It may seem strange to be reviewing a book that has been out of print for almost 40 years, and one that attracted no interest whatsoever from the critical establishment when it first appeared in the early 60’s. Indeed, if I’d encountered The Flowers of the Future at that time, or in the 1970’s or 80’s or even two or three years ago, it wouldn’t have struck me as remarkable in any way. But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally stumbled across it, as I was rummaging through a cardboard box full of old science fiction paperbacks in one of the West Country’s countless second-hand bookshops.
I’d never have given the book a second glance if it hadn’t been for the picture on the cover. I’d barely heard of the author — Melvyn Pettle — and what I had heard wasn’t good. Of the book itself, The Flowers of the Future, I’d heard nothing at all. Yet the cover illustration grabbed my attention. It showed a long-haired guru sitting in rapt meditation while an impossibly baroque spaceship loomed on its launch gantry behind him. As it turned out, the picture had virtually no connection with the contents of the book (quite a common situation with mass-market paperbacks of that era) but it had done the trick — I’m a sucker for stories that combine arcane wisdom and high technology — so I took a closer look.
I turned the book over to read the short publicity blurb on the back, and that’s when its tremendous significance first hit me: “On February 1st 2003 a returning spaceship bursts into flame and plummets to Earth. At the same time, the brave men and women of the free world are preparing for the last stand in the War on Terror... So begins Melvyn Pettle’s chilling vision of a future just forty short years away...”
The coincidence left me thunderstruck: the words could almost have come from recent news reports. I hastily opened the book and looked at the copyright page: it was dated 1964, and appeared to be a first printing. The sorry state of the book — it was mildewed and dog-eared — was further testimony to its age.
I paid a pound for the book and returned home to give it further scrutiny. The first thing to say is that — despite being classified under “SCI-FI” by both its own publisher and my second-hand bookseller — the book presents itself as a work of non-fiction. The author, Melvyn Pettle (if that’s his real name) claims to have been a student at one of England’s newer “red-brick” universities. While experimenting with certain unspecified chemicals, he found himself translated forty years into the future, for a period of several months of his own subjective time. His descriptions of that time form the bulk of the book’s narrative.
Before proceeding further I should point out that the book is absolutely dreadful — thoroughly abysmal in every way. I would certainly never have struggled through it if it hadn’t been for the book’s uncanny pre-echoings of our own time. The style is turgid to the point of unreadability, heavily overloaded with adverbs and multi-syllabic words that one looks up in the dictionary only to find they don’t exist.
In several places the narrative is brought to a halt by rambling discussions of philosophy. Schopenhauer, Gurdjieff and Ouspensky are mentioned quite often, but perhaps the most significant name-dropping is that of J.W. Dunne, the British amateur philosopher who claimed it was possible to dream about future events before they occurred. Dunne is probably best known to SF readers as the inspiration behind Heinlein’s novelette “Elsewhen.”
Long-winded, poorly constructed, pontificating... The Flowers of the Future is all of these things; but above all it is pornographic. Offensively so. Every female character that is introduced is first described in great detail with her clothes on, then gradually stripped, then described in great detail (though not always credibly, from an anatomical point of view) with her clothes off. Finally, the woman performs a lurid sex act on Pettle. This happens not once or twice, but a total of thirteen times during the course of the narrative, occupying in all perhaps a third of the book’s two-hundred-odd pages. The women come in all shapes, colours and sizes, but the final sex act is always identical, down to the last detail. In some ways, Pettle’s relentlessly obsessive style is reminiscent of the work his compatriot J.G. Ballard was putting out around the same time but with the difference that Ballard enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a substantial cult following. To my knowledge this has never been the case with Melvyn Pettle.
I should repeat what I said earlier, that the book is presented as a work of non-fiction rather than a novel. It has no coherent plot, no strongly drawn characters, no ups and downs of dramatic tension. It is little more than an episodic account of Pettle’s monotonously predictable sexual encounters and philosophical ramblings. The sole interest for us today lies in the little snippets of background information that Pettle provides about his “future” world: the world that, according to him, would exist in the year 2003.
