THE QUESTION MARK, Muriel Jaeger
The British Library, p/b, £6.47
Review by Sandra Scholes
In 1925, the Hogarth Press sent Muriel Jaeger a letter stating that they would like to publish her novel, The Question Mark, though as it was “off the usual lines,” and “taking a risk of there being very limited sales,” they did not realise at the time that her novel precedes the publication of Huxley’s Brave New World by 5 years, and had a significant part to play as a science fiction classic.
In Muriel’s mind, there were enough utopian stories around, and it was time for a novel to surface that had a more honest tone to it of a future that wasn’t what it seemed; a fake utopia of a different kind. I got the impression that Muriel had named her book The Question Mark as a nod to Max Beerbohm’s classic cartoon of a twentieth-century man representing a question mark that has a vision of the future where he has no idea of what to expect, let alone be prepared for.
Our protagonist Guy Martin is introduced as the hero of the novel, a bored office worker who wants more from life than the mundanity of his job, and gets his wish, yet what he doesn’t get is what he had hoped for. I thought from reading this, Guy was the twentieth-century man stood looking out and questioning his reality. When we first meet him, Guy has got a stiff telling off from his boss about his conduct at the firm, so his being taken out of his job later and propelled into a supposed utopia future is of interest to those who might find themselves in similar situations. Guy is taken from his life in 1920’s London to a very sedate, pastoral and socialist twenty-second century where he becomes our eyes and ears in this brave new world of the previously unexplained.
Of the people he meets, Ena Wayland, the daughter of the family Guy has been taken in by, tells him everything he has been missing so far about their culture and technology; a Power-box being one that forms a major part of the story. This is a device that they use for everything they need to communicate (could this have been a precursor to the modern smartphone?). I got the impression Guy was asking too many questions about the Power-box as Ena is vague when explaining it to him; it made me question her motives.
Guy is ignorant of this new world’s way of life and Ena plays on that as if he has more to find out than even he believes. For a 20-year-old, Ena is quite childish in her manner, but Guy sees her childishness as normal for a girl her age as in a society so advanced there also must be an extended childhood. When Guy receives his Power-box from Dr Wayland, he tells him about his life and the lack of technology he had and that this Power-box could have changed their lives for the better. Yet Guy doesn’t know what he’s saying as his new utopia isn’t what it seems. Jaeger leads us up to a serious question of our morality, humanity and warmth of character where technology could override emotions. Even now, reading this will have many of us asking the same questions about our now technological world.