A novelist whose friends included Dorothy L Sayers and Virginia Woolf, Muriel Jaeger’s name is not so well known or celebrated, possibly because her output was less prolific but also because her work verged into themes of science fiction often looked down upon in literary circles, though it for this reason that her first novel, The Question Mark, has now been republished by the British Library as part of their Science Fiction Classics range.
With a new introduction by Doctor Mo Moulton to give modern appraisal, the author’s own original introduction from 1926 also gives contemporary context as she explains that in the future societies commonly depicted in fiction which depicted a liberation from previously necessary labours facilitated by increasing automation there is an inevitable presumption of a corresponding transfiguration of society which “I do not and cannot accept.”
The Question Mark is Jaeger’s consideration of an alternative, as bank clerk Guy Martin, disappointed in romance and frustrated in his lowly position beneath a hectoring manager whose own position was down to familial connections rather than ability, finds himself transposed by means unknown into the future, his eyes opening on two hundred years of advancement and supposed maturation of the human spirit only to find the obstructions of his own day still remain and that he is, more than ever, an outsider.
Taken in by the family of Doctor Wayland, like Wells’ more distant future of the Eloi and the Morlocks there is a divide, though not so pronounced, between the “intellectuals” and the “normals,” among the latter grouping Doctor Wayland’s son Terry, an obsessive champion athlete given to bouts of angry depression, and his precocious and sheltered daughter Ena, rapidly developing her own obsession with the new arrival between the swings of her adolescent mood.
Instead, Guy initially finds more amenable friendship with their cousin John, designated an intellectual, but beyond the initial adjustment to his new situation, “all his troubles out of date,” with no need to toil to earn a crust, there remains a barrier between them, an outdated inflexible mindset which rejects the compromises which underlie the façade of utopia in which Guy comes to feel he is perceived as little more than an exhibit in a petting zoo.
While Jaeger’s has little sympathy towards her protagonist as he explores his new century, her writing is too prim and reserved to be caustic or satirical, barbs on which she might have sharpened her justifiable observations: Guy had expected to have been indulged by his society, his employer, by the unobtainable Miss Marjorie Cannon, as no doubt Jaeger has witnessed in life, behaviours which a man can regard affectations but which would not be tolerated in a woman; despite having attended Somerville College, Oxford at that time did not award degrees to women.
Many of the characters are childish, but perhaps that is the point; with no reason to grow up, many of them do not, but the Wayland family and Ena in particular are wearing, and despite the inclusion in the British Library range The Question Mark is speculative rather than science fiction with no fundamental advances or shifts in technology presented or explained, those modest innovations which do feature incidental to the narrative and even the late-presented reveal of the method of Guy’s translocation unexamined to the point of abstraction.
Instead, Jaeger’s is a purely social discourse, one both dated and naïve, occasionally interesting but failing in the author’s stated intention to critique that which she felt was lacking or poorly thought out in other works of the genre as she waltzes into the dual trap of dull writing and deus ex machina as the “normals” fall under the sway of the new messiah, Friar Emmanuel.
Built around a concept rather than a narrative, Jaeger’s frustrations, insights and intentions may have been sincere, but despite the different avenues she takes, moral quandaries, personal confrontations, religious mania, state endorsed euthanasia, The Question Mark fritters out in an extended dream sequence with no sense of conclusion or purpose, and most certainly no answer.