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Book Review: Mizora: A Mss. Found Among the Private Papers of the Princess Vera Zarovitch by Mary E. Bradley

Friday, March 31, 2017 - 08:07

Someone (and apologies for not having taken note of who) about a year ago posted a list of early utopian fiction by female authors and I went of and hunted down several of the titles listed. one of those was Mizora: A Mss. Found Among the Private Papers of the Princess Vera Zarovitch (1890), which purports itself to be a memoir "written by herself" but is copyrighted by Mary E. Bradley. (And despite the fiction that it was written by a Russian, the social and political concerns and assumptions are unmistakably American.)

The work begins with a framing story strikingly similar to that of Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World: a woman comes by misadventure to be in a boat that drifts into a vast whirlpool in the Arctic regions that turns out to be a portal to "hollow earth," and spends the initial part of her time there recording a detailed (and somewhat tedious) account of the people and society she finds there. In the case of Mizora, the protagonist has come under the wrath of the Russian government for her progressive politics, is sent to Siberia, escapes on a whaling ship, lives for a while with an Innuit community, then borrows a boat from them to explore a strange expanse of mist and falls through the ocean to Mizora.

Mizora is a female utopia, that is, it is a utopia inhabited only by women. The protagonist is intensely curious about this aspect but doesn't inquire about it until perhaps the last third of the story due to her reticence about asking personal questions of her hosts. In the mean time, she is taught the language, introduced to the people and institutions, and gives a detailed account of how the society she finds has achieved a life of plenty and productive leisure through the miracles of chemistry and electricity. Food is largely synthesized (domestic animals have been eliminated), all machinery is run by electricity, compressed air, hydrogen fuel produced by electrolysis, and other clean methods. (How the electricity is produced is left somewhat as a mystery, but there are a few references to a natural power source generated by electromagnetic fields generated across the interior poles of the earth, so we may take this as the handwavium.)

Solving the problems of economic need through science has been augmented (as well as enabled) by eliminating violence, ignorance, and class. Education is free to all at all levels (and at any time of life) and is considered the greatest good. People are encouraged and supported in finding their true vocation, whether it be inventing new labor-saving devices (roombas! they invented roombas! I swear -- I'll include the excerpt below), devising new means of enabling education (big-screen live video conferencing!), or devising cuisines to use their chemically syntheized foodstuffs. (The protagonist is at first taken aback that her host's cook is treated as a social equal until she is given to understand that cooking is simply what that woman excels at and so she cooks for others with no implications of social inferiority.)

One curious omission in the cultural tour is the question of how the society reproduces itself. Families are maternal lineages and presumably the advanced medical science that--along with the benefits of "clean living" has greatly extended the Mizorans lifespans--takes care of the generative aspect. One side note: an early episode in the book (before the portal incident) involves the protagonist having an intensely romantic friendship with a young Polish woman whose death devastates her and precipitates her political activism. And the protagonist's emotional attachment to, and physical admiration of, one of the Mizoran women led me to hope that the book would touch on the same-sex romantic and erotic potentials of a single-sex society. Alas, after those initial teasers, we learn that Mizorans consider the mother-daughter bond the only significant emotional attachment possible (though cohort friendships also are noted) and there is no indication at all of any sort of pairings or other non-relative bonding as a basis for households and families.

It is when our protagonist finally gets up the nerve to ask, "Where are the men?" that we start learning some of the darker history of Mizora--though it isn't always clear what the author considers to be "dark". It seems that at some time deep in the mists of history (and yet still vividly in memory of those whose historical interests have led them to pay attention), Mizora had a society that was functionally identical to the world outside. A demographic and political crisis precipitated by ongoing wars led the women to seize power. The implication is that men were eliminated purely by virtue of the discovery of (never directly described) parthenogenic reproduction. Women stopped reproducing heterosexually, all children were daughters, and eventually all the men died out.

In the recitation of this process, the reader also learns some disturbing things about Mizoran philosophy (though it isn't entirely clear how the author intends us to take them), such as that the uniform pale skins and blonde hair of the Mizorans are due to eugenic selection. Mizorans determined "scientifically" that white, blonde, blue-eyed people are inherently superior, and therefore the process by which women are authorized to reproduce has deliberately selected for those characteristics. Similarly, in the early parts of the process of transforming Mizoran society, unfortunate personality and intellectual flaws were removed from the society by means of prohibiting their bearers from reproducing. Thus as the tale continues, what at first seemed like an intellectual and scientific paradise reveals itself as a humanitarian horror show. To be sure, no one was directly executed for social transgressions, but Mizoran society has evolved into a smug sense of the superiority of their engineered uniformity.

The protagonist seems to come to an echo of the disquiet that the modern (progressive) reader may be feeling, though she expresses it as a longing to return to her home to see her husband and son, and to bring Mizoran enlightenment to the outside world. To this end, she persuades her Mizoran "special friend" to accompany her. Alas, on their return, her husband and son have died. While the Mizoran is treated as a curiosity, no one takes her advice on social and scientific improvement seriously and she rapidly succumbs to the coarse food and environment and dies while trying vainly to travel back to the portal to Mizora.

The author has some interesting views on social improvement via a faith in the ability of education to eliminate negative social traits. But the fascination of this book is in the naive and startlingly prescient imagining of "better living through chemistry and electricity". I'll include the one description that made me laugh out loud.

[Mizora, chapter 6]

My first visit happened to be on scrubbing day, and I was greatly amused to see a little machine, with brushes and sponges attached, going over the floor at a swift rate, scouring and sponging dry as it went. Two vessels, one containing soap suds and the other clear water, were connected by small feed pipes with the brushes. As soon as the drying sponge became saturated, it was lifted by an ingenious yet simple contrivance into a vessel and pressed dry, and was again dropped to the floor.

 

I inquired how it was turned to reverse its progress so as to clean the whole floor, and was told to watch when it struck the wall. I did so, and saw that the jar not only reversed the machine, but caused it to spring to the right about two feet, which was its width, and again begin work on a new line, to be again reversed in the same manner when it struck the opposite wall. Carpeted floors were swept by a similar contrivance.

Major category: 
historical