I am as besotted as the New York Times seems to be by the polar-view map of the melting Arctic that the newspaper reprints every few days. Staring at it does not make any more comprehensible to me the notion that it is melting, and that the polar bears who fail to evolve into dolphins in the next few decades will all drown. Also bewildering is the thought that the Northwest Passage is going to thaw open. I suppose I should have been prepared for this eventuality by the news, a few years ago, that Mount Kilimanjaro will soon be brown, unless someone covers it in white canvas. It’s nonetheless hard for me to assimilate. No ice up there. Will the last orts of Sir John Franklin finally surface in the melt-off? Maybe it’s time for one last expedition.
Wonderful prospects of cognitive dissonance were opened by the Times article last week detailing the rush by corporations to stake a claim to Arctic shipping routes and oil fields. If you’re an energy company shill, and your team’s official line is that the world is not warming, how exactly do you explain what you’re doing up there, investment-wise? There’s great irony in the contrast between the pettiness of profiteering and the world-historical grandeur of the vanishing of what we always, in elementary school, mistook for an eighth continent.
As it happens, I recently stumbled across a literary precedent for such irony. In London a few weeks ago, Peter and I made a pilgrimage to the office of the reprint house Persephone Books, where we admired the 1930s-era railroad posters on the walls and purchased half a dozen titles. I was unable to resist The Hopkins Manuscript, by R. C. Sherriff. As a publishing enterprise, Persphone aims unabashedly at women readers; most of its titles are by women, and those by men often are often concerned with domestic life. The Hopkins Manuscript, written in 1939, was thus a bit of a puzzle, as a Persphone choice. Not only was it written by a man, but it’s a work of science fiction. Civilization comes to an end, because the Moon crashes into the Earth.
I can’t say how gratifying it is to have a well-written book about the Moon crashing into the Earth printed in the flawless elegance of the Persephone series, with the usual finely chosen endpapers (after a 1932 fabric whose pattern evokes an eclipse, with a touch of the secret emblem from Escape to Witch Mountain), beautiful cream pages, and crisp type. And after reading it, I did see the link to the Persephone vision. The 1930s railroad posters in their office are the key; the Hopkins Manuscript is a portrait of England in that moment, where the end of the world has the function of releasing a camera’s shutter. The impending Moon is an allegory of fascism, though less schematically, I think, than the Martians are an allegory for imperialism in Wells’s War of the Worlds. The world doesn’t end at all suddenly, and there’s pathos and, surprisingly, comedy in the decline.
From the Arctic point of view, it’s the comedy that’s relevant. As an amateur astronomer, Edgar Hopkins learns that the Moon is on a course of collision long before the public does. The secret makes him feel terribly important—much more so than the fellows down at the pub appreciate, to his pain. Of course this is hardly a surprise, because they had earlier failed to appreciate his achievements as a breeder of prize hens. With a reasoning not unlike the modern would-be plunderers of the Arctic, Hopkins decides that since the crash will likely dislodge a lot of crockery, he will sell all his Great Western Railway Stock and buy as much as he can of Wigglesworth & Smirkin, manufacturers of cups, saucers, plates, and dishes. For all his venality and narcissism, one ends up liking Hopkins, as much because of his provincialism as in spite of it. It’s hard to resist someone who claims not to be that excited about meeting a post-apocalypse member of Parliament because, as a breeder, he “had met, at different times, almost every famous personality in the Poultry Times.”