to the species. Not so in mind…he considered mankind a race of crazy half-monkeys, intent upon suicide. Now and then, out of the sea of lunatic mediocrity, a wave uplifted that held for a moment a light from the sun of truth…He knew that he was one of those waves.”
This being pulp science fiction—a thought experiment, not an actual narrative—there are no other real characters to challenge Narodny’s conceit or grandiosity. (Was this also Merritt’s conceit?) There is also an echo of the eugenics movement here, still quite popular in Merritt’s day. Narodny considers himself a superior being, along with the ten others he selects to dwell with him in the artificial paradise he has created underground. Three of them are fellow Russians, two are Chinese, and three are women, (German, Basque and Eurasian respectively); there is “a Hindu who traced his descent from the line of Gautama”, and “a Jew who traced his line from Solomon.”
Perhaps in the 30th Century, when this story takes place, genealogical research is highly advanced. Merritt appears to be attempting inclusiveness in an early attempt at diversity and cultural sensitivity. Yet conspicuously absent from the line-up is anyone from America or Africa. Why is this?
And what do the chosen do all day underground? With various mechanisms they recreate dramatizations of important historical events as well as the world’s principle art and musical masterpieces of the past. Narodny and his friends are all atavists, so ‘The Past’ does not include anything after the 19th Century. Basically, they are watching glorified public television all day, for eternity. Their more or less godlike immortal, intellectual and asexual lives continue peacefully for many years until …“a devastating indescribable dissonance invaded the cavern.”
In Merritt’s story, Earth is in danger of attack from the “Wrongness of Space”, but the population on the surface is enslaved to robots and unable to unite against the cosmic menace. (More back story would have helped put all this in context.) Human civilization is evidently still relatively intact on the Moon. Narodny enlists the aid of some struggling rocket pilots in capturing a few robot test subjects, and later has them implement a weapon Narodny has designed.
Powered by “green fire” the weapon produces musical vibrations, which as everyone knows, are fatal to robot mechanisms. Follow the logic: “Originally the robots are the children of mathematics. I ask—to what is mathematics most closely related. I answer—to rhythm—to sound—to sounds that will raise to the nth degree the rhythms to which they will respond.”
The weapon is administered to the principle cities of Earth, destroying the robots and a large number of humans as well. Civilization collapses but reorganizes, hopefully in time for the arrival of the “Wrongness of Space”.
The Last Poet and the Robots shares some similarities with two of Merritt’s earlier stories, The Moon Pool and The People of the Pit. In all three there is the notion of emanations or vibrations affecting from some distance the behavior and safety of people—or robots, for that matter. There is also the presence of a mysterious power source. In The Moon Pool it is a transfiguration of ordinary moon light by way of unknown or forgotten technology. In The Last Poet and the Robots, it is “green flame”, a power source developed a thousand years from now.
What is striking about The Last Poet and the Robots is the intellectual distance and coldness Narodny has towards the human race. It is not their welfare he is so concerned about, but that the “Wrongness of Space” will disturb his music, deep underground. “Well, let us see what men can do”, he says at the end, “There is always time—perhaps.”