Pettle finds himself in a Britain which has, along with the rest of Europe, been absorbed into the Soviet Bloc. Society is governed according to the principles of Communism, viz. peace, love, flower-power and freedom of expression. The people have collectively thrown off the yoke of the industrial revolution (these are all Pettle’s terms, not mine), and chosen to live life at a slower pace, with back-to-nature, low-technology straightforwardness. There is no crime, no poverty, no unemployment, no pollution. Disease has become a thing of the past, ever since the outdated fascist concept of personal hygiene was joyfully cast aside.
This life of bliss — this pure Celtic idyll — prevails only in the Eastern hemisphere, for Pettle’s world of 2003 is bipolar. In the West squats the ugly dark empire of the United States, corrupt and decadent, whose inhabitants have surrendered their humanity to the false god of technology. Indeed, the incumbent US president, Nixon the Third, is nothing but a figurehead. The nation’s real decision-maker is a near sentient electronic computer — a vast subterranean monster that is all clicking relays and flickering vacuum tubes.
This may seem far-removed from the down-to-earth reality of 2003. But the name of that vast thinking machine — the name that Melvyn Pettle gave it in this dreadful forty-year old book — is INTER-NET. Uppercase, hyphenated, and lacking the definite article, but even so the resemblance is too close for coincidence. Pettle, in his confused and drug-addled way, was talking about the Internet.
The spacecraft that crashes at the start of the narrative bears little relationship to the ill-fated space shuttle Columbia. It had a crew of three — all American, and all male — and it was returning from a six month trip to Mars (not the first trip, incidentally: according to Pettle, the Americans set up their first bases on the red planet back in the 1980s). In the book, the crash of the spaceship is used as a clumsy metaphor for the collapse and decay of the “evil” United States, and Pettle makes much of the symbolism of Mars as the God of War.
In the world that Pettle describes, war has ceased to exist, except in the twisted American mind. As far back as the 70’s, the Soviet Union unilaterally destroyed its stocks of nuclear weapons, which were very small to start with, and only intended for self-defence. In contrast, it took years of negotiation and an ultimatum from the United Nations before the U.S. could be persuaded to follow suit. Even then, most people believed the U.S. was clinging to a small percentage of its originally huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. In effect, therefore, the U.S. was holding the free world to ransom. In outraged reaction, the Soviet Union and the United Nations declared a “War on Terror” that would finally rid the world of these awful weapons.
Pettle’s War on Terror isn’t a war in the old fascist sense of a war to be fought with weapons, far from it. His version of the War on Terror is a Mahatma-Gandhi style peaceful struggle, to be fought with Infinite Peace and Love. All around the free world, Communists were donning strings of colourful beads, putting flowers in their hair, holding hands with each other and radiating wave after wave of peaceful thoughts in a westerly direction. It was only a matter of time before the War on Terror was won and the dark empire of the United States crumbled into the dust of history.
What are we to make of this dismal book? It contains a crashed spacecraft, which is certainly not the shuttle Columbia although the date — February 1st 2003 — is right. It describes a War on Terror that is not our War on Terror, but it does seem to concern weapons of mass destruction. And INTER-NET is nothing like the internet, yet the name is chillingly similar.
My own feeling is that J.W. Dunne was right, and that it’s possible to dream accurate dreams of the future. That’s what Melvyn Pettle did in a drug-induced stupor back in 1963. But the thing is, he didn’t understand what he saw. In the nineteenth century, when powerful telescopes were turned on Mars for the first time, people saw complex canals that simply weren’t there. People distort what they see into what they expect to see or what they want to see. Pettle saw the future and distorted it into something more comfortable, something that made more sense to his 1963 consciousness than the real 2003 did.
According to Greek mythology, Cassandra had the gift of prophecy but no-one believed her predictions until they came true. Perhaps real-life prophets are doomed to suffer an even worse fate. No-one understands their predictions until they come true — not even the prophets themselves.
Copyright © 2003 by Andrew May