Oxygen and Aromasia:
the Future in the Past

by Don Webb


We can now salute, at its conclusion, Claës Lundin’s 19th-century science fiction classic, Oxygen and Aromasia.

Bertil Falk deserves commendation — nay, a medal — for undertaking the task of translating the novel. Writing in a second language, whatever one’s proficiency, is already difficult enough; it’s all the harder when the source text differs markedly in style and culture from the translator’s own.

Lundin wrote in an ornate syntax that has now, more than a century later, gone out of fashion in Swedish. It looks like a very formal prose style one might find in German.

Bertil’s solution was to translate phrase by phrase and leave the English word order to me. Such problems can be resolved mostly by manual labor — moving adverbs and complements to their correct places.

The cultural references are more difficult. Lundin necessarily wrote in terms familiar to him. For example, he speaks of “air bicycles,” which denote personal airborne vehicles. We might imagine that they resemble motorcycles with wings. That’s a significant technological innovation, because Lundin was writing about 25 years before the Wright brothers’ first flight.

Unfortunately, the term recalls the child’s flying bicycle in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Something really must be done about that. Likewise, Lundin speaks of “palaces” where we might speak of “skyscrapers” and of constructions that we might call “shopping malls” and “theme parks.”

The temptation is great to modernize Lundin’s quaint technological references even as we make his sentences accessible to 21st-century readers. But the temptation must be resisted: modern terms are, themselves, culture-bound. What will readers make of our culture and terminology more than a century hence?

The current English version of the novel therefore remains a work in progress. A lot of polishing remains to be done, and decisions must be made about standardizing terminology.

* * *

The novel’s structure will seem very old-fashioned to the 21st-century reader. It’s basically a cultural travelogue: a small group of people — Oxygen, Aromasia, Apollonides, and a few hangers-on — take us on a kind of guided tour through Lundin’s 24th century. They focus particularly on what Lundin considers important: the news media, politics, business, education, and the arts, as well as science and technology.

Lundin’s technique is to think big. We see the news media of his time blown to grotesque proportions. Grotesque, that is, until we make the easy transposition from print to television. Then everything falls into place and seems quite familiar to us — although it’s hard to say “natural.”

Likewise, Giro the banker, who forms “joint stock companies” at the drop of a hat, provides almost too easy a foil for Lundin’s satirizing the late 19th century’s unbridled free-market capitalism. We witness the crowning glory of Giro’s career when his young son floats stock issues of his own and bilks his playmates of their pocket change — which he smugly deposits in his piggy-bank.

Lest we latter-day readers also wax smug, we need only remember that Giro’s get-rich-quick schemes are not reserved to the era of the robber barons: today’s sometimes incomprehensible financial paper, such as meta-derivatives and sub-prime loans, reminds us forcefully that “it can happen here” — and usually does.

Public recreational facilities intrigue Lundin no end. They will seem very familiar to today’s reader. On the other hand, the “big engineering” projects and the far-fetched technology for art and education remain in the future — unless Lundin happens to give imaginative electronics entrepreneurs some ideas for “improving” video games even more.

In short, then, it’s safe to say that Lundin makes some good guesses. As for the others, we’ll have to wait and see.

* * *

The romantic intrigue provides the axle around which the “guided tour” revolves. At first, it seems curiously dispassionate, even dry. And yet its slow early start may presage its unhappy ending: Oxygen and Aromasia represent the head and the heart, respectively, of Lundin’s brave new world, and they are unfortunately disjoined.

Ever the technology enthusiast, Oxygen is incurably self-centered. Meanwhile Aromasia waits around, hoping that Oxygen will notice that she loves him as much as he loves her — or at least take Lundin’s word for it that she does. Aromasia becomes believably human only at the end, when she realizes she must renounce Oxygen and pursue a political career without him.

In the end, the love intrigue is not really a romance at all: it is a dramatic device designed to show 19th-century readers that the idea of equal rights for women was not only desirable but entirely plausible in Western society. However, considering the status of women in Lundin’s time, that idea must have come as a shock. It’s only justice, then, that Aromasia occupies center stage throughout most of the novel.

* * *

Apollonides provides by far the most dramatic interest. A man hopelessly out of place in his own time, he belongs more to Lundin’s own. And Lundin will have none of it. Poor Apollonides gets the worst of every encounter with Oxygen and 24th-century culture in general, even when he could score some telling points.

At the end, Lundin writes Apollonides “out of the script” with a freak accident. The “ancient poet” is in the wrong place at the right time when he pushes the “start” button in Hemispherion’s spaceship. The consequences may be poetic justice, but thereafter Lundin seems to miss Apollonides. Lundin even brings back a simulacrum from the 19th century in order to close out the novel with a caricature of its own readers.

* * *

As a novelist, Claës Lundin was a good newspaper man. He might have drawn inspiration for plot and style from contemporary novelists such as Balzac and Zola. And Lundin himself might have provided futuristic ideas for a like-minded British novelist of the next generation: H. G. Wells. Consequently, Oxygen and Aromasia is too far removed in style and culture to interest today’s casual reader of modern science fiction. But it allows the serious reader to take an enjoyable look out a rear window of literature onto the culture and expectations of a bygone time, one that in occasionally disquieting ways resembles our own.


Copyright © 2007 by Don Webb

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