Warning: this post may contain spoilers for George Bernard Shaw’s play Back to Methuselah, and the associated essays.
To be perfectly honest, I made a mistake in picking up this book. In fact, I made a mistake even adding it to my reading list in the first place. I came across a reference to it when I was looking for the attribution for a quote I was using in an essay for work (that quote is: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’”, in case you were curious), and thought the brief plot summary sounded interesting, so I added it to my list. This despite thinking to myself “self, in all of the George Bernard Shaw books and plays that you were forced to read in school, you hated precisely all of them. Why would you possibly think that you’re going to like this one?” But being stubborn and intellectually curious, and always intent on keeping on open mind, I determined to give this story a fair chance.
Sometimes, I really come to regret that open-mindedness of mine. Despite having chosen this book, instead of having it foisted upon me by some over-analyzing and proselytizing English teacher, I still do not like George Bernard Shaw. It didn’t help that this book contains not only the play, but a very, very long series of essays by Shaw explaining some very questionable science and opinions, and putting on full display the intellectual arrogance and snobbery that I find so off-putting (and ironic) about Shaw’s writing. These essays went on for so long that I more than once wondered if I had somehow gotten the wrong book, because it seemed I was never going to get to the play itself that had first prompted me to against my better judgement place this book on my reading list.
You know, I feel much less guilty criticizing an author like Shaw, who is well-established, critically acclaimed, forced down poor, unsuspecting students’ throats, and dead than I do about expressing my lack of enjoyment of something like The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and by extension its not-dead, relatively unknown, as-yet-unestablished author. Is that wrong of me? Though I do maintain that in that case my critique was not of the author herself, but of that particular book. In the case of Back to Methuselah, I am definitely criticizing both book and author. I think that by including a lengthy polemic in the beginning that seemed longer than the play itself, he kind of invited it.
Honestly, the play itself wasn’t all bad, and if nearly a third of the book had not been composed of Shaw’s barely coherent essays on pseudo-scientific garbly-gook and intellectually arrogant political haranguing I might have even found parts of the play enjoyable. The first parts involving Adam and Eve and the Snake were odd, as was the twentieth century part, but the first of the two future-set parts actually read like something out of a classic science fiction piece; the basic plot elements would have been right at home in something like HG Wells’s Time Machine. The idea of exploring how longevity effects the human race is certainly a good one, although I think Shaw provided a rather close-minded, one-sided presentation of that idea. In the final part, where people apparently hatch from eggs and are functionally immortal (meaning they can die by accident or disease, but will not die of “old age”), there is yet another restatement of the Pygmalion myth, and the “Ancients” are trying to come up with ways to leave their bodies behind and become a vortex of energy. Perhaps, in another context, this could have been an interesting analysis of the idea, but there was not nearly enough background information to make this section seem anything but silly.
Having put it behind me, I find that I don’t regret having read it, which I sort of expected to, especially as I was making my way through the essays. At its heart it’s an idea story, and I almost always enjoy those in the classical science fiction sense. If the essays were left out (which some people, apparently, swear would be an abomination), I might be inclined to say that this would even be worth reading. So while I can’t truly recommend this book, I will say that, if you are interested, skip the essays at the beginning and proceed straight to the play. That way, you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions, and not be force-fed Shaw’s propaganda.
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